You know all those beautiful, tropical places you see in professional photos where the lounge chair is placed perfectly under the umbrella in the sand, with a view of a turquoise ocean that sparkles and a sun that never stops shining? That’s where I am right now. I never expected to find it in Vietnam, though. I had never given Vietnam much thought; it’s one of those overlooked destinations that stays under the radar and therefore less touched by tourists, which is exactly what I was looking for. As a teacher in Beijing, I get about two weeks off for the Chinese New Year holiday. I needed to get out of the city and to someplace warm! At first, Thailand was at the top of my list, but the flight prices were expensive and rapidly rising each day. A couple of friends had mentioned Vietnam to me and I decided to look into it. I eventually found Nha Trang, a little beach town on the southeastern coast of the country. I chose to stay there for two nights, and then make my way about one hour north to secluded Doc Let Beach. Let me take you on a magical ride through my vegetarian journey through Vietnam…
First off, the air in Vietnam smells so good! Maybe just where I traveled, but it smelled like a cross between salt water and incense, or sometimes flowers. Not bad, huh? Nha Trang is a busy little town, especially around this time of year. A lot of tourists from China come down for the holiday, and it’s a huge tourist destination for Russians and expats living nearby. Plus, it’s also Vietnam’s Lunar New Year, year of the goat. What I like is that there are just as many locals, so I felt like I got the full, cultural experience of Vietnam.
COFFEE, BUDDHA & LANTERNS
As soon as I checked into my hotel, I knew exactly where I wanted to go. I did some research ahead of time to see what there was to do and see in Nha Trang, and Long Son Pagoda was at the top of the list. Plus, there’s a vegetarian restaurant on the grounds. On the way, I stopped to get a Vietnamese coffee from this little old lady with a small coffee shop. The Vietnamese take their coffee seriously. There are coffee shops all over the city; little hole in the wall places like this one, all the way to huge ones that serve food or cocktails and seem more catered to tourists. The coffee itself is usually local and carefully prepared. It’s very strong and rich tasting, so for coffee connoisseurs it’s a little sip of heaven. There’s usually 3 options you can choose from the menu: Arabica, Robusta, or Weasel. I would suggest the first two, because Weasel coffee is a bit unappetizing. They feed the coffee beans to weasels, then separate the beans from the weasel droppings and roast them. No thank you! Not just because of the whole feces thing, but I don’t believe in using animals to produce any kind of product – meat, milk, cheese, or coffee. So I chose Robusta and it was delicious. In Vietnam, they use sweetened condensed milk, or sweet milk as they call it, which is cow’s milk with the water removed. Vegans can enjoy this delicious coffee sans milk or with some coconut milk!
Long Son Pagoda is a Buddhist temple. It’s quite beautiful and peaceful until you reach the very top of the hill where the enormous Buddha sits. There’s a Buddhist monk there that greets you, walks you around, and then at the very end he asks you to donate 200,000 VND (which is about 10 USD). Very much a tourist trap, so be aware if you ever go!
Unfortunately, the vegetarian restaurant was closed, so I went to a popular place I had read about beforehand called Lanterns. It’s an open air restaurant a few blocks from the beach, with some good vegetarian and vegan options. The service there is wonderful and there’s a great atmosphere. Lanterns also offers cooking classes, events, and they provide free lunch to locals who need assistance. You can order a la carte or choose their set meals. I got fancy and opted for the vegetarian meal. It started with spring rolls, then the main dish of rice and vegetable clay pot with a side of sauteed water spinach, and finished off with a fruit plate and Vietnamese tea. I also ordered a fresh coconut, which I believe is the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Everything was delicious and it definitely hit the spot.
NIGHTTIME IN NHA TRANG
That evening after I walked the entire town, saw the sights, and did some souvenir shopping, I asked the hotel to recommend a vegetarian restaurant to me. They suggested Bo De, which is where all the locals go for their veggie fix. On the way, I got to see all the locals selling their Lunar New Year items. The city is busy during the day time, but it really comes alive at night. Motorbikes zoom through the street nonstop in herds, colorful lights are strung about, and big fountains put on fancy water shows.
I passed the fruit market on my way to Bo De, where locals sell all types of fresh, tantalizing fruit. Earlier in the day, I bought some custard apples. You can easily remove the outer peel with your fingers and eat the inside, navigating around big shiny seeds. Custard apple is very sweet and tastes like a mix between cantaloupe and grapes.
At Bo De, you can order a plate piled high with the day’s options, or you can order off the menu. I sat down and ordered off the menu. I chose rice with chicken, which was a faux fried rice with strips of sauteed mushrooms, as well as a plate of fried tofu. They also bring you a glass of iced Vietnamese tea. I was so hungry I forgot to take a picture, but it was very good and very filling. Trust me!
MOTORBIKE IT UP
The next morning at 8:30 on the dot, my private tour guide Sun greeted me at the hotel. He put a helmet on me and we hopped on his motorbike to see the surrounding sights. The first stop was Po Nagar Tower, or the Lady Tower, in the northern part of the city. Sun says the temple is about 1000 years old, although it’s undergone some minor renovations over the years to keep it from crumbling to the ground. There’s a fantastic view overlooking the city and the water. The grounds of the temple are gorgeous and pristine, a very calm place to walk around. I went inside the largest temple, where the “Lady” and her children stand on altars and people can light candles and bring them offerings.
Next up was the Fishing Village, where the local fisherman live and work. Me personally, I don’t like the idea of fishing. I feel that it’s very cruel. I know in many countries, it’s local work that provides a family with essential income, but I still disagree with it. Fish want to live to, and they deserve to. They are complex creatures just like any other animal on this planet and they feel pain just as we do. That being said, seeing the Fishing Village was part of the pre-planned tour so I just enjoyed the view and learning about other cultures.
From there, it was my favorite part of the tour – the Bo Ha Waterfall. We zipped along the coastal highway on Sun’s motorbike, far outside the city lines of Nha Trang. The view was phenomenal. The beach was on my right and the mountains were on my left. Colorful little houses dotted the way, banana trees, rice fields, flowers, and of course the palm trees. There were also a few cemeteries, which were quite beautiful.
At the entrance of the falls, we took a five minute walk through the forest and then climbed up some large boulders before reaching the falls. The waterfalls are small, but that first jump in is really fun! The water was cold and deep. I decided to swim over to the little grotto, but to get there I had to swim underneath several spiderwebs. As I glided carefully through the water, keeping my head low, I looked up to see some very large spiders staring back at me!
VEGGIE PHO AND MUD BATHS
After the waterfall I had worked up quite an appetite so we drove back to the city and Sun took me to a small vegetarian restaurant. He ordered me some pho with tofu, and he ordered a delicious plate of rice with tofu and veggies. There was a young boy and girl sitting near us that were Buddhist Monks in training!
The final stop on the tour was the Thap Ba Mud Baths & Hot Springs, a very popular tourist destination. Once you’ve got your bathing suit on, you sit and soak in a big mineral mud bath on a small hill overlooking the property. Then you rinse off and spend time soaking in hot mineral water, which I enjoyed because it was like a hot tub! After that, you can spend unlimited time swimming in both hot and cold swimming pools.
Because I was tired and hungry at the end of my tour, I decided to go back to Bo De for some vegetarian dinner. This time I ordered a plate of the day’s options, which was rice, tofu, shredded potatoes, and vegetables. It was so good that I ordered another plate to take home with me!
Overall, Nha Trang is a very friendly, fun city to explore. It’s noisy but vibrant, colorful, and full of people willing to help you. Despite the meat & seafood dishes they serve there, it’s easy to be vegetarian or vegan there. Fresh fruit, veggies, and tofu are readily available. There are juice shops everywhere, where you pick the fresh fruit and they juice it right in front of you. The fresh coconuts are to die for and a great thirst quencher. In Part 2, I’ll tell you about my last morning in Nha Trang (and one of my favorite parts of the whole trip), plus my 3 days on Doc Let Beach, a gorgeous and secluded beach near Nha Trang.
Happy Lunar New Year! It’s year of the goat baby!