FROM THE COASTAL RESORT… TO THE HILLTOP HIDEAWAY
Vietnam is a country of many facets: driving from the balmy coast you can find yourself in the cool of the mountains in under three hours.
Nha Trang doesn’t do badly when it comes to tourism. Not bad at all. Building on the coastal town’s decades of success in the tourism market, the city was the site of the Miss Universe pageant in 2008, pushing its small airport to almost breaking point with the flood of international beauty devotees flocking to Vietnam’s idyllic coast.
Compared to some of Vietnam’s chaotic cities, Nha Trang, located on the country’s south central coast, is distinctly sleepy though. From the air, the beach is easily
visible, stretching itself along coastal plains that are framed by hillocks of lush green. In contrast to the days of the Miss Universe pageant, the streets are strangely uncrowded and the beaches are speckled with far fewer sun worshippers. The city itself underwent a construction boom in the 90s and, while buildings are still being erected, it is relatively free of the clanging and drilling that epitomises many developing
resort cities. Nha Trang, it seems, has come of age and is awaiting the predicted tourism boom. While the city is steeped in colonial history, it is the beach that really draws the visitors. Before the French influenced the area, Nha Trang was rich in forests and wildlife. It was not until 1924 that the Governor General of Indochina established
the town, which quickly became the coastal resort of choice for the elite of the colony. After the decline of Indochina and the effects of the Vietnam War, the city followed the path well-trodden by many of Southeast Asia’s beachside meccas: backpackersflooded in and were proceeded by upmarket hotels and the region’s affluent. It is only in recent years that the city has really featured on the international tourists’ radar and, in anticipation of the intended boom, the population is expected to double by 2020.
In spite of the attention it is getting from the rest of the world, the city is still very Vietnamese. Local fishing vessels still drag their primitive nets around the shore and street vendors, wearing traditional conical straw hats, still claim the streets as their own. The fact that the town sits near the mouth of the Cái River makes it the centre of local trade. Colonial relics have been incorporated into the culture of the area, and fusion food is readily
available. Those not employed in tourism tend to scrape their living from the sea. Early in the morning at the Fishermen’s Village, entire families coordinate these fishing efforts: men haul in their nets while the women and children sort through the catch. Basket boats spin their way around the vessels, negotiating trade and, for the bystander, demonstrate the tradition of the area. Nearby, at the mouth of the river is Thap Ba Ponaga, a Cham era temple which dates back 1,200 years. Considered a place to pray for fertility, locals can be seen visiting the temple praying for longevity, prosperity and a huge family.
Tourism has had a big impact on the economy in Nha Trang, and many of those not directly employed in the tourism trade ply locally made crafts to enamoured tourists.
Straw hats are stacked on every street corner where they are bought in their thousands by tourists, being the ultimate symbol of old Vietnam.
Made from corn leaves and bamboo, the craft has been handed down through the generations and is still popular in rural Vietnam. In the cities,
it is the tourists who are most often seen donning the umbrella-like contraptions while the locals ironically prefer baseballs caps from America.
Despite the attention that many of the high-end resorts are garnering internationally, the local Vietnamese seem steadfast in retaining their traditions and, in doing so, unconsciously or otherwise make this a city to be reckoned with. There is no doubt that in time some of the local culture will recede in the face of more profitable tourism-based professions, but for now the pace is thankfully slow. Were these to disappear completely, the city would lose its valuable cultural dimension and tourism might wane.
Situated three hours from Nha Trang by road, and a one-hour flight away from Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat could not be more different from the tropical Nha Trang. Selected
by the French as a hilltop hideaway, the city has all the trappings of an alpine resort: pine trees line the avenues, Swiss-style chalets score the streets, and the city is surrounded by peaks and punctuated with waterfalls.
The roads leading to the city are awash with colour; this is one of the centres of flower cultivation in the country and roses and fruit trees line the winding road as it ascends to the height of 1,500m
Highly recommended is the cable car that rises to give a bird’seye view of the entire city. On a clear day you might even be able to spot Vietnam’s highest peak, Phanxipan, to the north. The cable car also connects the city to the Truc Lam Monastery,
where the locals come to meditate and relax in the peaceful surroundings. The city attracts a wide range of tourists,both local and international, owing to the fact that it retains much of its original French colonial architecture,
and it is sometimes hard to believe you are in Asia when you are wandering the European-style streets.
Dalat Railway Station was completed in 1938 and served as the transport hub for American soldiers during the height of the Vietnam War.
Today it is a tourist attraction, retaining the old French locomotive that ran during the colonial period, and which runs a service to Hanoi. As a local touch,
the architect added three peaked roofs, echoing the three mountains that soar above Dalat. Although the town is primarily known for its French influence,
it is also the site of the XQ Historical Village that parades Vietnam’s past witha cultural centre that exhibits embroidery.
Dalat’ s markets are amongst the best places to see the sheer range of produce that filters into the city from the surrounding
area. Flowers fill a large percentage of the markets as does fresh produce including avocados and artichokes. Between May and September, the local delicacy, avocado ice cream (Kem Bo), is devoured across the city.