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Saturday April 14, 2012

Tiger town

Welcome to an overlooked Asian beach destination rich in legend and character.

WILD tigers once roamed Nha Trang which, today, is growing fast in step with Vietnam’s roaring “tiger” economy. The noise of circular saws chewing through cable is unnervingly common.

Still, the seaside town has maintained its charm.

Despite the furious pace of construction, the lush, fog-capped mountains surrounding Nha Trang remain visible. This place lies on Vietnam’s central coast at the mouth of the Cai River, 412km northeast of Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). As applies to seemingly every other Vietnamese town, the easiest way to get there is from Saigon.

Nha Trang’s Buddha of Long Son Pagoda, which commemorates self- Tiger town immolating monks, sits atop a lotus throne.

Nha Trang’s climate is beguilingly balmy for much of the year – a boon in a country dogged by brutal humidity. Nha Trang hovers at 26°C on average – neither too hot, nor too cold.

The gateway between Vietnam’s north and south, Nha Trang once constituted part of the kingdom of Champa: an ancient India-influenced state and Khmer Empire rival. Then the French “acquired” Nha Trang and nonchalantly turned it into a seaside resort with a railway that runs between Saigon and Hanoi.

Nha Trang also has its own airport, Cam Ranh, with domestic and “international” links: Vladivostok Air flights. Still, except when it is festival time and the mood turns manic, Nha Trang – population 300,000 – feels spacious.

It helps that the destination boasts a 10km-wide white powder beach raked every day. Baton-wielding guards thwart intrusion by hawkers in conical hats. So you can swim or sprawl in the sun with minimal hassle.

Durga ornament at Po Nagar temple

Outside the Tet new year festival, you can book a good room with attached bathroom as easily as finding peace on the beach. The cost is usually under US$20 (about RM60) a night. A good meal costs half that.

Standout restaurants include Flavours, which offers creative cooking in a laid-back Bohemian space, and Omph, which supplies top-tier, low-price vegetarian food served by charming, cheery Aussies. Then there is the cosy Petit Bistro and the quaint Nha Trang Quan. All lie near or in the downtown village area that lures scores of travellers.

Stroll beyond the main “square” across Vietnam’s answer to the Pacific Coast Highway, and you reach the Sailing Club. Scented by the paraffin lamps that dot the tables, the Sailing Club is suavely liveried in white. In the background, a chill-out soundtrack plays, amplifying the vibe of low-key chic.

If the Sailing Club is too fussy for you, farther south along the beach, the curiously named Louisiane leaves less of a dent in your wallet. But Louisiane still has character. Think red ale, a gallery and a turquoise pool you can use for free if you eat or drink, making the venue an inviting hangout. Beyond its thatched umbrellas, farther down the coconut tree-lined beach, upmarket resorts dazzle with hypnotic infinity pools that cost a fortune for casual visitors. Think US$30 (RM90) for a single session.

The reclining Buddha is a companion piece of the sitting Buddha statue.

If you would rather wallow in muck, Nha Trang boasts mud baths offering supposed medicinal benefits. If you want to ride high across the horizon, Nha Trang has one of Asia’s longest cable car rides. The ride whisks you over the waves to the glitzy Vinpearl resort, set on one of several nearby offshore islands, which offer better diving than the mainland beach.

Other attractions around Nha Trang include an oceanographic institute, a Catholic cathedral, an imperial villa (Bao Dai) and the Alexandre Yersin Museum devoted to the Swiss microbiologist who discovered the bubonic plague bacillus.

A dramatically different kind of affliction, love-sickness, comes into play at Nha Trang’s granite Hon Chong outcrop.

The short, sad story begins with a drunken giant fairy who made the “handprint” you can see in a boulder perched there when he crashed while ogling a female fairy bathing naked at nearby Fairy Beach.

For leisure: The beaches of Nha Trang.

In a weird twist, the fey pair then fell in love. But the gods intervened, exiling the male fairy out of casual spite or anti-fairy prejudice.

Either way, lovesick, the female fairy vainly pined for her drunken hunk to return, before crumpling in grief and becoming the nearby Fairy Mountain (Nui Co Tien).

Besides a stone fairy, Nha Trang is also home to a giant shining white Buddha. The Buddha of Long Son Pagoda, which commemorates self-immolating monks, sits atop a lotus throne. The throne is set at the end of some 150 stone steps up a hill near the train station. The landmark can be seen around town.

Come close, and you see a companion piece – a reclining Buddha built on a similar scale.

Less imposing but still intriguing, the incense-laced Cham Towers complex, also called Po Nagar (Lady of the City), stands on a granite knoll just outside town.

The complex consists of four Cham shrines devoted to the Hindu deity Shiva.

Cham Towers is magical, too. It offers giddy views of the city. Also, its architecture combines the mystique of a folly with Eastern sensuality embodied by the apsara (heavenly dancing girls) and linga (don’t ask).

Above the entrance to the Cham complex, a pediment displays a carving of Durga, the buffalo-demon slayer. Unique.

The town’s downside is the hustle from moto taxis and sunglass vendors who ply their trade even in winter. Beware the touchy-feely, late-night female pickpockets, too. And watch your step when you go bar-hopping – check out Wikitravel and Tripadvisor for leads on places to avoid.

Downtown, you may sometimes feel that the national “tiger” economy has come at the expense of civility.

Still, Nha Trang remains one of South-East Asia’s most enticing beach destinations. Even its hotels have attractive-sounding names – the Sea Light and the Summer Scent, among others.

If you visit Nha Trang, you may find it hard to leave. The tourists you see preparing to take direct flights back to the land of Vladimir Putin weep at the prospect. Tears in paradise.

> Where to stay: Low-cost: Summer Scent hotel (behind Barcelona Hotel), Ha Tram hotel; mid-range: Summer Hotel, Blue Star; luxury: Sea and Sun, Ana Mandara, Sheraton.

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