You know you’re in tourist central when signs are printed in four languages.
Long ago, Nha Trang was part of the large sprawling empire known as Champa. It encompassed much of central Vietnam, southern Laos, and northeastern Cambodia. The Cham people, like the ancient Khmer in Cambodia, worshipped Hindu gods, and built grand temples to them. We in the West rarely even hear of the immense stone temple cities like Angkor Wat, so it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that many smaller ancient structures dot the region.
Unlike the Khmer, Cham temples in Vietnam are usually constructed of brick. Visually, though, they follow similar motifs, and like those found in Cambodia, most that are still in use as holy sites now serve a Buddhist audience.
Modern-day Nha Trang has grown up around the Po Nagar temple complex. Though left for centuries to crumble in the natural onslaught of the Vietnamese jungle, it has now been restored and serves as a major tourist draw. Descriptive signage is limited, but entry costs only a dollar, so it’s well worth a look around the region’s history. Ancient peoples were no less industrious than we.
Po Nagar isn’t what made Nha Trang a popular destination, though. Most come for the beach and the amusement parks. Nha Trang is a city deep in the throes of an economic boom. Tall apartment buildings and hotels are being built along its entire length. Construction zones litter the city. And unlike Saigon’s famous backpacker street, here you’re much more likely to hear Russian or Chinese language than English floating out from the seaside cafés.
The artificial attractions are not entirely my style. Nerdly weirdo that I am, I had to visit the city’s Oceanographic Institute and museum. It is, in fact, the largest marine biology center in the country. I can’t say it measures up to the museums you’ll find in Europe, but for southeast Asia, it’s a good one. The main attraction is a humpback whale skeleton excavated from a beach to the north, but there’s more to see as well. Their aquarium showcases many species native to the nearby reefs, and what I came to call the “hall of formaldehyde” contains thousands of specimens preserved in classical glass jars. It looks rather comical today, but is a good reminder of the methods biologists were forced to use not long ago.
Though it’s a pleasant place, Nha Trang never quite called to me the way some sites have. Perhaps its rapid expansion has brought with it a bit too much of the hustle and bustle that defines bigger cities like Saigon. I don’t necessarily discourage readers to visit, but I feel like there are better places to see.
And through the magical time-travel of writing-after-the-fact, I can tell you tomorrow’s location is definitely more relaxing. Join us next time in Tuy Hoa!