Cart is empty
Tantalisingly fragrant banh mí sandwiches and piping-hot bowls of Russian borscht aren’t your typical pairing, but they coexist in the coastal Vietnamese city of Nha Trang.
As I rolled up on my ramshackle Yamaha Nouvo scooter – somehow without breaking down – Nha Trang’s differences were glaring: blinking neon signs glared cyrillic script, sun-bleached menus were covered in Russian dishes and throngs of tanned vacationers spoke in a new-to-me language that confused my wearied ears after weeks of bending my brain to Vietnamese.
In Nha Trang, Russian tour agencies rub shoulders with elderly Vietnamese grandmothers selling their family recipes. Some of the women have adapted to their new neighbours by translating their tasty offerings into Russian, whereas the rest adhere to a “what you see is what you get” mentality, garnering their business solely through the hypnotic smells of sweet minced pork and robust chilli sauce. Spoiler alert: it works just as well.
Nha Trang is a confusing place, albeit enticing at the same time. With powder-soft shorelines and low prices that’ll have you feeling like a lottery winner, it’s no wonder that this city has become an expat favourite. But why here, of all less-obscure places?
Some digging is required to understand this place, gazing back to a time before any of Nha Trang’s streets were introduced to the likes of pelmeni and beef stroganoff. This whole party started back in 1979 when the Russian Navy began using nearby Cam Ranh Bay as a naval base. Similar to most who have ever visited the city, they thought “damn, it’s pretty great here”, and word spread faster than you can wolf down a $1 bowl of pho… which is considerably rapid, if you’re me.
Stories of Russians packing up from the motherland and resettling in Nha Trang are abundant, with plot lines ranging from opening restaurants to working in local Russian-catered tourism agencies. I had heard scattered rumours of a “Little Moscow” from fellow travellers before arriving, and I must admit, the intensity of it exceeded my expectations.
Puzzling cultural mélanges aren’t the only noteworthy reason to swing by, however. Nha Trang and the surrounding area beg to be explored – especially when that electrifying city buzz starts to itch your ear a bit. For a contrast, I found myself zooming northbound scooter-style in a backpacker convoy to Ba Ho Waterfalls, a jungle-shrouded mass of boulders and cascading water teeming with refreshing rock pools and prime cliff diving opportunities. And if you were wondering, yes: I indeed made some Russian friends while I was there (this shouldn’t come as a surprise by now). In fact, they egged me on to jump off the mid-sized rock and eagerly dared each other to catapult off the highest corners. Their thick accents were comprised mostly of laughter at this point, a heartening reminder that humour transcends all cultures.
Among these same jungle canopies lie centuries-old temples, both of Hindu and Buddhist origin. Pyramidal roofs paired with ornately intricate stonework make the Po Nagar Cham Towers a miniature lookalike of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, albeit with far less of the crowds. It’s hard to stroll through these grandiose seventh-century structures without feeling like you’ve stumbled into a game of Temple Run and, let’s be real, that’s part of what makes a visit so immersive and captivating. And (thankfully) in contrast to Temple Run, you don’t have to worry about evil monkeys here.
Daytime pleasantries aside, this city’s nightlife is not for the faint of heart. It’s not everyday that you use your best fake accent to jokingly convince an entire group of Russian men that you’re from a small town in Siberia while strolling down a Vietnamese beach after bar close, but in Nha Trang, I’d like to say this was entirely fitting. And I loved it. Sailing Club, a local empire of draw-you-in luxe design and non-stop hopping beats, became all-too familiar as my personal flagship in the city’s cosmopolitan night scene. When I laid eyes on the luminous beachfront dance floor, full nights of sleep became history. To say the bars and clubs are absolutely thumping would be an understatement – especially when Russian vodkas are available by the bucketful.
An initially planned two-day stay steamrolled into four, tumbled into six, and then magnetically pulled me in for two more final days. Each and every “screw it, I’m staying longer” proclamation brought me down to hostel reception to ask for an extension, where the always-chipper Vietnamese receptionist probably assumed he would never get rid of me. That, my friends, is how you know a place has grabbed you more than you ever would have expected.
Condensation-coated mango cocktails with a stately, shoeless view of the shoreline were just the beginning. The distinctive intersection between weird and wonderful is what makes Nha Trang stand out in my mind. Regardless of where you call home – Saigon, St Petersburg or somewhere in between – there’s more than enough room to feel included in this welcoming nook of the globe.
You May Also Like
You know how you have that one incredible friend who knows their city inside out? That’s us. We take the world’s most dynamic destinations, hand-pick the best bits and give them to you in one place. This is the kind of guide that you don’t need to run by a local – it was written by one. Eat your heart out, shop until you drop, drink like a fish, dance your socks off, sleep – then repeat.
Embrace the adventurous appetite of the next generation with an annual subscription. SUITCASE Magazine challenges travel perceptions with thought-provoking photo journals, city guides and articles by award-winning international writers.
We'll tell you where you can find the perfect boutique hotel in Paris for under £150, if you tell us about the best dive bar in your city. Deal? Share your stories and photos with #SUITCASEtravels.