The street vendors were out in force as our tour bus stopped to let us off at Po Nagar Cham Towers. I’d barely stepped onto the sidewalk when women carrying buckets of fans began waving them in my face, as if a small breeze would encourage me to buy one. Men hawking their various wares kept shouting, “One dollar, one dollar,” surrounding us as we walked to the entrance.

We clearly weren’t in Japan any  more – or Taiwan, for that matter – and it seemed that Nha Trang and I weren’t getting off to a very good start. If I were going to come away with at least a kernel of understanding about this place, I needed to ignore the aggressive sellers and focus on my surroundings.

Nha Trang is a coastal resort destination in southern Vietnam. Stretches of sandy beaches and palm tree-filled green spaces hug the shoreline on one side of the main coastal road. On the other side, hotels and high-rise buildings line block after block, looking touristy and prosperous. But on the way to Po Nagar Cham Towers, our guide explained that the pandemic had been brutal to this city that relies on visitors for its economic survival. Nha Trang, he said, is climbing back, but it has been a slow climb.

Sailing into Nha Trang, with views of the Vinpearl Resort across the water.
View out my window on the way to Po Nagar Cham Towers.
Looking out as we walked to the Towers…
…and looking under.

Po Nagar Cham Towers

Po Nagar Cham Towers was constructed between the 7th and 13th centuries, when Vietnam’s Cham ethnic group flourished and Hinduism was practiced. The complex is dedicated to the goddess Yan Po Nagar, “mother of the country.” It is believed there originally were eight or nine towers, but today only four remain.

We entered under a triangular-shaped red brick arch and up a stone staircase to the tower complex. Each tower has its own entrance and is dedicated to specific goddess. I removed my shoes and went inside the Southeast Tower, complete with a bright green mat emblazoned in English with “welcome,” and found a small altar. But with little information on what was there – the tour turned out to be less guided and more of a “drop off and meet at a certain time” experience – Herb and I decided to wander the grounds and take in the ancient architecture.

Entrance to the Towers.

The Southeast Tower.
Detail of carvings near the top of the towers.

Long Son Pagoda

Our next stop was a Buddhist temple called Long Son Pagoda, known for its statues of a Reclining Buddha and a 78-foot-tall white Buddha that sits at the top of a 193-step staircase. Again, we were dropped off and again we wandered. And again, I didn’t get any context or much of a feel for what we were seeing.

Long Son Pagoda entrance.
The Reclining Buddha…
…the Golden Buddha…
…and the White Buddha on the hilltop.

Dam Market

If I thought the street vendors at Po Nagar Cham Towers were aggressive, I hadn’t yet been to Dam Market. These shopkeepers were relentless. But what made it even more uncomfortable were the narrow maze-like aisles that wound through the endless sea of indoor stalls.

Dam Market seemed to be a huge destination for locals, with clothing and household items as well as food and typical market products. But as soon as we stepped inside, the vendors began blocking our path with arms full of knockoff designer scarves and handbags. We found an exit as soon as we could.

The line of tour buses should have been a warning that Dam Market was a mandatory stop on every Nha Trang guide’s route.

The Craft Village

The final stop was not listed on our itinerary, but it was orchestrated with as much rote-ness as the rest of the tour. Our guide called it a “craft village” and ushered us into a small theater where young people who looked like students were playing musical instruments. We sat and listened and then were led to the next room, where women were weaving Vietnamese conical hats and working on various crafts. And of course, toward the exit there were tables of items to purchase.

It was a pretty place, to be sure – a little oasis, really – complete with a garden and whimsical statuary. But the thing was, I had no idea why we were there or how any of the places we’d visited that day were connected. The only common denominator between the street vendors and the Dam Market sellers and the craft village was that they had items to sell. I love bringing home special souvenirs from our travels and supporting local businesses. But not like this. You can’t put a price tag on authenticity.

Craft Village entrance.

    *     *     *     *     *

I wish I could say that I had a great day in Nha Trang and that I wanted to return. I would love to have shared a serendipitous story or a profound insight about our first stop in Vietnam.

But maybe it’s okay that our time here was, well, just okay. Maybe the disappointing days of travel serve as a reminder to treasure those places that fill us with wonder and dazzle us with delight. There will always be a just okay day or two mixed in with the magic, like an afterthought to the entire trip. But it’s the extraordinary moments – those joyful, captivating experiences – that we carry with us long after the journey has ended.

Like a secret elixir, they are the reason that we pack up our suitcases and head out again, ready for the next adventure.

10 Comments

  • Love your attitude. Not every place can grad our heart. Your blog shows your readers how to use even an ok experience

  • Mary, when I read the title of your post and realised the location, my mind returned to 2015, when we took a Regent tour in Nha Trang and I referred to being grumpy in my blog!!! We are fond of Vietnam generally and so were, perhaps, a little more forgiving, but for sure, I recognised every one of your grumbles, which might be why I took so many pictures of plastic buckets and the like 😎
    One thing I noted was how every one of the tours visited the same places, regardless of theme or title *sigh* Thanks for reminding me of that day and for visiting all the same places if not quite in the same order😘

  • Hahaha, Gill…I guess misery does love company! Or at least grumbling and disappointment. Many thanks for the reality check on the tour. Interesting and comforting in a strange sort of way to know that they all visited the same sites! This was our first stop in Vietnam, which I’m sure added to the disappointment. In any case, I don’t think I would have put Nha Trang on the itinerary. Onward to Ho Chi Minh City!

  • Mary, thank you for your perspective on the “not-so-great” experience. I can’t help but wonder how different this experience may have been had you been accompanied by a more knowledgeable and engaging tour guide.
    Question- in the photo of the White Buddha on the hilltop, there is an unmistakable symbol right below the Buddha statue. I have to assume that this symbol means something totally different in Vietnam than it does to us in the West. Do you have any idea as to what the significance of this is?

    • Bob, I completely agree with you that a more engaging guide would have made a huge difference. Although it wouldn’t have changed what we experienced – which undoubtedly still would have been “just okay” – I’m certain that it would have impacted how we *felt* about what we experienced.

      And yes, that symbol…We first noticed it at the Buddhist temple in Taiwan, and our group immediately asked the guide about it. She told us that it is an ancient Buddhist symbol used to mark a temple’s location. Its original meaning was not controversial, but now of course, it’s a shock to Western visitors. And to blog readers with a very good eye! 😉

  • Nha Trang is called the “beach capital” of Vietnam and boasts wellness attractions such as mud baths and hot springs.

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