Nha Trang and its Tourist Lure

Is the Vietnamese city of Nha Trang on the way to becoming another Pattaya, the vast and notorious resort two hours south of Bangkok where sun, sex, sleaze, sports and second homes are all in abundance? Or even just another Patong, Pattaya’s younger sister on Phuket? Or could it be the center point for focusing, via tourism, attention on the Cham people and the region’s glorious maritime and cultural past?

On the Agoda hotel booking website alone, Nha Trang and its environs already boast 35 five-star hotels, 52 four-stars, 87 three-stars and innumerable one- and two-star hotels and guest houses. Numbers are to keep growing apace, with some developments of hotels and apartments on a scale which dwarf even the existing 20-storey five-star high rises. The almost elegant tree-lined seafront road, Tran Phu runs the length of the seven-kilometer beach is seeing ever bigger buildings.

At its northern end where the sea meets the reason for the city’s existence, the Nha Trang river, is now despoiled by a 40-storey concrete apartment block whose size is only surpassed by its ugliness. This monstrosity now overlooks the broad river and old harbor where large boats built of wood are daily being sawed and hammered into shape. It detracts from what should be the center of attention, the Cham-era Hindu temple of Po Nagar. Built on a 50-meter, granite boulder-strewn hill between the ninth and 14th centuries, this brick marvel presided over the port from which Cham merchant ships sailed to Borneo, to Java, Sumatra and other islands of the Southeast Asian archipelago on the East Sea, as the Vietnamese refer to what westerners call the South China sea and Chinese the South Sea.

For sure, there is no harm in principle of further developing Nha Trang, a city of about 500,000 people, as a resort area. It is just 40 minutes by road from Cam Ranh Airport, which now boasts international flights. Cam Ranh itself has its own boom in apartment and villa development along the sandy but featureless shore line north of the airport, which was built originally by the US during the Vietnam War. Nha Trang has the feel of a real city. The tourists add greatly to the restaurant and shopping amenities. On the railway, halfway between Ho Chi Minh City and Da Nang, it has beaches aplenty north and south of the city and offshore islands to be explored. Aerial cable cars cross over to Hòn Tre Island, and the nature reserves of Hòn Mun and Hòn Tằm islands, reachable by boat, have coral reefs.

Thus far, Nha Trang has yet to display any too-obvious reliance on sex for tourism. But given the boom in development not just of hotels but of apartments which foreigners can buy, that may not be far behind. Yet another Pattaya may be impossible, not to mention undesirable. Nha Trang is a long way from a major metropolis and Vietnam’s social norms are less accommodating. But it could contribute more than the tourist dollar to the nation. It mainly attracts group tours, young couples and family-oriented visitors, with Chinese and Russians the most conspicuous.

But what is conspicuously lacking, despite Po Nagar, in its tourist agenda is a more direct link between Nha Trang’s history as a port on the East Sea. Yet the Cham state, a collection of ports based entities and its predecessor, represent more than 1,000 years of East sea trading, a powerful historical riposte to China’s claims.

In the past, the Vietnamese have been reluctant to make too much of the Cham, whose rule once extended almost from Vinh to Vung Tao.

Their power and prosperity, mentioned in many Chinese sources plus visitors from the west such as Ibn Batuta and Marco Polo was due primarily to their maritime prowess. They were a key to trade between southeast Asia and China, their ports and merchants providing entrepots for goods from Java, Sumatra, Borneo and the spice islands of the eastern archipelago. When the Portuguese first arrived in the region around 1510 they referred to the South China sea as the Cham sea. Their language had its own script.

The Cham were gradually conquered and mostly absorbed by the Vietnamese invaders and Viet culture but their state only finally disappeared in 1832. There is still a Cham-speaking minority but it has long been little more than a curiosity. Now many Vietnamese academics are now eager to see Cham achievements as a major part of the nation’s history, not a footnote. But the idea of bringing this to international attention via tourism seems to have eluded the authorities, local and national.

Po Nagar gets lots of visitors because it is close to the center of the city. Indeed, it probably gets more than the much bigger Cham site, My Son, the World Heritage inland from Hoi An. But there is nothing in the local tourist literature to place Nha Trang and the Cham kingdom in its historical context and demonstrate its importance in Asian history of a people and state which was Austronesian by language and closely related to the people of the Southeast Asian archipelago.

The “What’s On in Nha Trang” gives Po Nagar only passing mention. Despite a central location on Tran Phu, the provincial museum is in a poor state and could make a much better job of displaying its Cham collection, and providing visitors with the historical context. It could also encourage visitors to Nha Trang to visit another important site at Phan Rang, south of Cam Ranh and the last capital of the Cham kingdom.

In short, Vietnam could do itself and its visitors a favor by better celebrating the Cham dimension to its history. It would be particularly useful if the Chinese, already large investors in Vietnamese real estate, were to learn a little of the people who were regularly sailing the East/South/South China Sea before they were. Nha Trang would be a good place to start.