A popular weekend escape from HCMC, Vung Tau rocks at weekends when beach-starved locals and expats descend in numbers, but it is relatively quiet during the week. The city enjoys a spectacular location on a peninsula, with ocean on three sides, and the light and sea air makes it a refreshing break from sultry Saigon.
A large, prosperous coastal city, Quy Nhon (pronounced ‘hwee ngon’) is blessed with a terrific shoreline of sandy beaches. Its seaside appeal and tidy, litter-free streets make it the kind of place that affluent Vietnamese couples choose to retire to, spending their final days watching the ocean and walking the promenade.
Phan Rang & Thap Cham
This really is a tale of two cities: Phan Rang hugging the shoulders of Hwy 1 and Thap Cham straddling Hwy 20 as it starts its long climb to Dalat. Anyone travelling Vietnam from north to south will notice a big change in the vegetation when approaching the joint capitals of Ninh Thuan province.
The eponymous capital of Quang Ngai province is something of an overgrown village with no obvious attractions, so most visitors only drop by for a spot of grazing at lunchtime. The few travellers who venture here come to pay their respects to the victims of the most famous atrocity of the American War.
Currently being transformed by town planners into a vast, sprawling new city, Tuy Hoa is a somewhat soulless place characterised by the requisite vast plaza and multilaned boulevards. It’s a possible overnight stop to break up a longer journey, especially for cyclists brave enough to tackle Hwy 1, but most visitors are just passing through.
If Vung Tau is all a bit bling for you, then consider Long Hai, a more local seaside retreat within a few hours’ drive of HCMC. The fishing village of Long Hai, now only 15km northeast of Vung Tau thanks to a major bridge, has a pretty white-sand beach and the area benefits from a microclimate that brings less rain than other parts of the south.
Ninh Chu Beach
Southeast of Phan Rang, the giant bite-shaped bay of Ninh Chu is popular with Vietnamese tourists on weekends and holidays, but relatively tranquil the rest of the time. Some litter blights the scene, but the 10km-long beach is attractive and makes a quieter alternative to Phan Rang as a base for visiting the Cham ruins. New resort hotels are also springing up around the bay.
Cha Ban Cham Area
The former Cham capital of Cha Ban (also known as Vijay and Quy Nhon) was located 26km north of Quy Nhon and 5km from Binh Dinh. While of archaeological importance, there’s very little to see for the casual visitor. However, there are several interesting Cham structures dotted around the area.
Son My (My Lai)
This tranquil rural spot was the setting for one of the most horrific crimes of the American War: a massacre committed by US troops that killed 504 villagers, many of them elderly people and children on 16 March 1968. The deeply poignant Son My Memorial was constructed as a monument to their memory.