These days its hard to get ‘off the beaten track’ in Viet Nam. In the past ten years it has become one of the most popular Asian destinations for tourists from all over the world. This, and its unique geography on a North/South axis (which essentially means most tourists travel in the same direction) have made it ever harder to find those little gems of places that haven’t yet been discovered. The tourist trail between Sai Gon in the South and Ha Noi in the North is very well worn.
Well, welcome to Quy Nhon, the biggest little town in Viet Nam, that everyone seems to miss.
Quy Nhon is a city of some 300 000 people in the Binh Dinh province, roughly half-way between the far more popular tourist destinations of Nha Trang and Hoi An. It is situated on a protected bay with a beautiful beach, has tree-lined boulevards that are relatively traffic-free and, best of all, minus the masses of foreign tourists! Well ok – perhaps there are a few. Quy Nhon also has the friendliest locals I’ve ever come across in my 10 visits to Viet Nam. There was no hassling, no rip-offs, no “tourist” prices; just a smile and a “hello” or “xin chao” and generosity in abundance.
If you choose to fly to Quy Nhon you will be treated to one of the most spectacular approaches to an airport just about anywhere. Dropping through the clouds you think you’re about to fall on top of the mountains inland from Quy Nhon. The view of the city and the beaches beyond are sublime. A bit of weaving and dodging by the pilot to avoid the peaks and we pass across seemingly luminously green rice paddies dotted with small hamlets before landing at Phu Cat airport, a former American air base constructed during the Viet Nam War. It is now shared by the local airlines and the Vietnam Air Force. The Russian-built Sukhoi 27 fighter jets are housed in the conspicuous blast bunkers alongside the runway. From the airport a shuttle bus takes you directly into Quy Nhon proper for the princely sum of 50 000 VND (about $3.00 AUD).
Arriving in the middle of the day the first thing you notice is the general lack of people on the streets. Viet Nam is a very crowded place, yet Quy Nhon is quiet. The beach front boulevard with its median strip of palm trees runs the full length of the bay, the beach a graceful curving arc of pristine sand with clear water and, framing the background, green peaks of the foothills of the mountains of the interior of Viet Nam. The beach is peppered with the odd outdoor bar with sun lounges and thatch roofs serving ice cold Tiger beer for about $1.00 USD (When I say “ice cold”, I mean they actually put ice in the beer! It’s a thing here…….)
In the late afternoon everything comes alive. The beach seemingly instantaneously fills with people, the roads become arteries of moving motorbikes, and street vendors set up on any available space they can find. Following a beer at a beachside bar, we had dinner at a popular restaurant serving barbequed meat of every known variety.
I first heard about Quy Nhon a few months ago. A story appeared in my Twitter feed about an “undiscovered” beach in Viet Nam that was only accessible by boat. The beach is Ky Co, near the small fishing village of Nhon Ly, about 25km North of Quy Nhon. Hiring a motorbike has always been my preferable mode of exploratory transport in most parts of Asia. It gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want, at a very small price.
Setting off on the motorbike it didn’t take long to find the way out of town and over the inlet that sits to the North of Quy Nhon. It did however, take a while to find further directions from there. Once across the inlet the road is a seemingly endless line of obscenely wide tarmac surrounded by giant sand dunes. Along the way there are various industrial buildings and trucks hauling sand in every direction. After a quite a while on the motorbike, and seemingly lost, an end was called to the adventure. Further information was needed obviously, to find this elusive “undiscovered” beach.
Still having most of the day at hand, and already being out of the city itself, it was decided to try to find the Banh It Cham Towers. The Cham (or Champa depending on which source you use) were the local indigenous people of Central Vietnam and parts of Cambodia and Laos. The Banh It Towers are a surviving relic of the 11th century, a time of domination for the Cham people, with Quy Nhon as their capital. Following some basic directions from a shopkeeper (which I think was “keep going this way, they’ll be on the right-hand side, you can’t miss them!”) it wasn’t long before we were merrily meandering our way through rural Viet Nam, surrounded by rice paddies, crossing small rivers, passing a number of churches and the odd temple. The towers soon appear, and they are hard to miss, perched as they are on the highest hill for miles around.
Entry to the towers is 7,000 VND (40c AUD), and within a short climb you have one of the best views of the surrounding countryside you’re likely to have in Viet Nam. The towers (there are 3 remaining) have been extensively restored however they remain just as impressive as they would have been 900 years ago. There are numerous other sites such as this (including one right in the middle of Quy Nhon itself), with Binh Dinh province having the richest collection of remaining Cham architecture in Viet Nam. There is little information available in English at the site however this doesn’t detract from the impression they make and the wonderful view afforded.
Upon returning to Quy Nhon city it was time for a much sought after swim following a long hot day of exploring! The beach in the late afternoon was packed with locals and the water was clean and warm. On this occasion I accidently left the key in the ignition of the motorbike. Upon returning from swimming however, the motorbike was untouched, key still in place and nothing had been taken from the storage compartment. This would never happen in Nha Trang or Hoi An; that bike would be long gone! My faith in Vietnamese honesty has been fully restored! Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you make the same mistake…
That night it was time for some real Vietnamese ‘street’ food. In a small alley about a block back from the beach a number of small restaurants spill out onto the street. Sitting on the ubiquitous tiny chairs, I’ve ordered the Quy Nhon version of Banh Xeo, a type of pancake filled with pork and fresh herbs and an ice cold Tiger beer (no ice this time – it was refrigerated), all for about $2.50 USD. We’ve also managed to get proper directions to the elusive beach.
Setting off again the following day we are at the village of Nhon Ly in about 25 minutes. We pass a huge golf course resort in the midst of being built on the way (a sign of the tourist deluge to come perhaps?). A short ride around the village and we run across a tour operator offering boat rides (including lunch) to Ky Co beach for 340 000 VND. It was more than we had expected however with the inclusion of lunch and a trip to a snorkeling location as well, it still seemed good value. Of course, very little is ever straight-forward in Viet Nam when the word “tour” is involved. We are soon ferried to a nearby beach on the back of a motorbike, then left to wait whilst others on the tour are transported as well. We are then herded into a rather unstable small round boat and ferried out to a converted fishing boat. The trip to Ky Co can begin!
The boat heads South along the coast, passing huge cliffs that drop straight into the ocean, the geological striations in the rock a sign of the millions of years that have passed since this land mass was formed. Not long after, we round a turn into a secluded bay with a strip of white sand at the base of the surrounding hills. We don’t head directly for the beach however, even though it is almost completely unpopulated. Instead the boat noses into one of two small alcoves carved in the cliffs on the Southern end of the beach. Each gully has a small beach and goes back about 30 metres. Unfortunately though, they are jam-packed with people! Obviously Ky Co beach is not that much of a secret!
Our small group soon finds a piece of real estate and it’s not long before our ‘tour cook’ has the small BBQ operating and lunch is happening. The same scenario is playing out all over the small gully, with a number of small gas cookers being fired up and groups both large and small enjoying eating and drinking at their seaside picnics. Meanwhile, the water is calling, and it’s clear and warm with just a slight swell. It’s not too difficult to wade over to the larger beach. It would appear that some development is taking place with the beginnings of a brick building at the Northern end of the beach, and a road being constructed over the hills. I’m told the development is in connection with the resort. If true, the days of this idyllic beach being a “secret” are well and truly numbered.
As the only foreign tourist here it isn’t long before I’m being stopped and asked for photos, or just being given a cheery “xin chao”. At our lunch of grilled fresh seafood (including abalone!) our small group share their beer with me and are quite keen to make sure my every need is catered for. After a few hours of eating, drinking and swimming in the pristine waters its time to move on to the next stop, a local coral reef with snorkelling opportunities. I must admit to being a little underwhelmed at this stage of the “tour”. The boat deposits us on a small floating jetty just off the coast from where the new resort is being built. The water is quite murky and the coral is not that impressive. This, coupled with the fact that the snorkelling equipment comprises of nothing more than a basic round face mask that leaks, and I’m feeling ready to head back to town. Fairly soon our boat drops us at the beach on the other side of the village from where we started. Thankfully some of those in our group know the way back and shortly we are back at where we started that morning. After a 25-minute motorbike ride we are back in Quy Nhon, somewhat tired and a little sunburnt, and more than happy with our day at the “secret” beach.
On our last day in Quy Nhon our flight doesn’t leave until the late afternoon. After a relaxing morning we decide to visit the local museum at about midday. Unfortunately it is closed and won’t re-open until 2pm, which is when we need to catch the bus to the airport. I will just have to visit next time I’m in Quy Nhon!
- How to get to Quy Nhon?
Bus, train or plane. Buses run numerous times daily from Nha Trang or Da Nang (there is no direct bus from Hoi An). The Reunification Express runs daily and stops at the train station about 10km out of town. There are regular flights with a number of different airlines from both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
- Where to stay in Quy Nhon?
There are 4-5 hotels on the road opposite the beach ranging in price from $30 – $100 per night. Those on a tighter budget might want to consider a smaller hotel a few blocks further inland.