By the seaside

LookAtVietnam - Nha Trang is home to a number of fascinating cultural sites, proving that the city is more than a ‘beach destination’.

LookAtVietnam - Nha Trang is home to a number of fascinating cultural sites, proving that the city is more than a ‘beach destination’.

Nha Trang is undoubtedly one of Vietnam’s best known ‘beach destinations’. The vast majority of visitors come here to feel the warm sand in between their toes and the sea breeze blowing through their hair.

But as I tend to wilt in the sunshine, I always prefer to explore the local cultural sites during the day and hit the beach in the late afternoon.

And Nha Trang has plenty to offer by way of culture – this was once the centre of Champa civilization; in fact the name Nha Trang is thought to have been derived from the Cham word yakram, which means ‘bamboo river’.

The city is home to some of the best preserved Cham towers in Vietnam. Located on a granite knoll on the northern bank of the Cai river in Vinh Phuoc quarter, the Cham Towers of Po Nagar (The Lady of the City) were built between the 7th and 12th centuries.

Known as Thap Ba in Vietnamese, the site included eight towers, four of which remain, which were used for worship as early as the second century AD. Today, ethnic Cham, Chinese and Vietnamese Buddhists come to Po Nagar to pray and make offerings here, according to their respective traditions.

The original wooden structure was razed to the ground by an invading troop of Javanese in 744 AD but was replaced by a stone and brick temple in 784.

The most sacred, and highest, tower is the 28-metre North Tower, with its terraced pyramid roof, vaulted interior masonry and vestibule. A superb example of Cham architecture, it was built in 817AD by Pangro, a minister of King Harivaman I, after the original temples here were sacked and burned by raiders, who made off with whatever precious metal they could find.

In 918 AD, King Harivaman III placed a gold mukha-linga in this tower, but it was also stolen, this time by Khmer soldiers. In 965 AD, King Jaya Indravarman I replaced the gold mukha-linga with the stone figure, Uma – a feminine manifestation of Shiva, which remains to this day. In the tower’s main chamber, there is a black stone statute of the goddess Uma with 10 arms, two of which are hidden under her vest.

Stony faces…

Situated near the tower complex, Hon Chong is a narrow granite headland that juts out towards the turquoise waters of Nha Trang bay. To the northwest is Nui Co Tien (Fairy Mountain) with three summits believed to resemble a reclining female fairy.

There is a gargantuan handprint-shaped indentation on one massive boulder balanced at the tip of the Hon Chong (Husband Rock). Legend has it that one day a giant was here spying on a female fairy bathing nude at Bai Tien (Fairy Beach) nearby.

The two began a life together, but the Gods soon intervened and punished the giant for his initial cheekiness, sending him off to a “re-education camp” for an indefinite sentence. The lovesick fairy patiently waited for her husband to return.

But after a very long time, despairing that he might never return, she lay down in sorrow and turned into Nui Co Tien. The peak on the right is supposed to be her face, gazing up towards the sky, the middle peak is her bosom and the apex on the left her crossed legs. When the giant returned and saw what had become of his wife, he collapsed in grief next to a boulder, leaving hishandprint on it, before turning into stone.

Next to Hon Chong, there is another rock called Hon Vo (Wife Rock). Locals like to say that this was a female fairy who became ‘petrified’ while waiting for her husband.

Oceanographic Institute

The Nha Trang Oceanographic Institute, founded in 1923, is housed in a French colonial building and home to an aquarium, a library and an exhibition area. Incidentally, the world’s most famous oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, started his successful career here in 1933 when it was known as ‘Institute d’Océanographique.’

It’s well worth checking out the institute to get an insight into the richness of southern Vietnam’s aquaculture. Vietnam is after all a maritime country with a coastline that stretches for more than 3,260km. The Bien Dong (East Sea) plays an important role in the development of the country.

The exploration for reasonable and sustainable exploitation of resources and protection of the environment in the Bien Dong is the main objective of the institute. The 23 aquarium tanks on the ground floors are home to a variety of live specimens – including some wonderful seahorses. Behind the main buildings, the exhibition area features nearly 70,000 dead specimens and a rather spectacular giant whale’s skeleton.

The good doctor

Alexandre Yersin had a deep and meaningful relationship with Vietnam and the French doctor was in fact buried in Nha Trang on his request. Born in Switzerland, he came to Vietnam in 1889 after working under Louis Pasteur in Paris. He spoke Vietnamese fluently, and spent years travelling throughout the central highlands and recording his observations.

During this period he discovered what is now Dalat and recommended to the colonical French government that a hill station be established there. Yersin also introduced rubber and quinine-producing trees to Vietnam. Today, the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang coordinates vaccination and hygiene programmes for the country’s southern coastal region.

The doctor’s library and office were transformed into the Alexandre Yersin Museum, another one of the town’s cultural attractions. Items on display include laboratory equipment (such as his astronomical instruments), books from his library, a fascinating 3-D photo viewer and some of the thousand or so letters written to his mother. A model boat on display was apparently given to him by local fishermen with whom he spent a great deal of his time.

No doubt Dr Yersin also liked the feel of the sand between his toes and the sea breeze blowing through his hair – and after a day of sight-seeing, the sun has gone down far enough for me to hit the beach, too.

Source: Time-out


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