Beautiful Vietnam
Venture into Vietnam
  • | Australian Yaching April 2008 | April 20, 2010 10:57 AM

With its world heritage-listed bays and unspoilt coast, Vietnam is appealing to cruising sailors and regional racers from Hong Kong, reports Fiona Harper.

With the successful completion of the second Hong Kong to Nha Trang yacht race, Vietnam looks set to become a permanent destination on the South East Asia yachting circuit. Taking less than four days to sail the 650 miles (Skandia holds the record of 42hrs 45m 41s), the Category One race is held in late October, ideally timed for Hong Kong-based sailors to kick off the Asian Regatta Circuit. Organised by the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, the biennial race, first held in 2004, was a breakthrough for sailors wanting to visit communist Vietnam. Last year's race involved 13 yachts with 130 sailors descending on the beach resort town of Nha Trang, on the south east coast.

Vin Pearl Beach was the base for post-race festivities, hosted by the Nha Trang Sailing Club. Established 13 years ago by the one-man human dynamo, Australian owner Peter Vidotto, the sailing club is the social, business and networking hub for sailors and locals, and is instrumental in the continuance of the Hong Kong race.

The charming French colonial-influenced port town of Nha Trang is the jumping off port for some of the best cruising area in the country. The 60-mile cruising ground between Nha Trang and Vung Fong Bay encompasses 70 islands, including the picturesque Hon Tre island group, many with waterfront hotels and restaurants that warmly welcome visitors. The area is known for its good anchorages, calm turquoise waters with good beaches and great dive and snorkel sites. In this region, you will also find the original Summer Retreat for the last Emperor of Vietnam, before he abdicated in 1945, which now operates as a hotel, along with its original 1920s furniture. Vung Fong Bay in the north is doted with numerous small islands, and is protected by a massive sand dune at its northern end. Whale Island is a popular base for scuba divers and sailors. The island houses an eco resort, which is proactive in coral regrowth, destroyed by the dubious practice of dynamite fishing.

Emerging sailing scene

Vietnam is under-developed for sailors, so much so that yachts are still a curiosity, with no marina facilities operating anywhere in the country. However, change, albeit slow, is in the air. Sunsail Yacht Charters opened its Nha Trang base in 2006, with eight bareboat yachts ranging in size from 36 to 46ft. Yachting for pleasure is such a foreign concept to the Peoples Committee of Vietnam that there is not even an official yacht classification for marine registrations. Yachts come under the classification of ship, along with all the bureaucracy that that entails. Base Manager Morgan Hayes runs informal regattas on Sundays from the sailing club, when he has yachts not out on charter, in order to raise the awareness of yachting among the community. He says, "You must remember that this is a country that does not yet hire cars to foreigners (no Avis or Hertz in Vietnam). By making bareboat charter here a positive experience for clients and the authorities, it is hoped we are nudging the development of marine tourism in the right direction." The base is open between May and September with nearby Nha Trang domestic airport a short taxi ride away for sailors who take the one-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City.

Sailor's experience

Prim Winston-Smith recently returned from a Vietnam sailing holiday with mixed feelings. Her advice to others’ Enjoy the experience, take plenty of fresh water onboard and have a ball! Along with her husband and adult daughters, they were attracted to the culture of the people, plus the opportunity to experience a new region that was a little different from past adventures. Compared with their previous sailing holidays in Greece, Turkey and Croatia, Vietnam certainly offered challenges that enhanced their enjoyment. Prim said it was a unique experience that enabled them to integrate closely with the daily lives of coastal people. ‘This included the fishermen in boats, or living on their fish farms, the bird-nest gatherers and the basic seaside villages, plus the village resorts,’ she said. ‘The sea was lit up with neon lights every night with the numerous fishermen.’

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect for Prim was the disregard for rubbish management, which unfortunately is often typical of Asian waters. “The pollution was the worst part, especially the plastic bags and bottles in the water and on the beach,” she said. Although disturbing, it didn’t detract from the generally relaxed experience. Her family enjoyed the easy relaxed sailing out of Nha Trang, although the hot still evenings in July made cooking onboard and sleeping slightly uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are resorts developing along the cruising grounds that offer enticing dining alternatives onshore. With plenty of fresh exotic tasting food, keenly priced, who wouldn’t dine ashore every night and it is a unique chartering experience. "We felt very privileged and adventurous when we were there as there are only eight sailing boats for hire in Vietnam!."

Seasons and conditions

The best time to visit is during the southwest monsoon season, from May to October. During this time, while it is often hot, humid and dismal in the capital Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, it's perfect for sailing in Nha Trang with an average daytime temperature of 26C. The SW-SE winds are generally no greater than 20 knots, with calm seas, sunshine and little rain. A typical day will see the breeze arrive late morning, blowing steadily until dusk, then dying away in the evening, conveniently in time for sundowner cocktails. Tidal range is 1-3m.

Exciting news for cruising sailors wanting to explore this country, which previously discouraged foreign sailors, is the construction of the country's first significant marina and waterfront residential community. The Phu Quy Resort at Nha Trang will soon incorporate a modern marina into its complex of luxury villas and housing, stretching over 72 hectares. There is talk of others on the horizon, but development takes some to come to fruition in this communist country.

Saigontourist Travel Service Co, the major tourism operator, is keen to develop marine tourism. It's rumoured that discussions have been held with Singapore to hold an international yachting event in the Da Nang province. While diving operators have been long established, other types of marine tourism are in their infancy. Morgan Hayes explains the difficulties encountered with yachts moving up or down the coast: 'Vietnam is really a collection of provinces so having permission to enter one port definitely doesn't mean you are free to cruise the coastline. East port is effectively another country.'

Big ship cruising is a less challenging, but a spectacularly popular way to travel the coastline, with visitor numbers surging 300 per cent in the first six months of 2007. Authorities recently established a designated cruise ship route in place between China and Vietnam, which will encourage more diverse itineraries. Dramatically beautiful Halong Bay and its 2000 islands is listed as a World Heritage site and is enormously popular with commercial tourism operators. Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Da Nang, Hoi An and Hue are all on the regular itineraries of cruise ships. For Australian cruise ship travellers, Singapore-based Star Cruises operates regular cruises, with voyages either starting in Vietnam or as part of a multi-country voyage.

For those who are prepared to deal with the pesky bureaucratic red tape, Vietnam offers a fascinating sailing or cruising experience. It is generally considered to be a poor, densely populated country that has had to recover from the ravages of war. This it may be, but it is also a one of the most intriguing and unspoilt countries in Asia. Its regional landscapes are filled with mountainous jungles, paddy fields and charismatic villages, peopled with inquisitive, friendly locals.

Cities are a complex mix of past and present architecture that reflect its history under the control of both the Chinese and French, governed by a system that operates on communist legal theory and French civil law. Elegant streets filled with superb cafes are a dominant feature in some precincts. The dramatic 2000-mile stretch of coastline is a mix of crisp white beaches and sparkling seas, contrasting with severe cliffs and striking island-filled bays. Just the sort of far-flung coastline that generates a sparkle in dreamy sailors' eyes, contemplating their next exotic marine adventure.

Take the opportunity soon to discover this unique cruising ground that is quietly emerging on the world tourism stage. With the busy Asian yachting season continuing to expand, it won't be long before Vietnam forms part of the mainstream regatta and cruising circuit.

More information

Nha Trang Sailing Club
Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club
Sunsail Yacht Charters
Saigontourist Travel Service Co
Star Cruises

Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Population 83,535,600

Capital city Hanoi (1.7 million population)

Currency: 1 AUD = 14,329.85 VND (Dong)

Languages Vietnamese (official), English, French, Chinese, Khmer, others

Religions none (80%), Buddhist (9.3%), others

Time Zone (UTC +7)

Electricity Vietnam uses 220 volts AC

Latitude/Longitude (Capital City)
21º 01' N, 105º 52' E

Getting there

International airlines including Vietnam Airlines, Qantas, Thai, and BA fly into Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Hanoi in the north.

From Saigon Airport there are currently two flights a day to Nha Trang with Vietnam Airlines. A ticket costs 650,000 Dong and the trip lasts around 1 hour. The Sunsail base is 30 minutes from Nha Trang.

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