A stranger's welcome

An ancient port town in central Vietnam is a new beach holiday destination.

Most tropical beach holidays offer the usual formula of sun, sand and sea. Quy Nhon in Vietnam is for holidaymakers looking for another important "s" -- serenity. 

A visitor in the áo dài traditional gown at one of the Bahn It towers. The site dates back hundreds of years to the times of the Champa. From the sacred temple, the gentle breeze and the bird’s-eye view of the vast, green rice fields with mountains in the background is indeed a magical experience. 

Quy Nhon, a small coastal town in Binh Dinh province in central Vietnam, has the charms that many popular beach towns in this part of the world have lost: peace and quiet, the slow life, and genuine friendliness from the locals that makes strangers feel welcome. 

For people exhausted from the rat race in the city, a chance to reconnect with solitude and sincerity is indeed invigorating. More often than not, these precious, small moments during the holiday are the ones that stay longest in our memory. 

Such peace and local friendliness are possible because Quy Nhon is still a relatively new destination. Fishery and agriculture have long been the important sources of income for the locals. Recently, Quy Nhon's pristine beaches, emerald waters, and superbly fresh seafood have been attracting visitors to this capital city of Binh Dinh province. 

Located in south central Vietnam, Quy Nhon has a 42km-long coastline with varied topographies: mountainous forests, rice valleys, long sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, peninsulas and islands. 

Off the beaten track, Quy Nhon is rich with its own cultural history dating back to ancient times, when the area was dominated by Hinduism under the Champa civilisation. 

Founded by seafaring settlers from Borneo who brought Hinduism and their culture to the mainland of Southeast Asia, the Champa principalities thrived along the coasts from maritime trade. By the 15th century, Quy Nhon was already a prosperous port town, where the famous Admiral Zheng He and his fleet would make their first stop after departing China during the Ming treasure voyages. 

This tourist site was a religious sanctuary from the ancient Champa civilisation founded by the Hindu seafarers from Borneo. Quy Nhon and other cities in central Vietnam have a large number of archaeological remains from the Champa era. The Bahn It sanctuary atop a small hill is one of them. A short drive to the sanctuary offers glimpses of beautiful countryside. 
The majestic pagoda, surrounded by beautiful gardens and a huge lotus pond, exudes tranquillity and peace. Although a bit far from town, the Thien Hung Pagoda draws a large number of visitors to pray and ask for blessings. The temple also showcases many mini trees, reflecting local expertise and the popularity of bonsai art in Vietnam. 

The Champa civilisation met its political and cultural decline in the 15th century and was completely defeated and annexed by the Vietnamese kingdom in the 19th century. The remains of Champa's past glory now dot several cities in central Vietnam, including Quy Nhon. 

One of the most prominent Champa-era ruins in Quy Nhon is the Bahn It Towers, about 20 minutes from the city. The red brick structures, with remnants of intricate stone carvings, stand regal atop a small hill, where one can marvel at the majestic view of the vast paddy fields stretching as far as the eyes can see. 

A short drive from the Bahn It Champa ruins is the Thien Hung Pagoda, a beautiful Buddhist temple with sacred Buddha images, imperial buildings, and beautiful gardens. An array of bonsai in the temple make the visit to the Thien Hung Pagoda a special treat to those who admire the ancient art of cultivating mini trees. 

Visiting fresh markets in Quy Nhon is one of the best ways to interact with locals. The vendors are very friendly and cheerful, readily greeting strangers with welcoming smiles. Language is not a problem when you want to buy. Give the vendors money and you will get accurate change without being overcharged. Seafood lovers will be dazzled by a large variety of fish, clams and squid, attesting to the abundance of Quy Nhon ocean. The seafood is from small-scale fishermen’s daily catches, meaning they are fresh, delicious and safe. 

Conical leaf hats are common throughout Vietnam. But the expertise of making high-quality Non La conical hats, with intricate embroideries for the royalty and nobility of old, is in Quy Nhon. The family of master Do Van Lan, 72, has been practising the traditional art of Non La hat-making for generations. He is also currently assisting the government in training craftspeople in other provinces to prevent this art from dying out.

You can easily combine Banh It Temple, Thien Hung Pagoda and the Quy Nhon fresh market in a half-day morning tour and then enjoy local Vietnamese lunch in town before lazing by the beach in the late afternoon.

As a Bangkokian, a visit to Quy Nhon is like a trip back in time, to when the pristine beaches of Pattaya and Cha-am, to name just two, were still home to smallscale fishermen and where the neighbourhood’s wet markets were bustling with fresh seafood from the daily catches. Those days are gone.

That Quy Nhon is a bit out of the way from other popular destinations in Vietnam is why it remains a haven of peace and quiet. Development, however, is catching on fast. Things may quickly change.

At present, flying from Bangkok via Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City plus an hour’s drive to Quy Nhon takes more than six hours. Taking a train from Danang to Quy Nhon takes about five hours. Although the train ride is a delightful way to see the Vietnamese countryside, many visitors feel daunted.

Tasty and healthy, Vietnamese cuisine is quickly gaining global popularity. Quy Nhon has its own original home recipes of the classic dishes, be it pho, spring rolls or banh xeo, to create their own identity Asking the locals is the best way to find the best local food at the best prices. 

But it’s definitely worth travelling a bit farther to enjoy the hidden charms of Quy Nhon, to experience the fast-disappearing old Vietnam where nature is unspoilt, the locals’ friendliness spontaneous, the culture rich, and the food tasty, clean and safe.

Here, the sun dramatically rises in the ocean, painting the sky with different shades of red and gold. The glorious sunrise each day is never the same. Without the intrusion of city lights, the night sky is full of stars. And on a lucky day, it is possible to catch a glimpse of the Milky Way.

This is one of the places to enjoy a restful beach holiday, to recharge the battery and reconnect with oneself. The slow life in Quy Nhon is a reminder of how important the small happinesses are. So is life balance.

Apart from the invigorating peace and quiet, such realisation is probably the most important thing visitors take from Quy Nhon, and why many more are heading to this long-hidden gem in central Vietnam.

TRAVEL INFO

- Currently, there is no direct flight from Bangkok to Phu Cat Airport, which services Quy Nhon. Flying to Phu Cat Airport requires a transfer at either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. From Phu Cat, it takes about an hour's drive to reach the city of Quy Nhon. 

- Holidaymakers in Danang can easily take a train to Quy Nhon. The journey takes about five hours.

- The trains from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City stop at Dieu Tri, about 15km from Quy Nhon. Taking a taxi is the quickest way to reach Quy Nhon. Check train schedules at www.dsvn.vn.

- There are bus services from other city centres. The Quy Nhon bus station is also convenient, as it is located in the city. 

Read the original story at Bangkok Post

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