From Phan Rang, the highway pushes on against a consistent backdrop of first sugar-cane plantations, then toothpaste-white salt flats and shrimp farms, on its way to the city of NHA TRANG. Nestled below the bottom lip of the Cai River, some 260km north of Phan Thiet, Nha Trang has earned its place on Vietnam's tourist mainline partly on merit and partly due to its location. Much has changed here since the days when the Cham people knew the area as Eatrang, the "river of reeds", and the city now supports a population of over 300,000. By the time the Nguyen lords wrested this patch of the country from Champa in the mid-seventeenth century, the intriguing Po Nagar Cham towers had already stood, stacked impressively on a hillside above the Cai, for over 700 years. They remain Nha Trang's most famous image, yet it's the coastline that brings tourists flocking: boasting the finest municipal beach in Vietnam, Nha Trang offers splendid scope for mellowing out on the sand, with hawkers on hand to supply paperbacks, fresh pineapple and massages. Scuba-diving classes and all kinds of water sports, such as windsurfing, kayaking and parasailing, are available here, and local companies offer popular day-trips to Nha Trang's outlying islands that combine island visits and snorkelling with an onboard feast of seafood. Bear in mind that there is a rainy season in Nha Trang, around November and December, when the sea gets choppy and the beach loses its appeal.
Nha Trang is much more than a pretty strip of sand, however. The southern streets around Biet Thu are packed with great-value budget hotels and restaurants, plus some stylish boutiques and bars that are actually worth hanging out in. The downtown area, which swirls aound Cho Dam ("central market"), its colourful epicentre, heaves with life; while the route up to the Po Nagar towers escorts you past the city's huge and photogenic fishing fleet. Should none of this appeal, Nha Trang is still a convenient staging post on the long haul between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.