Your Vacation in Lights: Sailing the South China Sea Off Vietnam

(Nef Family Photo)
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ed Nef of Alexandria is the latest contributor to Your Vacation in Lights, in which we invite Travel section readers to dish about their recent trips. It's a big, confusing travel world out there, and you can help your fellow travelers navigate it. Your hot tip could be the next guy's daymaker; your rip-off restaurant, the next family's near miss. To file your own trip report, see the fine print below.

THE TRIP: One-week bareboat charter on the South China Sea off Vietnam.

WHY: Because of a business I have in Hanoi, I knew the country somewhat, and, as an avid sailor, I was eager to see what sailing would be like. Nha Trang, our home port, was the scene of intense fighting during the Vietnam War. Now, it's a tourist-filled resort town surrounded by beautiful beaches and islands.

WHO: Me; my middle daughter, her husband and their two young sons; and my eldest daughter and her friend.

WHEN: Early August. Wind was great, water was great, sailing was great.

PLANNING: The charter company that we used has closed its Vietnam operation, but the Nha Trang Sailing Club may help.

COST: The boat, a 46-foot Oceanis sloop, cost $3,800 for a week. Hotel rates ranged from $35 per night in Hanoi's old quarter to $200 a night at the Sofitel Dalat Palace in Dalat.

THE ROUTE BY LAND . . . : Our trip started in Hanoi, with its remnants of French colonial charm and such poignant sites as the "Hanoi Hilton," which housed American prisoners, including Sen. John McCain. From Hanoi, we went to Dalat, a mountainside resort town. My oldest daughter and her friend are experienced alpinists and enjoyed an easy hike up Lang Bian Mountain, the highest peak in the area. We then drove four hours down to Nha Trang to pick up our boat.

. . . AND BY SEA: The sailing itinerary took us up the coast as far as Whale Island. We also anchored at the very elegant White Sands Resort on Doc Let beach.

SAILING AWAY: The government restricts sailing along the coastline, and we could not find piers on which to tie up. It was always anchorages or moorings, even at home base. We saw only one other sailboat the whole week. Equally surprising were the incredibly luxurious five-star hotels. We sailed past the Six Senses Hideaway Ninh Van Bay, for example, a sanctuary for the very affluent (about $600 a night and up) and accessible only by boat.

SHORE DINING: Eating ashore could be a bit challenging. Among the many small villages lining the coast, few have restaurants. We had to seek out specific locations where we knew we could anchor and take the dinghy ashore, often getting wet in the surf. Sometimes, though, that pre-dinner splash was welcomed, since it could be real hot.

MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: At a peaceful anchor in a cove, we were suddenly surrounded by dozens of fishermen going out to sea. As the sun set, the small boats floated by, their lanterns dancing and the fishermen chanting and tapping the sides of their vessels in a hypnotic rhythm to attract fish.

MOST INTERESTING ATTRACTION: We sailed past a huge shipyard built solely for scrapping commercial vessels. They were in the process of cutting up a supertanker. We watched in amazement as the biggest saw we had ever seen sliced through the ship, creating two halves.

CLEANUP CALL: Unfortunately, the environmental movement is still undeveloped in Vietnam. At sea, plastic bags and other garbage regularly drifted by. And when we snorkeled, it was disappointing to see how much junk was in the water.

LET'S GO SHOPPING: Nha Trang has some nice shops and a market where you can buy hand-woven and handmade items, including objects made of silk. Artwork, clothing, handicrafts, jewelry and especially pearls also are plentiful and always a good buy.

Want to see your own vacation in lights? We'll highlight one report each month. To submit, use the categories above as a guide (use as many as you wish, or add your own; for a list, go to, and send your report to Your Vacation in Lights, Washington Post Travel Section, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; or e-mail vacationinlights@

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