Beach Eats in Nha Trang, Vietnam

Nha Trang Beach Grub-5

There’s something about that first whiff of salty sea air that gets me all giddy.  Then come the maddening slivers of blue and green that you can barely make out through the trees, like a harbinger of pleasure. Just being near the beach, I can practically feel the tension easing out of my shoulders.

At some point in my life, I simply must live by the seaside. Until then, my quick trips to Nha Trang, Vietnam’s premier beach destination will have to suffice.

And even if I can’t always stay at a secluded island retreat like a rock star, at least I know I’ll always be able to eat like one. While I love the beaches of southern Thailand, my beach foodie pick is still Nha Trang, for its great balance between Western comfort food (borscht, anyone?) and local fare.

Nha Trang has basically one very long beach road that winds from the airport some 36kms away through the town proper. With a huge influx of Russians (direct flights from Russia coupled with cheap prices have made Nha Trang the go-to summer destination), shops display signs in English and Russian followed by Japanese and Korean. Steakhouses vie for space alongside trendy eateries and sailing clubs set right on the beach. But for me, nothing says beach like seafood.
Seafood Shack

On my last trip, I headed 20kms past the town on my way to Ninh Van Bay, past lobster farms and fishing boats plying the coast. On my way back, I stopped by one of the roadside stalls selling live seafood seemingly in the middle of nowhere and picked up a few kilograms of crab. I pretended to nod wisely as I listened to the back-and-forth between the cheery seller and my motorcycle driver about when during the month the crabs were supposedly the meatiest. I dutifully pressed the underbelly to test the firmness, like I knew what I was doing, and in the end, left with a bag full of crab as a peace offering for the friends I left behind in somewhat less posh accommodations. (Don’t worry, I made sure to send them real-time photos of me lounging by my plunge pool and swinging in the love seat suspended in my huge spa bathroom.)

Tonight, we were headed to Muoi Do (6 Pham Van Dong), one of the dozens of cook-to-order seafood restaurants that line the main street just north of town beyond the Tran Phu bridge.
Muoi Do

Towards the back of the restaurant, tanks and basins are filled with all manner of clams, crab, shrimp, sea urchins and lobsters, ready for the picking. The seafood is weighed on the spot and you let the staff know how you want it cooked. I’ve heard rumors across Asia of unscrupulous restaurants going through the motions of letting customers pick out the best seafood, only for it to be substituted for lesser quality or even dead animals in the kitchen. Unfortunately, there’s no real foolproof countermeasure, other than standing there the whole time watching them cook which is no fun for anyone.

Some locals will be able to tell just by the taste, but for tourists, that’s probably not the case, especially with all the other flavors mixed in. Your best bet is to eat with locals or at least choose a restaurant that gets a lot of local traffic.
Squid and Clams

The Vietnamese have a million ways of cooking seafood and we were happy to work our way through each one. There’s the popular “steamed in beer” (hap bia) with the only accompaniment being a bit of lemon squeezed into a dish of salt and pepper and stirred into a simple paste, totally unadorned, designed to bring out the sweetness of the seafood. You can also get seafood steamed in coconut juice. Some dishes, especially clams, are grilled and served with a topping of scallion oil and peanuts. And there’s always the ubiquitous dipping sauce made of fish sauce, sugar, some type of acid (lime or vinegar) and chili to be had.

My second favorite seafood meal of all time has got to be crispy fried soft-shell crabs, wrapped up in a lettuce leaf with some crunchy vegetables and dipped in fish sauce. I’m strangely allergic to seafood roe (not the flesh, just the roe) but this is one meal I’m always happy to pop a couple of preemptory Benadryl for.
Nha Trang Beach Grub-21

But my all-time favorite is definitely wok-fried crab in tamarind sauce which has me licking the tangy sweet and sour sauce right off the shells when all is said and done. This is the original finger-lickin’-good. I handed over my prized bag of roadside crab to the kitchen staff who were happy to cook them up for a couple of dollars.

We ate like kings that night, with endless plates of grilled squid, clams and crab alongside a few bottles of local beer for about USD 10 per person. Maybe that’s why the restaurant is called Muoi Do (literally “Ten dollars”)?
Nha Trang Beach Grub-11
However, man cannot live on seafood alone (although I’d sure love to try!). Fortunately, the region is also known for nem nuong Ninh Hoa, a happy twist on the grilled pork kebab. Made from seasoned ground pork, skewered and grilled, this region’s variation of grilled minced meat is served smoking hot from the grill along with an assortment of condiments all meant to be wrapped up in rice paper. (You’ll see variations of grilled meat everywhere in Vietnam, but usually served with noodles, not rolled up, like a burrito.)
Nha Trang Beach Grub-12
Vietnamese food is all about texture and flavors and this dish hits all the right spots, with slivers of green mango and pickled vegetables providing the crunch, the unique cigars of deep-fried rice paper adding some crisp, and the tangy sweet vibrantly orange dipping sauce, made from ground glutinous rice, carrots, tomato and pineapple. Portions are cheap, starting at VND 30,000 or about $1.50. We tried the best-known restaurant for this regional specialty, Nem Nuong Ninh Hoa Dang Van Quyen (16A Lãn Ông Street near Đầm Market) and did not leave disappointed, or hungry.
Banh Xeo
Another regional mid-afternoon snack is the sizzling pancake, aka banh xeo. Served throughout the south of Vietnam, Nha Trang’s version are tiny in comparison, just the size of your hand, filled with a bit of pork and shrimp. Wrapped whole in a lettuce leaf with some sprouts and herbs, they’re the perfect two-bite snack. I stumbled onto a streetside stall while walking the back streets of Nha Trang and honestly did not intend to spoil my dinner. But at less than 20 cents each, it was impossible not to order 6 for a dollar.
Beach eats
I won’t even begin to go into all the snack foods that tend to find you while you’re lazing around on the beach. Vendors bring by everything from squid and lobsters (grilled right there on a brazier) to fresh pineapple and mango, meaning all you have to do is relax.
Nha Trang Beach Grub-3

What’s your favorite thing to eat when at the beach?

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8 thoughts on “Beach Eats in Nha Trang, Vietnam

    1. James Post author

      Have a great time, Dyanne! I am so due for another beach vacay… Yes, love the cheesiness of the mud baths! Upcoming post for sure (spoiler alert: unflattering pics included). This post was also supposed to include activities, but somehow the food took over (like always!) FedEx me some tamarind crab, please!

      Reply
  1. Mike Montross

    Like you, we look forward to the time we can live right along the beach… Until then we enjoy “getaways” to San Francisco and order fresh clam chowder in a bread bowl. Yum. Just a little farther north for us is Bodega Bay – where the movie “Birds” was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. But, it’s a beautiful beach to just lay out on a blanket and rest. Bring some lemonade from home and enjoy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with the grandchildren. Or, travel to Sausalito – there’s a place called “FISH” and have a crab roll….it’s $25. a piece, but our kids go wild for one! So many things to choose from…

    Reply
    1. James Post author

      Yummm. Crab roll sounds delish. I just went to a “secret supper club” where one of the dishes was a crab cake. I haven’t had one of those in YEARS. You’re lucky to live in California, though, where you can travel to so many nice beaches!

      Reply
    1. James Post author

      You definitely should! They do have cook-to-order seafood restaurants here in Saigon but it’s a way different vibe when you’re eating it at the beach with a few cold beers to knock back. Sweet!

      Reply
  2. Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)

    Unfortunately we didn’t get to visit Nha Trang during our time in Vietnam; we had to choose between it and Mui Ne and decided on Mui Ne because we wanted to see the sand dunes. I don’t regret the choice because we enjoyed our time in MN, but it sounds like the dining scene in Nha Trang is not something to be overlooked! We had some pretty amazing tamarind crab while in Mui Ne, right off the beach just as you did and it was divine (though we are so awful at eating crab that I think we might have preferred the specially prepared order of tamarind squid we had the cook whip up for us as well!). Nothing like dining with a view of the South China Sea!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..The Ultimate Taiwan Bubble Tea ChallengeMy Profile

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    1. James Post author

      Mui Ne is nice, too. I was there not too long ago. Totally different vibe, very laid back, almost reminds me of some of the smaller beach towns in Thailand, with literally one main road that winds through the place. Nha Trang is totally different. It’s definitely a bigger city but still has a great city beach and some smaller off islands for those in search of clearer, bluer water. Sophie’s choice!

      Reply

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