Budget tourists rave about Jungle Beach. Run by a Canadian expat, the place is eco-friendly, basic living at beachside. Jungle Beach -- a quiet, rustic homestay -- is located 60km (37 miles) north of Nha Trang by road. There are three rooms in a longhouse and nine basic cabanas made of bamboo catay and thatch (lots of guests even sleep out in the hotel looking up at the open sky -- under a mosquito net, of course). This is for folks who like living close to the land -- real close to the land -- in a low-luxe alternative to the more comfortable Whale Island . Rooms have shared bathrooms. Food, included in the affordable rate, is home-cooked and all you can eat (though not drink; you have to pay for your own booze). They offer trekking trips right from the cabana site, or you can just hang out in a hammock or on the beach. Rooms, including meals, are 250,000 VND per day/night. Contact them by phone at tel. 058/362-2384 (mobile phone tel. 091/429-144) or e-mail Syl at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make a reservation and they can help you get to the beach. On your own, expect to pay about 300,000 VND by car from Nha Trang (100,000 VND by motorbike). You can also ask tourist or local buses from Hoi An or Nha Trang to drop you off at Doc Let, and from there get a ride with a motorbike taxi driver for just 50,000 VND.
If you ever wanted to be a castaway on a little coconut island, here's your chance. Thanks to great roads, Whale Island is just a few hours' drive north from Nha Trang and a 10-minute boat ride offshore. Set in the crook of a long peninsula, not far from the easternmost point in Vietnam, Whale Island is surrounded by tranquil waters year-round, and but for a few small fishing villages, you have the place to yourself. The island has just one all-inclusive resort (tel. 058/384-0501; fax 058/393-9031; www.iledelabaleine.com), the brainchild of a longtime French expatriate and his Vietnamese wife who've been attracting their own small contingent of mostly expatriate clientele for some 7 years now. (With 32 units, rates are $39 double and $57 suite; meals are $22 per person.) The idea is to get away from it all, and to frolic on the beach or explore the underwater life on good scuba trips sponsored by the island's exclusive operator, Rainbow Divers. You can also take good hikes around the island, and there are sailboats and canoes for rent.
Word has it that Whale Island was the auspicious site where scuba co-inventor and famous aquanaut Jacques Cousteau, while on assignment as part of a scientific mapping expedition, witnessed pearl divers staying underwater for what seemed an eternity and saw that they were using tubes from the surface. This experience inspired him to create, along with a team of scientists and engineers, the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus system that we rely on now. Maybe you'll find your own inspirations on Whale Island.
Leaving Nha Trang early in the morning on one of the resort's shuttles (included in the package), the road north takes you through some scenic areas, along low-lying rice lands spotted with Chinese tombs and white egrets flying overhead. Near the coast, pass by miles and miles of fish farms and rows of rickety stilt houses lining salt flats. As the road approaches the end of the peninsula adjacent to Whale Island, you pass along a spit of high windswept dunes and a high beach buffeted by massive crashing waves -- very dynamic.
The short ferry ride to the resort is covered in a zippy oversize runabout (the same boat they use for diving), and there's a speedboat on hand for emergencies. The resort area is just a thin strip of bungalows along a narrow beach. Rooms are simple, rustic affairs, with no air-conditioning but with 24-hour power for fans and good mosquito nets for nighttime. Bathrooms are small guesthouse affairs but clean. All rooms have small balconies and little garden areas out front. There is also a small area farther back from the sea with one dorm unit and a few cozy, quiet units. A stay at Whale Island is about getting out into nature, and the rustic accommodations are part of that.
Dining is in a cozy little open-air area overlooking the tranquil bay. In the midst of a small community here, you're sure to meet your neighbors, and guests normally share meals, all from a set menu of delicious local fare -- heavy on the good fish dishes. Drinks at the bar afterward or in all-night billiard matches in the enclosed library area can cement those friendships for a lifetime.
Diving is shallow coral diving, and visibility is not spectacular but comparable to areas off of Nha Trang. The area has been ravaged by dynamite fishermen, but isolated dive sites, most near Hon Mun Island, mean you won't be crowded by big groups, and there are good chances of seeing big fish, sting rays, and even whale sharks in the right season. Dive season is from November to February.
The nearby fishing villages are also worth a visit when snorkeling, and there are some great little trails all over the island that lead to secluded beaches, all well marked with signs and paint splotches on the exposed rock areas.
The transfer to the island costs $40, which is taken off your rack rates if you arrive with your own wheels. In addition to the numbers listed above, you may contact the main office on the mainland (2 Me Le Linh St.; tel. 058/381-1607; fax 058/351-3873). The resort takes MasterCard and Visa.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.