Top 10 Beaches of Our Sabbatical

We wrote this list while lounging around on the beach in Zanzibar, just to make you hate us. The criteria are totally subjective and not documented anywhere, but involve some combination of most beautiful setting, best food, best amenities, and best overall vibe.

In order from most to least amazing:

  1. Mandrem, Goa, India – we spent a week on Mandrem being beach bums at the end of our stay in India.
  2. Nai Yang, Phuket, Thailand – Nai Yang was so beautiful we had to go twice, first at the beginning of our Southeast Asia jaunt in January, and then for a long weekend trip with Seema and Mark in April.
  3. Galu Beach, Mombasa, Kenya – an extremely laid-back spot to kite surf – or not – and enjoy beautiful water and endless soft sand.
  4. Long Beach, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam – we spent four nights on Long Beach in February, before we started our volunteer assignments in Thailand, and we ate chili lemongrass shrimp every day.
  5. Khlong Nin, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we spent four nights at Khlong Nin beach on Ko Lanta in January, directly after our stay in Phuket. It was a beautiful setting, but not quite as amazing an overall package as Nai Yang.
  6. Kendwa, Zanzibar, Tanzania – it wasn’t easy to get there on foot from Nungwi, but it was worth the trek, as it offered a beautiful stretch of relatively-secluded beach.
  7. Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania – we spent four nights on Nungwi, in a hotel room with an incredible ocean view. Unfortunately there isn’t much beach to speak of at low tide, but Kendwa and East Nungwi, nearby, offer good swimming opportunities.
  8. Khlong Dao, Ko Lanta, Thailand – we finished up our January visit to Ko Lanta with two nights at Khlong Dao, which was nice but not as secluded or as pretty as Khlong Nin. We did find one of my favorite Thai restaurants in the world at Khlong Dao – Thai Is-San.
  9. Nha Trang, Vietnam – the beach was not as nice as we remembered it from our first visit in 2007, but the tropical fruits are still the best I’ve ever tasted.
  10. Matemwe, Zanzibar, Tanzania – fascinating tidal flat landscape at low tide, pretty (but skinny) stretch of beach at high tide. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a place to stay, but it’s certainly worth a day trip.

If it makes you hate us any less, our tans will most certainly have faded by the time we arrive back in Seattle on September 22, and we do not have any more beach time scheduled between now and then.

Rose Apple

Lauren and I first had a rose apple in the Mekong Delta on our 2007 trip to Vietnam. We didn’t encounter them again until our return to Nha Trang, where we had one on our hotel room fruit plate. I was excited to revisit the refreshing crunchy, watery taste and took a bite (the Vietnamese eat them in very much the same way we eat regular apples). I was happily enjoying my first bite until I looked down at the inside of the rose apple – there were little white worms inside! Ick! I spit out that first bite and had a hard time looking at a rose apple for a few weeks afterwards. Lauren’s response: “What’s worse than finding a worm in your rose apple?” I was still a bit in shock from the worm and replied “what?” To which she excitedly quoted her father: “Finding half a worm!”

By the time we got back to Thailand my stomach had steadied again at the sight of rose apples. At Doi Suthep we introduced one of our fellow volunteers to rose apples, conveniently pre-chopped up, pre-inspected, and served with chili-sugar dip.

We’ve been eating a lot of rose apples lately, mostly at breakfast time. Our local fruit lady sells rose apples for about $1/kilo, and they provide a nice textural contrast to other fruit in oatmeal or yogurt. Inspired by a tasty local som tam fruit salad we have also used them in salads of our own. I still haven’t fully shaken my Vietnam experience though, so I always chop my rose apples up carefully into small cubes to make sure they don’t contain any unexpected protein sources.

Mark trying his first rose apple
Mark trying his first rose apple in Chiang Mai

Rose apples
Rose apples

Cut rose apple
The first slice: no worms!

Breakfast
Breakfast

So Long and Thanks for All the Fish Sauce

After two very pleasant weeks in Vietnam, we head to Cambodia tomorrow.

In no particular order, here are the top five things from Vietnam that I wish I could take with me:

  1. An endless supply of dragon fruit, mangoes, rambutan, and pineapples. The fruit in Nha Trang may still be the best I have ever eaten.
  2. Squeaky sand from Phu Quoc
  3. Nem cua be on the streets in Hanoi (delicious crab spring rolls)
  4. Gordon the Gecko, who was kind enough to share his living space with us at Mai House Resort in Phu Quoc
  5. Chili lemongrass shrimp, especially the rendition at Sea Star

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Our insect-control system on Phu Quoc

Romy’s Ice Cream and Coffee Bar

Rating:

We’ve been on the road for 3.5 weeks now and I have yet to find decent-looking ice cream. To be fair, there’s a Fanny’s in Hanoi, but the one day we were nearby we were hankering for a pear tart instead.

Our first night in Nha Trang, we stopped at Romy’s and checked out their ice cream case. Good visuals, so we had a sample of passion fruit and coconut. Both tastes were good, and we walked out with a scoop of coconut. It was very creamy, with fresh coconut and not too much sugar.

Ice cream case
Ice cream on display, just how I like it

Romy’s is named after the owner, Fridtjof Rommeley, a German chef who moved to Nha Trang after running a creamery in Germany for 16 years. He’s done a good job of bringing European skill to local flavors. There were amazing-looking sundaes filled with local tropical fruits and three scoops of ice cream. As we ate kilos of fruit on the beach, the most we indulged at Romy’s was a double scoop of mango and chocolate:

Enjoying a double scoop of mango and chocolate

Over the course of our five nights in Nha Trang we managed to at least get a free sample of just about every flavor in the case. My favorite two standouts were almond (I’d never had almond ice cream before but I’m definitely making some with almond milk when we’ve back in Seattle), and coconut. Make Romy’s a part of your Vietnam beach experience, the ice cream will make you happy. :)

Romy’s Ice Cream and Coffee Bar
1C Biet Thu St
Nha Trang, Vietnam
+84 (058) 3527-677

Daily: 9AM-11PM

Nha Trang

Lauren and I first visited Nha Trang on our 2007 trip to Vietnam. We had fabulous memories of the expansive beach, and the amazing service by Vietnamese ladies that would carve up fresh fruit or cook fresh seafood right in front of our beach loungers.

On our arrival, many things were familiar, including the beach-side boardwalk and gardens, and the great lounge area near the Sailing Club. However, some things had changed. There were a few new monstrosities under construction, but our biggest shock was how many hawkers assailed us at every turn. Whereas two years ago the beach-side vendors were fairly sparse, this time there was a non-stop stream passing through the beach (and in town). They haven’t changed their sales approach — instead of describing why you might want something they would simply command “you buy!”  This refrain gets quite tedious after a few days.

That said, there were definitely times that the vendors were very convenient, like when we had a hankering for grilled lobster and fresh pineapple while in the middle of a Scrabble game on the beach. And at least at the Sailing Club section of the beach, while you could hear the hawkers, they did (mostly) refrain from approaching your lounger unless invited.

The water in Nha Trang is a bit cold, and there’s a big drop off about 10 meters off shore, so swimming is mixed. It’s a great place to lounge about though, and the tropical fruit available at Nha Trang remains amazing, among the best I’ve ever had. We have spent the past five days gorging on kilos of rambutan, mangoes, dragon fruit, pineapple, passion fruit, bananas, oranges, and more. We also enjoyed some activities in town, including a fabulous cooking class and multiple trips to the local gym.

Here are some highlights, Flickr has the full Nha Trang photo set.

Fruit plate
Our day always began with a stop at the market to acquire our daily fruit plate

Lauren relaxing
Our lounge area at the Sailing Club

beach-side lobsters
Beachfront barbeque of fresh lobsters – cheap and delicious!

beach-side fruit
When we ran out of fruit from our morning stop at the market, there was always a vendor ready to carve up more tastiness for us

No peddling
The signage was only partially effective

Nha Trang
Northern half of Nha Trang

Rambutan

My husband calls dragon fruit the “king of fruits.” They say mangosteen is the queen. Therefore I say rambutan is their alien love child. These bright red fruits have weird alien-like tendrils on the outside, and beautiful lychee flesh inside. The flesh-to-pit ratio is higher than with longans. Rambutans are called “chom chom” in Vietnamese, and the Vietnam Airlines magazine says:

Popular all over the South, rambutans are associated with luck and the sun due to their bright red color. They are said to give people strength.

No wonder I love them so much. I am eating as many of them as I can here in Nha Trang, so I assume I’ll have huge muscles and win the lottery within a few days.

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The bright red rambutans we’ve found here in Nha Trang are better than the ones we had in Thailand and Laos

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Delicious lychee flesh

Dragon Fruit

Lauren and I were first exposed to dragon fruit during our 2007 trip to Vietnam. The fluorescent pink alien-looking fruits were an instant curiosity for us at the local markets. While scary on the outside, they are remarkably easy to eat. The leathery looking skin is quite soft, and once cut open you can eat all of the innards. The flesh is usually white, though sometimes bright red, and contains little black edible seeds like a kiwi. The taste is very clean and slightly sweet, with the seeds adding a nutty overtone. And as we learned in our cooking class, the best dragon fruit have the spikes poking straight out and bright skin.

Early on, one of our guesthouse proprietors wisely advised us to eat them chilled, and since then we’ve been hooked. Chilling a dragon fruit helps bring out its natural flavors, and is extra refreshing on the beach.

We have used dragon fruit as travel food (they don’t bruise and all you need is our handy spork for eating), in fruit shakes, and to anchor fruit plates. Variations we’ve enjoyed are eating them raw with a little lime juice, and mixing them with pineapple or mango in a fruit shake. Some may consider durian the “king of tropical fruits”, but in my mind the award goes to dragon fruit.

Dragon fruit at the local market
A basketful of dragon fruit

Lauren and her dragon fruit
Lauren showing off the dragon fruit we packed for our Phuket to Lanta boat trip

Enjoying a dragon fruit shake
Enjoying a dragon fruit shake in Luang Prabang

Passion Fruit

I’ve had passion fruit numerous times in juice form, and occasionally in ice cream. But it was only when we were in Cambodia a few years ago that I had a passion fruit in the flesh. I hadn’t seen one again until our return to southeast Asia. They are all over Nha Trang and we’ve averaged about one a day. The more wrinkled they are on the surface, the riper and sweeter the innards (though still quite tart). Inside, they are almost entirely fluorescent yellow juice, with small edible black seeds. Bring along a spoon.

Passion fruit

Kenny enjoying a passion fruit

Crazy Kim’s Gym

We’ve been doing our best to keep in shape while on the road, and our running shoes, yoga mats, and Aqua Bells have helped immensely with that. But sometimes nothing beats a good gym workout.

During our last trip to Nha Trang, back in December 2007, Kenny and I stumbled upon Crazy Kim’s Gym. Almost two weeks into our Vietnam/Cambodia tour without a single workout, Crazy Kim’s was a godsend.

With five nights in Nha Trang this time around, we opted for the three-visit punch card at Crazy Kim’s. At 150,000 VND (~$8), it’s a fantastic deal. The gym itself is small, but it has everything we need: a few treadmills, bicycles, various free weights, and a few weight machines. There are even aerobics and belly dancing classes a few days a week. We joined for an aerobics class this afternoon, and it was quite a workout! The instructor didn’t speak much English, but she used helpful claps to let us know when to switch exercises, and we did our best to follow along.

It turns out that the owner of Crazy Kim’s Gym (as well as the restaurant, bar and spa of the same name), Kimmy Le, is a Canadian-Vietnamese woman who donates a portion of her profits to combat pedophilia here in southern Vietnam. So when we work out at Crazy Kim’s, we not only burn calories, we burn them for a cause.

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Star Apple

Our first hotel in Nha Trang gave us a complimentary plate of tropical fruit every morning. This is one of the best things to include in a room for Kenny and Lauren, especially for a hotel that doesn’t serve breakfast. The first day, we recognized the rose apples and the mango, but the round green fruit was new to us. We cut it open and the inside was a little custardy, though not very good. We donated the second one to the Buddha shrine downstairs.

Tropical fruit plate

Later I was reading the Lonely Planet’s section on Vietnamese tropical fruits and realized that this was a star apple (they can also be purple or red). Today on our cooking class market tour, we saw a bunch of star apples and told Lam that we didn’t like it. She told us that Vietnamese love them, and bought some more for us to try. Turns out we had again tried a bad sample as our first fruit, and this star apple was much better. it was a little creamy but not mushy like the first one. It was a little reminiscent of a sugar apple, but not nearly as sweet and much easier to eat.

Star apple
When you slice open a star apple, you can see the seed pattern that inspires its name