Island hopping in Vietnam: Beaches, retreats, ex-prisons

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Nha Trang began attracting international travelers in the 1990s

Phu Quoc and Con Dao were prison islands during French colonial times and the Vietnam War

CNN  — 

When I fled Vietnam as a child, I never imagined that the islands from which we attempted our escapes would one day become luxurious beach resorts.

But more than 30 years later, that’s exactly what’s happening around Nha Trang, a seaside town where I grew up about 200 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City (once known as Saigon). Nha Trang has become a small hub for island getaways in Vietnam.

If you love finding a tropical destination as much as I do, Vietnam has some beautiful and intriguing offerings in Nha Trang and beyond, including islands that were once used to lock up prisoners.

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The rise of Nha Trang

On the south-central coast of Vietnam, where the temperature is hot year round, Nha Trang has long been a popular vacation spot for locals.

But in the 1990s, when Vietnam opened its doors to the outside world again, Nha Trang began attracting international travelers seeking a beach break between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

Palm tree shaded beaches, striking ancient temples, cheap hotels, fresh seafood grilled right on the beach, mind-numbing booze cruises for just a few bucks and a lively bar scene where locals, expats and tourists happily mingled at oceanfront places such as the Sailing Club made Nha Trang a fun place to party and relax.

The original Cam Ranh International Airport.

After nearly 10 years since my last visit, I returned to Nha Trang last February for Tet, the Lunar New Year holiday. I was overwhelmed by all the changes.

First there was the landing in the reconstructed Cam Ranh International Airport about 20 miles from Nha Trang, a facility built by the Americans during the war as part of a large military base and later also used by the Russian Air Force.

All around me, I heard Chinese and Russian being spoken. Now with reasonably priced direct flights from Moscow and Guangzhou, Nha Trang has become a hot spot for Russians and Chinese looking to escape winter.

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Nha Trang luxury

One of the villas at Six Senses Ninh Van Bay.

Like much of Vietnam, this once laid back city has gone through a hotel-building frenzy with no signs of stopping, including some high-end luxury options. Big chains such as Sheraton and resorts such as Mia and Amanoi are already catering to Nha Trang’s more upscale market.

If budget is not an issue and you want indulgence and seclusion, Six Senses Ninh Van Bay offers villas with private pools, starting at $600 dollars per night.

The resort is not on an island per se, but rather nestled on the remote Ninh Van Bay surrounded by majestic mountains, a 20-minute boat ride from Nha Trang. A spa, tennis, water-skiing, hiking and even cooking classes are available at the resort.

Whale Island

Nha Trang is a vibrant city, but it can get crowded and hectic, especially during the holidays. For unspoiled beaches and peace and quiet, it’s best to hop to a nearby island.

On the more affordable end is Whale Island, an eco-friendly resort with basic amenities just a two-hour boat ride from Nha Trang. I explored the island when it first opened years ago and fondly recall how pristine and stunning it was. The resort has since updated and expanded its facilities but has kept its no parties, no noise, no frills vibe.

There’s an abundance of activities for nature and water sport lovers, including diving, snorkeling, sailing and kayaking.

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Hon Tre Island

If you’re traveling with kids and beaches aren’t enough to keep them entertained, there’s Vinpearl Land on Hon Tre Island. Vietnam’s version of Disney World also has a water park, aquarium and clear, calm beach, all in one place for about $30 dollars admission per person. Just bear in mind this is Vietnam, not Florida. Guests coming in from the mainland can take the ferry or ride a scenic 3-kilometer cable car over the ocean.

Vinpearl has a resort on a separate part of the island complete with a lush 18-hole golf course designed by IMG Worldwide.

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Phu Quoc and Con Dao

A rendering of the JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay, due to open in 2017.

The Nha Trang area isn’t the only option for island hopping in the south. About an hour flight from Saigon, Phu Quoc and Con Dao were both used as prison islands during French colonial times and the Vietnam War. The Phu Quoc Prison museum is worth a visit for those wanting to learn more about the area’s past.

These days, Phu Quoc – situated between the Vietnam mainland and Cambodia – is on some travelers’ lists as the island to visit in Southeast Asia.

Best of all, international tourists flying directly to the island only no longer require a visa. Before Phu Quoc became a tourist destination, its claim to fame was fish sauce.

Produced on the island, it’s considered the best in the world and an essential ingredient in Vietnamese cooking. The island has come a long way since the late 1990s when I first visited and fell in love with the place. Back then, there was no international airport or real hotels, only a few guesthouses.

Six Senses Con Dao's ocean front pool villa.

In fact, 20 years ago, a British expat living in Ho Chi Minh City enjoyed the island so much but couldn’t find adequate accommodation that he and a few partners built some bungalows. Those bungalows became Mango Bay, an unpretentious resort offering rustic villas in a spacious natural setting.

There are plenty of other hotels and resorts to choose from on the island, and big names like the J.W. Marriott are currently under construction.

Located on the south coast, JW Marriott Phu Quoc Emerald Bay was designed by legendary resort architect Bill Bensley and is due to open in late 2017.

The small island of Con Dao, while developing nowhere near the pace of Phu Quoc, may be the next frontier for Vietnam island hoppers charmed by the idea of exploring a beautiful place before the rest of the world moves in.

Diving here is said to be the best in Vietnam.

There’s no international airport and accommodation is limited, with a Six Senses property and the newly opened Poulo Condor Resort on the more luxury end. These islands, much like Vietnam’s history, are a story of rebirth and reinvention, highlighting its ability to rebound from the dust of war.

In the end, natural beauty prevails.

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The resorts

Sheraton Nha Trang Hotel & Spa, 26-28 Tran Phu Street, Nha Trang, +84 (0)58 3880 000

Mia Resort Nha Trang, 3 Khuc Thua Du, Phuong Phuoc Long, Nha Trang, +84 (0) 583 989 666

Amanoi, Vinh Hy Village, Vinh Hai Commune,Ninh Hai, +84 (0)68 3770 777

Six Senses Ninh Van Bay, Ninh Van, Ninh Hoa, +84 (0)58 3728 222

Whale Island Resort, Dam Mon, Van Thanh, Van Ninh, Khanh Hoa, +84 (0)58 3707 118

Mango Bay Resort, Cua Duơng, Phu Quoc, Kien Giang, +84 (0)77 3981 693

Six Senses Con Dao, Dat Doc Beach, Con Dao Dist, Con Son, +84 (0)64 3831 222

Poulo Condor Resort and Spa, Con Son, +84 (0)8 3822 3625