Getting Scuba Certified in Nha Trang, Vietnam

All the bus company posters for Nha Trang show pictures of people snorkeling and scuba diving, so we knew it was the place in Vietnam to get scuba certified. Someone had recommended we do our Open Water Diver certification in Vietnam because it would be cheaper. Eric did some research and found a reputable company in Nha Trang, Rainbow Divers, so we plowed ahead. Jess was not so sure about scuba diving. She gets a little anxious in enclosed spaces she is not sure she can leave (although you would not know it from the number of mines, tunnels, and caves we have explored this year). Even though the ocean is not exactly an enclosed space, she was a little concerned about the idea of not just being able to ascend if she wanted to, but she agreed to give it a try. 

As a result we found ourselves getting off a night bus at 4:30am on a street corner in Nha Trang. We were greeted by a swarm of taxi drivers asking where we were going, but we waved them away and walked to our hostel. It was, after all, 4:30 in the morning so we were not in any rush. As we got closer to our hostel, we realized it was early enough to watch the sun rise so we decided to go to the beach.

Nha Trang Beach at 5:14am

Even at this hour, the beach was full of people! There was music blaring for an exercise class happening in front of the beach. And on the beach there were tons of Vietnamese doing their morning stretches before going for their morning swim. They each had their own routine, but many of them involved similar elements. They all finished by strapping on a floaty belt and walking into the ocean. When they got out, they had laundry detergent jugs full of fresh water to use as a portable shower. We sat there for a while watching this scene and munching on an unusual rice paper snack that tasted sort of like we were eating plastic until it melted. It was too cloudy to see the sun actually rise, but we stayed until it got light and then walked to our hostel. Even with all that beach time it was still too early to check in, so we dropped our bags and went out sightseeing. 

5:53am: The sun has risen, and there are still tons of people swimming!

Our sightseeing tour was punctuated by visits to houses of worship We started by visiting the Cathedral of Christ the King which was built in 1928 in a Gothic Revival style. It is a beautiful stone church with lots of stained glass windows. The entrance ticket is đ20,000 ($0.86) for one person but đ15,000 each ($0.65) for two people. This is the only place we have seen this pricing scheme. Afterwards, we walked to the Long Sơn Pagoda, a Buddhist temple, which was built in its current location after a cyclone destroyed the original temple in 1900. It is free to enter. The temple was again destroyed during the Vietnam War and has only recently been fully restored. 152 steps above the Long Sơn Pagoda is the Hải Đức Pagoda which has a 46-foot statue of Gautama Buddha. From here you can see beautiful views of Nha Trang city.

View of Nha Trang from Hải Đức

After visiting the Buddhist pagodas, we took a Grab to the Tháp Bà Ponagar temple of the Cham people believed to have been built between the 7th and 12th centuries. The Cham people were originally Hindu and built the temple in honor of the goddess Po Nagar, “mother of the country”. Po Nagar has come to be identified by later researchers as Hindu goddesses Durga and Bhagavati. The Cham people are known for using building techniques that include brickwork without any mortar or adhesive, but how they were able to build this way remains a mystery. Tháp Bà Ponagar is located on the edge of the Cai River, in northern Nha Trang, and costs đ22,000 ($0.95) per person to visit. 

View of the Cai River

There were lots of beautiful fishing boats in the river. We wandered over to the mouth of the river and then walked back into town along the beach. When we got back we were finally able to check-in! We got into our room, finished off our diving e-learning homework, took our final exam, and then took a well-needed nap.

Later that evening, we had to swing by Rainbow Divers to do some paperwork. One of the forms was a medical questionnaire which had a long list of questions about possible medical issues that could impact you on a dive. While Eric quickly wrote “no” next to every question including whether he had allergies which he definitely has, Jess wondered if she should put “yes” next to history of fainting or blackouts and history of frequent and severe motion sickness. If you write yes, you are required to consult with a doctor before doing the course. Eric suspected Jess was just looking for a way out, and besides, we were not really sure what a doctor was going to tell us about one fainting episode eight years ago and some carsickness, so we put “no” and moved on. 

The PADI Open Water Diver course is filled with scary warnings about all the bad things that can happen to you under water. If you hold your breath while ascending you might over-inflate your lungs, which can result in death! Never hold your breath when scuba diving! If you stay down too long or ascend too fast, you might accumulate too much nitrogen in your body, which can result in death! If you run out of air and have to make an emergency ascent, you can get both too much nitrogen bubbling from your body and over-inflate your lungs. So in an emergency you must rise to the surface, but not too quickly, while expelling any air you do have left so you do not accidentally explode. For Jess who likes to plan for the worst and be pleasantly surprised when things go better, this was quite alarming! The worst included a lot of ways to die! She kept imagining running out of air under water or accidentally forgetting to breathe out while ascending. The PADI course also emphasizes how important it is to be well rested and well fed before scuba diving, but all these warnings ensured Jess could not really do either. 

On day one of our three-day course, we woke up at 7am, had breakfast at our hostel, and walked to Rainbow Divers where we finished off some paperwork. Then we headed to the pool for our first day of practical training. It was raining, so our instructor, Matt, and his assistant, Laurens, showed us how to set up and break down our equipment. They let us stay dry as long as possible and then had us get in the water for our swim test. We had to demonstrate we could swim 200 meters (four lengths of the pool) and stay on the surface (floating, swimming, or treading water) for 10 minutes. We both passed with flying colors so we moved on to the first confined water dive. We put all of our gear in the water: buoyancy control device (BCD), air cylinder with four hose attachments (primary regulator, secondary regulator, low pressure inflator and pressure gauge), and mask with snorkel and jumped into a shallow pool. Eric’s cylinder started making noise as soon as it hit the water – the o-ring in his yoke valve attached to the cylinder was faulty and needed to be replaced. Matt replaced it right away. Once we were in the water we started practicing breathing through the regulator in the water. It is a strange sensation at first, and the air makes your throat very dry.

Soon after that we moved on to some initial skills. Jess is not always the most coordinated person when she is learning a new skill, and with scuba diving certification you have to do these skills underwater which makes it even harder. One of the first skills was filling our masks with water and then clearing them by looking up and blowing out through our noses. Jess filled her mask with water without trouble but then could not manage to clear it. The nose piece of her mask and her eyes were filled with water, but despite trying over and over to get the water out, she could not. Not one to give up, she kept trying, but she was getting more and more panicked, mostly about the water in her nose. Finally Matt suggested she go to the surface and there he explained that for all her trying she was blowing through her mouth not her nose. It turns out even though we breathe through our nose without even thinking about it in normal life, we almost always do it when our mouth is closed. With the regulator in, your mouth is always open, so Jess had to figure out how to breathe through her nose with her mouth open. Once she figured out how to do that, she was able to clear her mask and we could finish the first confined water dive. Jess was definitely still a bit flustered. The mask challenge had confirmed for her that it was possible to encounter something under water she did not know how to do, and it made her more anxious not less. At this point, despite the wet suit, she was cold and thought she might also be hungry, so we decided to take a break for lunch and continue afterwards. We think Matt may have wondered at this point if Jess would make it through the class. In the beginning he had explained that he would work with whomever was closest and Laurens would work with the other person, but we noticed that for the rest of the course, Matt always worked with Jess whether she was closer or not.

Eric had a slightly different problem which was that his mustache did not allow for a good seal between his mask and his lip. He got really good at clearing his mask because there was always water in it! After a whole day of being underwater practicing skills, he was tired of having water in his eyes, so he shaved off his mustache that evening. Not wanting to appear to young without any facial hair, he left just the bottom half of his goatee, which he would later discover is not an internet-sanctioned beard style.

The rest of the confined water dives went fine. We cleared our masks of water many more times, shared air with our buddy, orally inflated our BCDs under water, controlled our buoyancy with our breath and did many other skills. The pool was only two meters deep, so we had to do some of the skills which would normally be done vertically, horizontally. At the end we were scuba diving laps around the pool. There were no fish, but it felt pretty cool. At 4:30pm we were finished with the pool session. When we got back to Rainbow Divers, we decided to head back to the beach to watch the sun set. There were tons of people swimming again.

Sunset at Nha Trang Beach

Nha Trang is a funny place because it has a huge Russian influence. In 1979, Cam Ranh, which is just south of Nha Trang, became Russia’s largest naval base outside of Russia, so the area was well known to Russians. Even though that agreement ended fifteen years ago, Russia has recently invested in other military infrastructure in the area including a resort for military officers. As a result, many Vietnamese in Nha Trang speak a little bit of Russian, and it is not uncommon to be greeted in Russian before English if you look European. While we were there, multiple people came up to Jess and started speaking Russian. The only Russian Jess knows she learned from a Pimsleur introductory lesson ten years ago, but one of the phrases came in very handy: “ya ni puhnimyo parusky” = “I don’t understand Russian”. The first person who stopped her walked away immediately saying “oh, English”. The second person had been asking something about the crepe Jess was buying and when Jess quickly blurted out “I don’t understand Russian”, the woman looked at her funny and said “really?” And then walked away. Jess wishes she had explained “ya Amerikanka”, but it would not have made much difference. On this particular afternoon, after finishing our pool session, we were sitting on the beach when a woman came over and asked the time in Russian. In this case she pointed at her wrist, so Eric was able to show her his watch and Jess did not have to pull out her Russian for the third time. 

The fact that Jess could still remember all the phrases she learned from the Pimsleur Russian course so many years ago inspired her to start using it for Japanese. Since we are planning to spend a month in Japan a little over a month from now, she actually might have time to learn something useful. She found the first set of Pimsleur lessons online at the Boston Public Library and has been diligently practicing 30 minutes a day. So far she can say: “I understand a little Japanese, but I’m not very skilled yet” and she is pretty proud of that. 

On day two of our course, we woke up at 5:50am, walked to Rainbow Divers for breakfast, and then were taken by bus to the harbor for our first ocean dives. There were roughly fifteen other divers with us on the boat and roughly ten instructors. Some people were doing fun dives, some were snorkeling, and three others were doing the same course we were. When you do a dive or snorkel trip with Rainbow Divers they give you a guide so you can explore the best parts of the reef.

Check out Eric’s cool Amish goatee

There was a strong wind and the boat ride was very rough. Eric felt a little bit nauseous, but Jess was fine (evidently if she has motion sickness, it is selective). When we arrived at our first dive site, Madonna Rock, we got suited up, did our pre-dive checks, and then did a giant stride into the water. To descend, you deflate the BCD a little bit until your weight belt counteracts the air in the BCD and you start to sink slowly. The sensation as your head goes from above water to under water is really strange. There is a brief moment where you think, “oh no, I cannot breathe underwater”, but then you can and it is fine. You have to equalize your ears roughly every meter you descend to release pressure. Your ears alert you when it is time to equalize. Jess had to descend very slowly because she could not equalize by blowing gently through her pinched nose. This technique does not work for her on planes either, so she has to swallow. Our first dive was to a maximum depth of 12 meters, and swallowing at least twelve times in a short period of time with a dry throat is pretty challenging.

Now that we were in open water we had to demonstrate the same skills we had practiced the day before in the pool. Matt had some flexibility about which skills we did during which dive and he front loaded them with the goal of having our fourth and final dive for our certification be skill free. In our first dive we had to do a few skills including clearing our mask (Jess’s favorite) and finding and replacing our regulators. These were no problem and then we could go swimming with the fish.

Our first dive was 41 minutes long. We had dive computers, which look like large watches, so we could make sure our nitrogen stayed within appropriate levels based on the time and depth of our dive. Vietnam does not have any big marine life, but we still saw lots of cool things including a bright yellow trumpet fish, lots of blue starfish and long spined sea urchins, and tiny bright blue fish. Jess is pretty jealous that Eric saw this pretty slug and she missed it. There were also these tiny jellyfish things everywhere that Matt assured us did not sting. The water was pretty cloudy, so the visibility was only about five meters. Eric was, at first, disappointed to discover that most of the time the ocean does not look like what you see on Planet Earth. The colors are a lot more muted, the plants and animals are smaller and further away, and everything is kind of hazy. Once he got over his initial disappointment, he was able to enjoy discovering new creatures. At the end of our dive we did our three-minute safety stop, hovering at five meters depth to let some of the absorbed nitrogen leave our bodies.

The PADI course makes a big deal about this safety stop and makes it sounds like you just hang out at five meters waiting for three minutes to be up. In reality, as soon as we crossed shallower than six meters, our dive computers started a three-minute countdown while we swam around the reef at five meters watching the fish. It seemed so much like just another part of the dive that Eric did not even realize we had done it. We then ascended to the surface using our dive computers to ensure we did not go too fast, and then we swam back to the boat.

We came back to the boat for an hour to let our nitrogen levels reduce and eat some fruit, and then we went back out for a second dive, this time at Mama Hanh Beach. As would become a pattern, we did a few skills in the beginning of the dive and then swam with the fish. We dove for 47 minutes to a maximum depth of 12 meters and saw scorpion fish, lion fish and a little pipe fish. While we were diving, Eric tapped Jess on the shoulder, pointed down and then rubbed his arm. He kept doing it over and over, but Jess had no idea what he was trying to say. It looked to her like he was saying he wanted to touch a spiky sea urchin, which is definitely an Eric kind of thing to do, but did not really make sense. Since you can only communicate with hand signals underwater, it can be hard to say something outside the agreed-upon signals. When we were back on the boat, Eric explained he was trying to say he could feel the thermoclime, a layer where the water went from warm to cold. When we got back on the boat we had some lunch and then had a rough ride back to Nha Trang. 

Eric signaling “all good!”

On the boat ride back, Eric met a guy, Ben, from the other certification group. Ben was from South Korea but had spent some time in the US for college and was now living in Hanoi working for his family’s bedding company. While they were talking, Eric mentioned our China visa challenges and Ben said, “don’t go to China, go to South Korea”. He explained that South Korea is very beautiful and has great bike paths that you can use to ride around the whole country. After chatting with Ben for a while, Eric was pretty intrigued. We would not need a visa for South Korea, which would mean no waiting in line and we would not have to pay $140 each for the privilege of entering the country. 

When we got back to the hostel, we started looking at the possibility of going to South Korea. There was still a lot we wanted to see in Vietnam, and ensuring we had at least four business days in Hanoi was eating into our ability to do what we wanted to. Hanoi is a good jumping off point for tours to Halong Bay and Sapa, but we did not think we could leave Hanoi without our passports since we would not be able to check into a hostel without them. That meant we would just be sitting in Hanoi missing out on cool places all so we could maybe go to China, and there was a chance it would not work anyway. If we went to South Korea instead, we could do whatever we wanted in Vietnam and then do whatever we wanted in South Korea. We already had a flight booked from Beijing to Tokyo, so we tried to figure out if we could go to South Korea and then fly to Beijing to catch that flight. Unfortunately, that was more expensive than flying to South Korea and then to Tokyo, so we abandoned our Beijing to Tokyo flight. We had booked it with points, and it was unfortunately not refundable or changeable so we lost those points – lesson learned: book a refundable flight if you are applying for a Chinese visa. 

That evening we had a little more homework to do as we had also signed up for the equipment specialist course. We figured it was worth learning about how the equipment works if you are going to rely on it saving your life under water. 

The next day we got up at 5:50am again and repeated the same process to get out to the dive site. When we had signed up for the course we had been offered a free fifth dive which Matt had agreed to incorporate for us on the third day. This meant we had to be relatively efficient getting in and out of the water. As we were getting ready and doing our pre-dive checks, Jess thought there was something wrong with her BCD. Every other time she had inflated a BCD it would squeeze her ribcage when it was fully inflated. This one did that but let go very quickly afterward. The dive master told her it was the overflow valve, and that seemed plausible, so she jumped in. Our first skills on this dive were surface skills using a compass. We were pretty familiar with a compass from our orienteering game at Izatys, so this was easy. We first had to orient towards a buoy and then use the compass to swim in that direction. Jess went off swimming in the right direction but she was kicking so hard she swam right past the buoy. Someone had to grab her flipper to stop her from swimming across the ocean. When she got back to the buoy she was having to kick a lot to stay afloat and she realized there really was something wrong with her BCD. She and Matt went back to the boat to see if it was a small problem or a big problem and ended up determining it was a big problem and needed to be swapped. There is a saying in diving: “small bubbles, small problem; big bubbles, big problem”.

Jess getting back in the water with replacement BCD

With a replacement BCD, Jess jumped back in and we started our descent to the bottom. We were supposed to do the controlled emergency swimming ascent skill, but another group beat us there, so we went off to see the fish first. We were back at Madonna Rock and we dove down to a maximum depth of 18 meters. We saw clown fish, moorish idols, and lots of pretty parrot fish. The visibility was even worse than yesterday, more like three meters, so it was harder to see the fish until they were close.

Towards the end of our dive we stopped to do our skills. We had to take our masks off completely, put them back on, and clear them. Jess was getting pretty good at this now. We had to orally inflate our BCDs under water enough to hover. This one also required a bit of coordination because we had to take a breath from our regulators, breathe out small bubbles (never hold your breath), and then blow the air into a hose while holding the deflator button down. As soon as you have the air in the hose you have to let go of the deflator button. Jess blew her first breath of air into the wrong side of the hose. She blew her second breath of air into the hose but forgot to let go of the deflator button, so all the air came out again. She got her third breath of air into the hose and luckily she only needed one breath to hover. Meanwhile Laurens was making Eric repeat his under water compass skill because Eric had not realized he was supposed to use the compass to swim back in the opposite direction. When all but the last skill was done we moved onto the Controlled Emergency Swimming Ascent (CESA), the thing of Jess’s nightmares.

The CESA is for depths of nine meters or less where you have run out of air and are too far away from your buddy to use his/her air. You still have to ascend at a slow rate (no faster than 18 meters per minute) even though you do not have any air and you have to say “ahh” the whole time so air is coming out of your lungs and they cannot over-inflate. Jess had been worried she would not be able to say “ahh” for thirty seconds if she did not have any air, so she had been walking around Nha Trang all week practicing it. In reality, it was not that hard. Even going slowly you were at the surface before you knew it, and because the air in your lungs expands, it seems there is always more to expel. If for some reason there really is no air left, you have nothing to worry about because it cannot over-inflate. Back at the surface we were finished with all our certification skills which meant our fourth required dive was just for fun. 

Having fun!

For our fourth dive we were back at Mama Hanh Beach. We dove to a maximum depth of 14 meters. We saw lots of sea cucumbers, and this crazy anemone that had turned itself inside out so it looked like an incredibly shiny blue ball, like this but blue. We also saw something that looked like a jellyfish, or maybe a plastic bag, but we are pretty sure it was a jellyfish because of the way it was pulsing a little bit as it moved. We also came across a part of the reef that had clearly died. Everything was beige here and there were no fish. Matt said the reef did not look like it had been damaged by people, and that this part of the dive site gets hit pretty hard by storms in the rainy season. After 46 minutes, including a three-minute safety stop, we ascended to the surface and went back to the boat for 40 minutes to reduce our nitrogen levels and rest up for our fifth and final dive.Our fifth dive was at Seahorse Bay. Unfortunately, we did not see any seahorses, but we did see a velvet starfish, whip coral, a flower urchin, and some christmas trees worms. Eric saw a pin cushion starfish, and a moray eel hiding in a cave. We dove to a maximum depth of 12 meters and came back to the surface after 40 minutes. We logged a total of three hours and 35 minutes dive time across our first five open water dives. That is 3.5 hours of breathing underwater!

Two brand-newly certified Open Water Divers

Diving is tiring, so we were pretty exhausted when we got back to Nha Trang. We went into the Rainbow Divers office to fill out our diving logs and make our certification official. We had a quiet evening and then a leisurely day the next day before our night bus to Hoi An. We spent most of the morning in a coffee shop and then got a Vietnamese massage from a place that employs blind and visually-impaired people in the afternoon. The massage was no frills, but it was good. As we were getting ready to leave the massage place a funny scene unfolded. A new customer was coming in wearing his shoes, so the manager asked him to take them off and leave them outside. He clearly did not understand because he took off his shoes and put on Eric’s flip flops! Then he tried to enter the place and the manager told him again he could not come in with shoes on. He kept trying to enter and she kept trying to stop him. She tried everything including grabbing the flip flop and tugging on it, and pointing to all the other customers inside without shoes on. It was only when Eric tapped the bottom of his own feet, showing no flip flop, that the guy finally understood he needed to come in barefoot. We mostly thought it was hilarious because he had decided Eric’s flip flops were definitely the shoes for him and could not be convinced to take them off! At 7pm we were at the Sinh Tourist office again ready to board our second Vietnamese night bus.

Where we stayed:

  • Funny House – nice private room with en-suite bathroom on the third floor above a restaurant. Great place with helpful staff.

Where we ate: 

There is delicious food pretty much anywhere you look in Nha Trang, so it is hard to go wrong.

  • Hỗng Đửc on Hùng Vương – This place was recommended to us by Rainbow Divers as a cheap place for local food. We had a beef soup that was thicker than phở.
  • Bún Đậu Bảo Trân on Đống Đa – we stopped into this place because we liked the look of it from the outside. We ordered a very interesting dish called Bò Lá Lốt which came with rice paper, lettuce, noodles and leaf-wrapped beef. We were given a demonstration on how to wet the rice paper and make our own rice paper roll with noodles, lettuce and the leaf-wrapped meat which we then dipped in a sauce the waitress made for us.
  • Mì Quảng Nam 127 on Đống Đa – this place did not look like much of anything from the outside, but it was delicious. Jess saw there was frog soup on the menu and opted for that. It was our first experience eating frog and we really liked it.
Frog soup
  • Chinese place on Nguyễn Thiện Thuật – we walked by this place and noticed it was filled with Asians which is a decent sign it is a good place in Vietnam. We stopped in and were told the menu was only in Chinese! We asked the waiter what his favorite was and ordered that. We received a delicious pork and green pepper stir-fry with steamed rice.
  • Anh Tuần – Bùn Chả Hà Nội on Nguyễn Trung Trực – this place was right across from our hostel and offered a cheap lunch at $1.72 per plate. We ordered the only dish they had, Bùn Chả Hà Nội, and it was pretty good.
  • Rainforest Cafe on Võ Trú – coffee and homemade juice – we hung out here on Friday killing time before our night bus. They make really good homemade juices, and the name was apt, plants everywhere!
  • Funny House on Nguyễn Trung Trực – We had breakfast here three days (included with our room) and dinner one night.
  • Crazy Kim Restaurant – We ate breakfast here twice before diving. It was convenient but probably the least good place on this list.

One Reply to “Getting Scuba Certified in Nha Trang, Vietnam”

  1. Diving sounds exciting and terrifying! You’ll have to see if you can fit some places with more visibility and more animals into the remainder of your trip! I hear South Korea is really nice. I think that sounds like a good plan B!

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