Located on the south central coast of Vietnam, Cam Ranh Bay is one of the finest deep-water harbours in the world. The bay has been touted as the next big tourist thing for years now, and it’s not difficult to see why: there are miles upon miles of stunning and largely unspoilt coast. Despite this beauty, and its proximity to Nha Trang, most travellers pass it by, zipping through Cam Ranh International Airport (CXR) on their way to the big smoke further north.
While the city still has very little tourist infrastructure, Cam Ranh however will appeal to intrepid travellers who love beaches and aren’t afraid of independent exploration. There are adequate (though by no means fancy) hotels in town and, like Nha Trang to the north, Cam Ranh benefits from a long dry season, lasting from around February to September. The rainy season is short, from October until January. Though this usually just means a short afternoon downpour, there is risk of typhoon. Run-off from the rains will also turn the typically blue waters murky.
Cam Ranh Bay has a long history of military use – it was one of the US military’s largest bases during the Vietnam War. When the US packed their bags and went home, the Soviets moved in and adopted the facilities until their presence was scaled back and the Russian base was eventually closed in 2002. Today it’s controlled by the Vietnamese military and it remains one of the most important strategic bays in Asia, which has countries enviously jockeying for position in a complicated tug of war between Russia, China, the United States, Japan and other Southeast Asian countries. Disputes over the “South China Sea” flare up every so often and in 2015, US officials weren’t so happy when Vietnam struck a deal with Russia to use Cam Ranh Bay to refuel Russian nuclear-capable bombers that were conducting “provocative” flights near an American air base in Guam.
All this talk of hot political waters is a sharp contrast to what travellers will experience if they take the time to explore Cam Ranh. After the war, the bay shifted back to a simpler existence and you’ll see that the waters near the city have mostly been taken over by small-scale seafood farms and fishing boats. The city itself is not very attractive — but venture north or south along the coast and prepare to be dazzled.
As a daytrip from Cam Ranh city, you can experience beach after beach seemingly plucked from a castaway island: blue jewel-like waters, soft white sand, and most completely empty, except for a lone fishing boat or two. The natural beauty is overwhelming and you’ll pinch yourself in order to believe that you really have this paradise to yourself.
For a few dollars, you can plop yourself on the manicured sand of Ngoc Suong Yen Bay Resort for the day, or continue south to discover Binh Tien beach and other wild jaw-dropping beaches that dot the coast south of Cam Ranh Bay – you can stop at anyone of them. The Vinh Hy-Binh Tien pass is one of the prettiest coastal roads we have ever journeyed on in Southeast Asia. Although the pass is technically in Ninh Tuan province, Cam Ranh is an excellent base for enjoying this scenic route. The 17 kilometre road snakes along the water with the glittering ocean and the dry rocky forest of Nui Chua National Park always in view. Not only is the road virtually free of traffic, there are plenty of well-situated viewpoints you can easily pull into for photos. Right in the middle of the route is the wharf to Binh Hung, a small island just off the coast inhabited by a tiny fishing village. The island is rarely visited by foreign tourists. Treat yourself to some fresh seafood on a floating restaurant and hire a boat for an unforgettable trip around its rugged coast.
There are a few obstacles. As mentioned before, there is little tourist infrastructure or facilities and no English spoken. The accommodation is local and basic. There’s no public transport to the beach. The best way to get around is on motorbike or hire a driver for the day like we did. You’ll need some charades, and writing things down in advance helps (doable since the Vietnamese language uses the Roman alphabet). And quite frustratingly, most locals don’t know where the beaches are or assume that no tourist would ever want to visit them. In fact, they’ll think it’s ridiculous that you want a “nothing” beach without shops or restaurants. Ask, “Where’s the beach?” and they’ll point you to Nha Trang!
Cam Ranh doesn’t have a lively food scene but you’ll find enough good local eats to satisfy for a few days. A few shops from the bus depot is Pho Tuan at 222 Duong 22/8, serving up delicious bowls of pho for 25,000 VND. Directly across the roundabout, in front of the large mobile phone shop, you can try Cam Ranh specialty banh canh, thick rice noodles with fish cake and broth for 15,000 VND.
On side street Huynh Thuc Khang, close to Hoang Nhat and Hoang Pho Hotel, you’ll find a few more places to eat. Get a big plate of chicken, rice and veg at Hai Com Ga, 37A Huynh Thuc Khang. A block further down the same street, try fish hotpot at Quan Chi Dau (best for two or more people).
Cau Moi was highly recommended by several locals as the best place for seafood and it does not disappoint. It’s fresh and cheaper than similar restaurants in Nha Trang, starting at only 120,000 VND per kilo. Clams, mussels, squid, prawns – point to what creatures you want from the tanks and buckets, verify the price per kilo on the list (or ask them to show you on a calculator), order how much you want, watch them weigh it in front of you and tell them how you’d like it prepared. We also recommend you try the delectable corn stir-fried with bits of prawn. It’s beside a bridge on a lagoon 11 kilometres north of the airport – it’s well worth the stop if you’re on your way to Nha Trang or Bai Dai beach and even worth the drive just for the meal. From the airport, head north on Nguyen Tat Thanh for eight kilometres (if you pass Cam Ranh Riviera Resort you’ve gone too far). Turn left at Dinh Tien Hoang and cross the bridge. Cau Moi is on your right: follow the dirt track down to the restaurant on the water beside the bridge.
Cam Ranh International Airport is 16 km from the Cam Ranh city centre. Cam Ranh is sprawling and it’s much easier to get around if you have your own transport. Hung Vuong Rd/National Route 1 runs through the city centre, clustered on a large roundabout that has a small bus station with a few intercity destinations and a Coop Mart grocery store. Here you will find accommodation and local eats within walking distance, as well as the hospital three blocks away on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street. Cam Ranh also has a significant Catholic population and there’s an impressively sized church at the southern end of Ba Thang Tu.
If you need to stay close to Cam Ranh International Airport, you are better off choosing a hotel in the small hub of civilisation located just across Long Ho bridge, about five kilometres southwest of the airport, or splurging (and we mean splurging) on Fusion Resort Nha Trang, five kilometres north of the airport.
There are ATMs but because the city is so sprawling, you may have to travel a bit to find one that works with your card.
By Cindy Fan.
Last updated on 14th October, 2016.