Canh Ranh, which used to be a U.S. air and naval base during the Vietnam War, is less crowded than neighboring Nha Trang but has some unique attractions.
It has Vietnam’s fourth busiest airport, a pagoda built from dead coral and sea shells and a nature reserve.
The best time to visit Cam Ranh is between April and August when the dry warm weather makes it ideal for trekking and adventure sports.
The average annual temperature is 28 degrees Celsius.
Cam Ranh has a long dry season lasting from February to September, which makes it a magnet for vacationing western tourists.
But August to November is the storm season.
Around 12 kilometers from Cam Ranh Airport, Bai Dai (Long Beach) stretches for 13 kilometers with turquoise waters and is uncrowded.
Since a 21km long road through a mountainous pass between Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Airport opened in 2004, Bai Dai area has been becoming a resort paradise with a series of luxury projects coming up along the beach.
Sealife Bai Dai tourist complex spreads over an area of 5,000 square meters including a 2,000 sq.m water park. It is situated in shallow water to ensure safety, especially of children, and offers a number of adventure activities for both adults and kids.
A diving tour to see the coral reefs and marine ecosystem costs VND500,000 (US$20.19) per person while a coracle tour is priced from VND140,000.
An underwater walking tour through beautiful coral reefs and schools of colorful marine creatures costs VND800,000 per person and a paragliding ride costs VND500,000.
Tu Van Pagoda on April 3 Street is a fascinating sight to behold with its 40-meter-high tower built entirely of dead coral and sea shells.
The pagoda was built in 1968 by Buddhist monks though it was only in 1995 that they began to build the famous tower using marine debris that is abundant along Cam Ranh’s shores.
There are hundreds of idols of the Buddha and deities on the tower while its inside features the Goddess of Mercy, a deity with 1,000 eyes and arms.
A highlight of the pagoda is its tunnel system called ‘the 18 layers of hell’ that takes approximately 40 minutes to one hour to walk through. It is dark and narrow, and so it may be best that claustrophobic travelers sit this one out. The tunnel is also elaborately decorated with rock, coral and shells between the stark displays of hellish torture.
Sixty kilometers to the southwest of Nha Trang lies the Hon Ba Nature Reserve at more than 1,500 meters above sea level and with a cool climate all year round.
There are 274 species of animals here with 56 featuring in Vietnam’s Red Book of endangered species.
Their habitat is a sublime primeval forest that instantly captivates one’s heart.
Dr Alexandre Yersin established a research station in Hon Ba in 1915, and numerous studies on its medicinal herbs have been carried out since then.
The reserve has preserved a two-story wooden house where Yersin used to stay.
A tour of Hon Ba costs $80-100 that takes visitors on foot through the forest to the top of Hon Ba Mountain to camp overnight or simply have a BBQ.
Some locals serve food at home along the way comprising rice, noodles, vegetables, and meat.
Suoi Tien sheep farm in Cam Thinh Dong Commune has emerged as a popular tourist attraction in Cam Ranh since opening in 2019.
The entry fee is VND30,000 and visitors can take photos with the flock of 100 white sheep there.
Nguyen Ngoc Truc, the owner of the farm, said, in 2008, when he drove a motorbike to tourist sites and saw Cam Ranh’s beautiful sights, he dreamed of building a wild tourist site raising sheep and growing flowers.
He saved money and borrowed some from friends to invest in the place.
Though Cam Ranh is famous for its pristine islands, some like Binh Ba and Binh Hung are off-limits to tourists for security reasons.
But you can tour Binh Lap Island, around 50 kilometers from Cam Ranh Airport and still off the beaten track.
You should stay overnight here though tourism services remain rudimentary.
A bungalow costs for around VND2 million a night at Ngoc Suong Resort, or you can rent a tent on the beach for VND400,000.
Another popular place to stay in Binh Lap is Sao Bien eco-tourism area where rooms cost VND2 million and a tent on the beach is VND500,000.
It has hammocks, table tennis, kayaks, and water slides.
Cam Ranh is around 40 kilometers from Vinh Hy Bay where you can take a glass-bottom boat to see the marine life and colorful coral reefs is a great experience.
A one-day tour takes visitors to Cape Ca Ong, Yen Cave and Turtle Islet and the boat also stops at the coral reef preservation area that has more than 350 species.
Through the vessel’s glass bottom, visitors can see sea urchins, starfish and other creatures thanks to the bay’s crystal clear blue waters.
The tour costs VND700,000 ($30) for a group of four.
There is a small fishing village in Vinh Hy where locals have started offering homestays and fishing boats on rent.
Along Long Beach lies a series of high-end hotels such as Radisson Blu Resort Cam Ranh, The Anam Cam Ranh, Mövenpick Resort Cam Ranh, Alma Resort Cam Ranh, and Cam Ranh Riviera Beach Resort & Spa with rooms costing VND2.1-5.3 million a night.
For budget tourists, there are mid-range places such as Navy Hotel Cam Ranh, Thai Binh Cam Ranh Hotel and Thanh My Cam Ranh Hotel at prices starting from VND300,000.
Banh can, a central Vietnamese specialty consisting of crunchy small rice pancakes made with quail eggs, fresh and dry pork and seafood -- usually shrimp or squid -- is a signature dish in Cam Ranh.
The cakes are cooked in a small clay pan on glowing charcoal and usually sold in pairs.
Banh can is served with a fish sauce, lemon juice, chili, and garlic dip. Some places also serve herbs, pork balls and raw mango as sides.
A portion with all these costs around VND60,000 ($2.62).
You can try it at Ms Tham’s stall at 2066 Hung Vung Street, Ba Ngoi Restaurant at 2420 Hung Vuong and Ms Le’s stall in Cam Loc District.
A bigger and thinner version, banh xeo, is a must-try dish in Cam Ranh Peninsula.
Similar to how banh xeo is made elsewhere in the central region, the cook pours the mixture into small iron molds and adds fresh squid, bean sprouts and onion in the middle. An important ingredient that provides the dish's unique flavor is the freshly caught squid.
The dipping sauce used for squid banh xeo is fish sauce with chili and garlic.
The dish can be found at Hai Sy’s stall at 204 August 22 Street and Cam Ranh Restaurant in Ba Ngoi Ward.
Another dish not to be missed in Cam Ranh is noodles served with fish that can be found along tourist streets in the beach town. The fish used in the dish is tuna or sailfish with thick, sweet chewy flesh. The restaurant owners remove the bones, chop the fish into pieces and drop it into the broth.
Some restaurants also add fish cakes and jellyfish to the bowl of noodle soup, which comes with bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs, and add a little lemon juice, fish sauce or shrimp paste.
You can try the dish at 96 Hung Vuong Street in Ba Ngoi Ward.
Cam Ranh is blessed with seafood like shrimp, sea urchins, squid, crab, jellyfish, and shellfish.
Seafood fans can sign up for a tour to Binh Lap Island where lobsters are served at an affordable price. Binh Hung lobsters are famous for their freshness. There are red lobsters (long legged and spiny), blue lobsters (blue spiny) and tropical rock lobsters here. The lobsters are grilled, steamed or even eaten raw.
Cam Ranh is the fourth busiest airport in Vietnam after HCMC, Hanoi and Da Nang.
From Hanoi and HCMC the easiest way to reach Cam Ranh is by air with all local carriers like Vietnam Airlines, Vietjet Air and Jetstar operating daily flights at fares of VND1.4-2.5 million.
Cam Ranh is 242.3 miles (390 kilometers) northeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Driving between the two popular tourist hubs takes about seven hours.
Trains are another affordable option. Most trains to Cam Ranh from HCMC take less than seven hours.
Story by Hoang Phong