Cam Ranh and Nha Trang

by Neil Brook

When the French ruled Indochina, they found the perfect spot for a seaside retreat, stringing a handful of small villages together to form Nha Trang. On the south coast of Vietnam this city is now home to around 350,000 people and sits on one of the most beautiful bays in the world. 

Beach

However you won’t find Nha Tang on any airport departure boards as the city is served by the airport at Cam Ranh. From here it’s a 45 minute drive along a stunning, winding coastal road past beaches and fishing villages into the city. A new international terminal has just been completed and with direct flights from Bangkok, in less than 2 hours you can be sitting on the beach discovering why Nha Trang is a favourite destination for travellers the world over. 

Beach View

As you fly in, you’ll know you’ve made the right decision as you skim past the white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters of Cam Ranh. This stretch of beach as you leave the airport heading into the city is one of the rare places in the world that is beautiful and unspoilt. If you’re looking to get away from the hustle bustle of the real world this is the place as hotels have snapped up prime beachfront locations and are building resorts with lush lawns and pools on the water’s edge. Most are all inclusive and fairly soon I’m sure this will become the Vietnamese riviera. You could be anywhere in the world as it lacks any local flavour, however anywhere in the world doesn’t have this location. 

Taxi fares into the city are negotiable and around 300,000 Vietnamese Dong is more than reasonable. If you hop in and the meter is on you’ll pay double or more than that. I use a private car company, Dic Chung Taxi. You can WhatsApp them (+84 93 607 04 16) and they’ll meet you and get you into the city in air conditioned private cars from 250,000D.

As you arrive into Nha Trang, the bay will take your breath away. Here the waves lap seductively at the shore along 5 kilometres of white sand that curves gently around a wide bay. Cocooned by islands (there are 19 of them) close by to the East and mountains to the West, this touch of paradise is protected from the severe weather that torments other parts of SE Asia. It’s the perfect location for a beach vacation with restaurants, nightclubs and bars at your doorstep. All or nothing, the choice is yours. It’s a vibrant city that mixes Vietnamese charm with the modern luxuries that international travellers appreciate. 

Coffee for Sale

The rate of development in the city and Cam Ranh is staggering and each time I return there seems to be another hotel towering into the sky. There is an endless choice for all budgets with hotels lining the beachfront and smaller budget style places sitting further back from the sea. Beachfront properties have their own spots on the beach set up with umbrellas and loungers and of course refreshments on hand. However there are any number of places to choose from that offer shade and comfort to those staying elsewhere. Blue Sea Beach & Bar is a great. Hang around as the thatched roof bar becomes a cool spot to enjoy a sundowner. You’re spoilt for choice with the selection of restaurants across the road from the beach. As the afternoon progresses the sun dips behind the buildings lining the beach so shade is easy to find. And that’s free! The beach comes alive in the afternoon when locals descend, set up blankets and dive into the water fully clothed! Ladies in conical hats offer snacks and young boys sell kites. It’s the best time of the day.

Bikes Are The Way

The best place to stay in the city is the InterContinental Hotel. It’s the only five star property right on the beach where rooms command sweeping views of the city, mountains and bay. Their happy hour in the elegant lobby lounge is the perfect way to end the day after a day at their beach club. Everyone is welcome and for dinner, the seafood buffet is legendary. 

Beach and Boats

The sun rises early here. Start the day with a morning swim when the sea is usually flat and calm. Some afternoons it can get a little choppy, although it’s rarely too rough to enjoy. Afterwards, head down to the organic juice bar at the Sailing Club which offers innovative juices and smoothies to compliment their perfect Eggs Benedict. I enjoy keeping up with ‘The Kardashian’ – mint, celery and cucumber. You can easily settle in here for the day and one day you should.  As the sun sets on weekdays, bean bags are scattered on the sand and kerosene lamps give a bedouin feel. Saturdays, the Sailing Club’s beach party is the place to be and on Sunday afternoon resident DJs spin the discs accompanied by live saxophonist which is chilled out and very cool.

Food On The Grill

The best way to explore Nha Trang is on foot, by cycle or motorbikes which are inexpensive to rent. Bangkok locals will be familiar with motorbikes filling the streets. Here it seems everyone rides one. Cyclos (a seat on the front of a bike) allow someone else to do the legwork and are also a great way to get around. You’ll find the men hanging around on street corners. Set the price before you jump in and plan your own itinerary. It would be handy to have a map to show the driver and be generous if you stop for lunch and drinks along the way. This is by far the most fun. It’s also easy to grab taxis in the street to get from place to place.

You can hit the main attractions in the city easily in a day. The Po Nagar Towers, Long Son Pagoda and Nha Trang Cathedral are the main three.

Sailing Club

From the 3rd Century the region around modern Nha Trang was known as Kauthara, and was part of the Champa Kingdom. All that remains from the period are the stunning Po Nagar Towers. Believed to have been constructed sometime before 781AD, the complex gives you a glimpse of a rich historical heritage. They’re located on Mount Cu Lau, where the Cai River meets the sea, so you’ll get a 360 degree view of the beautiful landscape around Nha Trang.The Po Nagar Cham Towers are a defining feature of Nha Trang and there were originally 10 buildings dedicated to Hindu deities. The 4 remaining towers, built in honour of local Goddess Po Nagar, Cri Cambhu, Sanhaka, and Ganeca, are still used today as places of worship for the Cham people. They’re found within a 10 minute stroll from Tran Phu Beach.

Longs On Pagoda

Long Son Pagoda is the largest Buddhist pagoda in Nha Trang. Founded in the late 19th Century it was built to honour 6 monks and nuns who died in self-immolation protesting against the Diem government, and its entrance and roof are covered in mosaic dragons of glass and ceramic. Allow one of the resident monks to guide you to the tombs at the top of an almost hidden side stairway. At the top a stunning 24 metre tall white Buddha glows in the sun as it sits watching over the city. Clamber down the 152 stone steps on the other side, stopping to admire the reclining Buddha halfway down. Note that the main building and some other areas are closed between 11.30am and 1pm. Each local chef closely guards their recipe for Phô (pronounced ‘fur’) the quintessential Vietnamese noodle soup. The cafe at the Long Son Pagoda serves one of the best and cheapest in town. 

Graves at Church

From Long Son Pagoda you can walk back to the beach via Nha Trang Cathedral, where everyone is welcome at morning or afternoon mass (Vietnam is home to the second largest Catholic community in SE Asia). The Cathedral, set atop a hill that overlooks the train station, is widely known as the largest church in the city. It was constructed in provincial French Gothic style during the early 19th Century, featuring beautiful stained glass windows and a square clock tower surmounted by a large crucifix. Its 3 cathedral bells, which were cast in France in 1789, still ring out over the city. There are also 4,000 tombstones mounted on the sides of the Cathedral, which were placed here after the neighbouring cemetery was levelled in 1988 to extend the city train station. Mass is held at 5am and 18:30 on a daily basis. 

If you like the idea of climbing more stairs then head out to Suoi Do Pagoda a 50 year old temple that was built in honour of Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy. It is believed that a young girl claimed to have seen the Goddess while playing with her friends at the nearby stream. It takes about 200 steps to reach the pagoda, where you’ll be greeted with panoramic views of paddy fields, banana plantations, and the neighbouring hills. The pagoda is a 30 minute drive from Nha Trang.

After a days exploring a visit to one of the local mud baths and hot springs will soothe tired muscles and re energise you for the night ahead. If you’ve ever submerged yourself in a mud bath you’ll no doubt be singing its virtues. Tháp Bà Spa offers private pools, worth the splurge to avoid uncomfortable moments with strangers. Locals believe that the mud has healing powers due to its composition of rocks and volcanic ash and that the natural hot mineral springs help detoxify and soothe fatigued muscles, remove dead skin cells, and supply minerals to the body. Make up your own mind however trust me, you will feel younger and your skin will feel soft afterwards.

Chicken Market

Nha Trang is Vietnam’s premier diving destination. Mun Island is a protected marine environment and a great place to learn to dive in the relatively shallow waters. If you prefer to snorkel you’ll be richly rewarded if you fork out the extra cash to join a diving boat trip, rather than a local snorkelling trip to the islands close by. Snorkelling and diving are probably the most popular things to do in Nha Trang thanks to its affordability and abundant marine life. If you prefer to stay landslide, The National Oceanographic Museum of Vietnam offers interesting exhibits of local marine life, including over 20,000 live and preserved marine specimens. Established in 1922, the institute sponsors ongoing research and community projects, such as captive breeding programmes, preservation and regeneration of local coral reefs. Did I mention the 18 metre long whale skeleton? The kids will love this place. 

Market Fish

There’s a surprising amount of history to discover here. The Alexandre Yersin Museum commemorates the late French bacteriologist with exhibits of his personal belongings and laboratory equipment, as well as original letters and photographs from his travels around Vietnam. Dr Yersin came to Vietnam in the late 19th Century and while he contributed to the country by founding Dalat, his discovery of a vital plague-causing bacteria changed the world. In addition to the displayed artefacts, visitors can also view a short film about Yersin’s life. The museum offers guided tours in French, English and Vietnamese.

Nha Trang is famous for fresh seafood and you can watch the fishing boats head out to sea, returning to stock tanks on display at restaurants lining the boardwalk. It’s particularly cool in squid season to see the bright lights bobbing around the bay at night. Grills are set up on the footpaths under the breeze of electric fans and burning embers. Sea snails may sound unappealing, however when steamed with lemongrass, chilli and ginger they are sensational. Offerings change daily so wander along checking out the tanks until you find what you’re after. 

Vietnamese cuisine is fragrant, sometimes spicy and always delicious. Phô should be tried with chicken or beef. Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguettes) can be bought on the street filled with meats and pickles. Fresh rice paper rolls stuffed with shrimp or steamed rice pancakes with minced pork … the list is endless. Many menus have pictures so you can point to things that look appetising! One of my first visions as I wandered the streets was of Boa and Crocodile spinning on the spit outside Veranda restaurant. Everyone should try snake and croc at least once in their life? 

Pineapple Market

Lanterns Vietnamese Restaurant offers cooking classes that are a fun way to learn about Vietnamese cuisine. You’ll drop by the market to select the ingredients first. The owner here does a great deal for the local community.

Vietnamese coffee is fragrant and delicious and the cafe culture in Nha Trang is as vibrant as it is all over Vietnam. There are coffee shops on every corner. You can easily try a different one each day for a month and still not see them all. Served in individual drip filters, hot water oozes through freshly ground coffee to form the perfect espresso. Forget non fat cappuccinos and lattes. Add sweetened condensed milk or leave it black before pouring over ice. In most cafes here it’s perfectly acceptable to bring some snacks and linger over coffee with friends. Many coffee shops sell their ground coffee. Weasel Coffee is the most expensive in the world. The beans are roasted after passing through the civet cat’s digestive system. If that hasn’t turned you off completely, you can buy the beans at supermarkets to see what all the fuss is about.

Mud Baths

While you could quite easily settle into the beach at Nha Trang for days, for a slightly more serene scene, head out of town. Doc Let Beach is easily accessible on local buses – they’ll get you there in air-conditioned comfort for a little over a dollar. Motorbikes are a great alternative. Then you can stop at the Hon Khoi Salt Fields along the way. Here female workers harvest mounds of natural salt from shallow fields between the months of January and June. Salt production is a thriving industry in Nha Trang, generating about 737,000 tonnes every year. Dai Lanh Beach is about as remote as you can get. Here the mountains kiss the sea and women in their nón lá (conical hats) prepare the freshest of seafood. It’ll be difficult to drag yourself away – so don’t! You can stay in basic cabins on the beach for a bargain. Bai Dai Beach (Long Beach) which stretches for 10 kilometres of gorgeous white sand is a relaxed option to escape the city with little cafes and restaurants to keep you refreshed and fed. 

Nhatrang

It’s also worth heading out to Ba Ho Waterfalls where three natural waterfalls end with a clear lake surrounded by a dense rainforest. The waterfalls have been left in their natural state, although some steps have been added to help in the more challenging areas. It’s a 40 minute drive from Nha Trang City along beautiful stretches of coastline. Shamrock Adventures will take you into the mountains to ride the white water rapids of the Cai River. Jeep It Up offers excursions to the countryside and beaches in vintage war-era jeeps. Sailing is a good opportunity to see the different islands off the mainland. Some trips are geared for the 18-30 party crowd so select one that suits your needs.

Nhatrang Cathedral

Vinpearl Amusement Park offers fun-filled activities for travelling families, with unique waterslides, a wave pool, amphitheatre, shopping mall, and a variety of rides. Situated on Hon Tre Island, the theme park is connected to the mainland of Nha Trang via the longest over water cablecar in the world, at 3,320 metres. Vinpearl Amusement Park’s Underwater World Aquarium houses over 300 species of marine life. You can’t miss the ‘Hollywood-esque’ sign stamped onto the hillside on the island. Golfers will delight at the stunning course with ocean views from every hole.

On The Grill

Nha Trang is ideal for golfing. There are two other courses. Diamond Bay Golf and Villas and KN golf links Cam Ranh which was designed by Greg Norman. Both courses hug the coast providing stunning backdrops.

After dinner head up to the open air nightclub on top of the Havana Hotel. With views of the beach, dancing under the stars beats being locked up inside when the weather is perfect most of the year. 

Pool Mud Bath

Shopping for souvenirs before you head home? Dam Market is the biggest in town and offers everything you’d expect in a bustling Asian market and is worth the visit for the abundance of local produce alongside everything including the kitchen sink! Cho Dem is the Nha Trang night market and is a great choice for souvenirs close to the Tram Huong Tower (Lotus Tower) opposite the beach. Amber and sandalwood made into chunky jewellery will add a touch of Vietnamese style to your collection. Ostrich and crocodile are farmed in Vietnam for their meat and leather, and provide a sustainable industry. The leather quality is excellent.

Reclining Buddha

Cam Ranh and Nha Trang has is all. There are still areas of serenity and beaches where you’ll feel like you’re the only people on earth or where the buzz of the city has the beach at its doorstep. Coupled with an amazing choice for food, fascinating hinterland and near perfect weather all year round, get here before the rest of the world beats you to it. 

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