Vietnam's up-and-coming luxury resort town used to be a military base

A couple of the 12 'cascading' swimming pools at Alma Resort. — Alma Resort

In the southern region of Vietnam lies a city that’s poised to join the country’s growing list of top tourist hot spots, though many Malaysians are not aware of the place. Cam Ranh, the second largest city in the Khanh Hoa Province, has a good balance of nature and culture to offer visitors and is only a two-and-a-half hour flight from Kuala Lumpur.

The airport is in Cam Ranh itself, so just before you land, you will see a long stretch of white-sand beach that’s dotted with large resorts and hotels, some of which are either still under construction or being redeveloped.

One that particularly grabbed our attention was Alma Resort, a large and stunning seafront property (30ha!) with several bungalows, two towering buildings at the sides and a dozen swimming pools arranged to look they are “cascading”.

Adjacent to the resort is the Splash Water Park, said to be Cam Ranh’s most popular spot for families. There are also a mini golf course and other sports facilities, a cinema and a spa within the property.

Cam Ranh is by no means a “new” tourist destination, although travellers may know of the nearby city of Nha Trang more. History buffs, however, would probably recognise Cam Ranh for its role in the Vietnam War. Decades ago, the place was a military base for several foreign powers including Japan and the United States. The reason for this was its port, well-known as South-East Asia’s best deep-water harbour, which was established much earlier by the French.

Cam Ranh was last used as a base for the US army but in the past few years, authorities have worked hard to change its image and “rebrand” the place for tourism purposes, taking advantage of Cam Ranh’s beautiful coast and azure waters of the sea.

Today, the city has become Vietnam’s up-and-coming luxury resort destination, a place where people go to get some rest and relaxation.

The local tour

Of course, there are also plenty of interesting spots to check out around town to learn more about the locals and their culture, like the daily morning market at Cam Duc that’s just a short drive from Alma Resort.

As we navigated our way through the alleys, we passed by small shophouses not unlike the kinds we have in Malaysia. The only difference is that their shops seem more rustic and quiet, with many of them still not opened at 10am.

A tailoring shop that makes beautiful traditional Vietnamese costumes in Cam Duc.A tailoring shop that makes beautiful traditional Vietnamese costumes in Cam Duc.

The market itself is abuzz with mostly women carrying bags of or selling fresh produce and staples like rice noodles, which came in different shapes and thickness. There are also numerous stalls selling colourful desserts, which we soon came to learn are mostly glutinous rice cakes with sweet fillings.

A short distance away from the market – you can easily walk from place to place, as there aren’t as many cars or bikes here as there are in bigger cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh – is the Quan Am cobblestone pagoda, a Buddhist temple that is completely covered in stones, pebbles and some seashells. This isn’t to be mistaken for the bigger, more popular Tu Van Pagoda, which is decorated with corals and seashells.

“That temple is too crowded with tourists sometimes,” our guide, Christina Nguyen, tells us. Nguyen is the founder of Zazen Travel, a tour company that specialises in cultural and culinary tours.

The Quan Am cobblestone pagoda is covered entirely in either pebbles, stones or seashells.The Quan Am cobblestone pagoda is covered entirely in either pebbles, stones or seashells.

As we walk around the temple marvelling at the architecture, Nguyen tells us that it is currently managed by volunteers who come each day to clean the interiors and make sure that everything is in order. “In Cam Ranh, we have more Christians than Buddhists, so to make it extra special for devotees, the monk who started this temple added all the pebbles and stones,” she says.

The said monk is Thich Tam Phuoc, who started building the temple 24 years, and is still trying to expand and beautify the place with more stones.

After the short excursion, we headed to Alma Resort to take part in an interactive cooking session, which is part of an initiative called “A Journey Through Local Culture And Cuisine” by Zazen and the property. The cooking “class” was held at the outdoor dining area of one of Alma’s five restaurants, Atlantis. Here, we learnt how to make both the Vietnamese fresh summer rolls, which are served cold, and spring rolls, which are the deep fried versions of the former.

We were joined for a short spell by Alma’s managing director Herbert Laubichler-Pichler, who believes that to better understand a place and its people, you would need to taste the local food, go where the locals go and see what they do. “You need to connect with the locals to truly have a meaningful experience of the place,” he says.

One of the chefs from Atlantis also prepared a pot of delicious chicken broth, which was then served as Vietnamese chicken noodle soup, or “pho ga”.

To end the meal – yes, you get to eat what you make – we had servings of fresh mango, which are in abundance in Cam Ranh, from the looks of the many mango trees around town and within the vicinity of the resort, too.

Nguyen shares a story of how mango became such a commodity in Cam Ranh. Apparently, a French businessman had aspired to cultivate an Australian variety of mango in the area but was not successful. So, instead of trying to cultivate the original variety, a hybrid version was introduced. Other foreign varieties are also available locally, such as those from Taiwan and Thailand.

“Our own local mango is not very sweet so that’s why he wanted to try and grow foreign ones. When the hybrid was successful, everyone with a farm started growing them, which is why you see so many mango trees around!

“Unfortunately, we are producing more than we can sell today. Since it is difficult to export, we can mostly only sell them locally. This is why a lot of shops and restaurants now are coming up with different ways to use the mangoes, otherwise they will become spoilt,” Nguyen explains.

Out and about

For more cultural explorations, head to Nha Trang, which is about an hour away from Cam Ranh.

Nha Trang is busier and more crowded with tourists and locals, but it is your best bet if you’re looking to shop. We’re not talking about shopping malls, but rather, night markets and independent stores selling souvenirs and knick-knacks. It is also where you can find one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, the white Gautama Buddha statue located at the top of a hill at the Long Son Pagoda.

Built in 1886, the original temple – then known as the Dang Long Pagoda – was located at another place. After a typhoon hit in 1900, the temple was badly damaged, forcing officials to relocate it to its current position. After being renamed Long Son Pagoda, the temple underwent renovations and repairs, once in 1940 and and then again in 1968 during the Vietnam War, when it was nearly destroyed.

Vietnam recognises Long Son Pagoda as the country’s oldest Buddhist temple.

You can also find a fairly large sleeping Buddha statue there.

Another historical building that’s located on a hill is the Christ the King Cathedral, or Nha Trang Cathedral, the oldest Catholic church in Nha Trang. Constructed in 1928, the cathedral was completed and opened to the public in 1933. It was built in the European Gothic style, which is why it stands out prominently in the area.

A short distance away is the Ponagar Cham Towers (sometimes written as “Po Nagar Cham Towers”), built between the 7th and 12th centuries. Originally, it is said that there were seven towers but today only four remain; the North Tower or Thap Chinh is the most spectacular of the four, standing tall at 28m.

Two of the four ancient Ponagar Cham Towers that are still standing at Nha Trang today. — Photos: MELODY L. GOH/The StarTwo of the four ancient Ponagar Cham Towers that are still standing at Nha Trang today. — Photos: MELODY L. GOH/The Star

The towers were built in honour of Yang Ino Po Nagar, the goddess of the Dua clan that ruled over the southern region of the Champa kingdom. This was an ancient Indochinese kingdom dating as far back as the second century, and existed until the 17th century. The central and southern coastal regions of Vietnam were part of this once majestic kingdom, alongside Laos and Cambodia.

“In Nha Trang and Cam Ranh, there are still some Cham people around. They are considered an ethnic group and they have their own cultures and traditions, even language,” Nguyen says. The complex itself attracts many local and foreign visitors each day, as it is a part of the country’s history that is definitely worth exploring and understanding.

For a more immersive and interactive cultural experience in Nha Trang, check out the Truong Son Craft Village, a large compound with several pavilions and gardens that showcase local traditional crafts. In the music hall guests are to a live musical performance featuring some traditional and classic instruments, many of which are made from bamboo and wood.

Adjacent to the show area is a space displaying other traditional instruments. It is interesting to note that the guitar is a big part of Vietnamese music culture, most likely introduced by the French.

In a separate pavilion, you can find numerous artisans working on their projects. The guitar-maker was there on the day we visited, expertly piecing together a new guitar. There were also “sand painters”, folks who create beautiful art in jars and containers using coloured sand.

There were a few fishing net weavers too, as well as rattan weavers, who make chairs and the iconic Vietnamese conical hats that are still worn daily, usually by those who work in the fields, and fishermen. Being a coastal city, fishery in Nha Trang and Cam Ranh are important industries.

The village has a garden filled with sunflowers and other colourful flowers that you can walk through to look for sculptures and statues of the 12 Chinese zodiac characters. These are either made from stone, marble or rattan.

Look out for the 10 “record- breaking” unique artworks produced by the artisans at Truong Son that are officially recognised by the Vietnam Records Association. Some of the artworks include two large-sized sand paintings, a collection of four double-sided maps of Vietnam made from snail shells, rattan seeds, coconuts and gourds, and the Ngoc Lu bronze drum.

Nguyen tells us that you may also be able to try some local cuisine at the village, but you would probably need to ask your tour guide to arrange for that separately.A view of the city of Nha Trang as seen from the cathedral.A view of the city of Nha Trang as seen from the cathedral.

To end your cultural tour of Nha Trang, fill your belly with some authentic Vietnamese cuisine at Nha Trang Xua. It is located in a villa in a more rustic part of the city, surrounded by a padi field and a lotus pond. The restaurant has a showroom of sorts that displays what a typical Vietnamese household in the village used to look like back in the day, complete with old furniture, dinnerware and more.

“This is not a ‘tourist-only’ restaurant; many locals come here to celebrate special occasions,” Nguyen says, pointing to other tables filled with local diners.

If you’re looking to try more local dishes but don’t really want to venture out of your hotel, just dine in. At Alma’s international breakfast spot, for example, a variety of local dishes are available each day. It was pretty surprising to find a Vietnamese pork leg stew as a breakfast item, but hey, as the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the locals do!

Travel notes

How to get there: AirAsia is the only local airline that flies (direct) to Cam Ranh from Kuala Lumpur, with Vietnam Airlines as your only other option. However, Vietnam Airlines has at least one stopover, most likely in Ho Chi Minh City.

Best time to visit: Cam Ranh enjoys moderate weather year-round, but the best time would be during the dry season from January to August. If that’s too warm for you, then you can also visit during the off-peak seasons, where there are some chances of rainfall.

Where to stay: Stay in Cam Ranh, where five-star properties like Alma Resort are aplenty, or head to Nha Trang where there are more options to fit all budgets.

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