The visit to Lao Cham island became a bit of a last-minute arrangement, not a regrettable one. We road down the 8.3km to the small Cua Dai Quay/Pier two days prior, we had read that the ferry leaves early in the morning to the island, if you missed it you could easily hire a boat at any time for a small price. We got to Cua Dai Quay/Pier late morning, not for the lack of trying we couldn’t find or convince any private boats to take us – the language barrier didn’t’ help either considering we must have been there for near two hours. After some wondering around we stumbled upon the lighthouse keeper; a young man in his late 20’s I’d say. He welcomed us into the lighthouse and in quite good English explained how and when we should be there in order to catch the ferry – getting a private boat seemed not to be an option.
Lao Cham is not as frequented by tourists compared to other islands such as those in Ha Long Bay, it has only been open to tourists in the past few years. Prior to that it was only open to locals as the whole island was controlled by the military and island residence. The ferry is primarily used by the locals who work on the mainland, most tourists go for a day trip, including diving tours, with everyone returning to the mainland at 14:30/15:30. Meaning, that by 15:30 the beaches are void of people and you feel like you’re on a deserted island. The few tourists that remain are scattered across the island, by few, I mean when we were there we saw a total of 10 other tourists later that evening.
Two methods to get to Lao Cham:
- The public taxi (apparently best to avoid; it takes everything from people, chickens, goats etc.), it leaves Hoi An (centre of Hoi An Ancient Town) from Nguyen Hoang street at 7am, first stop is Cua Dai Pier/Quay (about 8km from An Bang Beach) where it leaves at about 8am arriving at Lao Cham’s main harbour/pier Bai Lang at about 10:30. It returns back to the mainland between 11:00 – 12:00
- Speedboat from Cua Dai Pier/Quay leaves at around 8:00 and takes 30 minutes to arrive at Lao Cham’s main harbour/pier Bai Lang. Leaves to return to the mainland at around 8:30
Tourism has yet to really hit Lao Cham, here many of the residence have been on the island for generations. The population spiked during the Vietnam war from people avoiding the war and those who tried to get away from conscription, even so the population today is only around 3000. There are no ATMs on Lao Cham, nowhere takes card payments, no public transport and even the mobile/cell phone signal is sketchy at best.
Consisting of 8 islands of which Lao Cham (Lao meaning pearl) is the largest and only permanently inhabited island, the islands cover an area of 15 square kilometres – the area in part of a world biosphere reserve recognised by UNESC0. Because of the rich sea life, including coral around the islands it is becoming a destination for divers, along with small scale farming swallow nests are harvested from the island and it a large source of revenue for the islands; a Chinese delicacy that they pay a premium for.
So, we arrived on the island nice and early with the decision to leave the main harbour/pier and find a quiet beach, the first beach was just a short walk away. We walked as we couldn’t find any scooters to rent which was odd because everywhere else in Vietnam it’s very easy to do so. Our best efforts were unsuccessful in finding scooters, the next option was a scooter-taxi, but the locals seemed to want to charge quite a lot, so hence we walked and thought we’d find alternative transport when we headed to our next beach. Only later in the day, much later as in that evening, we found out that foreigners can’t rent (easily) scooters on the island. We met a couple from Switzerland whose homestay let them use theirs with the proviso were told that if they got stopped by the police they would confiscate them. The island is small, remote and being a Western tourist, you stick out like a sore thumb so there is no way to blend in as a local! It’s not like other islands I’ve been too, there weren’t even any taxi’s, come to think of it I can’t even recall seeing any cars!
Oh well, we relaxed for a while on the first beach, the water was a tad on the chilly side and the coral had been dead for a long time, such a shame! A few hours had passed so we decided to move on…this became easier said than done. As I have alluded to we had not yet found out about the challenges of transport on the island, I mean surely a taxi would pass us by….! We walked for a few kilometres in the baking sun passing many stunning empty beaches, yes, we passed them all. I’m beginning to sound like a stuck record, Lao Cham has only been open to foreign tourists for a few years, most beaches can’t even be accessed from the road. The brush was so thick with the distance from the road ranging from 50-100m, even if we had machetes we still couldn’t have reached the beaches. Most beaches are reaches by boat, we didn’t have one ?! We passed a couple from France who were also having the same problem as us.
A hill or two and a few kilometres (bit of an exaggeration, it was bloody hot!) later we found an access point to one of the beaches, Bai Chong beach. One of the more, if not most commercial beach on the island, only because it has a restaurant and it is used as the lunch spot for divers and day trips. Just so that I don’t set the wrong impression, commercial is a relative term; at its busiest there were about 40 people on the beach and the restaurant closes as 15:00.
Our naivety or ignorance about the how remote the island is meant we were blissfully unaware of some of the challenges we would face later in the day, so for the rest of the afternoon we relaxed on the beach and swam in the sea. Like the beach from earlier in the day, the coral had long been dead, we pretty much had the beach and sea to ourselves, well we shared it with a few others. Like clockwork, between 14:30-15:00 it’s like the island is being evacuated, the restaurant closed, the divers and day trips leave. A silence falls upon the beach and you do feel like you might be on a deserted island, this is why we came here.
Now, I won’t bore you will all the detail, the mobile/cellphone signal was terrible making finding accommodation a lethargic and frustrating exercise. Once the accommodation was sorted we needed to get there, this is when the reality of just how “different” things ran on Lao Cham (I mean that in the best of ways). I have mentioned the phone signal was bad (?), luckily after a lot of frustration and an hour or two of messaging through Booking.com our homestay arranged (through interesting but welcomed broken English) for two scooters to pick us up.
Lao Cham has two towns, the first is Bai Lang harbour/pier the other is Bai Huong, another harbour/pier which is mainly used by the locals. Bai Lang is like a metropolis compared to Bai Huong; as a Westerner you stuck out in Bai Lang, here in Bai Huong you are the tourist attraction.
We arrived at our homestay in Bai Huong, Island Smiles Homestay to some confusion as the owner (more about he later) thought Julie, Mila and I were a family so thought we would be sharing a bed – a quick fix and we had our own beds. On a separate note Julie and I had just become very good friends, nothing more. Back to the owner, Mama Kim, speaks a lot less English and I do Vietnamese, her motherly approach to all visitors makes here a wonderfully fantastic host. The correspondence (in broken English) when arranging the scooter-taxi’s was done by her granddaughter who we briefly met when we arrived, communication from there onward was a mixture of laughs, hand gestures and facial expressions all with a smile.
There isn’t much to do in Bai Huong, then again that’s not why people go there. It’s quiet, even with the town right there you cannot escape the feeling of being in a different time far from familiarity. The day had been a bit of a hack but that was ok, we were in no rush to get anywhere or do anything. The rest of what was left of the afternoon we spent walking around the town, pier, beach and swimming. Right next to the beach is Tinh Xa Ngoc Huong, now I’m going to say it’s a temple and I’m confident in that statement – having done some research some places say it’s a monastery, but I think they are confusing it with other temple and monastery on the island; the more well-known one called Tinh xa Ngoc Truyen (the Than Yen Sao shrine which was built in the mid-19th century is there too). There is also pagoda called Chua Hai Tang which was built in the mid-18th century, we didn’t get to see either unfortunately. Right on the beach too is a concrete pillbox/bunker/battery, I tried doing some research about when it was built but can’t find anything concrete, no pun intended! I guess it may be from the Vietnam War or even prior during the French occupation but that’s just me taking a guess.
Another Lao Cham/Bai Huong lesson we learnt late was that homestay hosts also cook dinner for their guest, as we didn’t know we told Mama Kim we didn’t need to cook for us; thinking back on it now I thought see seemed a little perplexed when we told her….ah! We were going to have dinner at a restaurant by the beach, only to find out that there aren’t any restaurants open at night. There are apparently two restaurants by the beach, the only two restaurants (the town is small you could walk around the circumference in 20 minutes) but they close very early, just after sundown. The only other shop that was open was a tiny general store with a few crisps and chocolates, that also closed just after sundown.
Luckily, we bumped into the Swiss couple who were with a Vietnamese lady (also visiting the island) staying at the same homestay. She spoke to their host who didn’t hesitate to bring out three more chairs (pushing her family aside), went back into the kitchen and started cooking for us. We apologise for the inconvenience, but the lady was having none of it, we were here guests now which is not far off from being family, the food was aplenty! Of course we had to pay, the price was insignificant both in cost (maybe £5 in total for the three of us) and just to merely say thank you. The evening ended with us relaxing on the porch at our homestay, with Mama Kim falling asleep on the couch. We were a little perturbed by the number of large rats we saw running in street, it was still a nice evening though.
Next morning we had to leave Bai Huong early, we arrange with our scooter-taxi the previous day to collect us in the morning. Mama Kim must have been awake early as she was already busy in the kitchen before 7:00, she made me a cup of coffee with chocolate in it, apparently common for the island don’t ask me why. Mama Kim had asked us if we wanted breakfast, it was early, we didn’t have much time so we declined. True to form and fashion by the time we were ready to leave at 7:30 Mama Kim had made us a little something to take with us and made a little special meal especially for Mila. She gave us all a big hug goodbye, the kind of meaningful hug you would give to your close family who you were not going to see for a long time.
The boat ride back took longer than the day before because of the heavy fog, that didn’t deter the driver to go any slower. We were speeding along when suddenly the fog cleared with a beach no more than 60m in front of us! The driver reduced his speed at an instant simultaneously jolting the boat to the left, we were luck! From there on we cruised at a glacial pace till we arrived back at the mainland, safe and sound.
I was flying out later that afternoon to Kuala Lumpur; from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), from there to Bangkok for one night leaving the following morning to Kuala Lumpur – I’ll cover that interesting trip in my next blog. It was time to leave Julie and Mila, I was very lucky to meet and spend time with them, I cannot lie I was sad to leave them and a little choked. Vietnam was not what I expected, it was a fantastic 15 days filled with history, culture, relaxation, sun, sea, natural wonders, friendly people and so much more. It’s a country bringing its history, culture, political inclination, fundamental ethos, strong willed people and drive to improve themselves into the 21st century, I just hope they do not become Western (whatever that means). I truly believe that Vietnam has something to offer to everyone no matter what you want from your travel destination. My only regret about Vietnam was me underestimating it before I went, had I known then what I know now, I would have spent at least another 2 weeks there. To put it into perspective in my two weeks I didn’t get time to go North of Hanoi and only made it halfway down the country, so much more to see and experience.