Cham island is probably not a new tourist attraction in the central of Vietnam. Heard about it many years ago, but every time I had come to Hoi An and planed to visit Cu Lao Cham, I couldn’t do it for many different reasons.
And here I am at Cham Island. Everyone told me to do a day trip only as the island is still pristine, lacks of many basic conveniences and does not have many things to do besides enjoying the beaches. The accommodations are mainly guesthouse or home-stays and the service is unprofessional. However, I insisted to stay one night on the island and perhaps thanks to that, I could fully appreciate the beauty of its nature and its people.
The beaches in Cu Lao Cham are not too splendid despite its clear turquoise water and smooth white sand (because I have seen much more beautiful beaches). Scuba diving in Cu Lao Cham is not super spectacular as there are not many fishes and sea creatures. Coral reefs are large and vary in shape but look monochrome. Given said that, Cu Lao Cham left a lot of emotions in me. The authentic charm of Cu Lao Cham lies in its idyllic wildness of the beaches, the honesty and friendliness of the people who have been struggling to make a living in their homeland through tourist related business.
I had peaceful moments as the first time admiring the sea scenery at 11pm. A serene sensation when sitting on a hidden beach behind tall trees, listening to the sound of waves crashing the rocky shore, the insect humming here and there and the lights flickering from squid fishing boats in the distance. It sounded crazy and dangerous, but on the contrary it was amazingly tranquil.
Beaches on Cu Lao Cham
Cu Lao Cham is a cluster of eight islands: Hon Lao, Hon Dai, Hon Mo, Hon Kho Me, Hon Kho Con, Hon La, Hon Tai, and Hon Ong. Hon Lao is the main and the largest island, which also makes it the most populated and the most active. In Hon Lao, there are approximate 3000 residents with a total of 7 beaches, mainly located on the west bank facing toward Hoi An. The main road connecting the beaches was decently constructed, twisting up and down the mountainous landscape of the island. Yet, it does not complete as a circle around the island. Some parts of the road are being renovated and upgraded.
Going from north to south, the beaches are Bai Bac, Bai Ong, Bai Lang, Bai Xep, Bai Chong, Bai Bim and Bai Huong. Among them, Bai Ong, Bai Xep and Bai Chong are the 3 most beautiful beaches thanks to their white sandy shore, calm sea surface with gentle waves and the see-through clear blue water, suitable for swimming and relaxing. Bai Lang and Bai Huong are the busiest place where fishing boats get in and out frequently.
Bai Ong is probably the most popular and crowded beach on Cu Lao Cham, not only because of the enchantment of the green coconut trees on the smooth white sand, but also because of its convenient location, wide coastline for tourist boats to anchor easily. A row of restaurants along the beach with simple equipment provide basic food and services for those who visit the island during the day. If you want to stay overnight, you can choose between guest houses (located a bit deep inside the village) and camping tents on the beach.
Swimming in Bai Ong is very enjoyable because the sea surface is super calm, just like swimming in a large natural lake. Especially in the late afternoon when tourist boats return to the mainland, Bai Ong is quiet and peaceful. The water is colder at the time, although the summer weather is still very hot. When it is dusk, the scenery looks magnificent when the sea and the sky seem to become one.
I especially love Bai Xep because of its idyllic tranquility. It is a small beach hidden behind tall trees. Accessed through a paved staircase crept between the trees, Bai Xep is truly desolated and quaint thanks to the harmony of green trees and blue sea.
It was so peaceful by just sitting on the fine sandy beach and watching the waves rippling into the rocky shore, creating the only lively sound for this quiet space. Far away were fishing boats with tiny Vietnamese flags, affirming the country’s maritime and sovereignty.
Contrary to the desolate beauty of Bai Xep, Bai Lang is the busiest place on Cu Lao Cham, considered as the vital hub of this island where most of residents are living, with the main port and Tan Hiep Market. Mini hotels and rustic guesthouses, as well as seafood eateries cluster around the harbor.
Bai Lang wakes up very early in the morning when fishing boats which are full of fresh seafood dock along the pier. The crowd of busy buyers & sellers with their bargaining and the sound of the paddles stir up the quiet atmosphere of the wharf.
Au Thuyen is a small strait built by island’s people for boats and ships everywhere to avoid storms. Located between Bai Lang and Bai Ong, in early morning, this place is full of fishermen preparing for their trip with the hope of coming back safely and having full nets. Walking along Au Thuyen, watching the colorful boats reflecting on the calm sea, people may think as if the life of fishermen on this island is easy and peaceful. In reality, it’s tough and unstable. Every year, Cu Lao Cham suffers from many big storms, many ships had pushed off and never returned.
When the boats push off, Au Thuyen returned to its original rustic and serene quaintness. As the twilight fades, this place is the hangout spot of young people, gathering to enjoy seafood and the tranquility.
Scuba diving in Cu Lao Cham
All diving tours in Cu Lao Cham come from Cua Dai beach of Hoi An. Most of them are day trip. As snorkeling or diving is not a popular activity among Vietnamese when coming to Hoi An, only a few companies organize this service, mainly for foreign tourists. However, their services are quite attentive and professional with experienced guides (both Vietnamese and expats) & good equipment. Diving safety procedures are strictly ensured and they use large boats to travel among diving sites.
There are 10 diving sites in Cu Lao Cham, famous for its large coral reefs at the depths of less than 10m. Although Cu Lao Cham is recognized by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve, the marine life is getting less and less. There are not many big fishes, only small fishes which can also be seen in other islands. The sea water is quite cold, about 25-26 oC while the weather on the surface is very sunny and hot. That day’s vision was not very good due to heavy rains and rough sea in the previous few days. Underwater currents are relatively strong and turn around constantly, so you must stick to the instructor to avoid them.
If you have diving licence (Open Water and above), the cost of a diving trip is VND 2 million including 2 dives (with all necessary equipment), 2-way car pick-up at the hotel in Hoi An, and a lunch on Cu Lao Cham. The price will be a little more expensive for people who do not have a licence. Alternatively, you can join day trip snorkeling around the islands at the price of VND 1 million.
The life on Cu Lao Cham
With a day on Cu Lao Cham, I could understand partially the life of the islanders through brief conversations with a few people I met on the road. There are people who have been living generation after generation as fishermen, from small boats to big boats, some times they come back with empty hands, some times they get great success. There are people who went to Saigon to work for 10 years, now have returned to their homeland to look after their elderly parents and want to start a cafe business.
My host and his wife are lovely and hospitable, caring for customers like family members. They happily share that their life has been getting better thanks to the booming of tourism. However, they also worry as more and more inns and resort are growing all over the island, so the competition will become more difficult. The owner of the restaurant that night had just opened a small guest house. Their customers are mainly introduced via word of mouth from acquaintances, while they know nothing about online booking websites. They used to live in several other places, but over the past decade have settled peacefully in Cu Lao Cham.
The sincerity, friendliness and warmness of the people are the true beauty of Cham Island, which left me the most emotional feeling about this place. They have been doing tourism in a spontaneous way, but are well aware of environmental protection. The slogan “say no to plastic bags” is clearly stated in Cua Dai pier, though the implementation on the island is still a long progress. With the current development momentum, Cu Lao Cham will become more modern with more types of services. My only hope is that their rustic characteristics remain unchanged and the pristine beauty of the nature is well preserved as they are.
How to get to Cu Lao Cham
To get to Cu Lao Cham, you first need to be in Hoi An city. Then you must go to the pier at Cua Dai beach, a few kilometers from the center of Hoi An. There are 3 way to get to Cu Lao Cham:
- Private rented canoes : If you are in a big group, you can hire a canoe, run by your schedule
- Speedboat (about 20 minutes): every day there are two trips (back and forth) from Cua Dai pier. One-way ticket price is 100-150,000 VND / person (for Vietnamese). Time to travel from Cua Dai Beach: 8:30 and 14:00. Time to go from Cham Island: 7:15 and 13:15.
- Wooden board (90 minutes): the fare is 50,000 VND / person (for Vietnamese, foreigners have to pay more expensive fares), departing from Bach Dang wharf, 1 trip per day, going at 8:15, return at 11:15. Wooden boats can carry motorbikes for 30 thousand VND / unit.
In addition, if you book a tour to go scuba diving like me, the boat will pass by Hon Lao at lunch time, stay a night, then buy a ticket for high-speed boat back to Cua Dai on the next day.
What to eat
Coming to island, of course, you have to try seafood. Specialties of Cham Island are rocky crabs, hat-shaped snails and squids. Rocky crab is a type of crab living on cliffs and eating grasses. It is recommended by local authorities that people should not catch rocky crabs indiscriminately to protect their natural reproduction. Hat-shaped snails are quite delicious and their meat is very tough, while the squid is very fresh and sweet. Sea urchin is also very popular in this sea.
Where to stay
The accommodations on Cu Lao Cham are mainly private mini hotels, guesthouses or home-stays (with the host family). They cluster in Bai Lang, Bai Ong and Bai Huong. You can find a few of them on online booking sites with prices ranging from 200-500K VND per night. However, many do not registered online. They offer cheaper prices and rooms are also very decent. You just need to say what you need to the restaurants along the beaches, they will enthusiastically help you to find the room. If you want to live close to nature, you can camp at Bai Ong, very safe and cool.
Traveled in May, 2019