Chong Beach, Cham Island T: (0169) 753 7712
There’s something undeniably bohemian about Garden Hills Ecological Lodge. Carved entirely out of jackfruit wood, with a wrap-around balcony perfectly positioned for soaking up sunsets and a hammock-strewn garden devoted to contemplation, it’s pure Cham Island escapism.
To say we scaled cliffs to find this place is not an exaggeration. We took a the $2, 08:00 supply boat directly to the bustling harbour town. We were intrigued by a sign pinned to a coconut tree banging on about mountain spring showers and guitar hire, with a photo of one jovial looking Mr Mai Bang pointing towards the coastal mountain path. In the blazing sun we scaled the uphill potholed path, passing blissful untouched bays while being entertained by perky grey squirrels swinging from jungle vines. Half hour in to our trek Mr Mai Bang’s chirpy face appeared again, with an arrow pointing down the steep cliff face, where wee steps led us down a rocky climb, parallel to a mountain spring, down to Chong beach, which, had we known, we could have accessed by boat.
What Mr Mai Bang didn’t mention on his poster was the teeny detail of his eco lodgings. It’s an antique strewn open-air, five-bed dorm, sheltering beneath the stilted legs of a beautiful antique house, plus a castaway restaurant built entirely of palm. The ‘mountain spring showers’ were a basic plastic piped set up, fed by the hoses we had traversed on our way down the cliff edge. There are also four ‘eco-minimalist’ rooms atop of the stilted house and by eco-minimalist we mean three grass sleeping mats, wooden walls and a door.
Garden Hills is a quirky Vietnamese kind of place. Dorm beds are separated by a couple of centimetres and the rooms are designed for families – Mum, Dad, the kids, a few uncles, aunts and so on. The price? $1.50 for a dorm bed and $15 for a room. Compare that with the cost of a camping package at around $50 through one of the dive companies. Beat that for a tranquil beachside hide-away on a sunkissed island cove!
We visited at the weekend, as a Vietnamese tour group took over Garden Hills and set up a sound system as big as 10 men to supply the backing music for a karaoke fest, to which we were joyfully invited. To avoid this, you may want to visit during the week when Mr Mai Bang assured us his lodgings usually stand empty. If a group of you wanted to host your own beach party, a call in advance means you too could hire the sound system (bring your iPod and the connection lead, unless you too prefer Asian karaoke as a backing track while splashing around in the sparkling phosphorescence-rich sea).
For $15 we’d bypass the ‘rooms’ and go all out for the dorm beds, not just for the price tag but for the experience. The fact that you are not tied in with a tour gives you plenty of time to scale the cliff and explore some of the more remote parts of the bay. Pack light – pillows and blankets are provided and Cham Island Divers have an alternative restaurant further along the beach if you want a bit of choice for watching the sunset over distant Hoi An.
The $2 supply boat leaves Cua Dai harbour at approximately 08:00, taking you to Cham Island’s main village, a half hour trek away from Garden Hills. It returns from the same dock at around 11:00. You can hire a coracle or small boat to take you to Chong beach or prebook a speed boat from a tour operator in town for $20 return, leaving Cua Dai harbour at 08:00 and Garden Hills beach at around 13:00. The best time to visit is between March and September.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 18th June, 2014.