Jul 25 2012

Cham Islands, Hoi An

Published by at 5:30 am under Sightseeing & activities

The Cham Islands aren’t just about diving. The lure of some of the most unspoilt islands in Vietnam and the chance to camp out under the stars on an incredible stretch of beach has made the islands the perfect escape between tailor fittings.

The Cham Islands selfishly escaping a bit of bad weather.

The marine-protected Cham Islands are located a 20 kilometre boat ride from Cua Dai harbour and are run by the military. Getting out to them in the wet season (October to February) is almost impossible as the seas become too dangerous to navigate, but in the dry the coral reef surrounding them become a micro-diver’s paradise, with 20-plus metre visibility from June till the end of August making it a great option for snorkelling too.

You don’t have to look hard to find a rainbow of tropical sea-life lurking among the hard and soft corals, with lion, angel, scorpion and parrot fish, anemones, sea cucumbers and my favourite, Christmas trees — no idea what they actually are, but I spent rather a lot of time clicking my fingers to make their sparkling fonds retreat from the sound vibrations, completely missing the moray eel my dive instructor was pointing out. If you are into underwater photography, this is the place to do it.

The best diving north of Phu Quoc.

There are several different ways to get to Hon Lao (the main island) and a few options for staying over should you wish. The two PADI dive centres in town, Blue Coral and Cham Island Divers, are your best options for diving, snorkelling and overnight camping. Both offer safe and professional instruction and well maintained kit. There is a whole fleet of locally-run speed boats that you can book at any tour office or hotel reception in town, but be warned these boats get hugely overloaded with Vietnamese who don’t travel well (I was once treated to a durian projectile vomit shower) and can be quite dangerous. If you have your heart set on a James Bond-style arrival you’d be better off spending the extra on a private speedboat through either Cham Island Divers or one of the upmarket resorts.

Walking the plank.

Your third option is to go local and hop on the daily supply ferry – 08:30 Cua Dai Harbour, 100,000 VND per person which takes you to the main village harbour on Hon Lao. You need to buy a visitors permit which costs 30,000 VND at Cua Dai harbour before getting on the boat. It takes about two hours and returns from Hon Lao harbour at 12:00, so is only really an option if you plan to stay over. It’s an interesting experience which you get to share with livestock, the odd army recruit and if you’re lucky, a few friendly islanders returning home.

A warm Cham island welcome.

If you do plan to spend a few days here, avoid weekends and public holidays when the beaches fill with Vietnamese tour groups singing karaoke and knocking back obscene amounts of booze. During the week the beaches are almost deserted, making it feel like your very own private hideaway.

Cham Island port, rush hour.

Several very basic guesthouses are on the island, with the best by far being the relatively new Cham Island Guest House. Rooms are large and breezy which is important as there is no power from 22:00 till 06:00 anywhere on the island. The guesthouse has a large kitchen, which the family are more than happy to share with guests. Another option is Homestay Bai Huong, nine small family homes with basic Western-standard facilities set up last year to help the fishing villagers with a more sustainable income. It’s a chance to really experience island life and become one of the family, who encourage visitors to join them in daily activities like cooking, fishing and football on the beach with the kids at sunset.

Cooking Bai Huong homestay-style.

Still, my favourite option is camping on the beach. This you must arrange in advance as the army very much frown upon people pitching up (sorry) with a tent without permission. Both dive centres will set you up with tents, a beach bonfire and a seafood dinner; the South China Sea throws in a spectacular phosphorescent show even more sparkly than the unpolluted night sky.

Although it would be very easy to spend your whole day alternating between sea and sand on one of the island’s eight secluded bays, indulging in the occasional fresh seafood snack in between, Hon Lao Island has much more to offer. Explore the two main villages, Tan Hiep and Bay Huong, plus dozens of pagodas and shrines and a jungle-clad interior with its highest peak 450 metres above sea level.

If you do want to boot up and go in search of adventure, you will need a guide, as the high ground is occupied by the army and most areas above 50 metres are restricted, meaning if you get too close you risk arrest or being shot at. Cham Island Divers can help you set this up (a trek not being shot); Ludo, one of the owners, is one of the only foreigners to have lived on the island, is highly respected by the villagers and his island knowledge is second to none. Another option is Khann, an islander who charges 100,000 VND per person for a private trek of his home territory. I have yet to go on a trek with him (see above sea and sand), but I have only heard good things about his tour and once it has cooled down another 10 degrees I intend to sign up. Other tour companies offer treks but these tend to be the speedboat tours and include a poke around the village which is great if you are only on a day trip, but you could easily do this yourself.

A monkey’s view from the jungle — I missed the monkey…

Hon Lao’s shops are not equipped with much more than basic island rations, so along with the usual sunscreen, hat and insect repellent you might want to plan ahead and stock up on other stuff in Hoi An. If you are going solo, bring a snorkel and mask and if you are planning to stay at one of the Bai Huong homestays, take the kids some books. If you are staying in a guesthouse, don’t forget your passport for checking in. Leave all plastic bags behind; the Cham Islands have recently banned them to help protect the coral and marine life.

And a Cham Islands sunset!

Blue Coral Diving
77 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Hoi An
T: 0510 627 929

Cham Island Diving
88 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Hoi An
T: 0510 391 0782


Cham Island Guest House
Book through Cham Island Divers

Bai Huong Homestay
T: 0120 237 8530

Khann, Private Island Trekking Tours
T: 0935 850 0202


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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Cham Islands, Hoi An”

  1. Tommaso Querinion 31 Jul 2012 at 11:10 am

    Just a short comment. I don’t think the speed-boats are either over-crowded or dangerous. I took them in Phu Quoc and it was an ok experience, despite the TV program featuring Vietnamese abroad. Are these a different kind of speed boat?

  2. SorryOutOfOfficeon 01 Aug 2012 at 2:50 am

    I went on a 2 fun dive day trip with Cham Island Diving back in June 2012. Although we did see one seahorse there really wasn’t anything else spectacular underwater. The visibility was perhaps 5 meters, which was better than diving in Nha Trang. I certainly wouldn’t fly across the world to dive at Hoi An or anywhere in Vietnam. However, as part of the trip we did stop at the island for lunch and a little time on the beach. The island beach was the best in Vietnam (Hoi An, Nha Trang and Phu Quoc) hands down. The sand was golden and clean. The beach was deserted. A day trip to the island is worth it.

  3. Miss Con 01 Aug 2012 at 3:26 am

    What a shame, 5 meters is really unusual for June and not great for micro diving, but we did have a few stormy days which can affect visability greatly. Apparently there are a few turtles around one of the sites at the moment which is something you don’t often see in the waters off the Cham Islands. The beaches are beautiful, there is news that the province are aiming to increase visitor numbers to the island hugely over the next two years so the days of clean white sand and deserted stretches of beaches are sadly numbered, so although your dive was disappointing you were incredibly lucky to visit the island before it is ruined by hordes of tourists and I agree! No summer visit to Hoi An is complete without a day on the island.

  4. Miss Con 01 Aug 2012 at 3:56 am

    Hi Tommaso, I’ve not taken the speed boat to Phu Quoc so I can’t really compare. The majority of the speedboats that go out to the islands from here though are not well maintained and are more suited to river cruising than the ocean which is a real safety issue when the sea gets choppy. They do pack them out like a can of sardines and although it is a rule for all tourists to wear life-jackets, the moment the boats are out of the military harbour most people take them off – of course that is their decision. In the last couple of years there have been many accidents on these boats, which I’m hoping will lead to tighter restrictions in the future, for now though I personally would rather take a seafaring boat, it takes longer, but you are on island time and its a beautiful journey. There is one other reason I avoid the speed boats and that is because they do not respect the marine protected coral, at some of the snorkel sites the coral is very near the surface and it is not at all unusual to see a group of Vietnamese tourists perched on top posing for photos which causes immeasurable damage and is dangerous. Its all about making informed choices, if you do choose a local speedboat just be aware, keep your life-jacket on and sit somewhere secure and I’m sure you will be fine, if you are worried about numbers on board avoid Vietnamese holidays and weekend – which is good advice for visiting the islands in general.

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