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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
How to get there
The easiest way to get to the island is by one of the tourist boats that generally charge a package price of $25 per person including a guide, snorkelling equipment and lunch. If you are thinking of doing this you really are better off booking on a dive boat. There are speed boats, but they are not the safest and well maintained vehicles in which to safely transport you from A to B. All will ask you to wear a life jacket while you are in view of the coastguards. We'd recommend keeping it on for the entire journey.
A public boat leaves the dock between 08:00 and 08:30 daily (weather permitting); it takes just over one hour and costs 10,000 VND each way. The downside is that it sets off back to Hoi An at 11:30 which unless you are staying overnight gives you about an hour on the island.
By Caroline Mills
Last updated on 12th December, 2014.