Eight nautical miles off the coast of Hoi An, a cluster of eight islands known as Cham Island, or Cu Lao Cham, offers travellers a little getaway. The main island Hon Lao, the largest and the only one inhabited, is less than two hours' away by public boat – or a harrowing zip across by speed boat. It boasts beaches, diving, snorkelling, seafood and one very scenic drive. If you’re impressed with Hoi An’s An Bang Beach, wait until you see Cham’s white sand and sparkling turquoise waters.
Most tourists who visit do so on an organised day tour. It is possible to stay overnight on the island and even camp out in a tent on the beach. But the island does just about everything to discourage backpackers from striking out on their own, while encouraging mass group tours. Talk about environmental impact: on the weekends, this means over a thousand people arrive to the beach like they’re waging an invasion.
There are several challenge for independent travellers. Foreigners are not allowed to ride motorbikes on the island; the reason we were given is that the roads are too dangerous (indeed, they are extremely steep) but more likely it’s because the island is also a military outpost and the government is forever worried about prying eyes as a spat with China over water territory continues to simmer. Without motorbike or bicycle rentals, it’s very difficult to get around from beach to beach. Then there’s the ridiculous admission fee for the beach and the matter of foreigners getting ripped off on the chaotic public boat. So is a trip to Cham Island worth it?
If you’re a beach bum, then yes, though don’t expect a deserted idyll. And you’ll want to stay overnight so once the swarm of daytrippers and speed boats all depart in the mid-afternoon, you can enjoy the surf and sand in relative peace. Here's how to navigate the pitfalls and get the most out of a trip to Cham Island.
When to go
Visiting Cham Island is seasonal. Tourist boats regularly go during the dry season, approximately March to September. June until the end of August is the optimal time for diving and snorkelling. Boats may be cancelled due to strong wind and waves, leaving daytrippers stranded until conditions improved. Getting there in the wet season (October to February) is almost impossible as the seas become too dangerous to navigate. Avoid the weekend and public holidays, when the island is overrun with selfie-obsessed Vietnamese tour groups singing karaoke and knocking back booze.
How to get there
The most popular option is to go on an organised speedboat tour. These tours primarily cater to Vietnamese, Korean or Chinese tourists. They pick-up from the hotel at 08:00, race over to the island, usually stop at a couple of the beaches before returning at 14:30. It costs US$25 per person including lunch and broken snorkelling equipment. Be warned, these boats get hugely overloaded and can be dangerous. If you have your heart set on a James Bond-style arrival you’d be better off spending extra money on a private speedboat through either Cham Island Divers or one of the upmarket resorts. If you want a trip with other backpackers, inquire/book with backpacker-oriented hostels like Phuong Le, Tribee or Paddy’s.
The do-it-yourself option is to go via the public wooden supply boat. It arrives at Cua Dai harbour to pick up passengers at 08:30. This boat first departs from Hoi An at 07:30 but you’re better off taking a taxi (around 120,000 dong) or xe om to Cua Dai harbour and taking the boat from there. The less time spent on that boat the better. Arrive at Cua Dai at 07:30, wait and prepare yourself for chaos when the boat docks.
Once the boat gets close there’s a mad dash to get on – there’s no gangway or ladder. Everyone grabs onto the side, scrambling to get in, on, up while the boat drifts in and away from the pier and leans from the lopsided weight as cargo, livestock, chickens, motorbikes and fridges are thrown on. Try to go to the upper deck, get a plastic chair and carve out a spot. A fare collector will tell you the price is 150,000 dong but you should be able to negotiate down to 100,000 dong, the correct fare for foreigners; Vietnamese pay 30,000 dong. A boat manifest will be passed around. Fill out your name and nationality. China and Hong Kong passport holders are not allowed to stay overnight. The boat arrives to Bai Lang, the main village/harbour on the western side of big island, at 10:30. Disembarkation is a mad scrum. This same boat returns to the mainland between 11:00 to 12:00 so if you’re travelling by this method, you have to stay for at least one night.
The last option is to hire a private transfer by speedboat. Organise through an agent or hire one directly at Cua Dai harbour. We were quoted US$10 one-way.
All civilisation is located on Hon Lao, a mountainous island with peaks in the centre and on the western tip. Two villages and beaches dot the sheltered western side of the island. Bai Lang has the main harbour where the public supply boat docks. The second fishing village Bai Huong is near the southern tip.
A single road rings the island but the eastern side is off-limits to foreigners unless you very quietly hire someone to drive you. It’s a scenic drive along an extremely steep undulating road that snakes high along the coast. There’s nothing on this side except magnificent views and military posts (hence, foreigners are not allowed to ride motorbikes on the island).
There are no ATMs. Come stocked with dong and any Western comforts you may need (like sunscreen). Electricity is now available 24/7.
A small ferry runs between Bai Lang and Bai Huong for 30,000 dong per person. The western side of the island is doable on a decent mountain bike with gears. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to rent one in Hoi An and bring it with you. Otherwise, it’s a matter of negotiating and hiring someone to take you around by motorbike.
For breakfast, there are a few noodle soup shops in the villages and for lunch, choose from the number of seafood restaurants that cater to the tour groups, either in the village or on the beach. Dinner is more of a challenge as most shops close by then. Organising a meal with your homestay is the best option.
Cu Lao Cham Marine Park is recognised by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve and the best way to explore the outer islands is with a professional diving outfitter.
Donning bikinis on the tourist beaches is no problem, but away from the beach or if you’re swimming in the village, cover up with at least shorts and a T-shirt.
Cham Island has been mainly set up for day visitors. Up until 2016 there was only camping on the beach or very basic homestays, usually a room in someone’s house. Now there is Hammock Homestay, the island’s first guesthouse of a quality and calibre backpackers in Vietnam are accustomed to. The owners of this guesthouse also own Cham Restaurant, which has a tourist setup on Bai Chong Beach, our second accommodation option. Bai Chong is located on the western side of the island, two kilometres south from the village. Cham Restaurant (T:(0976) 605 750; (093) 599 9101) has set up all a beach bum needs, including toilets, rinse-off showers, chairs, loungers and sun huts. There are also lockers available so you can nap on the white sand or plunge into the sea without worry. It’s 200,000 dong a night to rent a tent. This is by far the best beach camping option on the island and the restaurant can serve breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Once a month Cham Island Diving does an all-night Full Moon Party on Bai Chong, departing Hoi An at 16:30, returning at 07:30 the next morning. If dancing on the beach, beer, cocktails, barbecue, night swimming and sleeping under the stars sounds like heaven, heaven costs 1,000,000 dong per person. Book your spot in advance.
There are tents available to rent on Bai Ong, the beach a kilometre north from town. While this beach gets hundreds of day tourists, all shops close at 16:00 and by sunset it is completely deserted leaving you with absolutely no food options or company. We met a couple of backpackers who discovered this the hard way after paying 150,000 dong for a tent. Sleeping alone on a beach? Use your judgement. If you decide to, come prepared with supplies.
Visitors can still opt to do the basic homestay and you can easily find several once you get off the jetty and walk around Bai Lang village. The few we saw were a bit grim and long in the tooth. There are more homestay options in Bai Huong, the fishing village near the southern tip. They can be organised through Homestay Bai Huong, which helps travellers connect with one of nine small family homes with basic Western-standard facilities, set up to help the fishing villagers with tourist income. It’s 120,000 dong per person; lunch or dinner is 70,000 dong, breakfast is 30,000 dong. Snorkelling or fishing is 150,000 dong per person, trekking 100,000 dong. Go with an open-mind, be prepared to do charades to communicate, take the kids some books and settle into the rhythms of island life. If you want to make arrangements in advance, contact them at least a few days before arriving as it takes a while for them to reply.
Beaches are Cham Island's star attraction. There are two main tourist beaches. Chong Beach (Bai Chong) is located on the western side, two kilometres south from the main village, where Cham Restaurant is found (see above). There’s a pleasant set up on the white sand with reed sun umbrellas, loungers, a sectioned off swimming area and jet ski rentals. From the road, look for the unmarked, steep but well trodden trail leading down to the sand. We think this is the best hangout beach as it is sheltered by a ring of greenery, making it feel like a more intimate spot.
Ong Beach (Bai Ong) is closer to town and bigger but it bears the brunt of the speedboat tours. Just a kilometre north of town via a pleasant walk/cycle promenade along the water, the beach has daytime restaurants and a volleyball net. Come here at sunset to join locals in a game of football. Although this is a public beach, a sign indicates a 20,000 dong admission fee is required.
Further along the road, in the very northwest corner of the island, is Bac Beach (Bai Bac). As with the other spots, the water here is pretty and there are chairs and umbrellas for rent, however, there is a series of derelict, abandoned accommodation and it is an eyesore.
Our favourite spot is Xep Beach (Bai Xep), the jaw-dropping stretch of empty, silky white sand between the main village and Chong Beach. From the road, simply scramble down the boulders and be amazed. It sees very little foot traffic, save for the occasional speedboat.
Continuing south, it’s worth it to hire a motorbike driver or take the 30,000 dong small local ferry from Bai Lang to fishing village Bai Huong, located in the southwest tip of the island. Not only is there another lovely beach, the village has lots of character, some seafood restaurants and fishing activity. Take a stroll to see buckets of sea creatures and what’s drying in the sun. Visit the early 19th century temple dedicated to the ancestors and gods who brought bird nest collecting. The island has a cave up in the mountainside that is a nesting area for swallows, whose nests are coveted for their nutritional value and as a flavourful delicacy.
While Cham Island is far from the country’s best area to dive (that title goes to Con Dao), at the right time of year it offers a decent amount of underwater fun and tropical sea-life including hard and soft corals, anemones, sea cucumbers, angel, clown, lion, clown and triggerfish, eels and nudi. The day’s dive site is determined by weather, currents and wind conditions. The optimal time is June till the end of August. Expect cold waters and low visibility at the beginning of the season in March and April.
Hoi An has two dive shops, both offering PADI certification. Cham Island Diving has been in operation since 2002 and their three/four day PADI Open Water Diver Course costs US$370 per person. Visit them at The Dive Bar in the heart of the old town for more information. Blue Coral Diving is comparably priced, their shop is just a block away.
For snorkelling, we recommend joining one of these dive boats rather than going with a crowded cheap tour. You’ll get a more professional experience, good equipment and a Dive Master looking out for your safety. The only problem is that this is one of the most expensive one-day snorkelling trips you’ll find in Vietnam. Blue Coral Diving is US$40 and Cham Island Diving is US$44, both including two morning snorkelling sessions plus lunch and chill out time on a beach. You can snorkel with a dive centre in Nha Trang or Phu Quoc for just US$25.
Both dive shops have the option to add camping for an overnight stay. We mentioned tents above, but if you want to package it up into an organised one-night trip, Cham Island Diving can arrange it on Chong Beach for US$82 per person, based on a minimum of four people – drop into the shop, there may be a few people already signed up. It includes boat transport, tent, evening bonfire and snorkelling both mornings. Cham Island Diving is great for any island-related advice. Ludo, one of the owners, is one of the only foreigners to have lived on the island and his local knowledge is second to none.
Hiring a boat locally is a great way to escape the crowds and explore the other islets. Through Hammock Homestay, we arranged for a three-hour boat trip for 500,000 dong. It included a stop and walk around Bai Huong village and anchoring off Hon Tai for some peaceful swimming and snorkelling (bring your own snorkelling gear and drinks). We didn’t see a single soul and felt worlds away from those pesky speedboats. Winds pick up in the afternoon so most boat captains will prefer to go in the morning or midday.
To explore terra firma, hire someone to take you for a drive along the road that rings the entire island. We’ve received conflicting reports on whether or not the eastern side was completely off-limits to foreigners. We had no problem hiring someone to take us on the whole loop, stopping for photos along the way. Price was two hours for 250,000 dong. The views are heartstopping – and the drive is not for the faint of heart either. The road is a scar on the side of the mountain, undulating steeply like a rollercoaster as it winds its way along the coast with nothing but expansive views of the water. If you are successful in making arrangements, it’s best to keep your journey low-key.
By Cindy Fan
Last updated on 19th September, 2016.