The Cham Islands, Vietnam: Read this before you go.
If you’re visiting the ancient trading port of Hoi An, you should also consider a visit to the Cham Islands, a group of eight islands in the South China Sea, 19 kilometers off the coast of Hoi An. They are apart of the UNESCO Cu Lao Cham – Hoi An Biosphere Reserve, which includes Hoi An, the islands, and the waters around them. This made the islands a popular tourist location… and basically screwed them. Pollution levels went up, fish populations went down, and the islands were built on with almost no regard for the natural beauty. The UNESCO money wasn’t spent on protecting the islands, but making them into a money generator. There are a few activities that might interest you: SCUBA diving, snorkeling, camping on the beach, etc. That being said, you’ll want to choose method of visiting wisely. I went on a tour with a local company. Here’s how that went:
Throughout the tour, I teetered between annoyed and flabbergasted. There were just too many people, not enough respect for nature, and not really any time to relax and enjoy our surroundings. This is not what I expected when I signed up for a tour of a tropical island.
I you still want to go to the islands, there are advantages to taking a tour: everything is figured out for you, you won’t end up stranded on the island, it’s just easier and not really that expensive. A tour can be booked at one of the many travel agents in Hoi An. They typically include a hotel pickup at 7AM, the boat ride, some snorkel gear, lunch, a guide, and a ride all the way back to your hotel at about 3:00 – for 500,000 VND ($25). Good luck. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
To avoid a tour, head to Cau Dai boat dock (see map below) in the morning before 9AM and start asking around. Many of the guides will speak English, but just saying Cham Islands will probably be enough to find a tour that has some space (if they don’t, they’ll probably still pack you in). The speed boats take a half hour. You should be able to get the ride for 150,000 VND. If you find a wooden boat instead, you should pay less (about 100,000 VND) but the ride will take about an hour and a half. Either way, you’ll be dropped off at Bai Lang on Hon Lao, the largest and only inhabited island of the group. The ride will be bumpy. You may get a bit wet. If the sea looks rough, you might want to consider staying on dry land. The boats won’t run certain times of the year (usually September to December) because it’s just too dangerous.
There are only two villages on the island, Bai Lang and Bai Huong. Bai Lang is worth exploring a bit. There’s a small fish museum and an ancient temple. It’s narrow streets are nice, but often packed with tourists. After visiting Bai Lang, most of the tourists will take a boat to the beach just outside of the town, so your best activity is to do a hike between the villages. Bai Huong is a little over an hour to walk to. It should be a bit of a retreat from the rest of the island. If you prefer, you can get a moto-taxi for around 100,000 VND, or the small local ferry that runs from the pier for 30,000 VND.
There are a few guesthouses on the island — some of them you’ll see on the road between the towns. There’s also a homestay program that will cost a mere 120,000 per room. If you do stay over night, know that there is no electricity from 10PM until 6AM, and no ATM machines on the island. If you aren’t going with a tour group, you should bring your passport. The military run the island and could want to check it. They also don’t like people wandering around. Technically, without a guide you shouldn’t be hiking trails other than the road between the two towns. Chinese people and plastic bags aren’t allowed on the island. I agree with the latter.
To snorkel in a designated snorkeling area, you’ll need a permit. I’ve heard good things about the snorkeling, but the experience I had was not great. I saw more Vietnamese crotches than fish (maybe that’s your thing though).
When you’re ready to head back to mainland, you can catch the local boat back from where you were dropped off originally at 11:00-11:30AM. It takes 2 hours to get back, so bring water and patience. If that’s too early (or too long of a ride), walk to the beach at Bai Lang and find a tour with an open seat. If they can make some extra money off of you, they’ll be happy to give you a ride back at around 2:00 or 3:00 PM.