Travel Report: Cham Island, Vietnam.
Cham Island, Vietnam.
I gazed up at the bluest of blu skies as we cut into the East Vietnam Sea at high speed. The wind… not rushing but positively smashing through my hair. The waves chopping at the sides of the little speedboat as we hummed towards The Cham Islands.
I was really looking forward to this. I’d read, over and over, that these were among the most beautiful, underdeveloped islands in South East Asia. Eight largely unspoilt chunks of granite home to turquoise waters, pristine coral reefs and deserted beaches. So beautiful that UNESCO declared The Cham Islands a World Biosphere Reserve.
Of the eight islands located 15 kilometres off the coast of Hoi An, only one is inhabited. Thus that’s where I headed, to the island known as Hon Lao. Or simply Cham Island, as western tourists call it.
Hon Lao is the largest Cham island. First settled, according to historians, by the ethnic Cham people over 3000 years ago. Over the centuries all manner of military ships have anchored here and indeed half of the land still belongs to the Vietnamese military. In fact, they had only recently opened the island for tourism.
Cham Island, Vietnam.
“Bai Huong Village!” announced my captain, laying out a long wooden plank in order to connect the boat to the beach. I could already see my host waiting on the sand. He was a short, plump man in his early 50s, a wide grin plastered across his face. In his hands he held a cardboard placard, on which he’d scribbled my (correctly spelt!) name.
There were no hotels on Cham Island. Just homestays with local families, which usually involved a single room right in the heart of the family house. Having read several rave reviews, I booked four nights at Lau Thu Homestay, one of just three such guesthouses in Bai Huong Village.
The man who picked me up was Mr. Lau, a local fisherman who runs the guesthouse with his wife Thu. Hence the name of the place. They didn’t speak a word of English, but were certainly good fun. Especially the playful and often slapstick bickering that bounced back and forth between them for large spells of any given day.
I had barely sat my backpack down on the floor when Lau and Thu announced that lunch was ready. On Cham Island, hosts include food as part of the nightly rate. This was essential in Bai Huong Village, which has no restaurants or general stores. Typically, you’re looking at breakfast, lunch and dinner on each day of your stay. Moreover, there’s a fierce competitiveness among the locals to wow their visitors with the biggest and tastiest spread of island dishes.
Lau Thu Homestay.
I have no idea what kind of feasts the other homestays put on, but I’d be amazed if anyone managed to outdo Lau and Thu. Among the many plates, I gorged on egg fried rice, spicy chunks of tofu and fried vegetables drowned in oyster sauce. I also enjoyed salty grilled octopus, fried chicken, boiled potatoes and chopped salad. Simple dishes, but everything freshly prepared and delicious.
After lunch I settled into my tiny box room in the hallway off the dining room. It wasn’t much, but I appreciated the queen-sized bed that takes up three quarters of the room. Crucially, a wall-mounted air con unit provided relief from the stifling heat. Furthermore, a mosquito net kept me away from the unwanted attentions of the world’s least favourite insect. During the night at least.
The giant Lau Thu lunch knocked me out that day. It was only then that I realised just how exhausted I was. I’d been adventuring for just over three weeks, with visits to Hanoi, Cat Ba Island, Halong Bay, Dong Hoi, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, Hue, Danang and Hoi An.
Listening to my complaining body, I spent the rest of the day napping in one of the terrace hammocks. It was lovely, just the sound of the waves and an occasional nudge from Mama Thu, who would bring me glasses of iced tea. Oh, and that one time the family dog woke me up by licking one of my feet.
Cham Island, Vietnam.
After 24 hours of eating and sleeping I emerged the next day with a curiosity to explore Bai Huong Village. As it turned out, there was very little to see. Strolling down the main beach, I made for the village’s sole sight, Bai Huong Temple. There was no information about it online, so I tried to find out more from Mr. Lau via Google Translate. “Maybe 30 years old” was all I managed to get out of him. Hm, ok.
I found the Buddhist complex deserted that morning. Entering via a creaking gate, I made my way through the scruffy front garden before taking the ascending steps into a handsome stone courtyard.
It was so peaceful and atmospheric I had to stop for a moment to drink it all in. Wind chimes tinkled from a drinking fountain, paper lanterns fluttered from the trees. While there were so sign of the monks, I could see their robes hanging from a line on one of the residential huts. Not a bad little setup they’d crafted for themselves.
There was another set of steps for access to the main shrine, housed in a small room set on a wide stone platform. It was immaculate, with fresh fruit offerings, polished wood furnishings and not a speck of dust on the tiled floor.
Bai Huong Temple.
Back outside, on the platform, I stood next to the white Buddha statue. The pair of us looking out across Bai Huong Beach, its long pier and the expanse of sea beyond.
Exiting the temple grounds, I was just about to head back to the homestay when I caught sight of a small Buddhist shrine in the far corner of Bai Huong Beach. It was a tiny thing, cutely tucked away under some low hanging branches. The shrine itself seemed somewhat unloved, mostly empty except for a filthy wooden Buddha surrounded by rotting mangoes.
Much more interesting was the dirt track outside the shrine that leads into the jungle. Instinctively, I followed it, though the way soon fizzled out into a network of giant boulders descending into the sea.
Hopping over the first few rocks, I realised there was now a whole new boulder path running along the water and twisting out of sight around a corner of jungle. Suddenly, I found myself itching to know what lay beyond. A secret beach perhaps?
Negotiating those boulders wasn’t the easiest, especially in my sandals. And yet, determined to see what lay around the corner, I picked a path forward, clambering over several large rocks. Dropping, where I could, down into shallow sections of the water to paddle through. Eventually, I had to stop for a breather and tend to a small cut on my big toe. Oh lord, was this really worth it?
Adventures in Vietnam.
When I turned the corner there was nothing but rocks… more boulders and even more rocks. If I’d had any shred of sanity, I would’ve turned back. However, fuelled by an obsessive desire to conquer the boulders and discover the beach in my minds eye, I pressed on. Soon, the gaps between the rocks became longer… wider. The boulders more slippy, the jagged parts sharper and more frequent.
I hadn’t noticed the local man swimming in the sea nearby. But he’d definitely seen me, so over he swam to help me out. Dressed in a bright orange life jacket, he climbed up onto the rocks and joined me atop a large boulder. I was expecting him to lead me back to Bai Huong Beach. But instead, he wordlessly took me by the hand, guiding me towards the next corner.
Looking back, it was one of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done. A dozen times, at least, I nearly lost my footing, which would have seen me plunge into a rock pool. Next, it seemed our luck had finally run out when we reached a humungous boulder that surely couldn’t be scaled. But Mr. Life Jacket nimbly pulled himself up and then hauled me after him. At long last we turned the corner and… ta dah! … we arrived at a gorgeous, perfectly hidden beach.
Cham Island, Vietnam.
We sat there for a while. Unable to chat with me, Mr. Life Jacket grinned and gazed out to sea. I’ll always be grateful for the way he stepped in that day. I hate to use the word, but it was effectively a rescue . What’s more, it was Mr. Life Jacket who made sure I got safely back to Bai Huong Village. That precarious route back nearly gave me a heart attack, but hey, I lived to tell the tale.
Wisely, I decided to take no more risks with the rest of my stay. One burning hot afternoon Mr. Lau drove me to the nearby village of Bai Lang, Cham Island’s biggest community. Here, there were a few restaurants and cafes, though it was all incredibly low key.
The village’s few residential streets were empty. In the main restaurant, the owner looked startled to see me. I ordered a beer and took it outside on the deckchairs where the owner’s trendy looking son was fast asleep.
On the edge of the village, I discovered the absolutely stunning Bai Xep Beach. It’s just a short, narrow strip of sand, but with choice views out across the blue waters and two sister Cham Islands. Unfortunately, it was so ridiculously hot the beach became virtually impossible to visit in the daytime. Indeed it offered not one inch of shade and had no services whatsoever.
Bai Xep Beach.
I made sure to return to Bai Xep Beach one evening after sundown. I’m glad I did as the colours were so dramatic. And I got to catch a local football match played out by the kids of Bai Lang Village.
In my last few days I crossed off what I’d read were the island’s most impressive beaches. The first was Bai Ong, which at first glance appeared entirely empty. The beach offered yet another breathtaking panoramic, the sun dancing in all directions off the water, sand, trees and rickety wooden pier.
Strolling the sands, I came across the tiny Am Linh Temple. Built at the end of the 19th century, this is where the islanders come to pray for locals who lost their lives in sea storms and hurricanes. An unkempt cemetery sits behind the temple, a resting place for people found washed up on Cham’s beaches.
As I progressed, I realised that the beach was home to a campsite, a row of about twenty tents. And that’s when I noticed a group in the distance, a tantalising smell of barbecued meat drifting up my nostrils.
Cham Island, Vietnam.
The barbecuers were a Vietnamese group visiting the island from Hoi An. Exchanging brief pleasantries, I made my way to the far end of the beach for a bit of solitude. A nap in the shade, perhaps, followed by a dip in the sea.
But I was dismayed to find the sands badly polluted, with hundreds of plastic bottles and beer cans, in addition to scatterings of general trash. It was so bad I immediately knew I had to do something. So I borrowed a trash basket and a rusty garbage can from the barbecue area and spent an hour gathering up all the crap.
After a while I could see the Vietnamese group looking and pointing, then laughing amongst each other. At some point, one of the younger men came over to take a photograph of me. Nobody pitched in to help.
By the time I was done dusk had descended and the Vietnamese were packing up their stuff. I must admit I felt quite pleased with my handiwork and there were wonderful shades of blending blue as a reward for my efforts.
Last but not least, I paid a visit to Cham Island’s largest stretch of sand, Bai Chong Beach. This one was even quieter, just myself and a pair of Swiss guys smoking marijuana on deckchairs. The chairs seemed to belong to a large cafe, though the place was clearly closed.
Bai Chong Beach.
Politely declining their offer of a smoke, I settled nearby under the protective branches of some banana trees. Out in the distance, I spied a pair of wooden boats. The occasional “whoo-hoo!!!!” and “Ohhhh yeah!” drifting over from one of the decks.
“Party guys” muttered one of the Swiss, eyes glazed. “Americans, I think” continued his accomplice with a long draw. “But they won’t come here. Too much effort and the beer is more important”. He was right too, after twenty minutes or so of hollering the boat’s engine rumbled into life and they chugged away.
That last afternoon on Cham Island was utterly blissful. While the Swiss smokers went swimming, I lay with my legs in the sun listening to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon. Once again day rapidly bled into early evening and it was time to go. This time tomorrow, I realised, I’d be arriving in the bright lights of Ho Chi Minh. Pretty much a million miles away from the sultry delights of Cham Island.
Setting off on the long walk back to Lau Thu Homestay, I made sure to savour it all. To lose myself in the rhythm of the waves, to watch the birds and bats doing their thing overhead. To realise that, many years from now, I would remember this trip as the best of times.
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Beaches look beautiful but not sure I will make the momentous effort it took you to go! You’re so adventurous and you have such great stories to tell. I love Vietnam though and can’t wait to go back
Hey Alison! Thank you for your kind words. Cham was/is a bit off the beaten track and even when you get there the island doesn’t seem geared up for visitors. My adventures on the rocks was a bit reckless to to be honest, no way I’d do anything like that again.
You do seem to have reckless adventures going by your previous posts!
It’s unfortunate that none of the beach-goers chipped in to help clean the beach, but I love that you did it and that you continued even when they were laughing!
Hey, thanks for reading and leaving a comment. It was a really unique experience cleaning that beach and not the afternoon I had envisioned prior to arrival 🙂
haha, I bet!
This sounds like an amazing trip! Kudos to you for picking up the plastic. Vietnam is one of my favorite places. We once did a trek/home stay up around Sapa. The food was incredible and the people, delightful. You have me wanting to go back!
Hey Pam, thanks for stopping by. Sapa is a place I missed out on, despite having a month to explore Vietnam. I have only heard great things, so a solid reason to return one day. Thanks again.
There is sooo much to see there!
Not quite the land that time forgot, but certainly blissful Leighton. Other than the messy beach, it would seem the locals have figured out what life is about. A good place to relax, if you do not set out on a rocky adventure. Thanks for sharing. Allan
Yes the whole pace of life and the natural beauty of the place was just perfect. I have very fond memories of my stay on Cham Island, thanks for stopping by Allan.
What an idyllic place. How do you decide where to go? Loved the story of the lifejacket man and how he just appeared and led you to the beach. How did he know what you were looking for? I suspect you have guardian angels and he was one. “Well, got to go save Leighton again. The things he gets into.” Whatever the reason, you sure find some fascinating places and people.
Ha ha guardian angel sounds about right. This time I don’t even have the excuse of being 25 years old. It was just a rush of blood to the head, I had to find the beach. Cheers Memo!
This sounds like the perfect getaway Leighton! I’m sure, if one wants to de-stress, this should be the place to go! I like the photo of the white Buddha and BLUE sea – the colours are so intense. And I wouldn’t mind a bed like that … or food like that … or hammock like that. I’m sold to Cham Island!!
Ha ha I think everyone would easily be sold on Cham Island, sans the rock scrambling. Thanks for reading Corna as ever, and for your always enthusiastic and amusing comments.
Wow, stunning pictures of this paradise island that you found. Paradise even included the guardian angel who guided you to safety…although paradise probably doesn’t have trash to be picked up. Wonderful post about a place that I am now firmly placing near the top of my list.
Thanks Meg, I hope this brought some deep blue summer to wintry Tennessee. Paradise is the right word in many ways.
The people on the beach may not have appreciated your cleanup efforts but I’m sure the locals and others did. I can’t believe how much you picked up. Overall this sounds like it was a wonderful off the beaten path experience!
Hey Diana, appreciate the read and comment! Yeah hopefully at least one person took a walk on the beach the next morning and thought, “ooooh” this looks a bit different. Or, who knows, maybe there was a fresh batch of crap across the sands already.
I can’t get over how beautiful the beach and water is!!! WOW! I’d have the hardest time leaving and I can see why you loved your time here so much.
Cham Island is a no brainier I think, when in that region of Vietnam. Most people end up in Hoi An for a few days and from there it’s just a brief speedboat ride over.
It was definitely worth that precarious narrow ledge to reach the idyllic beach with Mr.’Lifejacket’. Your home stay hosts certainly looked after you with those vast spreads several times a day and so nice they ran you into the nearest town one day too. A great post as always Leighton.
Thanks Marion, putting this one together was a lot of fun and the perfect project for a bit of winter escapism. Hope your February is off to a good start!
Wow, a paradise destination with the perfect hosts. Homestays can of course be a bit risky but if you get a good one they are absolutely the best way of really getting under the skin of a place and experiencing it “properly”. And apart from your hour spent as a “beach Womble” you certainly had a great experience here. The island looks terrific.
Wombling Leighton, I like it! “Common am I”. Glad you liked the look of Cham Island, another spot for you to consider for your eventual return to Vietnam.
I love Mr Life Jacket Man. We found the Vietnamese, especially outside of the large cities, to be very welcoming and friendly. So great that you took a picture of him. Looks like there still are a few serene spots left on the island. Too bad for the party side with obnoxious tourists, and littering locals. Maggie
Mr. Life Jacket is clearly the star of this blog and I’m delighted people have responded so well. I truly shudder to think what may have happened if I hadn’t met him. At some point I would’ve just given up on the secret beach and tried to get myself back to Bai Huong in one piece! Thanks for dropping by Maggie, your contributions are always appreciated.
Wow, what a fun trip and just look at those beautiful palm trees slowly swaying in the wind! I wouldn’t mind swapping our dreary winter weather for such gorgeous blue sky – I’ve forgotten what it’s like being without my thick winter coat, can’t wait to shed it 🙂 Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva
Thanks Aiva, I think I felt just a touch warmer simply putting this article together.
Never been to Cham Island in Vietnam… thanks telling about that.. I take off my list.. Today we see so much plastic here on the beach in Turks and Caicos. But the food is so delicious.
Thanks for dropping by Anita. Hope you enjoy the rest of your trip!
What a paradise you found, Leighton! Too bad for the trash on the beach, kudos to you, hopefully they appreciated, although they did not bother to help. Christie
Thanks for reading Christie! I guess they appreciated it in their own way, if only for its entertainment value!
Yeah that sounds quite bad🤨 I feel often frustrated when I see so much trash and plastic in the woods, while we are barely able to finish an ice cappuccino with a paper straw, it is almost impossible!!! hahaha They mandated paper straws in Canada, but I really don’t think this makes a difference..
It looks like a great natural beauty, hopefully not spoiled too much by the so-called investments of the big neighbour.
Barely spoiled at all back in 2018. Can’t imagine too much development took place in the two years before the pandemic hit. Hopefully Vietnam will open up again soon and they can reclaim a bit of tourism.
This looks like a very peaceful place!
Absolutely, I’d say the quietest place of my entire Vietnam trip. Thanks for stopping by!
Homestays are a unique experience, especially different from the hotel/hostel/Airbnb route that some travelers opt to take: they really allow you to learn about the locals and their customs, all the while establishing long-lasting friendships at times! My homestay experiences have been limited to Couchsurfing with a French family (in Paris) on my travels, but it’d be neat to try it out more (albeit safely with the pandemic, of course!). Cham Island looks like absolute paradise, and sometimes, it’s great just to relax and do nothing while traveling– it doesn’t have to be a packed sightseeing day every day!
Can’t say I’ve done that many homestays either to be honest. Usually I prefers complete privacy m, but this was an opportunity to step a little outside my comfort zone I guess. I wonder if and when Cham Island will get its first hotel.
The colour of the water looks stunning. That’s so neat that visitors are required to to stay with local families if they want to spend the night. It makes for a more authentic experience and a great way to try the local cuisine. Good for you for cleaning up at the beach.
You’re right, the homestay setup thrusts you right into the culture. The food really was amazing, so simple but incredibly fresh and bursting with flavour. Glad you enjoyed reading about Cham Island!
It does sound like the best of times. You picked a winner with Lau Thu. If I was in the area, I’d stay there just for the food. I think you made good merit with the trash clean up.
Not sure what the other home stays are like, but I feel I’d have been extremely lucky to find a place better than Lau Thu. Thanks for stopping by John!
This island seems so relaxing and welcoming! The food at the homestay looks absolutely delicious as well. All the best, Stephanie and Jerome.
Cham Island is a delight, definitely one of Vietnam’s many highlights. Thanks for reading, leaving a comment and indeed following Leighton Travels.
It looks beautiful, I love the simple homestay and the food looks incredible – what a special experience. Your description of the boat made me laugh as when I was in the Caribbean I was being buffeted so hard by the wind that when I was sick (motion sickness, never good), it just went straight in my face and I arrived to my next destination quite literally covered in vomit. Disaster!
Oh lord that sounds horrific. I too suffer from motion sickness but certainly don’t have a tale to match that. Thanks for checking in Hannah, hope your 2022 is unfolding well.
It’s awful isn’t it when you love travelling! 2022 is all good for me so far, hope you’re enjoying England 🙂
A slice of paradise! The food, uncrowded beaches, kind locals at the homestay and to the rescue. (a shame about the trash)
Paradise is about right Ruth. I could use some of that right now to be honest here in wintry northern England. Thanks for visiting!
I’m in winter country as well. Brrr!