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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