Phu Quoc is Vietnam’s answer to The Maldives. A two-hour flight from Hanoi or a middling one-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City is the only obstacle to beach resort island paradise.
But what if I told you, that for more than three times the duration, you could go somewhere much worse? It doesn’t sound enticing, but visiting Co To Island might be the unexpected hit of this summer.
A Co To Embargo
Co To Island is an archipelago consisting of a few inhabited islands, and a sprinkling of smaller rocky formations situated in Quang Ninh Province, approximately 270km east of Hanoi.
Until recently, Co To Island was off limits to foreign tourists, unless an elusive permit was acquired first. This was owing to its close proximity to Chinese territory, and the large military presence on the island.
This meant it remained unknown to, and unspoiled by, foreign visitors. In the first six months of 2016, it only attracted a modest 15,000 domestic travellers. This contrasts with Phu Quoc, which attracted nearly one million visitors in 2016.
However, on Jul. 15, 2016, the sharply named Decision No. 1288/QD-UBND designated Co To Island a local tourism site, and foreign visitors would be permitted to visit permit-free.
However, the long distance and difficulty in reaching Co To Island still threatens to keep it lagging far behind Phu Quoc and Cat Ba in popularity. I decided to make the journey for myself, hoping to discover whether being allowed to visit is something to be celebrated or not.
Alarm Clock Rage
Due to the projected eight-hour travel time from Hanoi, an early start is unavoidable if you want to arrive on Co To with a few hours of daylight remaining.
Because it’s 2017 and I’m super trendy, I start my journey with an Uber. The first destination is My Dinh Bus Station, a crowded and unglamorous place to be at 6.30am.
Still scraping thick chunks of crust out of my eyes for most of the ride, I give my driver a five-star rating for no reason other than for not assaulting my fragile morning ears with repeated horn use.
Half an hour later, I somehow successfully drag myself from the correct ticket booth to the correct bus without walking into anyone or falling asleep.
Start Your Engines
Today’s sponsor of the bus driver lottery is KUMHO Viet Thanh, a company which has departures for Cam Pha every 15 minutes, for VND100,000 a ticket.
My Tet prayers must have been heard by someone, because the driver is not so bad. The driving is quite smooth, the horn use is minimal and nearby motorcyclist fatalities are zero.
The bus itself is a mixed bag of tricks. The seats are comfortable, even for a lumbering behemoth like me. There’s no WiFi or toilet, but there is a big-screen TV. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your opinion of thumping Vina House music or Chinese costume dramas.
After the first two-and-a-half hours, we make a scheduled stop at a service station owned by the bus company. Tasteless bowls of tepid pho, questionable sausages and mountains of industrial sweet snacks become much more attractive when I remember there’s still another three hours of the bus journey to go.
After holding my breath long enough to facilitate a visit to the toilets, I’m back on the bus and popping my first two painkillers of the day, as my back, nether regions and head all take turns screaming out for mercy.
Pulling into Cam Pha Bus Station, I make a mental note to send a lengthy thank-you email to Bose for their superb noise-reduction headphones.
A 30-minute taxi ride to Cai Rong Port awaits me. My taxi driver is either drunk, angry or both. His woeful driving even causes a van to stop in front of us, the furious driver getting out to confront my driver, as I cower in the back pretending not to notice.
Once at the port, I find a number of boat companies offering fast (90-minute) journeys to Co To Island. I go with Manh Quang because of the imminent departure time, and hand over VND150,000 for my ticket.
Although I don’t need a permit, I still need to hand over my passport to be registered, but the process is smooth and quick.
The boat is noisy, but comfortable and quite modern. Due to our proximity to Ha Long Bay, the view from the boat window is spectacular, and time flies as I take photos and listen to podcasts.
My arrival on Co To Island is about eight hours after leaving my home in Hanoi. The island is in low season, so everything is shut. The beach resorts are unfinished, but should be open for summer.
It’s worth pointing out that I used the Ka Long boat company on the return journey; a much better overall service. Despite using the same bus company to come back, the new driver was a madman, but that’s the fun of the bus driver lottery.
For now, you would be crazy to choose Co To over Phu Quoc or Cat Ba, but the planned beach resorts on Co To look fantastic, so don’t rule it out just yet.
The journey is hard work, but once Co To has upgraded itself a bit, the value and convenience will make it a very attractive option.