Amazed by the dedication to bring in fresh fish in such rough conditions, it’s no wonder my guide from Thanh Hoa City says, “you can’t get better fish in northern Vietnam, fact.” This is a subjective opinion and I was yet to try it, but watching the sailors drift back into shore, there was a chance she was telling the truth.
Rise to Fame
Developed by the French in the early part of the 20th century, Sam Son was also a favourite of Uncle Ho’s, who visited the Co Tien (‘Fairy’) Pagoda. He was apparently quoted as saying that it would mark a good spot for a holiday.
Walking along the seafront, four or five-storey hotels dominate the strip and the infrastructure has been set up to make the beach attractive to holiday-makers. It has the look of a faded seaside resort that has seen better days, with ageing buildings and tired bars. Ask most Hanoians about Sam Son and you might hear comments like “Oh, prices are double for tourists” and “There are much nicer beaches in Vietnam”.
That may be true, but I’m not sure why the people I spoke to view the place with such disdain. Sam Son isn’t just a beautiful beach, it has some historical relics of regional importance and stunning scenery and nature, all walking distance from the seafront.
The 10km of flaxen sands run from the Lach Hoi Estuary in the north to Truong Le (‘Long Tear’) Mountain in the south, which means there’s plenty of room to get away from the crowds while sipping a beer and listening to the lapping waves. There are also some quieter spots beyond the Fairy Pagoda atop the mountain that is actually just a hill.
The provincial government has recently spent money on sustainable fishing practices as well as building a two-lane highway from the Thanh Hoa bypass to the beach. It’s clear to see that this is somewhere they are keen to keep going, and with the many sleeper buses that display ‘Sam Son — Hanoi’ on the windscreen, it doesn’t appear this beach escape is dwindling in popularity.
Beyond the Beach
Take a walk up the hill towards Fairy Pagoda and you’ll pass Hon Trong Mai, a set of rocks that symbolise a myth dedicated to faithful love. The views from the summit of the East Sea and outlying islands are worth the climb, and the pagoda itself makes a serene setting for worship. You’ll also find a deserted and completely undeveloped beach to the south, aside from a couple of wooden-stilted restaurants and a few cockle pickers.
The Doc Cuoc Pagoda, dedicated to the protector of fishermen and Sam Son villagers is closer to town and provides a peaceful retreat from the crowded beach, offering sweeping views of the bay. There are also more temples and pagodas to explore in town if you have time.
According to my guide, the beach’s allure is due to the crystal clear waters in May and June, and also because the sand has the right mixture of grains, making it very comfortable. The waters weren’t clear and the sand feels like any other beach, but that didn’t take away from the fact that it’s a pleasant spot, drivable in four hours from Hanoi. My guide was right, it really does have great seafood — fresh-tasting and flavoursome, that can be enjoyed in any of the restaurants straddling the beach.
It’s hard to find reasons why any Hanoian heart wouldn’t be content here. It might have been raining intermittently, heavily at times, but it didn’t spoil that unique feeling of escaping the city and finding the beach. Okay, it doesn’t have any well-known five-star resorts and the entertainment might be a little outdated, but Sam Son certainly has a charm that can be enjoyed by even the most cynical of tourists.
Late afternoon, and locals as well as domestic tourists — my guide pointed them out by their accents — are gathering to enjoy the water, frolicking in the sea with inflatable toys, having their photos taken and burying their friends in the sand. It was a fantastic scene devoid of rushing motorbikes and grumpy faces. My plan was to ride there and back in a day, but I decided to stay the night, such was its seductive appeal. I’m not sure there’s better so close to Hanoi.
Five Beaches Closer to Hanoi
Distance (from Hanoi): 140km
Peaceful, undeveloped and clean, this beach, in Nam Dinh province, may be the perfect romantic day trip
The guidebook says it’s Hai Phong’s answer to tropical heaven (poetic license at its best), but ask most Hanoians and the jury’s still out
Cat Ba needs no introduction, but the logistics of getting there make it an impossible day trip
The beach may be fake (apparently), but you won’t be short on entertainment with artificial hot springs, a waterfall and an aquarium
Again artificial and crowded in the summer, it makes up for the lack of peace with impressive views of the other side of Halong Bay