There is a certain pleasure in heading out to islands that until recently were no-go areas for tourists. Situated in Central Vietnam a short boat ride from Hoi An, the Cham Islands are such a place.
A hidden treasure steeped in tradition — the islands were originally settled 3,000 years ago — over the past few years there has been an influx of tourism. However, the islands’ original settlers, the Cham people, have an ongoing influence on their shape and feel. Arriving from what is now Indonesia in around the 4th century, the Cham first settled these islands before moving onto the mainland where they gradually established the Kingdom of Champa.
For over 1,000 years, the islands have been used as a stop-off point to ship goods from the mainland to other lands overseas. With nearby Faifo — now Hoi An — becoming such an important international port between the 15th and 19th centuries, these islands would have taken on great significance.
Used as a trading point in conjunction with Faifo for farming, fishing, pepper, cinnamon bark, ivory and wood, over the years the Cham Islands also developed another trade; swallows’ nests. Used to make bird’s nest soup, a Chinese delicacy, nests along with nest harvesters can be seen all over the islands. With 1kg of bird’s nests going for as much as US$4,000, this is a trade that continues to this day.
As I make the crossing to Hon Lao, the main island, it’s hard to imagine the turbulent and rough seas that have been reported on this passage. Today the seas are calm, their colours tropical and azure.
Eight islands make up the Cham Islands, however only Hon Lao is inhabited and exploration here is a challenge. As a tourist the opportunity of renting a bike and exploring the largest island doesn’t exist — your two options are to get a local to drive you around by bike, or to pay a local fisherman to take you around by boat. While this means you can still explore, you don’t have the same independence as you would on the mainland.
As the boat draws closer you see the islands are covered with forest and rocky formations, with a few yellow sand beaches dotted around. With rising sea levels, erosion has crept in and while these stretches of sand are still pleasing to the eye, they are no longer the magnificent beaches they once were.
Bai Lang is the main village on Hon Lao and Bai Huong is the smaller of the two. As in the past, fishing takes a leading role in the economy here, with large numbers of fishing boats docked or going out to sea. Many types of fish are on sale in the main market; buckets full of shrimp, star fish, lobster, squid. This is the islands’ mode of living.
Walking around, you notice that everyone seems to get involved. Not only with the fishing, but also with the construction of nets, cooking, and boat maintenance. There’s an overwhelming warmth and togetherness in the people here. And as they open their homes to us and greet us with beaming smiles, we can see the community spirit is strong. We feel welcome as soon as we step off the boat.
But there’s a dark side to every story. With the demands of the tourism industry in Hoi An, a large quantity of the local catch is being transported to the mainland. But, there’s still never enough. So, fishing for seafood and marine life is on the increase.
Not long ago, a big draw for those snorkelling and diving in the Cham Islands was the possibility of glimpsing whale sharks. In recent years sightings have been on the decline as these beautiful creatures have started migrating to more plentiful oceans. Overfishing has diminished their food source in the seas surrounding the Cham Islands.
However, there is still a vibrant and vast underwater ecosystem to explore. How long this will remain, though, is unclear as overfishing is rampant.
As one of the locals said: “If I don’t catch fish, I don’t feed my family.”
And this is the problem, except for subsistence farming and harvesting swallows’ nests, the options for survival here are limited. Hopefully the current construction of holiday resorts will take some pressure off the fishing industry. But with more tourism comes a greater demand for seafood. We can only wait and see.
Getting There & Accommodation
Departures from Cua Dai Beach in Hoi An dock at two different sites on Hon Lao.
The speedboat leaves daily at 9.30am with a return trip in the afternoon. The journey time is 30 minutes and can be organised by a tour operator. Dangerous when seas are rough.
There is also a local boat that departs daily at 7.30am / 8am. The journey time is roughly two hours and it takes you to Bai Lang, returning in the afternoon at 3pm. To board this boat and get onto the islands, you will need to show your passport.
Dive, snorkelling and day trips depart at around 8am. The journey time is one hour and trips can be arranged through tour operators, hotels, and hostels in Hoi An.
There are now a couple of homestays on Hon Lao including Hammock Homestay, Smiles Island Homestay, Homestay Bai Huong and Lan Thu Homestay. You can find all their details online.
For more info on the Cham Islands, click on hoian-tourism.com
Photos by Olga Rozenbajgier