Hoi An

The Cham Islands: Hoi An’s Jewel in the Sea

The Cham Islands (Vietnamese spelling: Cù Lao Chàm) can be seen glittering off the shores of Hoi An. Their crystal waters are home to hundreds of species of fish and coral, with some of the most idyllic beaches in central Vietnam.

Due to a narrow sea channel and seasonal storms, tourists can only visit these islands from March or April through to the beginning of September. 

People come here to enjoy the best diving in the region and the rustic village ambiance. Apart from minimal sightseeing, other activities include swimming, fishing, sunbathing, sea walking, and an abundance of seafood delicacies.

The only accommodation available are homestays with friendly locals. If you stay a night or two, you can enjoy idyllic empty beaches (once the day-trippers have left), gorgeous sunsets, and glimmering sunrises.   

Settlement of the Cham Islands 

Most scholars tend to believe that the Cham people were the descendants of the Sa Huỳnh culture that flourished in Southern Vietnam as far back as 1000 BC. The Cham seem to have settled these islands some 2 500 years ago, which is about 500 years earlier than the inhabitation of Hoi An. 

From these islands, the mighty Cham controlled the spice trade of the South China Sea and into the Indonesian archipelago, with trade reaching as far as Japan and Korea. The Cham Islands provided a perfect natural shelter for traders while they waited for the seasonal winds to change to sail their ships back north. 

UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Cu Lao Cham

The Cham Islands, also known as Cù Lao Chàm (CLC) consist of 8 small islands, of which only the main island of Hon Lao (Hòn Lao) is inhabited. In 2009, the Cham Island ecosystem was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve— the second established in Vietnam after the Marine Protected Area (MPA) of Nha Trang bay. 

The Cham Island reserve has around 260 coral species of coral, 200 types of fish, and numerous other sea creatures. Local sea residents include bumphead parrot fish, angelfish, and the endangered humphead wrasse. 

Endangered Humphead Wrasse
Endangered Humphead Wrasse
[ by Derek Keats from CC ] 

Bio Sustainability in the Cham Islands 

Since 2005, four zones were set up including a core protection zone only for scientific research, sited areas for rehabilitation which also exclude fishing and diving, a tourist development zone, and a responsible fishing zone.   

Apart from fishing and tourism, economic development activities have included mushroom growing, fish sauce production, and local crafts. Salanganes swallow nests are a big thing on the rocky islands of Hòn Mồ and Hòn Ông. Some one and a half tons are harvested each year. 

Another popular product is Cham Islands Loa Leaf Tea (trà rừng Cù Lao Chàm), which is an assortment of local herbs dried and sold as a detox treatment.

Diving in the Cham Ocean 

Coming to the Cham Islands means getting in touch with your inner ocean. There are snorkeling and diving for everyone and idyllic beaches for swimming, sunbathing, or fishing.  

Most of the 10 key diving spots around the different islands are between 6 to 30 meters deep, with the average around 16 meters. 

There are plenty of Cham Island tour operators, some not exactly authorized, and they will probably rush you through a few snorkeling spots, Bai Lang village, and lunch at Bai Chong Beach. 

However, if you really want to get the best out of it, choose a proper diving outfit such as Hoi An Diving Center, also Cham Island Diving, and Blue Coral Diving

Grumpy Underwater Cham Resident
Grumpy Underwater Cham Resident
[ image by Cham Island Diving ] 

With a professional scuba diving operator, safety standards are high. Trips can include scuba diving for those with or without a license, and try diving. Snorkeling is an option too, and kids can be included. Professional companies can take you to the best spots for the day, and also organize a homestay for two days of diving.

The Best Months for Diving in the Cham Islands 

As with most diving in Vietnam, the best season is from June until the end of August. During these months the waters are the calmest and the sunlight the strongest. When diving, you’ll probably be advised to wear a bathing vest to protect from sunburn and jelly stingers. 

The spring time from April to June is not too bad, but conditions vary a lot from day to day depending on the weather which is still unsettled at this time. From September, stormy weather starts to increase and the tourist season winds down. 

Fishing, Sunbathing, and Sea Walking in the Cham Islands

Another popular way around Neptune’s underworld is to go sea walking. You can do this through Sea Trek Vietnam, or selected tour agencies. To know which are the best beaches for families, sun worshippers, loners, or fishing, see our section on the best beaches of Cham Island.

Sea Walking is Pretty Good Fun
Sea Walking is Pretty Good Fun
[ image from Sea Trek Vietnam ] 

Things to do in Bai Lang Village 

People only live on the main island Hon Lao, and there are two main village communes.  One is Bai Lang (Bãi Làng) with the ferry docking pier, and 5km further south is the smaller village of Bai Huong. The total population is not much more than 3 000.

Xom Cam Well 

People Milling Around the Ancient Cham Well
People Milling Around the Ancient Cham Well
[ image by Roger Shitaki ] 

One of the first things you’ll come across as you leave the ferry pier and head into town is an old well (giếng cổ Xóm Cấm). If it’s a busy day, there are always plenty of tourists thronging around, drinking the water, taking pictures, and vendor stalls selling their food and wares. 

The water is really cool and refreshing, and seemingly never runs dry even during the dry season. It’s a typical brick Cham well built by hand some 200 years ago and is now a national relic. 

Hai Tang Pagoda

Hai Tang Pagoda on Cham Island
Hai Tang Pagoda on Cham Island
[ image Hằng Bami by from Facebook ] 

From the well, it’s about 15 minutes or so to walk to the pagoda (chùa Hải Tạng) which serves the spiritual needs of the island community. As such, it’s a combination of Buddhist worship, gods of trade and the sea, as well as local spirits. 

Originally built in 1758 and then destroyed by a typhoon, the temple was relocated nearby and rebuilt in 1848. The word ‘hai’ means sea, and ‘tang’ is the ‘tripitaka’ or the three principle canons of traditional Buddhism. 

Cham Island Museum

Giant Crab at Cham Island Museum
Giant Crab at Cham Island Museum
[ image by Roger Shitaki ] 

The Cham Museum (Bảo tàng Cù Lao Chàm) is a modest and genuine attempt to inform visitors about the islands. 

There’s a section of the life of local people and their interaction with the sea. You can learn about how plastics damage the ocean and why all plastic bags are banned on the islands. 

The second main exhibit is all about sea life. There are displays of the rare turtles that come to the islands, giant crabs in the Cham ecosystem, and the usual hapless bottled specimens. It’s fairly informative especially since general information on the islands is sparse.

Some local flora to learn about includes the red-flower sycamores on the island which reach a height of 50 to 500 meters. The locals use the bark to knit hammocks and the seeds are used in cooking. 

The Market 

The local market, or Tan Hiep Market (chợ Tân Hiệp), is just to the right along the road as you alight from the pier. It’s mostly a produce and fresh seafood market. You can pick out what you want and have various specialties cooked for you, including sea urchins.

They also sell dried produce, and local herbs and tea. Unique sycamore tree products include cakes made from the nutritious seeds, cooking oil, and cosmetics. Local hammocks made from the sycamore bark cost around  2.5 million to 3.5 million VND.

Local Dried produce at Cham Market
Local Dried produce at Cham Market
[ by Nguyễn Tuấn Anh from Facebook ] 

Bai Huong Village and How to Get There

Bai Huong (Bãi Hương) is not for the average tour day tripper. The quieter homestays are here and your host will generally send a bike to pick you up. You can get motorbike taxis at the pier, and there’s also a small local ferry to Bai Huong for 40 000 VND.

There’s no bike rental shop on the island as such. You may be able to negotiate a bike hire freelance near the peer, but supposedly foreigners are not permitted to ride alone because the islands are militarily sensitive. 

Things to do in Bai Huong Village

Ngoc Huong Vihara is a Buddhist temple following the Theravada path akin to that in countries like Thailand and Laos. This temple has sculptures outside decorated with mosaics and a great view of the ocean. You can also get vegetarian meals here. 

Another interesting place you’ll find in Bai Huong is a small ‘bird nest’ temple. It’s a small place of worship built in the 19th century. On the 10th day of the 3rd lunar month is a special celebration to pray for the swallows and a good nest harvest.

At Bai Huong beach you can also book activities such as fishing and coral snorkeling. However, if you continue a little further south along a bumpy road, you will reach the Hang Yến promontory. It has a magnificent view of the cliffs hugging the coastline. 

Best Beaches of Cham Island 

Two beaches, Bai Ong and Bai Lang, are within easy walking distance of the main pier of Bai Lang. Other beaches either require more walking, or you must get a bike taxi.

1. Bai Chong Beach 

Bai Chong Beach
Bai Chong Beach
[ image by Roger Shitaki ]

Bai Chong Beach (Bãi Chồng) is the most popular beach on the island. Most people come here on tour boats and stay for a few hours. The facilities are well kept such as toilets, lockers, and beach showers. There’s also plenty of seafood to go around. 

If you come by bike, there’s a bit of a steep incline to climb down, and you have to pay 20 000 VND at the entrance. It’s some 2km to walk here from town, and the sun can be intense, so the best land option is really a bike taxi.

You can also rent a tent on Bai Chong for 200 000 VND. You can camp on other beaches if you have your own tent, but this beach has plenty of toilet facilities, showers, and breakfast options at the local diners. 

2. Bai Ong Beach

Bai Ong Beach
[ by PanDa Qiu Shui from Facebook ]

Bai Ong (Bãi Ông) is a large beach easily accessible from the upper side of the main village Bai Lang. There’s plenty of shade, deck chairs, and an inflatable water house. There’s food available until around 4 pm. 

3. Bai Xep Beach

Steep Road to Bai Xep Beach
Steep Road to Bai Xep Beach
[ by Duy Pham from FaceBook ] 

Bai Xep (Bãi Xếp) is about half a kilometer down from Bau Xei. The beach is a narrow strip easily accessed from the road. Its calm stunning waters are perfect for snorkeling, and day-trippers don’t come here. There are no facilities or vendors, but there is a small local diner just off the main road. 

4. The Other Beaches on Cham Island

Bai Huong Fishing Beach
Bai Huong Fishing Beach
[ image Ly Bang by from FaceBook ] 

Bai Lang is the beach at the end of Bai Lang village. It’s a beautiful wide beach with plenty of palms. It’s not as well serviced as the more popular Bai Chong, but there are a couple of small restaurant diners nearby. Alternatively, it’s good for fishing and the sunset is nice here if you’re staying over. 

Bai Huong is the main quay front for the smaller hamlet on the island. This is where most commercial fishing boats moor. There is a fresh seafood market, souvenir shops, but the beach is not so much for leisure activities. 

Bai Bac (Bãi Bắc) is a little further up towards the northern head of the island. This beach gets quite windy and it’s not so wide with little shade. It’s worth a sightseeing trip, but make sure to take water with you. 

Bai Bim (Bãi Bìm) is no longer accessible to tourists. For better or for worse, it’s the location of one of the first formal resorts on the island, the other to be located near Bai Bac.

Best Beaches on Cham Island

Food on the Cham Islands 

Spiny Sea Urchins, Scallops, and Escargots
Spiny Sea Urchins, Scallops, and Escargots
[ by Ngọc Vàng from FaceBook ] 

If you go to the Tan Hiep Market, you can see what the sea has to offer, and you can choose anything you’d like cooked up. This is one of the best places to get cheap and good seafood. 

One delicacy worth trying is sea urchin famous for their gooey and slimy texture. Lobsters is another popular choice, as well as abalone, and various kinds of cockles and clams. A specialty to try is the cellana sea snail – also known as titty shells by locals for their conical shape. They are either charcoal grilled or boiled. 

There are only a couple or so restaurant diners on the island— Dan Tri being the best established and it’s 50 meters or so down from the market.

Bai Chong is the best beach for enjoying a good meal. Most popular day tours will stop over at Bai Chong beach for lunch. There are no local diners in Bai Huong village, except sometimes Ngoc Huong Vihara temple is open for vegetarian meals.

Seafood Platter at Bai Chong Beach
Seafood Platter at Bai Chong Beach
[ image by Roger Shitaki ] 

Where to Stay in the Cham Islands 

For now, the only places to stay in the Cham Islands are at local homestays either in the main village of Bai Lang, or the smaller and quieter commune of Bai Huong. You can book diving and fishing excursions in both places, often from homestays. 

Homestays can be booked through places like Booking.com, and a couple even have their own homepage, or a tour company can make a reservation for you. Chinese and Hong Kong passport holders are not allowed to stay overnight due to the sensitivity of military facilities on the island.

How to Get to the Cham Islands 

There are two transport options to the Cham Islands. One is the public ferry, the commercial speed boats.

Getting to Cham Islands by Public Ferry

Cham Island Ferry Cua Dai Port
Cham Island Ferry Cua Dai Port
[ by Dennis W Davis from FaceBook ] 

In Hoi An, the public ferry which leaves around 7 am from An Hoi Pier. It’s a bit tricky to locate, but it’s down a lane just past the Silk Marina Resort. 

The ferry can get crowded as it’s also packed with goods. A one-way fare is 150 000 VND, bicycles and scooter are 50 000 VND, and for non-locals there’s a 70 000 landing fee which goes towards the conservation of the islands.

The main departure point, however, is Cua Dai Pier (Cửa Đại) near the mouth of the Thu Bon River and you’ll have to take a short taxi ride there if you’re staying in Hoi An. The ferry departs between 8:00 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. and it’s 100 000 VND, while motorbikes and the entrance fee are the same at the other port. 

The daily ferry from Bai Lang pier to Hoi An leaves at around 11:30 am each day. The last speedboat back is around 3 pm. To board the public ferry you may have to show your passport. The total travel time is 1.5 hrs compared to 30 minutes by speedboat. 

Getting to Cham Islands by SpeedBoat

For speedboats, you have to go to Cua Dai Pier. There are a number of shops there where you can buy tickets, and prices vary, but the general price is around 350 000 to 400 000 VND for a return ticket. 

It’s best to buy a two-way ticket if you’re just there for a day because ticket prices on the islands can fluctuate more. Booking through your hotel or a tour agent is more likely to guarantee an easy return. 

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