#ExploreVietnam

Island-Hopping in Vietnam: A Guide

Vietnam Island

A growing trend in Vietnam, island-hopping is gaining momentum among independent travellers. From north to south, the Vietnamese coast is flecked with islands. In the south, glistening mini-archipelagos lie in the calm, balmy waters of Vietnam’s portion of the Gulf of Thailand; in the north, the famous, jungle-clad limestone pinnacles of Halong Bay (and many other similarly captivating bays) grace the Gulf of Tonkin, all the way to the northeastern border with China; and off the coast of central Vietnam, volcanic craters rise from the East Sea, forming rugged and starkly beautiful isles. Vietnam has thousands of islands; hundreds of which are inhabited; and dozens of which can be visited by island-hopping travellers. A handful of these islands are already well-established tourist destinations, but many are only just emerging as potential attractions; finding their way slowly onto the traveller’s radar. As travel bans are lifted, regular boat connections established, and military control relinquished, Vietnam’s islands are creating quite a stir: this is an exciting time. And so, the island-hopping scene in Vietnam is guaranteed to grow with each year. Now is the time to get ahead of the curve and start your own island-hopping adventure.

Con Dao Island

The Con Dao Islands is a remarkable place. You’re likely to experience two sides to the islands when you visit: one day spent swimming in the clear sea, walking upon white sand beaches, hiking in the jungle, riding a scooter along deserted coast roads, & drinking cocktails on the seafront promenade; another spent visiting the colonial-era prisons, learning about former inmates (many of whom are celebrated national heroes) & witnessing remnants of their forced labour, which caused thousands of prisoners to die. The former is the future of the Con Dao Islands as a tropical paradise; the latter is its past as a brutal penal colony. I have always felt deeply attached to the Con Dao Islands: a feeling which gets stronger each time I visit. If you’re a regular reader of this website, the chances are you share my general feeling for travel destinations, & you too will fall for these islands.

Con Dao Island

Hon Son Island

Lying in the Gulf of Thailand, just over an hour’s boat ride from Rach Gia in the Mekong Delta, Hon Son means ‘Mountain Island’. Rising from the calm, blue sea, giant boulders dot the palm-studded lower slopes as they ascend steeply to several jungle-covered peaks. It’s a rugged yet green & exceptionally beautiful isle. You only have to look at a map to see that Hon Son is close to the Platonic ideal of a tropical island. It’s a gem. My advice is to go right now, because development is likely to be on the horizon, & when it comes it will change the island very quickly indeed. But, for now, Hon Son is still very much an off-the-beaten-track destination – very few foreign travellers visit – & there’s no doubting the island’s beauty, charm, allure, & huge tourist potential.

Hon Son Island

Ly Son Island

A volcanic island surrounded by a ring of reefs, Ly Son is a striking, stark & geologically fascinating destination, off the coast of central Vietnam. Three large, extinct volcanic craters dominate Ly Son. Inland, the island is barren, dry & sandy; its flat patchwork of fields rising violently to dramatic cliffs that plunge to the brilliant-blue sea. The water quality around Ly Son Island is among the best in Vietnam. But this isn’t your typical tropical island: Ly Son doesn’t have long, sandy beaches, brushed by coconut palms. What it does have are coral reefs, crystal-clear seas, twisted rock formations, black cliffs, mesmerizing crater-top views & one of the most dramatically situated beaches in Vietnam. Easily reached by regular, 30-minute, fast boat ferries from Sa Ky Port, in Quang Ngai Province (and a new ferry link from Da Nang), Ly Son Island has fired the imagination of young, Vietnamese backpackers for several years. But foreign travellers have yet to arrive in numbers. Famous for its seafood & garlic, which grows in the island’s rich, volcanic soil, there’s lots to keep you busy on Ly Son, including hiking the volcanic craters, riding along the coast roads, swimming in the sea

Ly Son Island

Cat Ba Island

Cat Ba Island, lying in the Gulf of Tonkin, off the northeast coast of Vietnam, is a favourite travel destination for foreign and domestic tourists alike. Roughly equidistant from two of northern Vietnam’s largest industrial cities – Hai Phong (to the west) and Ha Long (to the north) – Cat Ba Island is, nonetheless, one of the country’s star natural attractions, and part of the world-famous Halong Bay. A large, green and rugged island (most of which belongs to a national park), Cat Ba’s interior is a forest of limestone karsts, whose pointed peaks are overlaid with thick jungle, echoing to the sounds of insects and animals; while its dramatic coastline is indented with myriad bays, coves, and cliffs. Cat Ba is a beautiful island and there’s lots to see and do here, but it’s also one of Vietnam’s major tourist hot spots. Cat Ba’s population is around 16,000, but each year the island receives some 2.5 million tourists. With this popularity comes some familiar problems: crowds during peak times, over-development in concentrated areas, pollution, noise, threats to the natural environment. However, Cat Ba is still a great place to explore as an independent traveller

Cat Ba Island

Nam Du Islands

Nam Du is a glistening archipelago of small tropical islands off the southwestern coast of Vietnam. Lying in the calm waters of the Gulf of Thailand, travel to Nam Du Islands is still in its infancy. Pioneered by young, Vietnamese ‘Instagram-backpackers’ just a few years ago, Nam Du Islands have been gaining a reputation as an off-grid beach retreat. A good percentage of my younger Vietnamese friends in Saigon have already been there and done it, as have a handful of expats, and some adventurous foreign travellers. But, for at least two of the last four years, since Nam Du opened to visitors, foreign travellers weren’t allowed on the islands. However, that’s all changed now, and Nam Du Archipelago is easily reached by regular ferries from the mainland, making independent travel to these beautiful and undeveloped islands absolutely possible for all nationalities. Nam Du is gorgeous, but already the impact of tourism and development is changing the islands, in many cases for the worse. It’s probably best to visit sooner rather than later.

Nam Du Island

Phu Quy Island

A fascinating drop of land in the East Sea, Phu Quy is yet another of Vietnam’s previously ‘unknown’ islands that’s recently opened its doors to domestic and foreign travellers. A flat, green island rising gently to two volcanic peaks, Phu Quy is very isolated – far out in the ocean, 120km east of Phan Thiet on the mainland. Like other such islands in Vietnam, Phu Quy is on the cusp of a tourism boom: its name is on the lips of most young Vietnamese backpackers, and developers are scouting the island for suitable locations to build. There’s very little tourist development yet, but infrastructure – roads, ports, ferries – is all in place. As the island is still controlled by the military, until recently all foreign travellers had to obtain a permit to visit Phu Quy. However, as of September 2020, this is no longer required. There are daily fast boats from the mainland, good, cheap guest houses, beautiful bays, beaches and island vistas, inexpensive seafood, hospitable people, dozens of local temples, empty coast roads, and an exhilarating sense of isolation.

Phu Quy Island

Pirate Islands

The Pirate Islands (Đảo Hải Tặc) lie in the Gulf of Thailand, just off Vietnam’s southwest coast, between Ha Tien and Phu Quoc. A small, rugged archipelago with calm seas and green hills, the Pirate Islands have only recently opened to foreign travellers. For centuries, the islands provided shelter for pirates, who lay in wait in the rocky coves, poised to attack commercial ships plying the lucrative Southeast Asia trade route, laden with goods. Today, the Pirate Islands have a wild and rustic charm: electricity is limited, accommodation is basic, the population is small, and the scenery is relatively unspoiled. But change is coming. Soon the Pirate Islands will be connected to the national grid, giving residents 24-hour electricity for the first time. And this is expected to spark a tourism boom. Below is my full travel guide to the Pirate Islands.

Pirate Island

Tam Hai Island

A small and tranquil island within fairly easy reach of Hoi An and Danang, Tam Hai has long beaches, coconut groves, volcanic cliffs, and sleepy villages whose houses are splashed with colourful murals. A pleasant 1-2 hour drive south of Hoi An via the coast road, Tam Hai is an island at the mouth of the Truong Giang River, in Quang Nam Province, Central Vietnam. The placid river flows either side of island, thus cutting Tam Hai off from the mainland. Accessed via small ferries from the north and south, the island retains its own character, with local festivals and temples, a distinctive dialect, some historical relics, and even wildlife, including a population of Leopard Cats. Walking, cycling, kayaking, motorbiking, swimming, snorkeling, fresh seafood, and boat trips to outlying islands are all very good fun and worth making the trip for. Tam Hai is a particularly rewarding excursion for independent travellers. The island only has one accommodation option: the peaceful and tasteful Le Domaine de Tam Hai.

Tam Hai Island

Phu Quoc Island

Vietnam’s largest island and one of the country’s most popular coastal destinations, Phú Quốc has dozens of excellent beaches. This guide covers all 21 beaches on Phú Quốc Island, including tips for accommodation, food and drink, and things to see and do on each one of them. Phú Quốc has all kinds of beaches: from rustic, empty and undeveloped to sophisticated, modern and resort-studded; from budget backpacker enclaves to secluded, luxurious private bays. Don’t listen to the naysayers: Phú Quốc is not ruined. There is something for everyone on this island. It’s all about managing your expectations and finding the right beach and the right accommodation to suit your particular needs: that’s what this guide is for. I’ve spent many, many months exploring Phú Quốc Island and I love it. Yes, trash can sometimes be a problem, but this is a much more nuanced and complex issue than most foreign visitors have time to appreciate.

Phu Quoc Island

Dao Be Island

An enchanting little island off the central coast, Dao Be is a real treat. Every morning, fast boats whisk visitors from the larger island of Ly Son to the tiny drop-in-the-ocean that is Dao Be. The island is so flat that it barely protrudes from the sea, and so small that it can be circumnavigated on foot in just an hour. But for all its diminutive proportions, Dao Be is very beautiful & very charming. The sand is rice-white, the sea butane-blue, and the volcanic rocks are coal-black. Inland, the island is portioned off into rectangular plots, partitioned & terraced by stone walls. Garlic & peanuts are the main crops, but tropical fruit trees, such as coconut palms, banana plants & screwpines, grow in clusters, too. There’s only one settlement on the island: a hamlet of squat, angular concrete homes bisected by sandy alleyways, many of which are adorned with colourful murals of fishing scenes.

(Source: Vietnam Coracle)

Dao Be Island

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