limestone archipelagos to tropical hideaways
Vietnam has around three thousand islands, mostly clustered in large and small groups. They range tiny rocky pinnacles that scarcely break the surface to large land areas supporting substantial populations.
The Gulf of Tonkin
The Ha Long Bay archipelago is enormous: well over a thousand islands stretching Hai Phong almost to Vietnam’s border with China and includes Cat Ba Island, an important National Park and wildlife reserve in the extreme west of the Bay. Most of the Bay’s rocky peaks are composed of limestone ‘karst’, a distinctive pattern of erosion creating large ‘towers’. Ha Long Bay is one of Asia’s most important tourist destinations attracting well over two million visitors a year. However, the bulk of the tourist traffic is concentrated in the central World Heritage Area, leaving the more remote, but equally attractive, areas more or less deserted. Sao La Tours uses traditional wooden boats to take visitors on private cruises that avoid the crowds.
Off-limits to visitors
Two archipelagos, Truong Sa (the Spratlys – about 500km the Cam Ranh coast and the largest archipelago in the East Sea) and Hoang Sa (the Paracels – about 300km Da Nang) are the subject of a territorial dispute between Vietnam and China, and are therefore off-limits to visitors. This is a pity, for both are richly bio-diverse with an abundance of coral reefs – more than 600 in the Spratlys alone. Even more unfortunately, the conflict over its ownership has blocked conservation measures and led to over-exploitation and environmental degradation.
There are just over 70 islands scattered off the coast in Cam Ranh Bay. They stretch Nha Trang City far the East Sea. A few have small populations, but most are uninhabited. Organised boat trips concentrate on four of the islands closest to Nha Trang and, although very commercialised, they are great fun. However, if you want to escape the tourists we can arrange private cruises to take you wherever you want to go.
The Con Dao islands
The Con Dao archipelago’s connection with the mainland was via a boat Vung Tau, about 190km to the north of Con Dao, but a new Vietnam Airways service has made it more accessible. Con Son, its largest island, was once a much-feared penal colony but is now home to a couple of thousand people who fish, dive for pearls and grow fruit.
Con Dao’s unspoilt beaches, clear water and abundant bio-diversity make it an interesting possibility for a ‘get away it all’ holiday. However, its infrastructure is rudimentary, and only limited accommodation is available.
Phu Quoc and beyond
The ownership of the two archipelagos in the Gulf of Thailand, currently part of Vietnam, are also contested, Phu Quoc by Cambodia, and Tho Chu by Cambodia and Thailand. However, the claims relate to territorial boundaries in the distant past and are not active disputes.
Both are south of the Rach Gia coast in the extreme south of Vietnam. Phu Quoc, a large island that gives its name to the archipelago, is about 70km the mainland, and Tho Chu, a cluster of smaller islands, is about 130km further the Gulf.
Around 60,000 people live on Phu Quoc. The traditional activities of fishing, growing cashews and black pepper, and manufacturing fish sauce are now being supplanted by a nascent tourist industry. It boasts a small airport, a hydrofoil service and some basic hotels.
The islands in the Tho Chu archipelago (200 km off the Rach Gia coast), can only be reached by a long sea voyage. Although it may become a practical proposition in the future, it is too remote and undeveloped to support tourism at present.