From limestone archipelagos
to tropical hideaways
Vietnam has around three thousand islands, mostly clustered
in large and small groups. They range from tiny rocky pinnacles
that scarcely break the surface to large land areas supporting
The Gulf of Tonkin
The Ha Long Bay archipelago is enormous: well over a thousand
islands stretching from 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
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. Haivenu uses traditional
wooden boats to take visitors on private cruises that avoid
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 from
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 from Nha Trang City far into
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 from 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 from it all’ holiday. However, its infrastructure
is rudimentary, and only limited accommodation is available.
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 from the mainland, and
Tho Chu, a cluster of smaller islands, is about 130km further
into 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.