The charming Cham islands

by Do Truong

It was a beautiful clear day when Long and his friends visited the Cham Islands hoping to see the World Biosphere Reserve, the pearl of Viet Nam recognised by UNESCO in 2009.

Although the islands can be seen from the land, it takes over 25 minutes to canoe to them from Cua Dai beach in Hoi An City of the central province of Quang Nam. The Cham Islands are made up of eight small islands, Hon Lao being the largest with fishermen living there and the three biggest beaches: Huong, Lang and Ong.

When Long’s group first stepped onto Huong beach, everyone was eager to take in the natural landscape and the local lifestyle.

“There are about 100 fisherman living on Huong beach. They used to run fisheries but when the Reserve was set up, most of them switched to the tourism sector,” the Reserve’s director Tran Thi Thuy says.

After listening to their guide Nguyen Van Thanh introduce the beach, Long and his friends set out on a fishing tour. “It is really an enjoyable feeling to sit on a small boat, bobbing along with sea waves and waiting to draw up the net,” Long says.

Thuy says that Cham Islands are home to 135 species of coral and about 950 other marine species, many of which are listed on Viet Nam’s and the World’s Red Book of endangered species.

She specified that the sea has grouper, lobster, oc vu nang (a kind of conical-shape snails), cuttle-fish, cua da (stone crab). Fishermen here all sign a commitment with the local authorities to not fish around shore areas to protect the marine system.

From Huong beach, tourists take a three-minute boat ride to Xep beach, where they have a chance to swim in clear sea water and dive to see coral and marine life, says Thanh

In the evening Long and his group joined a small dinner and camp-fire with local fishermen. Islander Nguyen Thi Nhi, 50, says when there are tour groups they are pleased, particularly the children.

Thuy said the cooks are local, “They go to Hoi An City to learn cooking and after that they return to serve tourism activities on the island.”

At present, the Cham Islands don’t have hotels and in the evening, visitors often stay in the fishermen’s homes. “The islands used to have no electricity, but that changed thanks to a solar powered system and petrol-run-electric generators, which operate alternately everyday from 8am to 11pm,” Thuy says.

Thanh says that Huong beach is not only well-known for its white sand, but also for many salangane caves here. He says these caves are protected by those who live in small tents nearby. He also says that visitors aren’t allowed to set foot in these caves.

Keepers often harvest salangane nests in April and August, which bring an income from the exports.

During the feudal period, the Cham Islands’ salangane nests were presented to kings. Today there remains a temple to worship ancestors of the salangane nest trade with a festival in March, Thanh adds.

Leaving Huong beach the next day, the group moved to Lang beach in Tan Hiep Commune’s administrative centre.

The first impression visitors get is the slogan: “Don’t use plastic bags” at the harbour. Thuy says that the sign dates from 2009 with the goal to protect the Islands’ environment.

At Lang beach, there are many historical sites, such as the Hai Tang pagoda, which was built nearly 250 years ago. According to Thanh, the pagoda’s impressive feature is the worshipping of Gods from three different religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. “The pagoda is a very holy cultural site for islanders,” Thanh says.

Tourists also have the chance to visit an ancient well of the Cham ethnic minority as well as a small museum that displays ancient pottery products.

“I very much admire the way the local authority and people here respect the World Biosphere Reserve’s values when developing tourism. It creates a harmony between protecting nature and enhancing the islanders’ life here,” Long says. — VNS

Life’s a beach: Sunset at Huong beach. — VNS Photos Do Truong

All’s well: A visitor examines an ancient Cham well on Lang beach.

Seeing is believing: Hai Tang pagoda was built nearly 250 years ago. Its architecture is a mixture of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist styles.

Going along for the ride: A group of tourists go on a fishing trip with local fishermen.

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