The winds roar and the waves surge, as our boat departs Cua Dai port in Hoi An Town. A few anxious passengers ask if it might be wise to return, others are thirsty for an adventure to a remote island.
Our fearless guide stands firm on the bow and tells us about the islands 20 kilometres away off the shores of Cua Dai beach.
“You might say, the archipelago is the Hawaii of Vietnam,” Dinh Cong Trung, a 27-year-old tourist guide of the Hoi An Sports and Tourism Centre, says with a smile. “Scientific surveys show Cu Lao Cham’s waters have the same clarity and salinity as Hawaii.”
Of course, on such a grey morning, it’s hard to picture this scene in the Pacific Ocean but Trung insists on comparisons. Cu Lao Cham is home to eight islands and Hawaii has the same number, he tells us.
Nearly two centuries ago, Cu Lao Cham almost became a Hong Kong-style colony. Historian Nguyen Van Xuan said early in the 19th century, the British asked the Nguyen Dynasty rulers for the right to build up a trade base on the islands so as to have better access to China’s Guangzhou province and other countries in the region.
After the Opium War took place from 1839-1842, the British colonised Hong Kong, thus diverting attention from the Vietnamese archipelago. That partly reduced traffic in the waters from Cu Lao Cham to Hoi An, which during the 16th and 17th centuries had been one of Vietnam’s busiest trade centres.
As our boat edges closer to Lao Island, the biggest of the Cham islands, we see red and green forests set off beneath a grey sky. We are lucky, as in July only, thousands of the ngo dong trees (sterculia platanifola) are in bloom across the island.
On the island, a tourist promotion called “Cu Lao Cham and valuables from the seabed” is on. Pottery objects salvaged from wrecked ships on display reveal the beauty of an illustrious past.
There is also an introduction to the fauna and flora of the archipelago. According to the figures of the Cu Lao Cham Nature Preserve Project, which started in 2003, there are about 200 coral species, 202 fish species, five lobster species and 84 mollusc species in Cu Lao Cham.
The cua da (the Stone Crab) is particularly special as Cu Lao Cham is the only region in Vietnam where these creatures with violet and orange coloured shells are found. They live under stones in the forests, eat only medical herbs but reproduce in the sea. At a nearby fishing village, some of the locals are selling the crabs for only VND45,000 (nearly $3) per kilogramme.
The islands’ population is now nearly 3,000. Despite the islands’ rich potential for tourism the locals still lead a poor life. Cu Lao Cham has a temple where the tradition for worshipping the whale in Vietnam’s central coastal areas began in the 19th century. The story goes, Nguyen Anh, the first King of the Nguyen Dynasty was rescued by whales at Cu Lao Cham while being chased by the soldiers of Tay Son. So he built a temple to worship these huge mammals and even made them honorary officials at his court.
At Hai Tang Tu we find a small but beautiful pagoda for worshipping the Sea Deity. Constructed three hundreds years ago, it looks like an ancient house in Hoi An with two “house eyes” on the main door.
To my surprise, in the small room behind its main room, there is an altar with a statue for worshipping Dat Ma, a Buddhist monk, who crossed the sea to China and set up a Zen cult there. I wonder if Dat Ma visited Cu Lao Cham on his slow boat to China.
At the pagoda, the custodians offer us packs of herbal medical called “Nuoc la Lao”. With around 10 medical herbs collected from the islands’ forests, the water is said to be very good for digestion and boosting the body’s immune system.So, reinvigorated by the potion we take two small boats down to Lao Island’s southeastern shores. The weather is calm and peaceful, blue waters are opening up. Coral reefs can be seen beneath the boat.
Unlike diving in Nha Trang, Phu Quoc or Con Dao, you can enjoy the coral world in Cu Lao Cham with only a snorkel. So one by one we plunge into the sea, carefully watched by Trung, who tells us he once swam 22 km from Lao Island to Cua Dai Port in a competition held with Japanese participants. This precious unspoilt island must also be watched with a careful eye.