10 Lesser Known Vietnamese Islands You Should Visit

By: City Pass Guide

Vietnam is a country made of 50% coast and islands. Halong Bay alone is composed of over 2,000 islands. In this article, I introduce 10 lesser known Vietnamese islands, most of them rather untouched by tourism. If you fancy off the beaten track travelling, you may enjoy this selection and include them in your itinerary.

Vietnamese IslandsImage source: wecheckin.vn

Potato Island - Hòn Khoai

South of the southernmost end of the Vietnamese mainlands is a small archipelago with two noteworthy islands: Hòn Khoai, Potato Island and Hòn Sao, Star Island. The archipelago is 14.6 kilometers away from Cà Mau, the province capital of Cà Mau. The total landmass of the islands is about four square kilometers and the highest point is 318 m above sea level. The mostly untouched, pristine forests are rich in rare plants and feature a great biodiversity. The nice and wild landscape of the rocky islands attracts tourists to discover their mostly unknown charm.

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From the southernmost fishing village of Cà Mau, Trần Đế, you can catch a boat to Hòn Khoai.

There is a lighthouse on the island and a foreign-funded ecotourism location covering 700 hectares.

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Banana Island - Hòn Chuối

Banana Island is located in the Gulf of Thailand, covers seven square kilometers and is mostly covered by primeval forests. The island is home to about 50 fishermen and their families, settling along the coastline. There are no roads on Hòn Chuối, but a lighthouse and a post for the border guard.

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Nam Du Island - Đảo Nam Du

Nam Du Island is halfway between Phú Quốc and the coast of Cà Mau province. Actually this is an archipelago in the Gulf of Thailand, consisting of 21 volcanic islands with a tropical monsoon climate. Rainy season lasts from April to October every year. The largest island of the archipelago, Nam Du itself, reaches an altitude of 309 meters above sea level.

Video source: Flycam 4K

Like Phú Quốc, Nam Du belongs to Kiên Giang province. Nam Du literally means “Travel South”.

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Otter Island - Hòn Sơn

Not far from Nam Du to the northeast, there is Hòn Sơn. Hòn Sơn is the short form of Hòn Sơn Rái, which translates to Otter Island. Eighty percent of the island’s 11.5 square kilometer landmass is covered by primeval rainforests with a rich fauna of mostly monkeys, squirrels, lizards and the one or another python. The rest of the island is mostly consisting of orchards. Over 8,000 people call Hòn Sơn their home and mostly live of farming and fishery, as well as related crafts like ship building or the production of fish sauce. The sea around the island, once blessed with an abundance of anchovies, has been depleted. As a result, many fish sauce factories had to shut down recently.

Vietnamese IslandsImage source: dulichdongque.com

The highest point of altitude is Ma Thiên Lãnh, 450 meters above sea level. This little mountain range is also the most precious source of fresh water on the island.

Otter Island features five beaches. One of them, Bãi Bàng shows a beautiful scenery of white sand and leaning coconut palms.

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Bamboo Island - Hòn Tre

Not to be confused with Hòn Tre near the coast of Nha Trang, which is connected to the manlands via cable car and contains a Vinpearl Land, the Hòn Tre I am talking about now is located in the Gulf of Thailand and not far from above mentioned Hòn Sơn. Actually if you use the ferry to go to or from Phú Quốc to Rạch Giá in Kiên Giang province, you pass Hòn Tre.

Vietnamese IslandsImage source: justgola.com

Bamboo Island’s landmass is mostly covered by rough, natural forest landscape and agricultural areas. The two main mountains of the island give it the shape of a swimming turtle, hence the unofficial name “Turtle Island”.

The main source of income for the islanders is fishery. Hòn Tre is famous for shrimps and mantis shrimps, as well as oysters and various fish. Villages also grow coconut trees.

Most of the beaches are quite rocky and wild, but on some sandy stretches, namely Bãi Chén, you can enjoy seafood dishes in natural scenery.

Vietnamese IslandsImage source: cloudfront.net

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Turmeric Island - Hòn Nghệ

Hòn Nghệ is also located in the beautiful Gulf of Thailand, exactly in the bay of Hà Tiên, Kiên Giang province. The island is home to over 2,100 people who live in an area of 3.8 square kilometers. The inhabitants mainly focus on fishery and aquaculture and while there is some tourist activity along the beaches of Hòn Nghệ, most of the inner lands remain untouched. Under these conditions, a rich biodiversity sustains, mostly composed of birds, lizards and squirrels.

The main non-natural sights are the Confucius temple and a 20 meter high Buddha statue.

Vietnamese IslandsImage source: phuotlendinh.com

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Garlic Islands - Lý Sơn

Lý Sơn is a district of the Quảng Ngãi province and composed of the islands Lớn, Bé and Mù Cu, located about 30 kilometers away from the mainlands in the East Sea. The whole archipelago has a total landmass of about 10 square kilometers. Apart from fishery, the main source of income of the roughly 20,000 islanders is growing garlic. One of the unofficial names therefore is Vương Quốc Tỏi, which translates into garlic kingdom. The islands have been formed through volcanic activity that is still visible today.

Vietnamese IslandsImage source: masterlifetravel.com

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Cham Islands - Cù lao Chàm

The Cham Islands are conveniently located offshore of Hội An and, for an archipelago on a list of “lesser known islands”, quite popular. They are a part of the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park, a world Biosphere Reserve recognized by UNESCO. Archeologists date the settlement of these islands back for around 3,000 years. About 1,000 years ago, the place was used for transshipment of goods, intended for the Champa kingdom.

Video source: Nguyễn Bích Media

While back then the major source of income was trading, rice and cinnamon bark, nowadays the islands are famous for their bird’s nest. Around 1.4 tons of bird’s nests are harvested annually, with a value of $4,000 US per kilogram.

Tourists can reach Cù lao Chàm by boat from Hội An.

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Fish Island - Hòn Ngư

Hòn Ngư is a small island in the East Sea, located in the Gulf of Tonkin in the north of Vietnam. Hòn Ngư is actually two islands, connected via a land bridge, around four kilometers from the coast, near the water mouth of the Cả River.

Vietnamese IslandsImage source: youvivu.com

The larger one of the islands reaches an altitude of 133 meters above sea level. Phan Huy Chú, a Vietnamese Mandarin administrator who lived between 1782 and 1840, wrote: “The twin mountains at the mouth of the Hoi Thong River look like two fish, that’s probably why the people call them Song Ngu (Two Fish).

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Jade Island - Đảo Ngọc Vừng

Đảo Ngọc Vừng, also called the Jade Island, is one of the less known islands included in some Halong Bay cruises. Well, that gave away the location of Đảo Ngọc Vừng. It takes about five hours to reach the island by boat. Tourists can explore the place on mountain bikes, check out the beautiful sandy beach and try some delicious, yet surprisingly cheap (at least for Halong Bay standards) seafood dishes.

Vietnamese IslandsImage source: kenhdulich.org

The fishing village on the island is an opportunity to talk to the people and/or rent a fishing boat to check out the surroundings.

Vietnam has an abundance of islands. Alone the Halong Bay area contains over 2,000 bigger and smaller islands, most of which can be visited. Well, most islands are just rocks in the sea, but many have beaches or smaller mountains to climb. Since this part of Vietnam is largely untapped, it’s a great chance to see some nature and get the real Robinson Crusoe flair going.

Vietnamese IslandsImage source: dtour.com.vn

However, always keep in mind that most islands don’t have a source of freshwater, so bring plenty.

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Ninh Thuan - Most Beautiful Hidden Province in Vietnam?

By: Mark Gwyther

Ninh Thuan Province is the newest province in Vietnam. It was split away from Binh Thuan in the South and Khanh Hoa in the North back in 1993. People finishing their geography classes before that time may not even be aware the province exists.  Being the personal private beach for the last President of South Vietnam didn’t exactly help it gain publicity or early popularity.

Exasperating the problem is the inconsistent naming:

  • The nearest airport is Cam Ranh International Airport, better known as Nha Trang Airport despite the fact it sits nearly halfway in between the two provincial capitals.
  • Less understandably, the local train station where nearly all North/South trains stop, is called Thap Cham Station. Thap Cham is the historical capital of the Cham people but it has been swallowed up by the city of Phan Rang.
  • The main beach – called Ninh Chu Bay, Ninh Chu Beach and Binh Son Beach – falls just outside of Phan Rang’s jurisdiction. Seven resorts offer two to three star rooms, but even these businesses add to the confusion; the largest resort is called Saigon-Ninh Chu Hotel and the second largest is named after a pottery village 30 km to the south.

Ninh Thuan / Phan Rang is not branded as a travel destination

Phan Rang, the capital of Ninh Thuan, has an identity problem. Or more accurately, it has a lack of identity problem. The city is located exactly in the middle of the tourism triangle formed by Phan Thiet, Dalat and Nha Trang. But it might surprise you that in 2014, twice as many tourists and foreign tourists visited it compared with the much better-known destination of Phu Quoc. Most people are also surprised to find out that the coastal city of Phan Rang has a larger population than Phan Thiet.

So why is Phan Rang’s tourism less established than its neighbors?

Sunrise in Nin Chu Bay Phan Rang


Lack of Marketing to Promote Tourism in Ninh Thuan

The resorts’ complete indifference to marketing is the biggest problem in building awareness. The locally-owned resorts don’t care about individual travelers or foreigners; they make money working with tour groups and those wonderful corporate team building trips that every company seems to have during the summer.  Not a single one of them uses advertising, and none seem to care much that Tripadvisor does not even list Ninh Thuan as a province. The aforementioned Saigon-Ninh Chu Hotel’s listing is in the Mekong Delta! Currently, the only internationally managed resort is located 30 km north, in Vinh Hy Bay: the Amano’i operated by the prestigious Aman Group. Unbeknownst to most, Amano’i’s customers are extremely rich and famous and the resort prefers not to be noticed by the unrich and unfamous. For example, did you know it is possible to take a private Gulfstream jet from Thailand to Cam Ranh (at a price of $58,888), be picked up in a luxury SUV at the airport and delivered to your $8,000 per night room overlooking beautiful Vinh Hy Bay?

Sunrise from Truc Lam Phan Rang


Other Misconceptions Hurting Tourism in Ninh Thuan / Phan Rang

It is difficult to travel to Ninh Thuan

You might be surprised to know that the tourism center of the province is faster to reach by airplane, train and bus than most of Nha Trang. The Cam Ranh International Airport rests nearly in the middle of Phan Rang and Nha Trang. By rail, the Thap Cham station is positioned 10 km from the beach and nearly all the trains stop at the station. The resorts are a five minute drive off Highway 1A.

Ninh Thuan is the hottest province in Vietnam

Ninh Thuan’s northern coast is one of the very few locations in Southeast Asia that qualifies as a Mediterranean climate; meaning fairly moderate year-round warm temperatures, low humidity and dry. It has the least amount of rain in Vietnam. Dalat wines are made with Ninh Thuan grapes and places with the climate to grow grapes are also among the top tourism destinations in the world. While inland Ninh Thuan is hot, Phan Rang’s average high temperatures during the summer are less than Ho Chi Minh City’s, Hanoi’s and Danang’s. It doesn’t hurt having a cooling wind every day, either.

Phan Rang Mui Dinh

Ninh Thuan is one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam

While this is true, it is because of the low level of urbanization. With only one city of any significant size, most of the population works on farms or fishing. Phan Rang is actually quite affluent (as many provincial capitals are) and the province has been receiving significant money for infrastructure from Hanoi. The roads near the beach are very wide and public utilities are reliable and meet demand. More businesses are investing in Phan Rang each year (a huge Maximart just opened).


Why You Should Visit

Now that you know why you have not visited, it is time to explain why you seriously need to see this place.

Adventure sports

After the new coastal road opened, adventurous kite surfers from Mui Ne immediately traveled up the coast and discovered several world-class kite surfing spots free of congestion. The wind blows all year and the conditions are so good that it is rumored the Kiteboarding Tour Asia (KTA) will hold an international competition at Ninh Chu Bay next year. Moreover, the northern coastline has perhaps the best waves for surfing in Vietnam and sailboats are beginning to be spotted in Vinh Hy Bay.

Coast of Phan Rang

For those who like their sports on dry land, the area around Phan Rang offers up plenty of adventure. A small resort is being developed near the Mui Dinh sand dunes and will be hosting off-road vehicle adventures. Looking up into the hills and rock formations, it is easy to imagine a cottage industry of hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing. Trekking tours through the Nui Chua mountain range can already be joined, and the area has great potential for river rafting.

The new coastal road from Cana to Cam Ranh

Those looking for more passive diversions will enjoy the spectacular sightseeing. Most of the coast of Ninh Thuan province has never been accessible up until now. A new 116 km coastal road was just completed that begins in Cana, passes through the sand dunes of Mui Dinh, along Ninh Chu Bay, past Vinh Hy Bay, and cuts back inland after Binh Tien beach to reconnect with Highway 1A just south of Cam Ranh. With the coast being isolated up to now and much of the route inside the Nui Chua National Forest, dozens of undeveloped beaches line the road and you can stop and enjoy your own paradise. Better hurry, it won’t be long before it’s developed.

Cana Coastal Phan Rang

Temples, pagodas, monasteries, and churches

Like most provinces, Ninh Thuan has its fair share of religious sites – both old and new. Po Klang Garai is a 700 year-old Cham Temple that is still in use (go in October to witness the Kate Festival) and well maintained. Plenty of parking, nice gift shops and easy access from the train station or Highway 1A helps make this a better excursion than most Cham temples in Vietnam.

Truc Lam Temple

For a truly unique experience, make your way up to the top of the Truc Lam Tinh Vien temple complex located on a hill behind the center of Ninh Chu Bay. A 10 minute hike (carry some bricks up if you need good karma) will result in amazing views of the area. Don’t stop at the large temple, pathways behind it lead to the twin summits. At that point you will have an unforgettable 360 degree vista of rice fields, Ninh Chu Bay, and the Central Highlands. Witnessing the sunrise or sunset from the top of the hill is unforgettable.

Truc Lam Temple Phan Rang

Ninh Chu Bay Beach

The most obvious reason to travel to Phan Rang is the beach. Ninh Chu Bay, a splendid 10 km crescent, is considered one of Vietnam’s nine most beautiful beaches. It is safe to swim most times of the year and during the daytime it is nearly deserted. Sunrises are spectacular and it is quite enjoyable to come out and watch the locals go through morning exercises.

Sun Rise in Phan Rang

Most of the resorts lack nice beach facilities and thousands of Vietnamese come out from nowhere in the late afternoons, so the best spot to go is a couple kilometers across the bay to Ninh Chu Bay Beach Club & Bar where they have a private beach, cabanas, beach chairs and good Western food and drinks.


Conclusion: Ninh Thuan could be the next big travel destination in Vietnam

Phan Rang is different because it is so normal. It is not some undiscovered primitive spot – ATMs, metered taxis, high speed internet are readily available. But neither is it full of the bars, massage parlors and typical touristy trappings found in more popular locations. The expats who make their way to Ninh Chu Bay almost unanimously say that it will be the next “big thing” in coastal tourism for Vietnam, but development has been slow.

Beautiful View of Phan Rang

Being late to the party may turn into the area’s greatest strength, however. Learning from other locations’ mistakes and developing the tourism infrastructure before the tourists arrive may give the province a long-term advantage over its neighbors.

Summit of Phan Rang

Those of us who live in Phan Rang love it but we see change coming. It will be a struggle to keep the uniqueness of the area while more resort projects begin opening along the coast. The plan from both the government and many of the developers is to leverage the wonderful characteristics of the area and promote what I have termed third generation tourism in the province. Likely the focus will be on adventure travel and wind sports along with smaller resorts focusing on niche markets – such as the Amano’i. But still, if you want to see easily accessible yet unspoiled beautiful coastline, now is the time to go.

Photo source: Mark Gwyther

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