Cham Island, Hoi An

East of Hoi An, Vietnam, are the Cham Islands, eight islands of pure tropical paradise in the South China Sea, or East Sea as it is known in Vietnam. In 2001, the Cham Islands received 300 foreign visitors; in 2005, they received 800 visitors; the government's forecast suggests that by 2015, 125,000 foreign visitors will make the trek to Cham annually. In other words, at the moment the Cham Islands off Hoi An are undiscovered, unspoiled gems – but it won't stay that way for much longer, so visit while you still can.

The largest and only inhabited island is Hon Lao. The largest village on Hon Lao is Bai Lang, home to 2,400 people. The second largest village, Bai Huong, is home to only 400 people. With eight bays and coral reefs, Hon Lao is a great place for scuba divers and snorkelers looking for a less commercialised diving spot.

A Brief History of the Cham Islands

The Cham Islands take their name from the Champa Kingdom that was created in Hue in 200 AD and ruled the southern portion of Vietnam for several centuries. Well into the eighteenth century, Hoi An remained one of the region's most significant seaport.

The rugged mountains of the Cham Islands prevented much colonisation, and even though Hon Lao and several of the other islands are heavily forested, the natural resources of the islands went largely untapped. Today, the Forestry Protection Department of Quang Nam protects the lush virgin forests.

Scuba Diving in the Cham Islands

The waters surrounding the Cham Islands include 135 species of coral, 202 species of fish, 4 species of lobster, and 84 species of mollusks. With such an ecologically diverse marine environment, together with the marine protected area status that's been extended to include all eight islands, it's easy to understand why scuba divers and snorkelers are eager to visit the Cham Islands.

The Cham Island Dive Centre comes complete with their own guesthouse to offer accommodations to visiting divers. The dive instructors and guides have a reputation for being very knowledgeable – not just about the local diving spots but also about the history and culture of the Cham Islands themselves. Courses on scuba diving are available through the Dive Centre, ranging from beginners to advanced levels. Most of the instructors are Brits, while others are English-speaking Italians and French.

After a fascinating dive in the morning, you can relax on the semi-private white sand beach in the afternoon – definitely one of the most beautiful in Vietnam. And if you don't want to stay in the Cham Islands, or if you already have a hotel in Hoi An, you can be back in Hoi An by dinner time. While the Cham Island Dive Centre is not as well-known as other dive centres in Vietnam, it is just as professional, and a trip to the Cham Islands for a dive is certainly worth it.

Hiking in the Forests

With such extensive and unmolested forests covering more than a quarter of the Cham Islands, hiking through the forest sounds like a good idea but is not officially sanctioned. Because the Cham Islands remain very undeveloped, there are no easily accessible, safe hiking trails through the forests. However, there is a road that links Bai Lang and Bai Huong. This road is a safe place to walk, and you might spot one of the island's famous monkeys on your trek!

Getting to the Cham Islands

If you'd like to visit the Cham Islands, plan your trip for the summer months. Water levels make it extremely difficult to access the islands from September through December, and from January through April the islands are only sometimes accessible. From May through August, however, the Cham Islands are always accessible. You should also be aware that weather conditions have a tendency to change during the day. The mornings are the calm period, but stronger winds and waves begin around one in the afternoon. For traveling to the islands, you'll need your passport in hand to make it past the checkpoint, plus a dive or snorkeling permit (easiest to travel with a dive operator who already has these permits).

Once you're on the island, there's not much to see or do beyond the excellent scuba diving, snorkeling, and beach lounging. In Bai Lang, you'll find a few authentic Vietnamese restaurants, and in the smaller village of Bai Huong you can find a coffee shop or two. Other than that, don't expect to find much shopping or dining in this part of Vietnam.

The remote Cham Islands are a must-see for any diver visiting Vietnam. Visit now, before westerners discover the Cham Islands and turn it into another Asian tourist haven.