Heavenly hideaway

Co To is a bunch of islands off Vietnam’s northern coast that while growing in popularity still offer a tranquil escape.

By TRI NAM on May 07,2019 11:02 AM

Heavenly hideaway

Photos: NGUYEN THANH CHUNG & BUI DUAN

Returning to Co To Island off the coast of northern Quang Ninh province in early April, Thai A, a travel writer and journalist, couldn’t hide his surprise about how much the island had changed since 2011, when he first visited to produce a tourism promotional video. After arriving by high-speed boat, which connects Van Don on the mainland and Co To (a district of some 50 islands and the name of the largest island) in just an hour, compared to four on his first trip, the sight that awaited him was no longer a long line of trees along the beach without even houses but a string of colorful multi-story hotels and restaurants looking out to sea.

The island district first became a tourism destination at the end of 2000s. In 2008, Vu Thanh Minh, now owner of Coto Eco Lodge, took his first steps on Co To Island (also called Large Co To) by opening a camping site along the beach, becoming one of the pioneers in the local tourism sector. At that time, there was only one guest house on the island, owned by the Co To District People’s Committee, which hosted, at best, less than 2,000 visitors a year. The reason Minh started his island business was simple: “When I first came here,” he recalled, “I saw the magnificent beauty of the island and so many resources, but residents were poor and didn’t offer any tourism services.” It was also a four-hour, 60-km journey from the mainland on a pretty slow boat. Every day just one boat left Cai Rong Port in Quang Ninh’s Van Don district at 7 am, carrying goods and passengers. Power was available for only a few hours each day and the island lacked decent roads. But none of this dissuaded Minh. After building the camping site, he invited friends and colleagues to visit Co To and then began to introduce the island to a wider audience via TV and newspapers. In 2011, together with two friends, he built the 13-room Coto Eco Lodge, the first private sector property on the island, and in 2013, when it was hooked up to the national electricity grid and life became much easier and even more people began to arrive, he opened a group of wooden bungalows on Hong Van Beach. The growing popularity of “homestay” services started about then, and is still the preferred accommodation option among travelers to the island. Coto Eco Lodge, Minh’s homestay with ten rooms, is one of the most-loved places among tourists, and in the low season often hosts foreign volunteers coming to the island for a few weeks to teach English to local children and enjoy the island’s beauty. Since 2016, foreign travelers no longer need special permission to reach the island, and instead need only show their passport at Cai Rong Port.

Heavenly hideaway

The story of Co To reflects the development of tourism on smaller islands like Nam Du, Ly Son, and others down Vietnam’s coastline, as small groups of people first came, enjoyed the natural beauty, and spread the word about the new destination. Tourism services soon followed, provided by households and small companies. As with these other islands, if you’re seeking expensive restaurants and five-star resorts where you can stroll down to a private beach, Co To is definitely not for you.

The island is more suitable for young people and backpackers eager to discover a new place at an affordable VND500,000 to 800,000 ($21 to 34) a day, for groups of friends and families who like to swim and then enjoy a fresh meal, or for company team building exercises. Services on the island remain limited, as does the nightlife, except for Karaoke.

But there is a certain luxury in enjoying natural vast surroundings encircled by clean white beaches, while the island’s people are friendly and its seafood the freshest it can be. Cau My stone reef, which many visitors consider the most spectacular spot on the island, has layers and layers of stone formed millions of years ago, while the nearby cliffs offer stunning views. A trek to the lighthouse is a must, given the beautiful landscapes on the way, the sweet fragrance in the air, and the broad panorama of the island from up top. Van Chay, Hong Van, and Love Beaches, with clean and clear water and gentle waves, the Love Road running along the beaches, and the primeval forest also count among the most visited attractions on the island. Other islands are close to Co To, including Small Co To and Thanh Lan, and can be easily reached by boat and are a half-day or full-day trip.

There are 200 soft-top electric vehicles on the island to ferry tourists around, but the best way to discover Co To is to rent a motorbike (at VND200,000, or $8) and spend a day riding from one end to the other, passing by a reservoir, rice fields, strange-looking fruit, herds of cattle lying under the shade of trees along Love Road, and huge brownish stones clustered on the shore.

After arriving by high-speed boat, the sight that awaited him was no longer a long line of trees along the beach without even houses but a string of colorful multi-story hotels and restaurants.

After arriving by high-speed boat, the sight that awaited him was no longer a long line of trees along the beach without even houses but a string of colorful multi-story hotels and restaurants.

Visitors are advised to carefully consider whether they want to venture out to the island from June to August, as this is typhoon season and the seas can be rough. The best month is October, with mild temperatures and gorgeous sunlight. The winters are quite cold, meanwhile, and few people choose to visit.

Co To mostly has homestays but two and three-star hotels have been built recently, mostly in Co To town. Some 2,800 rooms are available in a total of 300 properties; enough to cater to 5,000 visitors every day. During the peak travel season over the last three years, an average of 300,000 visitors have come to the island. Its infrastructure, however, can become quite overloaded when large numbers arrive, making some concerned about the island’s future.

After two days of wandering around the island, Thai A was still impressed by its pristine beaches and wonderful cliffs and stone reefs, but he wondered whether Co To should pursue ecotourism, offering activities like trekking, kayaking, experiencing the life of a fishing family, and raking clams. Co To town, he believes, should limit the number and density of multi-story buildings, or it will start to resemble any other urban town and lose the character of an island town.

A master plan for Co To, prepared by a US company, is expected to be released in June. Rumors have spread that, under the plan, Co To will become an ecotourism hub, with the participation of a large company, and in the future will become a luxury destination, with five-star resorts, private flights bringing guests, and cable cars connecting Co To with Small Co To and Thanh Lan Islands.

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