First published June 2019 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
INTRODUCTION | GUIDE | MAP | RELATED POSTS
A volcanic island surrounded by a ring of reefs, Ly Son is a striking, stark, and geologically fascinating destination, off the coast of central Vietnam. Three large, extinct volcanic craters dominate Ly Son. Inland, the island is barren, dry, and sandy, its flat patchwork of fields rising violently to dramatic cliffs that plunge to the brilliant-blue sea. The water quality around Ly Son Island is among the best in Vietnam. But this isn’t your typical tropical island: Ly Son doesn’t have long, sandy beaches, brushed by coconut palms. What it does have are coral reefs, crystal-clear seas, twisted rock formations, black cliffs, mesmerizing crater-top views, and one of the most dramatically situated beaches in Vietnam. Easily reached by regular, 30-minute, fast boat ferries from Sa Ky Port, in Quang Ngai Province (and soon from Danang, too), Ly Son Island has fired the imagination of young, Vietnamese backpackers for several years. But foreign travellers have yet to arrive in numbers. Famous for its seafood and garlic, which grows in the island’s rich, volcanic soil, the time is right to visit Ly Son Island. Accommodation is plentiful and cheap, and there are lots of things to keep you busy, including hiking the island’s volcanic craters, riding a motorbike along the coastal roads, swimming in the blue ocean, snorkeling the reefs, and taking a boat to Dao Be Island, which is an absolute gem.
GUIDE: LY SON ISLAND
Below is my full guide to Ly Son Island. I’ve divided this guide into several categories, and then sub-sections within each category. The best time of year to visit Ly Son is from March to September, when the weather is generally dry and bright, rainfall is light, and seas are mostly calm. It’s also best to visit on a weekday, avoiding weekends and public holidays, during which Ly Son gets very crowded with domestic tourists. Plan to spend at least two nights on Ly Son, if not more. In many ways, Ly Son is like a bigger, more developed, version of Phu Quy Island. It’s also much easier to get to: up to a dozen sailings each day connect Ly Son with the mainland; no permit is required to visit the island; and there are ATMs, hotels, and other tourist infrastructure. Known as the Garlic Kingdom, Ly Son is a fascinating island: an over-sized reef that the waves couldn’t overcome.
Ly Son Island, Quang Ngai Province
View in a LARGER MAP
Location & Background:
Below I’ve written a description of the location and topography of Ly Son Island and a little bit of history and background, followed by some information about the current state of the natural environment:
Formerly known as Cù Lao Ré, Ly Son Island is a district within Quang Ngai, a central province which generally escapes the notice of most travellers (with the exception of My Lai, the site of the 1968 massacre). The district comprises two main islands, Ly Son (also known as Đảo Lớn – Big Island) and Đảo Bé (Small Island), both of which are permanently inhabited, with a population of around 20,000. Ly Son Island is divided into two ‘communes’. These are: An Vĩnh (the western half of the island) and An Hải (the eastern half). Đảo Bé (Small Island) is also a separate ‘commune’, called An Bình. On Ly Son Island, both An Vĩnh and An Hải communes are further divided into two villages: Thôn Tây (western village) and Thôn Đông (eastern village). Ly Son Island is essentially a spread of volcanic craters rising from the ocean. Three large craters (and two smaller ones) were formed some 25-30 million years ago. The extinct craters rise from the villages and patchwork of fields that make up the rest of the island’s topography. (For a dramatic introduction to Ly Son’s topography, take at look at the island on Google Maps satellite view, where the craters are clearly visible and, rather disturbingly, bring to mind the bird’s-eye photographs of wartime Vietnam, pockmarked by heavy bombing.) There’s a constant rumble wherever you are on Ly Son island. Like peals of distant thunder, this is the sound of waves breaking out on the reef that encircles the entire island, like a natural sea wall, protecting Ly Son from direct hits.
As is often the case with lesser-travelled destinations in Vietnam, I found it difficult to find much information about the history of Ly Son*. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of Sa Huynh artifacts and settlements on the island. Sa Huynh was a iron age culture that flourished along the central coast during in the first millennia BC. The indianized kingdom of Champa was active on the island before succumbing to the Vietnamese who swept in from the north, eventually setting up a colony on the island from the 17th century. From Cham times, the Xo La Well, on the south coast, was used to supply passing ships with mineral-rich freshwater. During the Reunification War, the US used the island as a radar base. Whale worship has been a fundamental aspect of local culture. As with many Vietnamese fishing communities, whales were (and are) seen as deities of the ocean and protectors of sailors. There are several ‘whale temples’ on Ly Son (see Temples & Pagodas for details). There’s a military presence on the island, partly because most islands in Vietnam are considered border areas, but also partly due to the ongoing longstanding dispute with China over the Paracel and Spratly islands, which lie to the east of Ly Son. Seafood, garlic and other alliums (onions, shallots etc.) are the islands’ main industry. Indeed, as you travel around Ly Son, you’ll notice that the island actually smells like garlic (from the fields and the markets) and seaweed (drying by the roadside). However, tourism increasingly accounts for a significant proportion of the local economy and will surely be the main employer and earner in the not too distant future. There’s a fair amount of construction going on, including new embankments, hotels, and a large new port, so expect some major changes in the coming years. When I was on Ly Son, I noticed that peoples faces were different from the mainland – more angular, with stronger features. And, like many islands, the accent is quite unique.
*Please note: Historical information in this article is based on my reading of various sources & conversations with people: I am not an historian.
Environment & Pollution:
Apparently sand erosion, caused by the large quantities of sand taken from the beaches to use as protection and cover for the hundreds of little fields of garlic, shallots and onions, is starting to weaken Ly Son’s coastline. However, it’s hard to see how this practice can continue anyway, since almost the entire circumference of Ly Son is being walled by an enormous embankment project, currently under construction.
Trash, of course, is a big problem, and many of the beaches are spoiled by litter, especially plastic. It’s a national (and international) problem and one that’s exacerbated on Ly Son by the sudden influx of travellers (like me), who consume large amounts of single-use plastic and, sadly, many neglect to dispose of their trash responsibly. It’s a worrying situation that appears to be getting worse, although the issue is now widely acknowledged and discussed. Opinions about litter and how to get rid of it are changing, but actual practices are not keeping pace. A couple of examples: when I boarded the ferry to the mainland, each ticket was inspected and then simply ripped up and thrown in the sea, leaving a white trail in the ocean next to the boat; one informal garbage dump (in a fishing marina) was right below a notice saying ‘Don’t litter. Protect our environment. If caught you face a fine of up to 500,000vnd each time’. This had not deterred anyone from using the ‘informal dump’ rather than the green wheelie bins by the roadside.
There’s a large trash facility in the north of the island. It seems as though a daily garbage collection – trash trucks and carts – arrives here to dump its load, where it’s then separated and incinerated. The smoke from the tall chimneys wafts over the island, carrying with it a nasty smell. It makes you realize that even when trash is disposed of responsibly (into bins) and collected by a waste management team, we still don’t have a good long-term solution for what to do with it. There’s also at least one recycling centre on Ly Son Island. However, there are reasons to be optimistic…..
On nearby Đảo Bé Island, just a 10-minute boat ride north of Ly Son, plastic trash on the island (a mixture of local litter and flotsam and jetsam washed up on its beaches) is being collected and recycled in some creative and exciting ways. Plastic bottles, for example, are filled with sand and arranged in lines held together by cement in place of bricks. Plastic bottle walls can now been seen in the little hamlet on Đảo Bé Island. Old fishing buoys are being re-purposed as hanging flower pots, among other creative uses for the garbage that once stained the beautiful beaches of this tiny island. It’s only a start and there’s a long way to go, but already the effect is obvious: the beaches are much cleaner than they were just a year or two ago.
Things to See & Do:
There’s lots to keep you busy on Ly Son Island for at least a couple of days. In order to avoid the crowds, follow these two general rules: 1) don’t travel to Ly Son on weekends or public holidays, when the island gets busy; 2) do your sightseeing between 10am and 3pm, when most of the beaches, mountains, temples and other sights are empty. This is because Vietnamese travellers (who make up the vast majority of visitors to Ly Son) tend to prefer the mornings and late afternoons, when temperatures are cooler. A lot of domestic tourism on Ly Son Island is straightforward selfie-taking: groups go on a circuit of the island, ticking off each sight with a bunch of posed selfies, then moving on to the next one. The drawbacks of following the two rules above are, of course, the intense heat in the middle of the day, and the light (which isn’t as good for photography):
- Riding, Hiking & Motorbiking
- Mountains, Craters, Volcanoes & Viewing Points
- Beaches & Islands
- Temples, Pagodas & Architecture
- Villages & Communes
All of the places mentioned in this guide can be reached by motorbike or on foot: both are pleasant ways of getting around the island. Ly Son is relatively small, but obviously walking takes a lot longer than motorbiking. However, if you’re a hiker, it’s totally feasible to walk all around Ly Son Island, just remember to take the phone number of a taxi company with you (see Getting Around for details). Additionally, walking around Dao Be Island, just a short boat ride north of Ly Son, is a joy (see Dao Be Island for details). Cycling would be good too, but sadly I didn’t see any bikes for rent.
Motorbikes are available from many of the island’s accommodations for 100,000-150,000vnd per day. Ly Son’s roads are generally quiet and OK quality, and the distances are short. However, the roads can be narrow, sandy, and rough in places, so ride carefully (see Getting Around for details). There are lots of roads to choose from, and getting lost is part of the fun. Even so, you can easily ride pretty much every road and lane on the entire island within a day or two. The road network leads all around the western, southern, and parts of the eastern and northern coasts. Inland, several roads lead through the rural interior, where fields of garlic dominate the landscape. At the time of writing, a new seafront road had opened (but was not yet shown on Google Maps) linking the port at Thôn Tây with Tò Vò rock arch. Also, it’s now possible to stay on the coast road all the way around the southeastern tip of the island, going from Mu Cu marina and continuing to Hang Cau cliffs. Although the whole area, and the road itself, is undergoing heavy construction, it is possible to get through. Given the amount of work on upgrading infrastructure on the island, things are bound to change by the time you read this guide, but I’ve done my best to draw on some of the access roads that Google Maps doesn’t yet show. When riding around Ly Son, bear in mind that some of the roads and areas on the island are restricted access. This is because they are controlled by the military, particularly the volcanic craters. I’ve marked some of the restricted areas on my map with a ‘police icon’.
Mountains, Craters, Volcanoes & Viewing Points:
Ly Son Island consists of at least five extinct volcanic craters of varying sizes. Signs of volcanic activity are everywhere – from the tortured weave of the cliffs to the black rocks partitioning the fields. The extinct volcanoes make for a dramatic and striking landscape, offering beautiful, short hikes, and fantastic views. In addition to the craters, there are several other excellent viewing points on the island, both natural and made-made. Click below for details:
- Nui Thoi Loi Crater
- Nui Gieng Tien Crater
- Nui Hon Tai, Hon Vung & Hon Soi Craters
- To Vo Rock Arch
- Ly Son Lighthouse
Nui Thoi Loi Crater [MAP]: The highest of the volcanic peaks on the island, Nui Thoi Loi is a giant, gaping crater in the east of Ly Son. From near the top, the views over the island are superb. A paved road snakes perilously close to the cliffs along the north edge up to the Ly Son Flagpole. Continuing further up is off-limits, but from here you can hike along the cliff-edge for a while in both directions. The views are wonderful: south back to Thon Dong village and the garlic fields, and west over the ridge to the Nui Gieng Tien Crater. However, the best views are actually from the road up to the flagpole, particularly at the lay-by and the lookout post. Stunning at any time of day, the views are best from 4pm, when the fields of garlic glow in the low light and the sea appears smooth and soft as velvet. But, if you thought these were breathtaking vistas, wait until you take the slip-road around the southern edge of the crater and up to Ho Thoi Loi. The paved lane is very steep and ends at a concrete hut. A pathway leads along the ledge beneath a freestanding boulder which is perhaps the best photo spot on the entire island. Up here, you’re standing on the edge of a giant volcanic crater: just imagine it 25 million years ago, spouting fire and ash, oozing lava, bellowing with each eruption, literally changing the topography in this violent moment; until the sea water cooled the lava and ash, and the eruption solidified into pretty much what you see today. Casuarina trees grow around the rim of the crater which has filled with rain to become a freshwater lake, long-used as a reservoir for the inhabitants of Ly Son Island.
The bulky bulge of Thoi Loi Crater rising from the garlic fields, seen from the top of Ly Son Lighthouse
Nui Gieng Tien Crater [MAP]: Accessed via a stairway behind the giant statue of the Goddess of Mercy, it’s only possible to climb part of the way up this crater, because the top, which is an expansive meadow, is restricted access. But the views down over the western side of Ly Son, over to Dao Be Island, and out to sea are absolutely brilliant. The rock formations and volcanic hills around Nui Gieng Tien are twisted and tortured, as if they were moulded in extreme heat, which, of course, they were.
Other Craters: In the south of the island, near Thon Tay, is Nui Hon Vung, a small crater with a war martyrs’ cemetery on its slopes. Nui Hon Soi is a large crater near the center of the island. On its northeastern slopes is Ly Son’s neat, new cemetery (from where there are good views), but the rest of the crater is off limits and tightly controlled. Nui Hon Tai is another small crater in the west of the island. It’s covered in terraced crops fields. Attractive and serene but not spectacular, some dirt lanes lead around it.
To Vo Rock Arch [MAP]: A small headland of volcanic rock sticking out into the shallow blue sea in the northwest of the island, To Vo ‘rock arch’ is one of the most photographed places on Ly Son Island. The reason for this is not its scale (or necessarily its natural beauty), but because erosion has formed an arch in the rock in which you can, at the opportune time of day, frame the sun and a silhouette of yourself. It’s definitely worth stopping by because it’s a pretty sight, although much smaller than you’d imagine (the arch is only a couple of metres high), and it’s best to avoid sunrise and sunset, where the place gets ridiculously busy with selfie-stick-wielding tourists.
Ly Son Lighthouse [MAP]: Originally constructed during French colonial times, this lighthouse was rebuilt in the 21st century. Resembling a grey rocket, the modern lighthouse is accessed through the original French structure in front of it, a handsome, wide, ochre-yellow building. It’s a steep climb up over 150 wooden steps to the top, but well worth it, because the views are exquisite. You can see the whole of the south and east of Ly Son Island: from the steep walls of Nui Thoi Loi Crater to Hang Cau Cliffs, Thon Dong marina, and across the fields of garlic to Thong Tay village.
Beaches & Islands:
Ly Son isn’t replete with quintessential tropical island beaches, but the beaches it does have are very striking indeed. In fact, Ly Son and nearby Dao Be Island are home to one or two of the most dramatically situated beaches in Vietnam. The water quality is generally fantastic: very clear and turquoise-blue. However, swimming isn’t that easy because of reefs, surf and rocks. It’s fine for experienced sea swimmers, but for those who aren’t too comfortable in the ocean, it might be better to look at than to bathe in. But snorkeling is great and Ly Son is probably one of the best untapped surf and kite-surf locations in the country (although you’ll need to bring your own equipment, as there’s none for hire on the island yet):
Hang Cau Beach & Cliffs [MAP]: Quite possibly one of the most dramatically situated and photogenic beaches in Vietnam, Hang Cau is a seam of white-coral sand swept between the giant, swirling contours of an arch-like cliff-cave. In the northeast of the island, the surf at Hang Cau breaks about 100m offshore, where a line of reefs protects the beach from large rollers. The sea is crystal clear and the air always has a slight mist caused by the spray of the surf drifting up from the ocean and into the cave. It’s incredibly atmospheric and very striking. If possible, try to visit on a weekday, preferably before 4pm, so that you have the chance of getting it all to yourself.
Chua Duc Beach [MAP]: Below the tortured cliffs where the colossal statue of the Goddess of Mercy stands, a long, coral-bleached beach stretches for a kilometre or so. The sea is very clear and a beautiful colour. The break is constant thanks to a long reef lying offshore. It’s a barren, exposed and striking coastline that’s fine for swimming and snorkeling. However, litter spoils the sand (but not the water).
Chua Hang Beach [MAP]: Neatly set in a cove in front of Chua Hang Cave and Shrine, this beach, in the north of the island, is very photogenic, but not that great for swimming. White – blindingly white – sand from eroded coral and large slabs of volcanic rock form the beach, creating a patchwork of textures and colours. Under the perfectly clear water, reefs whip up the surf. It’s good for snorkeling and paddling, but not really deep or calm enough for swimming.
Mu Cu (former) Islet [MAP]: Once a tiny islet, this rocky reef is now the eastern-most tip of Ly Son Island, thanks to a newly completed sea wall linking it to Thong Dong marina. The red- and white-striped lighthouse is a decent viewing spot, and walking (or riding) up and down the sea wall is good fun.
Dao Be Island [MAP]: An enchanting little island just to the north of Ly Son, Dao Be is a real treat. A 10-minute fast boat whisks visitors to Dao Be each morning (see Getting Around for details). The island is small, flat, very beautiful and charming. Little buggies meet the boats to take visitors around the island, but because Dao Be is so small, it’s much better to go on foot. Utilizing the narrow paved lanes, it’s possible to hike the entire circumference of the island (and the interior, too) within an hour or two. Boats leave after three hours which gives you enough time to explore the island and stop for a swim and a drink. However, if you have the time, I highly recommend staying overnight on Dao Be Island at one of a handful of rustic, cheap and cheerful ‘homestays’ (see Accommodation for details). Inland, the island is portioned into rectangular plots, partitioned and terraced by volcanic rocks walls. Garlic and peanuts are the main crops, but tropical fruit trees, such as coconut palms, banana plants, and screwpines grow in clusters here and there. There’s only one settlement on the island, a tiny hamlet of squat, angular concrete homes bisected by sandy alleyways on the south coast, where the boat pier is. Many of the houses have colourful murals painted on their external walls, which makes strolling around the hamlet an interesting experience.
For sandy beaches, bathing and palm fringed water, stick to the south side of the island. The little beach stretching east of the pier to the volcanic cliff is stunning, especially when viewed from the cliffs themselves. The sand is bright white, the water bright blue, and the palms bright green. The east coast is mostly black volcanic rock and can be quite rough. At the northern tip the rocks coalesce to for a series of jagged cliffs and coves. One of these coves hides a white sand beach dotted with colourful fishing coracles. The surf is perfect blue as it washes up on the white beach under the black cliffs. The west coast has equal parts rocky and sandy beach, but there’s a fair amount of flotsam and jetsam on this side of the island.
In the past, trash has been a big problem on the island. But, although it is still an issue, it has been directly addressed in the last couple of years. Plastic bottles, cans, containers and other reusable waste that’s washed up on the beaches or discarded by tourists and locals is now being collected for recycling. One form of this is using plastic bottles as a building material to makes household walls. The bottles are filled with sand and used in place of bricks to build walls in some recent dwellings in the hamlet. This is very encouraging, indeed. Although litter is still a problem, a lot of it is now collected, and local and visitor practices are better than before. In fact, much of the garbage now on Dao Be is only flotsam and jetsam, washed up and caught in the jagged volcanic shoreline from the wider ocean, particularly polystyrene boxes and fishing equipment. What’s been done on Dao Be Island, in a short space of time, is very encouraging, and a good example for other such areas in Vietnam, particularly islands.
Temples, Pagodas & Architecture:
Ly Son has dozens of temples, pagodas, shrines and other places of worship. Below I’ve listed only a few. Much of the architecture on the island is now quite new (many old buildings having been knocked down within the last few years), but in the back streets there are still some intriguing older structures:
- Quan Am Statue, Phat Mau Temple & Cemetery
- Ly Son Cemetery
- Chua Hang Cave Temple
- Old Temples & Church
- Whale Temple
Quan Am Statue, Phat Mau Temple & Cemetery [MAP]: Near the northwestern tip of Ly Son Island, a colossal statue stands at the foot of impressive, stratified cliffs. Depicting Quan Am – the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy – the statue is pure white and stands around 50m tall. The goddess presides over a tremendous ocean vista. At her feet are the graves of islanders and plots of sandy land reserved for Ly Son’s special crop: garlic. Climb the stairs behind the statue to reach Gieng Tien Mountain. On the road to the statue, behind the decorative facade of Phat Mau Temple, are hundreds of bright tombs scattered over the lower slopes of Mount Gieng Tien. It’s an interesting sight, especially seen from afar on the new seawall road.
Ly Son Cemetery [MAP]: Sprawling beneath the crater of Nui Hon Soi Mountain, this cemetery is the largest on the island. The focal point, accessed by many wide steps, doubles as a good viewing platform, with vistas over thousands of tombs and much of the island’s garlic fields. Unfortunately, the cemetery also overlooks Ly Son’s trash facility, which billows bad-smelling smoke into the air (from incinerating trash) and tends to blow over to the tombs.
Chua Hang Cave Temple [MAP]: A spectacular location for a very atmospheric shrine, Chua Hang is at one of the most northerly points on the island. It’s a popular attraction, so be prepared for light crowds, a few trinket stalls and the like. Steps lead around a rocky cape to a gorgeous cove of white sand, book-ended by stratified cliffs. The colours are glorious, and in the middle of the beach a serene sculpture of Goddess Quan Am pokes up from frangipani trees, looking out to sea. But the real shrine is behind the goddess, under the cliffs. A short stairway leads down beneath the cliff face and opens into a wide but low cave. Filled with incense, this cave has been used for many centuries for worship, dating back to Cham times. Several shrines, tombs, and altars haunt the eaves of the cave. Light some incense and watch the smoked curl around the cave in the shafts of sunlight from outside. You must remove your shoes before walking on the cave floor.
Old Temples & Church [MAP]: On a shady, quiet stretch of coast between Thon Tay and Thon Dong villages, this collection of temples, shrines and old communal village hall is very atmospheric. There’s a church just behind, too.
Whale Temple [MAP]: Noticeably small for a whale temple, this colourful, squat temple houses the bones of many sea mammals, including whales and dolphins. But, unlike whale temples elsewhere in the country, the bones here are dumped in a corner. I imagine they’ll be assembled into a coherent skeleton sometime soon.
Villages & Communes:
Ly Son Island is divided into two ‘communes’, which are probably better to think of as ‘districts’. These are: An Vĩnh (the western half of the island) and An Hải (the eastern half). A little confusingly, both An Vĩnh and An Hải communes are further divided into two identically named villages: Thôn Tây (western village) and Thôn Đông (eastern village). Thus, there’s a Thôn Tây and a Thôn Đông village in both An Vinh and An Hai communes:
An Vinh Commune: The main port, where the fast boats from the mainland dock, is in An Vinh’s Thon Tay village. This is the commercial and tourist centre of Ly Son Island. The small streets are tightly packed with hotels, cafes, seafood restaurants, street food vendors, and shops. As such, Thon Tay is the most bustling of Ly Son’s villages. Although it’s nice enough on the seafront or on the back streets, Thon Tay lacks charm, and there’s quite a lot of touting for hotels and sightseeing. However, the village makes up for it with conveniences and the typical life and energy of Vietnamese urban areas. Separated from Thon Tay by a pleasant stretch of coast road, An Vinh’s Thon Dong village is generally quieter and less touristy than Thon Tay. This is where you’ll find Ly Son’s main market (chợ Lý Sơn). However, things look set to change with the construction of a large new port, in front of the Muong Thanh Hotel, that’s due to open sometime this year.
An Hai Commune: An Hai’s Thon Tay village is essentially just a continuation of An Vinh’s Thon Dong village, sprawling along the coast. However, An Hai’s Thon Dong village, in the southeastern corner of Ly Son Island, has a distinctive character all its own. Spreading along a crescent bay and clustering beneath the crater of Thoi Loi Mountain, Thong Dong is quiet and attractive, although it lacks variety when it comes to dining and accommodation options. The fishing port at Thong Dong is currently being shored up with sea walls protecting it from the high seas. At the time of writing, the marina and harbourfront were a bit of a mess because of the building work, but it won’t be long before it’s finished, after which it will be a nice place to be. The fishing fleet – surprisingly small by Vietnamese standards – moors in the marina, along with a couple of rusting tugs. Take the time to get lost in the back-streets of Thong Dong, where diminutive homes with little courtyards with garlic and shallots drying in the sun, green hedges and bougainvillea are very charming indeed.
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Because many travellers will need to spend a night on the mainland, near Sa Ky Port, before taking the boat across to Ly Son Island, I’ve included accommodation options in nearby Quang Ngai, My Khe Beach and Sa Ky Port, as well as hotels and guest houses on the island itself:
Quang Ngai, My Khe & Sa Ky Hotels: If you want or need to stay a night on the mainland before catching the ferry to Ly Son Island, there are several different areas to stay. Quang Ngai is the nearest city, and has plenty of accommodation options; My Khe is the nearest beach, where there are a couple of OK places to stay; and Sa Ky Port has a few simple guest houses that are very convenient if your boat leaves early the next morning. See below for details:
Quang Ngai Hotels: The provincial capital, Quang Ngai city is 20km east of Sa Ky Port. It’s the transport hub for the region, so many travellers might find themselves staying here for a night on the way to or from Ly Son Island. Quang Ngai is quite small for a provincial capital, but it’s pleasantly situated on the banks of the Tra Khuc River with the Truong Son Mountains looming behind, and there are plenty of comfortable places to stay. Excellent budgets digs, including dorms, can be found at Min’s House [BOOK HERE]; good value private rooms and a quiet location are at the attractive Hana Riverside Villa [BOOK HERE]; the centrally located King Hotel [BOOK HERE] is good for flashpackers; and finally, Thien An Riverside [BOOK HERE] and My Tra Riverside [BOOK HERE] hotels are both good options for mid-range lodgings with wonderful river views. [For more accommodation options in and around Quang Ngai take a look at this list on Agoda.com]
My Khe Beach Hotels: My Khe Beach is just a 10-minute drive south of Sa Ky Port, and 15km east of Quang Ngai city. A lovely stretch of sand lined with casuarina trees, the surf at My Khe is shallow and good for swimming. The beach has been marked for tourism for years (at least a decade, since I first visited), but still nothing has really happened. A string of good, informal seafood restaurants cluster around the central section, as do a couple of sad looking hotels. My Khe Hotel ($20-$30) looks pretty soulless from the outside, but the rooms are actually good value, considering their size and location near the beach [BOOK HERE]. Otherwise, the mini-hotels along the main road are cheaper options, such as Dong Tien (tel: 0962 630 545; 200,000vnd) and Anh Tuong [BOOK HERE] guest houses.
Sa Ky Port Hotels: Sprawling along the banks at the confluence of two rivers before they flow into the sea, Sa Ky is a scruffy port and village. This is where all the boats to Ly Son Island depart from, so you may find it convenient to stay here for a night, particularly if your boat leaves early in the morning. A couple of decent guest houses line the bankside road leading to Sa Ky boat terminal. Sao Mai Motel (tel: 038 581 9177: 150,000-250,000vnd) has clean, simple, perfectly acceptable rooms for a night, some with views over the river and rice fields behind. Dai Thanh Motel [BOOK HERE], a little further up the road, is another option of similar quality. Both are just a few minutes’ walk from the boat terminal, and both can arrange tickets (see Getting to Ly Son Island for details).
Ly Son Island Hotels:
Almost all of the current accommodation options on Ly Son Island are in the budget price bracket. There are dozens of guest houses and mini-hotels on the island, a couple of backpacker-style hostels, and one or two mid-range hotels, too. Accommodation is spread around the island, but the greatest concentration is in Thôn Tây village, around the port in An Vinh commune, in the west of the island. Tiny Dao Be Island also has a couple of homestay-style hostels. During the week, it shouldn’t be necessary to book in advance, but on weekends and public holidays, it’s essential. Click an area below to read my recommendations [For a full list of accommodation on Ly Son check this list on Agoda.com]:
West Coast Hotels [MAP]: Dozens of guest houses and mini-hotels cluster around the port area on the west coast. This part of the island is known as Thôn Tây, in An Vĩnh Commune. The seafront and the backstreets opposite the harbour are crammed with accommodation. It can feel a bit touristy during high season, but get a sea-view room at one of the hotels on the front and you’ll be happy for a night or two, plus it’s very convenient for boats to Dao Be Island and back to the mainland. There are lots to choose from: the back streets are usually cheaper than the front, but the general price-range is from 200,000-500,000vnd a night depending on the amount of guests/beds. Here are some I liked:
• Binh Yen Motel [MAP]; $10-$20: [BOOK HERE] This excellent mini-hotel is right on the embankment road, just on your left as you disembark the ferry from the mainland. Binh Yen Motel is good value for money, with very clean rooms, hot showers, air-con, windows (some with little balconies looking over the harbour), comfy beds and fresh linen. Family-run, relaxed but well-organized, Binh Yen is a solid choice if you’re staying in the port area. Staff can also arrange all number of island excursions and activities, including the boat to Dao Be Island.
• Dai Duong Hotel [MAP]; 300,000-500,000vnd | tel: 0977 205 818: Right next door to Binh Yen, this hotel is a good option if the former is full. Good, clean rooms, some with sea-views, and a terrace cafe overlooking the port make Dai Duong a comfortable mini-hotel. On the corner as you exit the port, Ly Thien Hotel is also a good budget option in a central location.
• Hiep Si Hotel [MAP]; $15-$20: [BOOK HERE] Hidden down a narrow back street behind the port, and not far from An Vinh Market, Hiep Si Hotel has typically clean, bright, and inexpensive rooms is a quiet location.
• Thanh Tran Guest House [MAP]; $10-$15: [BOOK HERE] A couple of minutes north of the port area, Thanh Tran is a classic little townhouse mini-hotel. Decent rooms with windows and easy access to the embankment promenade are very cheap, especially if sharing between 2-4 people.
• Central Ly Son Hotel [MAP]; $40-$50: [BOOK HERE] Despite its prime location – right opposite the port – and mid-range pretensions, Central Ly Son Hotel is ludicrously overpriced for the standard of accommodation available. Having said that, it’s a bit plusher and smarter than the mini-hotels, the rooms are spacious, and the views are good.
• Khai Hoan Hotel [MAP]; 250,000-500,000 | tel: 0906 496 860: A few minutes out of town, Khai Hoan is a big new hotel in the back streets. It’s a pleasant, quiet, leafy area, and the hotel has good rooms with everything you need and expect from a budget Vietnamese accommodation of this kind.
• Quynh Anh Guest House [MAP]; 200,000-400,000 | tel: 01699 353 868: A kilometre or two east of the port, Quynh Anh is a typical Vietnamese guest house. The area is more local than the port – not so touristy – and it’s near Ly Son Market, a block back from the seafront. Rooms are clean, bright and fine.
• Homestays [MAP]; $5-$10: There are quite a few homestays in the narrow streets just north of the port. You’ll see signs for some of these around town, and some are also marked on Google Maps. However, I found it a bit difficult to work out how to get a room. My feeling is that they mostly cater to young Vietnamese backpackers, but I’m sure it’s possible for foreign travellers to stay, too. Ask around.
South Coast Hotels [MAP]: The largest settlement on the south coast is Thôn Tây in An Hải Commune (not to be confused with Thôn Tây in An Vĩnh Commune, on the west coast of the island: see above). A fairly modest village at the moment, this area looks set to become the island’s major town, thanks to the new port which is currently under construction here. Therefore, expect some big changes in the next year or two. For now, there’s a spattering of decent mini-hotels and the island’s smartest accommodation to date:
• Ba Thanh Guest House [MAP]; 200,000-450,000vnd | tel: 0165 750 2151: Just a little east of the main village, Ba Thanh Guest House has a pleasant location right on the seafront promenade. The guest house is much bigger than it first appears, and the rooms are clean, bright and comfortable for the price. The area is quiet and you can swim in the sea off the rocks by the embankment road.
• Quang Vinh Guest House [MAP]; 250,000-450,000 | tel: 01679 064 776: On the main road as it passes through town, Quang Vinh Guest House is a well-kept place with good-sized rooms; the ones at the back are quietest and you can even see the sea from some of them.
• Mini-Hotels [MAP]; $10-$20: A block inland from the embankment road, several mini-hotels are clustered together. Anh Duong and Tuong Vy are both decent value for money with simple, clean, bright rooms.
• Muong Thanh Holiday Hotel [MAP]; $45-$65: [BOOK HERE] The island’s only upscale accommodation, Muong Thanh is part of a large Vietnamese hotel chain. The rooms are spacious, comfy and bright, with big windows and sea-views (but no balconies), and there’s a swimming pool out front. When rates are low(-ish) it’s decent value, but as a building it’s hardly sympathetic to its surroundings. The hotel has very little style or character, but it’ll do if you don’t like guest houses or are in need of some facilities, like a pool and gym.
East Coast Hotels [MAP]: The main settlement on the east coast is Thôn Đông, in An Hải Commune. A quiet, likable little place, Thôn Đông fronts a fishing harbour, and is backed by the dramatic cliffs of the Thoi Loi volcanic crater. A handful of good guest houses dot the village, most of them cluster near the harbourfront, but others are tucked away in the narrow, leafy back-streets. However, the most atmospheric accommodation on the entire island can be found at Hang Cau, in a giant cavern next to the ocean, where camping is available. See below for details:
• Hoa Bien Hotel [MAP]; 200,000-300,000vnd | Tel: 098 386 75 22: Just across from Phuoc Loc, Hoa Bien is a good mini-hotel. Rooms are nice, the price is cheap, and there’s easy access to the fishing harbour. Minh Thanh Guest House (tel: 097 260 5035) is a bit further up the road and also has decent rooms.
• Song Binh Motel [MAP]; 200,000-350,000vnd | Tel: 098 992 89 94: This surprisingly large hotel sits incongruously in a network of charming, narrow back-streets, lined with attractive little homes.
• Hang Cau Cave Camping & Huts: [MAP]; 100,000vnd per person | Tel: 0988 880 8186: In a glorious position on the white coral beach beneath the extraordinary cliffs of Thoi Loi crater, there are two accommodation options. Rooms in a cramped A-frame bungalow sleep up to 5 people: 100,000vnd per person. But the real attraction is camping on the beach under the cliff. Rented tents with blankets and pillows sleep up to four people: 130,000vnd per person; or you can pitch your own tent for just 50,000vnd. It really is a dramatic location for camping. However, foreigners aren’t really allowed to stay here (yawn), because it’s kind of a sea border, and kind of sensitive. But with a little perseverance, patience, Vietnamese language, and charm you might just be able to swing it. But don’t count on it. Also note that during busy times the camp site can get a bit rowdy, beer-soaked, and robbed of peace by karaoke machines.
Dao Be Island: Homestays & Camping [MAP]: A 10-minute boat ride north of Ly Son, Dao Be Island is a gem (details here). If you have time, you really should spend a night on this tiny islet: it’s magical. However, try to overnight on a weekday (not a weekend), when it should be almost deserted at night. All the places listed below have shared bathrooms and showers, and food and drink is available, but limited. There are only a handful of simple but charming places to choose from: perfect for budget travellers:
• Gio Bien Homestay & Camping: [MAP]; 100,000vnd per person | Tel: 0888 920 107: On the south coast, Gio Bien Homestay & Camping is the best place to stay on Dao Be Island. An attractive setup of wooden huts, hammocks, and tents right next to the best beach on the island, Gio Bien is an excellent and friendly place to be. There’s limited capacity, so grab a space here as soon as you get off the boat from Ly Son Island. At Gio Bien you can stay in the attractive wooden beach hut on a mattress on the floor with a fan for 100,000vnd per person. The same goes with the room in the concrete house behind. Both rooms sleep up to 4 people so, unless you’re in a group, you may be sharing the floor with someone else. Tents are available to rent and can be pitched right on the beach or on the bank under the trees (for shelter) for 130,000vnd. Each tent sleeps up to three people. It’s a gorgeous location and dirt-cheap. Even better, bring your own tent and pitch it here for free.
• Alabin Homestay: [MAP]; 100,000vnd per person | Tel: 0165 745 2175: In the east of the island, Alabin has several rooms to choose from, all of which are fan-cooled and quite hot. A mixture of diminutive wooden huts and concrete villas, the rooms are tasteful, cute, and comfortable, especially considering the price. Alabin isn’t on the beach, but it’s only a 30-second walk to the seafront.
• Ly Son Bungalow Hostel: [MAP]; 100,000vnd per person | Tel: 0981 749 535: With only two, fan-cooled rooms sleeping up to 10 people, Ly Son Bungalow Hostel can get quite crowded. But it’s cheap, bright, cheerful, and social. The pastel tones, wall murals and relaxed vibe are all indications that this is a classic, tasteful, Instagrammable, young Vietnamese hangout. The rocky beach is just a stroll away.
Other Homestays [MAP]: In the hamlet by the boat pier, a few, simple homestays operate. Consisting of fan-cooled rooms, some with en-suite bathrooms, these homestays are OK, and you get to be part of the village for a night.
Food & Drink:
Below I’ve written some recommendations of where to eat and drink on Ly Son Island and on the mainland, in Quang Ngai, Sa Ky and My Khe, where most travellers will need to pass through on their way to catch the ferry to the island:
Mainland Food & Drink: Quang Ngai | Sa Ky Port | My Khe Beach [MAP]: All these locations have decent street food options – Central Vietnam has a lot to offer the travelling foodie. Quang Ngai is famous for cơm gà (chicken rice). You’ll see signs for it all over the region, but Nhung 2 is a good place to start: it’s one the city’s ‘famous’ restaurants. There are lots of decent coffee shops in Quang Ngai, too, especially along Phan Dinh Phung and Nguyen Nghiem streets [MAP], which are also good for street food. The waterside promenade on the banks of the Tra Khuc River is packed in the evenings with seafood and beer joints. In Sa Ky Port, the little, scruffy village is brightened by street food vendors in the mornings and evenings. On My Khe Beach, the central sections offers dozens of tightly packed quán hải sản – seafood restaurants overlooking the surf.
Ly Son Island Food: It’s no surprise that seafood and garlic are the main features in Ly Son’s local cuisine, which is no bad thing. But some street food and a surprising amount of fruit are also available. When visiting Ly Son, it’s a good idea to know the Vietnamese for seafood (hải sản) and garlic (tỏi). Both are island specialities and both are available in many forms at reasonable prices across the island – garlic honey, garlic liquor (yep!), giant lobsters, sea urchins, and rock crabs. Other dishes include central Vietnamese staples, such as bánh xèo (sizzling, rice flour pancakes), bánh ít (savoury dumplings made from glutinous sticky rice), and bún bò Huế (Hue-style spicy beef noodle soup). The largest concentration of restaurants and food stalls is in Thôn Tây village in An Vĩnh commune, in the west of the island, near the port. See below for specific recommendations:
Street Food: Thôn Tây village, on the west coast, is the centre for street food vendors on the island, particularly on the back-streets (one block from the seafront) and along the boat pier where there’s a night food market. However, the variety isn’t anything like what you get in Vietnamese towns on the mainland. Expect to find a few bánh xèo (savoury crepes with fresh herbs), noodle joints, and rice eateries. I’ve marked several such places that I enjoyed on my map (see the knife and fork icons), but there are many more besides. Banh Xeo Cay Bang is a popular place with locals in the evening, where dozens of little savoury pancakes sizzle together over a wood-fired stove. And Quan Phuong Chau is a nice, simple, rice eatery for a quick, cheap lunch. Over on the south coast, another good line of food vendors is along the road just before Muong Thanh Hotel. Also nearby, Quan Tuyet Vy has lots of good noodle dishes: try the mì quảng – a much loved central dish with thick yellow noodles. Breakfast options include the ubiquitous bánh mì (filled baguettes) and lots of bún (rice noodles) soup stalls. Some are pretty ordinary but some are exceptionally good, like Van Phi, where the freshness and lightness of the lemongrass, garlic, herbs and vegetables are superb. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, because this is central Vietnam, one of the best regions for food in the country. You’ll see the famous Ly Son garlic for sale by the roadside all over the island. It’s cheap and very good quality. For all things garlic, head to Dori Toi Den Garlic Shop.
There’s some decent street food on Ly Son Island: this is mì quảng noodles at Quan Tuyet Vi
Banh Xeo Cay Bang is a popular place among locals for these tasty little sizzling savoury pancakes
Quan Phuong Chau is a classic, simple, little rice eatery offering good, fresh, cheap lunches
Seafood: Thôn Tây, in the west of the island near the port, has several very good seafood restaurants geared towards Vietnamese visitors from the mainland. The food is fresh, reasonably priced, and delicious. The day’s catch is displayed out front of the restaurants, including lobster, crab, shellfish, and myriad types of fish and crustaceans. At night, more informal seafood stalls line up along the boat pier. There are other clusters of seafood restaurants around the island, especially along the embankment road on the south coast. Two other good spots, away from the villages, are Hon Ngoc floating restaurant, a few minutes north of the port and very atmospheric at night, and Son Thuy Restaurant, way in the north of the island, beautiful at sunset overlooking the ocean.
Ly Son Island Drinks: In the evenings, sinh tố (smoothie stalls) set up along the road leading down to the port. Almost every restaurant, eatery, or local shop sells cold, local beer: the regional favourite is Dung Quat, named after the oil refinery over on the mainland, where it’s brewed. Cafes are scattered here and there, but the coffee is only OK quality. However, a street-side coffee vendor, named Thanh Tai, at an intersection on the south coast, operates her very own espresso machine. She’ll click the buttons and pull the leavers to brew you up a fresh cup of real coffee for just 10,000vnd. There’s another roadside coffee machine opposite Muong Thanh Hotel, at Xanh Cafe, also 10,000vnd. Great value, and very enterprising. If you’re curious to try the island brew – rượu tỏi (garlic liquor) – you can find it at most restaurants or buy a bottle at Dori Toi Den Garlic Shop.
Getting There & Around:
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Until recently, Ly Son Island could only be reached by boat from Sa Ky, a small, scruffy port on the coast of Quang Ngai, a central province roughly 150km south of Danang. However, that’s set to change soon as a new route opens between Danang and Ly Son. But, at the time of writing, fast boats between Sa Ky Port and Ly Son Island sail multiple times daily, and journey time is only 30-45 minutes. The nearest transport hub to Sa Ky Port is Quang Ngai City, which has good rail and road connections to most major cities. The nearest airport is Chu Lai, 40km north of Sa Ky, which has daily flights to Hanoi and Saigon. Once on Ly Son, the island is best navigated by hired motorbike, but there are also taxis, electric cars, and boat tours to Dao Be Island. See below for full transportation details:
Because Sa Ky Port isn’t on a major road or rail line, getting there is necessarily a two-leg trip (unless, of course, you have your own wheels). The two entry points are Quang Ngai City (20km west of Sa Ky Port) and Chu Lai Airport (40km north of Sa Ky Port). Quang Ngai City is well-served by buses and trains to most major destinations in Vietnam, and Chu Lai Airport has direct flights to Saigon and Hanoi. Local buses and taxis connect Quang Ngai City and Chu Lai Airport with Sa Ky Port. See below for details: [You can search & book buses, trains & flights in the search boxes below with Baolau.com]
By Bus: Quang Ngai City is easily reached by bus. The main bus station is located on Highway QL1A, the country’s main artery. Buses ply this route all day, every day, stopping at most major cities along the coast between Saigon and Hanoi. There are lots of bus lines and dozens of departures every day in both directions. For comfort and efficiency, try Futa Lines sleeper buses. [Check current bus routes, ticket prices & availability on Baolau.com] From Quang Ngai to Sa Ky Port you can take a local taxi (these are easy to find at the bus station or through your hotel), but this is relatively expensive. A cheaper option is to take local bus No.3 (15,000vnd), operated by Mai Linh bus line. Bus No.3 leaves regularly (almost every hour), taking about one hour and stopping at various places in Quang Ngai, including the main bus station.
By Motorbike: If you have your own wheels, riding between Quang Ngai City and Sa Ky Port is an easy, scenic journey, taking about 45 minutes. Follow the Tra My-My Khe embankment road east of Quang Ngai to My Khe Beach where it joins Road QL24B to Sa Ky Port. Alternatively, take the busier QL24B all the way from Quang Ngai to Sa Ky, which gives you the option to stop by the Chau Sa citadel and the Son My memorial park (site of the 1968 My Lai massacre). There are also some highly scenic back-roads through rice paddies that are worth exploring.
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By Rail: Quang Ngai is on the main north-south rail line between Saigon and Hanoi. Almost all north-south trains stop at Quang Ngai. Each day there are at least half a dozen trains north to Hanoi and south to Saigon, stopping at all major stations along the way. Journey time from Saigon to Quang Ngai is around 16 hours; from Hanoi it’s around 18 hours. Taking the night train in a sleeper compartment is a comfortable, fun, convenient and relatively good value way to get to Quang Ngai. Prices are between 500,000-1,000,000vnd depending on the class. [Check current train times, ticket prices & availability on Baolau.com] From Quang Ngai train station, you can take a taxi to Sa Ky Port or catch Mai Linh bus No.3 (see above).
Search & Book: Type your travel dates below & click ‘Search’ to find current ticket prices & availability for trains between to Quang Ngai:
By Air: Three of Vietnam’s four carriers operate flights to Chu Lai Airport, 40km north of Sa Ky Port. Jetstar, VietJet, and Vietnam Airlines all connect Chu Lai with Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and Hanoi daily. You should be able to get a one-way ticket for under 1,000,000vnd on Jetstar and Vietjet, but Vietnam Airlines are usually more expensive (however, they’re also more likely the run on-time). From the airport, taxis and buses meet the planes to take passengers to Sa Ky Port, which is about a 45-minute ride away. [Check current flight schedules, ticket prices & availability on Baolau.com]
Search & Book: Type your travel dates below & click ‘Search’ to find current ticket prices & availability for flights to Chu Lai:
GETTING TO LY SON ISLAND:
Although boats will soon operate from Danang, at the time of writing the only way to reach Ly Son Island is from Sa Ky Port, in Quang Ngai Province. There are three fast boat companies operating regular daily ferries: up to a dozen each day in both directions. The three ferry companies are: Super Bien Dong, An Vinh, and Chin Nghia. Ticket prices are very reasonable and easy to purchase (foreign traveller don’t require a permit, but you must register your passport when buying your ticket). Sailing time is only 30-45 minutes, depending on the boat and weather conditions (Note: it’s possible to take your motorbike or bicycle on some, but not all, of the boats). See below for full details:
The Boats: The three ferry companies currently operating on the Sa Ky-Ly Son route are: An Vinh, Super Bien Dong, and Chin Nghia. Each company operates similar vessels: long, narrow fast boats, or medium-sized catamarans. All seating is inside an air-conditioned cabin on coach-style chairs. (All boats have decent toilets and plenty of life jackets and rafts.) There can be an excited buzz on board, and the music does little to calm things down. But it’s only a short voyage, and if you don’t like the atmosphere inside the cabin, you can stand out on the back deck for the entire voyage. This is something that’s often forbidden on other such fast boat journeys in Vietnam, when passengers must stay inside during departure and arrival. The most exciting parts of the voyage are leaving Sa Ky Port via a channel clogged with fishing boats and surrounded by forested headlands, and drawing closer to the volcanic silhouette of Ly Son Island. Boarding and disembarking is a bit of a scram, but nothing to worry about: it’s busy rather than chaotic. However, I imagine things can get pretty hectic on weekends and public holidays with the sheer number of visitors descending on the boats and the piers. Foreign travellers will be approached by an official in green uniform after arriving off the boat at Ly Son pier, in order to check your passport and possibly take your phone number. This interaction should be without incident.
Below is a description and photos of Sa Ky and Ly Son ports:
Sa Ky Port [MAP] Sa Ky is a scruffy but busy little port near the mouth of a river as it empties into the East Sea. Some 20km east of Quang Ngai City, the port can be reached by taxi, motorbike, or Mai Linh bus No.3 (see Getting to Sa Ky Port for details). Although initially Sa Ky doesn’t look like the gateway port to a popular island destination (for domestic travellers, at least), I was surprised by the significant infrastructure and organization of the passenger terminal. Inside the large, new terminal, there’s lots of space, a canteen, gift shop, toilets and showers, ticket offices for each of the ferry companies, plenty of seating in the waiting hall, and an information board with all the day’s sailings, times, and prices on it. The atmosphere is calm and organized, and it shouldn’t be too difficult for most foreign travellers to navigate. (However, things might be different on a busy weekend or public holiday.)
Ly Son Port [MAP] The port on Ly Son Island is in Thôn Tây village, part of An Vinh commune, on the west coast. The port consists of a concrete pier jutting into the sea from the main glut of hotels in Thôn Tây village. The pier can accommodate several boats at a time, but gets quite busy, crowded, and frantic when two boats arrive and depart simultaneously (as they often do during peak times). That’s one reason why the port is due to be relocated to a much larger site on the south coast (which is confusingly also known as Thôn Tây village, but part of An Hai commune). At the time of writing, the new port still appeared to be many months from completion, but workers at the construction site assured me it would open to passengers within the year (2019). However, for the time being, all boats from the mainland still dock at the old port on the west coast. The port itself doesn’t have any facilities, except for a dozen or so plastic seats under cover. But there are plenty of hotel cafes and food stalls around the entrance to the pier, where most passengers choose to wait for the boats. All three boat companies have offices near the pier, and the main port ticket counter has a board outside with all the day’s sailing, times, and prices on it (see Booking Tickets for details).
Below is all the information for booking tickets (for passengers and motorbikes) on the boats between Sa Ky Port and Ly Son Island:
General Information: Because there are so many sailings each day in both directions, there’s generally no need to book tickets in advance. Even if the boat you want to catch is full, chances are the next one will sail soon after. However, personally I’d recommend getting to Sa Ky Port on the afternoon before departure in order to book your ticket for the next morning, just to be safe, especially if you’re on a tight schedule. This is also advisable if you’re travelling to Ly Son on a weekend or public holiday, when things get busy. At the very least, get to the port early during these peak times. Note that motorbikes and bicycles can be carried on board, but not on all vessels (see Motorbikes & Bicycles for details).
Although there are separate ticket kiosks and offices for each of the three ferry companies, in reality all tickets for all boats are sold from the main ticket counter: at Sa Ky Port, this is clearly marked ‘Ticket Office’, and on Ly Son Island it’s the building at the corner of the intersection near the pier [MAP]. The day’s sailings (normally at least 10 in both directions) are listed on a white-board in the middle of the waiting hall at Sa Ky Port, and outside the ticket building on Ly Son Island.
Note: although no permit is required to visit Ly Son Isalnd, at Sa Ky Port all foreign travellers must register their passport with the officials at window No.5, marked ‘Border Guards Procedures’, next to the ticket counter. Then, at the pier on Ly Son Island, an official will inspect your passport again, and possibly take your phone number or email. All this should be a fairly quick and painless process, providing your papers are all in order.
Motorbikes & Bicycles: It’s possible to take your motorbike or bicycle with you on the boat from Sa Ky Port to Ly Son Island. As the boats continue to be upgraded to more modern and bigger vessels, so the space for motorbikes and bicycles increases. At the moment, most (but not all) of the fast boats operating for An Vinh and Super Bien Dong companies can accommodate a half dozen or more motorbikes, depending on available space (remember these boats are also used for cargo and supplies from the mainland to the island). The cost is a very reasonable 90,000vnd per motorbike, but the ticket is bought separately from your passenger ticket. At Sa Ky Port, buy your passenger ticket first, then take your motorbike around the back of the boat terminal, where the cargo is loaded, about 30 minutes before departure. Here, a boat company staff will sell you a ticket for your bike. Tip: Early morning boats carry a lot of cargo; try to catch a later ferry (mid-morning, for example) so that there’ll be plenty of space for your bike.
Sa Ky Ticket Offices: There are three main fast boat ferry companies currently operating between Sa Ky Port and Ly Son Island. They are: An Vinh Express, Super Bien Dong, and Chin Nghia Express. Each ferry company has a separate office inside the passenger terminal at Sa Ky Port. However, in reality, all tickets are sold at the general ticket counter inside the terminal, opposite the ferry company offices. The general ticket counter is clearly marked ‘Ticket Office’ in English. The daily schedule is posted on a white-board in front of the main ticket office. Below is the contact information for all fast boat ferry companies:
• Super Bien Dong: tel: 0977 761 879 | 0255 629 7999
• An Vinh Express Express: tel: 0987 745 722 | 0966 266 439
• Chin Nghia Express: tel: 0944 50 76 76 | 0905 790 298
Ly Son Ticket Offices: On Ly Son Island, all three fast boat ferry companies have offices around the intersection behind the port in Thôn Tây village. However, in reality, all tickets are sold from the kiosk in the (easily missable) building on the corner of the intersection [MAP]. The daily schedule is posted on a white-board out front of the ticket kiosk. (Note: a much larger, new ferry terminal is currently under construction in the south of the island. When it’s finished it will replace the current boat pier.) Below is the contact information for all fast boat ferry companies:
• Super Bien Dong: tel: 0977 761 879 or 0255 629 7999
• An Vinh Express Express: tel: 0987 745 722 or 0966 266 439
• Chin Nghia Express: tel: 0944 50 76 76 or 0905 790 298
Schedules, Times & Prices: Between the three ferry companies (An Vinh Express, Super Bien Dong, and Chin Nghia Express), there are multiple sailings daily in both directions between Sa Ky Port and Ly Son Island. Depending on the day of the week and the time of year, you can count of roughly 7 (weekdays, low-season) to 15 (weekends, public holidays, high season: May to September) sailings every day. I was surprised by the amount of daily sailings operating on this route, and it’s great news for travellers. Sailing time is only 30-45 minutes, prices are reasonable, and booking is fairly easy and quick – just show up at the port on the day of departure (or, preferably, the day before).
With so many sailings each day, the exact schedule changes regularly. But, as a general rule, sailings start from 7am-7.30am and continue until 3.30pm-4.30pm. During these times, there’s between 1 and 3 sailings every hour, depending on the day of the week, time of year, and weather conditions. (There appears to be a ‘lunch break’ between 12noon and 1pm, when there are no sailings at all.) All the day’s sailings and ticket prices are listed on a white-board in the middle of the waiting hall at the passenger terminal in Sa Ky Port, and outside the ticket office on Ly Son Island. Note that rough seas, storms, or high winds may force boats to cancel; this is most likely to happen between October and February. You can check Windy.com for good online weather forecasts, including wind and waves. Prices vary slightly according to the vessel, but the general range is 150,000-180,000vnd per one-way adult ticket. The schedule below is only a rough indication of sailing patterns:
*Key: AV=An Vinh Express; SBD=Super Bien Dong; CN=Chin Nghia Express
SA KY PORT → LY SON ISLAND
Departures: 7.30am-4.00pm: at least one sailing every hour (except 12noon-1pm), all companies (AV, SBD, CN) daily*
Duration: 30-45 minutes
Passenger Ticket: 150,000-180,000vnđ, (discounts for seniors, children, disabled)
Motorbike Ticket: 90,000vnd (AV & SBD boats only)
Contacts: AV: 0987 745 722 or 0966 266 439 | SBD: 0977 761 879 or 0255 629 7999 | CN: 0944 50 76 76 or 0905 790 298
LY SON ISLAND → SA KY PORT
Departures: 7.30am-4.00pm: at least one sailing every hour (except 12noon-1pm), all companies (AV, SBD, CN) daily*
Duration: 30-45 minutes
Passenger Ticket: 150,000-180,000vnđ, (discounts for seniors, children, disabled)
Motorbike Ticket: 90,000vnđ (AV & SBD boats only)
Contacts: AV: 0987 745 722 or 0966 266 439 | SBD: 0977 761 879 or 0255 629 7999 | CN: 0944 50 76 76 or 0905 790 298
GETTING AROUND LY SON ISLAND:
Ly Son is a relatively small island and easily navigated. Two wheels is ideal, but there are also taxis on the island. And, because the distances are fairly short, it’s entirely possible to get around on foot. Small speed boats whisk passengers between Ly Son and Dao Be Island to the north; just a 10-minute trip, and well worth it. See below for details:
By Road: Ly Son is a pretty small island and can be easily traversed by rented motorbike, bicycle, taxi or electric bus. The dimensions of the island are roughly 6km from east to west, and 2km from north to south, so the distances are very small. Despite its size, Ly Son has plenty of roads leading to most corners of the island. The northwest coast is the only area that isn’t really reachable by road. Everywhere else on the island has a narrow paved lane or dirt path to it. However, some of these roads (especially the ones leading up to the volcanic peaks) are controlled by the military, and therefore off limits. I’ve marked these areas as best I can with a ‘police’ icon on my map.
Motorbikes (or scooters) can be rented from most accommodations on the island for 100,000-150,000vnd per day. Riding around Ly Son is a great way to get around independently and see the island. Traffic is generally light and roads are OK quality. However, the roads can be very narrow and often buried in drifts of sand that has been dumped by the roadside to be spread over the fields of garlic. Motorbikes don’t like sand: if you brake suddenly or turn your wheel in sand just inches thick, the bike is likely to skid. Ride cautiously. Unfortunately, I didn’t see any bicycles for rent on the island, which is a shame because the terrain is mostly flat and bikes would be an enjoyable, quiet, and environmentally friendly way to get around. But it is perfectly easy to bring your own bicycle with you from the mainland on the boat to Ly Son Island (see Getting to Ly Son Island for details).
A fleet of taxis serves Ly Son Island. If you speak some Vietnamese, pick up the cab company phone number from your hotel (or note it down from the side of a taxi). Alternatively, when you need a taxi, ask the staff at your accommodation to book one for you. Another way to get around is by electric mini-bus. Although they generally cater to larger groups of tourists, it’s possible to book one separately. Try the office (92 Nguyen Trai Street | tel: 0868 799 239) near the port, beneath Motel Tien Tri for details.
On Foot: There are some good, short hikes on Ly Son Island, most of which lead up the slopes of extinct volcanic craters to spectacular viewing points (see Mountains & Viewing Points for details). But it’s also entirely possible to get around the island in general on foot. If you’re a hiker, or prefer walking over transportation, there’s no reason why you can’t go all over the island on foot. As mentioned before, Ly Son is only a few kilometres wide, so the distances are never great and, apart from the craters, most of the terrain is flat. This makes walking a viable option. Of course, getting from A to B will take a lot longer and it’s important to remember that heat may be an issue during the middle of the day. But, apart from that, if you’re a keen walker, hiking around Ly Son should be possible.
By Boat: The only outlying island is Dao Be (also known as An Binh or Cu Lao Bo Bai), which lies just north of Ly Son. Little passenger speed boats leave the Ly Son pier every morning between 7am and 10am for Dao Be Island. The journey only takes 10-15 minutes, but if seas are rough boats won’t sail. Ticket prices are good value at 80,000vnd return per person. Tickets are easily arranged through your accommodation the night before, or morning of, departure (or you can just show up at the boat pier and try your luck, but this probably isn’t a good idea during high season or on a weekend). All boats are equipped with safety gear and passengers must wear the life jacket provided (this is good practice in Vietnam, which has a pretty poor maritime safety record). All boats dock at the main pier on the south side of Dao Be Island, and all boats leave three hours later: if your boat departs Ly Son at 7.30am, your return from Dao Be Island will be at 10.30am, and so on. The tickets are very reasonably priced and the whole setup works well. If you suffer from motion sickness, bear in mind that the boats are fast and the swell can be big. On Dao Be Island, electric buggies ferry visitors around, but it’s much better to walk instead: the island is tiny and easily traversed on foot. (See Dao Be Island for details).
The best time of year to visit Ly Son Island is between March and September, when the weather is warm, sunny and generally dry, and seas are calm. The months of March, April and September are ideal, because they fall either side of the Vietnamese summer holidays (during which the island can get too busy). Between November and February, conditions can be wet, grey, and surprisingly cold.
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