Far to the Gulf of Siam, to the southeast of the famous tourist destination of Phu Quoc, lies the beautiful islands of Nam Du.
Being the furthest place from the mainland in Kien Hai, Kien Giang, with a distance of 83 km from the center city of Rach Gia, the archipelago retain its wild natural beauty and remains virtually untouched by the mass tourists. Its 21 green islets scatter naturally in an area of 40 square kilometers, making up a beautiful complex in the middle of the sea that has become a must-reach destination for backpackers.
I. The Nam Du archipelago and its stories
No one is sure about the origin of the archipelago’s name Nam Du. Some people said it had the name since late 18th century, when Vietnam was under the Nguyen dynasty. Others said it’s a hybrid version of the word Nam Dự (meaning the island to the south) used by the intellectuals since the very old times. In maps prepared by some French geologists, the island complex is called Puolo Dama.
At times the archipelago is also called Cu Tron, after the biggest islet in the complex. This was recorded in a poem by Le Chi in his trip to the islands:
Xa xa phương ấy Củ Tron
Khen ai khéo đặt tên hòn dễ thương
Xanh mờ như lẫn trong sương
Một quần đảo tựa phố phường đông vui.
Far across the ocean lies the Cu Tron
I admire whoever blessed the island with such an interesting name
The green islets stay in the fog
Looking like a crowded town
The story of Cu Tron was also mentioned in A Nam Du trip by Anh Dong. The book wrote that in 1870, Lord Nguyen Anh lost Gia Dinh City to the Tay Son for the second time, and retreated to Cu Tron together with his close relatives and a group of soldiers to escape from the continuous attack of Tay Son troops. He directed the soldiers to dig a well for fresh water, which is now the Gieng Ngu Well in the Bai Ngu Beach, located northwest of Hon Lon. Encountering a shortage of staple food, they made a local round shaped root a substitute, which inspired Nguyen Anh to name the island Củ Tròn (round root) after he stepped up as a King in 1802. The word “Tròn” (round shaped) is believed to become “Tron” by mistake, when a heavy accented official read aloud the naming announcement issued by the King.
You can climb to the Nam Du lighthouse, which is located more than 300 meters above sea levels, to see all of the islets in the archipelago: Hòn Mấu, Đô Nai, Bờ Đập, Hòn Lò, Hòn Ngang, Hòn Đụng, Hòn Dầu, Bỏ Áo, Hòn Ông, Hòn Dâm, Hòn Tre, Hòn Mốc, Hòn Nhàn, Hòn Hàn, Hòn Nồm, Hòn Khô, Bãi Chệt, and Hòn Lớn.Of all the islets, the largest is Cu Tron (9km2), and the smallest takes up only 200m2 in area. The local people live mainly on Củ Tron, Hòn Mấu and Hòn Bờ Đập.
Every islet, every beach and pathways on these islands has a story in it. For instance, Bai Chet Beach is said to got its name in the 16th century, after a fierce fight between Chinese and Dutch commercial ships caused hundreds of Chinese people’s bodies to float into the beach. Meanwhile, Nam Dai Slope is named after a mage living in the area, who fell to death on the slope during his flying practice.
II. The best time to visit Nam Du
- The weather is best on the islands during the “dry” season, which started in December and ends at around March. The sea tends to be calmer during these months, which makes your ship trips more enjoyable.
- Typhoons from the South China Sea really affect the archipelagos directly, but they could cause heavy rains that last for days in the area. Hence, it’s best to avoid the rainy season, which is from April to November every year.
The archipelago can only be reached by ships. Below is a list of companies that offer ship travel services.
1. Ngọc Thành (high speech ferry)
2. Sông Hồng (Helen, Goffrey high speech ferry)
Route : Rạch Giá – Hòn Tre – Hòn Sơn – Nam Du
Departure time : From Rạch Giá at 08:10, from Nam Du at 12:10
Duration: 2 hours
Contact numbers: 077 3814646
3. Hồ Hải (high speed ferry)
Route : Rạch Giá – Nam Du
Departure time: From Rạch Giá at 9:00, from Nam Du at 10:00
Duration: 5 hours
Contact numbers: 077 3863019
4. Hòa Hợp
Route : Rạch Giá – Nam Du
Departure time: : Rạch Giá 20h
Duration: 8 hours
Most ships to Nam Du departs from Rach Gia, which can be reached by bus from all other major cities in the country.
IV. Getting around on Nam Du
The best means to get around and discover the Nam Du islands are boats. You can simply get to the wharf and make a deal with a fisherman to use his boat, or make a call to any of the contacts listed below to rent one.
V. Stay: hotels, hostels
There are currently a few hostels open for tourists that you can book in advance, which can be found in the list below. In the rare case that no rooms are available, you could always ask the locals for help with the accommodation.
1. Huỳnh Hua Hostel
Address: 56 Ấp Củ Tron, An Sơn, Kiên Hải, Kiên Giang
Contact number : 0919 115543, or 077 3830709
Price: VND 350,000 – VND 450,000 (USD 16 - USD 20)
(Services: air-conditioned rooms, meals, boats for rent)
VI. What to see
1. Bãi Cây Mến (Cay Men Beach)
Covering an area of just 600m2, Bai Cay Men is known for its turquoise water and soft sand beach. Mr Vo, who herited the beach from his family, said he never know why the beach was so named. Almost a century ago, Vo’s great grandparents started planting coconut trees on their land, which have now grown into a coconut field covering a large part of the islet, the greens making a beautiful contrast with the soft yellow sand.
2. Bãi Ngự
To the west of Cu Tron is Bai Ngu Beach, so named as King Nguyen Anh stopped by the area on his way to Siam (Ngu means to stay for a short period). Bai Ngu is one of the places with a most stable source of fresh water in the archipelago. It has the Vua Well (King Well), which is believed to be constructed under the direction of the King.
3. Bãi Chệt Beach
Bai Chet is known as the main port of Cu Troan Islet. Most food stores and hostels for tourists to the archipelago can be found near this beach.
4. The Nam Du lighthouse
Standing on top of Cu Tron, at 300 meters above sea levels, the lighthouse is the highest of its kind in Vietnam.
5. Hòn Nồm Islet
The little islet is populated with only one family: the Vuong, who came claim the land in 1960. More than half of the islet is rock, only one third of the land can be used for plantation by the family.
6. Hòn Mấu Island
Hon Mau is one of the bigger islets in the island complex, taking up a total area of 200 hectares (495 acres). As the sea is calmer here than most other parts of the archipelago, it is the favorite resting spot of many boats and ships, and is home for around 120 families. The locals know each other so well they would immediately recognize if someone is not a member of the village community.
Despite being humble in size, the Mau Islet is blessed with 5 beaches. Bai Chuong and Bai Nam, which lies at the front part of the islet, are the two white sand beaches, while the other 3, Bai Bac, Bai Da Den and Bai Da Trang, have rocks.
Bai Chuong is a must-visit place, with the water so clean you can see the bottom of the sea from feet away. The smooth sandy side is shaded with hundreds of coconut trees, making it an ideal relax site.
Bai Da Den (English: Black Rock Beach) is so named as it is where you can see millions of stone pieces in various sizes, patterns and colors, with the main being black. The rocks become shiny as they reflect the sunlight, making the beach an interesting site to see. Bai Da Trang (White Rock Beach) is a 15 minute walk from Bai Da Den. Unlike its colorful cousin, the beach is covered in white rocks, and has no sand on it.
7. Hòn Ngang Islet
Hon Ngang, the centre of Nam Du Commune, is a 30 minute ferry trip from Hon Lon. The ferry departs every day at 7am and 3pm. When reaching the islet, you will see thousands of ships, boats and fish cages laying at the front wharf. Dozens of bamboo houses stand on the shore. The only road on the whole islet is about 1.5 meter wide, but hardly any vehicles has ran on it.
8. Hòn Hai Bờ Đập (Hai Bo Dap Beach)
Travellers’ favorite spot for camping, diving, fishing and swimming.
9. Hòn Sơn (Hon Son Island)
Located about 60 km from the mainland, in the middle of Hon Tre and Nam Du, Hon Son looks like a huge mountain on the sea. The island officially became a part of Kien Giang Province with the name of Lai Son in the early 80s. At 11.5 km2 (almost 3 acres), it is home for more than 2000 families. The island is where visitors can find a harmonious combination between the nature and the historical and cultural values of the local people.
On sunny, cloudless days, you can see from far away the seven peaks of the mountain floating in the sea like 7 pieces on gem. At a closer distance, nature lovers will feel the peace and serenity at the scene of thousands of coconut trees covering the whole island. Along the coast is a small fishing village, crowded with fishermen and their busy boats.
Visitors to Hon Son are often amazed at how the stones are naturally scattered in the sea. Bai Thien Tue is the best one of these, where you will be grateful that the artful hands of mother nature created such majestic works for us to see.
The legendary Ma Thien Lanh Hill is also a well-known site among travellers to Hon Son. With its well preserved rainforests and mysterious caves, the hill is believed to be the place where the fairy angels landed from the sky. In more recent centuries, it became the site for spiritual practices by the manes. On the path to Ma Thien Lanh, you will see an old Buddha statue and traces of the ancient people’s writings and sketchings on the big rocks.
VII. Food and cuisines
Nam Du offers exotic seafood at extremely cheap prices. Other cuisines are also served, but at a slightly higher prices than in the mainland. Therefore, if you plan to go for an economic camping trip on the islands, you could save a bit by preparing your own food, or buy them in Rach Gia City beforehand.
1. Grilled garfish in banana leaf
The garfish served here is a kind of seafish with a round long body and a pointed beak. An adult one could weigh up to 3 kilos. This kind of fish has green bones, thus the name “ca xuong xanh” (the green boned fish) by the local people.
For preparation, the freshest garfish caught from the sea are chosen. They are shaved and covered in banana leaves. The “fish cakes” will be grilled on fire until the leaves turned dry, and you can hear hear the smell of the tasty fish from far away. Then the banana leaves are removed, and the fish is served in spring roll papers and wild vegetables.
2. Grilled garfish in banana leaf
The fresh sea scallops are grilled on fire with pork fat and onion. It can sometimes be roasted in black pepper and salt, and served with rice vermicelli.
3. Sweet and sour sobia soup
The villages in the southwest of Kien Giang are famous for their cobia fish farms. The cobia has black lozenge-shaped body, and is often mistaken as a snakehead. Unlike the soup made in the mainland, this sweet and sour cobia soup is cooked with fresh tamarind or salted tamarind with lemongrass and turmeric roots, and sometimes with fresh or pickled bamboo.
4. Fresh squid steamed with ginger
The squids are caught during a season when up more than a half of them carry eggs in their bodies, which made the dish delicious and nutritious. Apart from making steamed squids with ginger, the locals also have fried squid with chilli or butter and grilled squid with chilli sauce, which are all exotic dishes to try.
Drying under sunshine is probably human’s oldest method to reserve food, and is still one of the most common ways to reserve fish by the archipelago people. Because stockfish can be kept for longer time and is easier to transport, fishermen usually have their fish dried under the sun, which keeps the fish preserved naturally for years. It’s worth giving this special food a try while you’re on the islands.
A resto we would recommend is Quán Năm Nương on Hòn Lớn, which can be reached at 0169 247 6540.
VIII. Recommended schedules
Above is a schedule for your reference. It can be adjusted to fit with your own time and budget.
1. Day 1: Sài Gòn – Rạch Giá
Take a bus from Saigon during the night, so you can reach Rach Gia early in the morning.
2. Day 2 : Rạch Giá – Nam Du
From Rach Gia, buy a ship ticket to Nam Du. It’s better to book the ticket in advance, especially if your trip is on the holidays.
Have your first lunch after checking in at your hotel in Nam Du. Rent a bike and start your trip on the island. A few places you can reach with your bike include:
- Ba Chua Xu pagoda
- Nam Du Lighthouse
- Cay Men white sand beach
- Ngu Beach, Chet Beach
You can call it a day after a campfire on the beach in the evening.
3. Day 3 : Nam Du – Hòn Ngang – Hòn Mấu
In the morning, go to Hon Ngang Islet to see farming fish cages. After that, visit the 5 beaches on the Hon Mau, and have lunch there.
You can spend the whole afternoon swimming and enjoying the scenery on the beaches of Hon Mau, and get back to Hon Lon by the evening.
4. Day 4 : Nam Du – Rạch Giá – Sài Gòn
Check out of your hotel, take a ship back to Rach Gia and continue your bus tour to Saigon.