At noon, the sun bears down on the narrow, largely deserted, streets of Thôn Tây – the harbor village of An Vĩnh commune on Lý Sơn’s big island. Prudently, most locals are taking a mid-day nap. The coastal fishing fleet, on the water at 4am, has already returned and sold it’s catch. Garlic farmers are relaxing in the shade. But later, as the day begins to wane and shadows lengthen, the village streets are colonized by a welter of ‘pop-up’ sidewalk seafood restaurants, where tourists and local residents alike choose their supper from tables piled high with an extravagant selection of fresh fish, lobster, crab, clams, and squid.
The Lý Sơn island group, 30 km off the coast of Quảng Ngai, comprises two islands and several islets whose terrain was determined by volcanic eruptions occurring millions of years ago, leaving a dramatic landscape defined by a series of extinct volcanic cones. The largest and most populous island – Cù Lao Ré – is dominated by three prominent volcanic craters, the largest of which, Thới Lới, has been dammed to form a mountain-top reservoir. A secondary, much smaller island – Cù Lao Bờ Bãi – lies about 5 km to the North-west. The total land mass of the islands is less than 10 square km.
As far back as the Sa Huỳnh inhabitants 2500 – 3000 years ago, these islands have been culturally and economically important to the Vietnamese. In the seventh century the Champa kingdom established a trans-shipment base on Lý Sơn for their maritime trade routes. Under the rule of the Nguyễn Lords in the seventeenth century Lý Sơn was the operational base for the Hoàng Sa (Yellow Sands) flotilla, formed to develop and exploit the Paracel Islands 400 km to the east.
The economy of Lý Sơn is primarily based on the extraction of a wide variety of wild seafood – hardly surprising for an island with a relatively small cultivable area – but a significant contribution is made by the production of a particular species of garlic, ‘white gold’ to the locals, much prized for its sweet taste and complex aroma. It was not until 2014, when an undersea electric cable connected the islands to the national grid, that Lý Sơn also began to develop a significant tourism trade.
Sunshine, translucent waters, fabulous seafood, gourmet garlic, cultural relics, pagodas – what could be wrong with this picture? Potentially, quite a lot, as it turns out. Which is not to say that the islands are not a very appealing tourist destination. Indeed, the pace of life is leisurely, the locals are friendly, decent restaurants abound, and there is a selection of tourist accommodation. However, one can easily discern threatening clouds on the horizon.
While Lý Sơn is a major offshore fishing center with an annual output of about 30,000 tons (representing almost a quarter of the total for Quảng Ngai province), the coastal wild fishery around the islands has been seriously depleted by over-fishing, the use of illegal drift nets, and the clandestine use of explosives. Today, the bulk of the catch comes from far off-shore in the waters surrounding the Paracel islands, where Lý Sơn fishermen have cast their nets for centuries. Sovereignty of the Paracel islands has been hotly contested throughout history – the recent joint claimants, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan. In January of 1974 things came to a head. With the American war raging on the mainland, South Vietnamese forces announced plans to construct an airbase on the Paracel archipelago. Afraid that their claim to the islands would be lost indefinitely if the Vietnamese construction plans succeeded, China responded in force when South Vietnamese naval vessels were dispatched to protect the airbase construction. Superior Chinese forces eventually prevailed, and China has since been able to establish durable control over a significant portion of the Paracel islands, and, by extension, about 80% of the South China Sea.
In May of 2014 a Chinese state-owned oil rig was moved into waters near the disputed Paracel islands, where the Chinese established an ‘exclusion’ zone around it. A series of skirmishes between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels ensued, and a Vietnamese fishing boat was rammed and sunk by a Chinese ship. The oil rig has since been returned to China … however, the rancor between the two countries over the sovereignty of the Paracel islands has persisted, and has had a dramatic impact on the lives of Lý Sơn fishermen who say they are being attacked by Chinese vessels with increasing regularity. Boats have been rammed, equipment destroyed, crewmen beaten, and their catch stolen. In the past year, almost half of the Lý Sơn island’s boats fishing in the vicinity of the Paracels have come under attack from the Chinese. To further complicate matters, China has attempted to enforce an annual May to August fishing ban, arguing that it safeguards fish stocks – a ban that Vietnamese fishermen refuse to recognize.
In a sense, the fishermen of Lý Sơn have become the advance guard in the dispute between Vietnam and China over the South China Sea – so crucial to Vietnam’s national security that they have been exempted from the country’s compulsory military service. An important element of their job, to face down the Chinese threat against, what is perceived as, Vietnamese territorial integrity. Given the difficulty of operating in small boats far out to sea, with the daily threat of intimidation or worse by Chinese vessels, it is not clear how long fishing can remain the foundation of the island’s economy. For many fishermen, it is simply becoming too dangerous.
The volcanic soil of Lý Sơn is particularly rich, but it is the addition of a layer of fine white sand on top of the soil that provides the ideal growth medium for Lý Sơn garlic. The current varietal was brought to the island about 400 years ago and for centuries was only grown for family consumption. However, after the American war, garlic from Lý Sơn began to be exported to the Vietnamese mainland, and quickly became a favorite in Quảng Ngai province and beyond. Large scale cultivation soon followed, and now represents the bulk of agricultural production on the islands, occupying about 1/3 of the total land area. Although the immediate future of the economy still has a strong whiff of garlic, problems with large-scale production of the mono-culture have begun to be recognized.
In order to provide the large quantity of sand required for cultivation, widespread sand harvesting has been required. Pumping stations are constantly disgorging sand from the shallow coastal waters into hoppers on shore, where it is bagged and hauled to the fields. This constant quarrying of coastal sand has begun to cause significant and widespread erosion – in the past 40 years, almost one tenth of the land mass of the islands has been lost to the sea. Furthermore, garlic plants must be watered at least twice a day to prevent crops from drying out, and to discourage pest infestations that can decimate a crop. Because there is no natural surface water from rivers or streams, farmers rely on groundwater resources for irrigation. The proliferation of wells to irrigate the garlic fields – it’s estimated there are now at least 1400 – has seriously depleted the water table, and has begun to result in seawater intrusion into aquifers. In some areas wells are already too saline to use for irrigation. Surveys by local authorities have estimated that up to 83% of the available clean groundwater may already have been used. In addition to the likelihood that unpolluted ground water will simply be exhausted, there is an increasing risk that reduction of aquifers will result in land subsidence.
Recognizing that the 20,000 cubic meter Thới Lới reservoir cannot be expected to make up for the coming shortfall of fresh water, Lý Sơn authorities have signed contracts for a 260Bn VND investment in desalination plants – which, it is hoped, will provide up to 2,000 cubic meters of clean water per day for the big island.
Facing the likelihood of water shortages, local authorities have encouraged farmers to switch to more drought resistant crops such as maize or sesame – but the lure of ‘white gold’ is strong, and there is currently no sign that garlic farmers are about to willingly abandon their cash cow.
Lý Sơn has long had a small tourist trade, with local residents providing informal ‘home-stay’ accommodation, but the installation of an undersea electric cable connecting the islands to the national grid has resulted in an irruption of tourism. Over a recent three day national holiday, 3,000 tourists made the ferry trip from the Quảng Ngai port of Sa Kỳ. To accommodate the influx a number of hotels and home-stays have been constructed in and around the harbor village of Thôn Tây. Currently, the smartest hotel on the island is the ‘Central Lý Sơn’, opened in April of 2015, it offers 31 guest rooms. A new, larger hotel, the Dại Dương (Ocean) is nearing completion nearby, and will offer the first serious competition to the Central. In addition, there are a number of home-stay alternatives providing comfortable accommodation at more modest prices. In all, there are currently about 1000 tourist rooms available on the island.
And there is a lot of great stuff to see and do. Unsurprisingly, given its long history, the island is home to a number of culturally significant sites and pagodas. The islands’ volcanic birth has resulted in a dramatic landscape of basalt outcrops, caves, and bluffs bordering handsome beaches. Tourists scaling Thới Lới are rewarded with panoramic views across the island and out to sea, and the crater reservoir is a favorite spot for tourists to view the sunrise. A trip to the small island of Cù Lao Bờ Bãi provides an opportunity to swim and snorkel in crystalline waters.
Tourism is already playing a significant role in the economy of Lý Sơn, and seems certain to grow dramatically in the future as infrastructure is created. But with this rapid influx of tourists there have been growing pains. The development of tourist facilities has been, at best, chaotic. The islands have not previously had to contend with the issue of urban planning, but with pressures building rapidly on the traditional economic mainstays, authorities have begun to aggressively plan for a future in tourism.
An initial proposal by the Quảng Ngai peoples’ committee to seek a consultancy with a Chinese firm quickly met with opposition over ‘national security concerns’. Currently, advice is being sought from Japanese and Singaporean consultants on the issues of urban planning for road construction, accommodation, waste management, and clean water resources. The primary objective is to create an ‘ecotourism’ profile for the islands focused on sustainability, cleanliness, natural beauty, and the preservation of the unique cultural tradition of the area. Local authorities are also in consultation with UNESCO in the hope that the islands could be recognized as a ‘World Heritage Geopark’.
Some elements of the evolving plan are already being implemented. Formerly dusty downtown streets in Thôn Tây are being rapidly sealed. Construction codes and zoning are being tweaked. Funds have recently been committed for the construction of public toilets. Money has been allocated for the construction of waste incinerators to deal with pervasive garbage (a good percentage of which is currently being dumped into the ocean).
How Quảng Ngai authorities continue to respond to the challenges sketched out above will determine whether the Lý Sơn islands are consumed by the new set of realities they face, or instead are able to make the safe transition to a sustainable economy. The emphasis on ecotourism could benefit the entire local population, and may provide the market for a much more diverse agricultural sector that is not as destructive to the environment as the current total commitment to the production of garlic. The further development of a nascent coastal aquaculture resource could begin take pressure off the wild fishery.
None of these modern problems should be construed as a reason not to take a trip to Lý Sơn. The islands are relatively easy to get to, and exploring by motorcycle is a breeze. Try to avoid national holidays, when tourists arrive en masse – mid-week is probably the best time to visit, when pressure on ferry berths is least, and accommodation on the island is readily available. Pack a hat, sunblock, a camera, and a swimsuit, and get going!
How to get there:
The gateway to Lý Sơn is the rather bleak city of Quảng Ngai, which is an express stop on the main train line, and can also be accessed by bus from major cities North and South. Many travelers from the north fly in to Đà Nẫng and travel on to Quảng Ngai by bus or train. Alternatively, it is possible to fly in to the new ‘international’ airport at Chu Lai from either Hà Nội or Hồ Chí Minh, and to take a long taxi ride to Quảng Ngai, where most visitors spend the night.
Accommodation options in the city are pretty slim. I stayed at the Quảng Ngai ‘Central Hotel’ – which advertises ‘Four Star’ status – although the slightly tawdry room, the fact that the swimming pool was dry, and that neither of the promised bars was operating, suggested to me that substantially fewer stars were warranted. About 600,000VND for a double room.
In the early morning, take a taxi or a regularly scheduled Mai Linh bus the 30km or so from the city to the seaport of Sa Kỳ. It is also possible to travel directly to Sa Kỳ by car or motorcycle. The ferry terminal provides ‘secure’ parking for a modest daily fee.
Ferries to Lý Sơn leave from the Sa Kỳ seaport (cảng Sa Kỳ) starting at 7.30am. Depending on the volume of passengers, there may be one, or several, sailings. Tickets can be booked in advance online, or through travel agents, but can also be purchased at the ferry terminal – although if that is your choice, arrive at least an hour before departure. The fare is about 100,000VND each way. Return sailings from Lý Sơn leave in the early morning, and in the afternoon.
Where to stay:
There are currently two hotels on the big island, the ‘Central Lý Sơn’, and the brand new ‘Dại Dương’ (which, as of this writing, was not represented on accommodation websites, is not finished, but is already accepting guests). A ‘Deluxe’ room at the Central is about 1,500,000VND. Word of mouth suggested that the Dại Dương is less. Scattered around the town of Thôn Tây are a selection of modestly priced home-stays, where rooms are typically in the 250,000 – 350,000VND range.
How to get around:
Hotels and home-stays all have motorcycles for rent. The standard rate as of this writing is 150,000VND/day – including a tank of gas.
Where to eat:
There are any number of small local restaurants selling standard Vietnamese fare, in addition to specialty dishes peculiar to Lý Sơn – including (in season) fresh garlic salad, and crunchy seaweed salads. In the evening, an informal open-air market selling a fantastic variety of fresh seafood is set up, with chairs and tables spilling into the streets. It’s a carnival atmosphere, with plenty of drinking and shouting, and the catch of the day, superbly fresh, barbecued, or steamed in a banana leaf.
What to see and do:
Lý Sơn is home to about 50 pagodas, communal houses, shrines, memorials, and other sites of interest, including the following:
Hang Pagoda (Chùa Hang): Located on the north flank of Thới Lới in the largest cave system on the island. A standing Buddha guards the entrance, perched above a series of terraces leading down to the sea. On the bluff above the cave are carved four Chinese characters – Thiên Khổng Thạch Tự – ‘stone sun temple of birth’.
Âm Linh Pagoda: Located within Thôn Tây, the temple is dedicated to the memory of sailors lost in the historic Hoàng Sa campaigns to colonize and develop the Paracel islands.
Tan Pagoda: Whales are revered by local sailors, who believe that they protect fishermen at sea. Around 100 whale skeletons are kept in temples on Lý Sơn, the largest – a 200 year old relic – is kept in the Tan pagoda. Known locally as ‘Nam Hải Đồng Đình Đại Vương’ (king of the whales) its bones are only brought out for one day a year, on January 21st, when they are ceremonially cleaned and venerated before being returned to storage.
To Vo Gate (Cổng Tò Vò): A natural outcropping of basalt has created a picturesque archway on the beach. One of the most popular spots for photographers on the island.
Duc Pagoda (Chuà Đục): At the west end of the island a 25 meter Buddha statue stands on a lotus flower, framed by the pagoda, and a dramatic backdrop of the steep slopes of the Giếng Tiên volcano.
Thới Lới Mountain (núi Thới Lới): The largest of the volcanic cones on the big island, a ride to the top provides spectacular views across the island and out to sea.
Small Island (Cù Lao Bờ Bãi): Take a fast boat to the small island. Walk across the island (come on, it’s only 700 meters), or take an electric golf cart to the compact northern beaches and join the revelers in the surf. By the time you get there, the promised new toilets may have materialized, and the ubiquitous flotsam cleaned up … although, then again, perhaps not.
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