Location and Background
Easily reached by regular, 30-minute, fast boat ferries from Sa Ky Port, in Quang Ngai Province, Ly Son Island has fired the imagination of young, Vietnamese backpackers for several years. But foreign travelers have yet to arrive in numbers. Ly Son is famous for its seafood and garlic, which grows in the island’s rich, volcanic soil. 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.
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 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.
Thoi Loi Crater
The highest of the volcanic peaks on the island, 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.
Gieng Tien Crater
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 molded in extreme heat, which, of course, they were.
To Vo Rock Arch
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 tourists.
Dao Be Island
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. 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. Boats leave after three hours which gives you enough time to explore the island and stop for a swim and a drink. 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 colorful 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.
Hang Cau Beach & Cliffs
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.
Quan Am Statue, Phat Mau Temple & Cemetery
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.
Chua Hang - Cave Temple
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, bookended by stratified cliffs. The colors 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 smoke curl around the cave in the shafts of sunlight from outside. You must remove your shoes before walking on the cave floor.