By chance I saw a picture of Co To Island on Pinterest, declaring it as one of the five most beautiful islands in Vietnam. I liked its rocky appearance and clear water and started researching. However, there was not much to find about it on the internet, nor how to reach there. This made me even more exited – it seemed like exactly my kind of a thing: exploring the unknown. In addition, a bit of relaxation was exactly what I needed after more than three weeks on the road. I guess I don’t spoil anything for you if I tell you I made it to the island. In fact, I came back refreshed and with some beautiful memories I’d like to share with you. Even more, I want to break a secret today and I’m going to tell you in detail how to reach on this island, what an overnight stay costs and what to do there right at the end of the article. Off we go with what happened!
As I wrote before, I couldn’t really find anything about this island on the internet. The manager of my hostel in Cat Ba (Halong Bay) guessed I had to go to Halong city and take a bus from there to another pier. Trusting to luck I set off. On the way I met a Vietnamese guy who was traveling with his Westerner girlfriend. He told me that a friend said the island is not a safe place during winter and he wouldn’t go there himself. Unsure if I should go or not I was looking for a travel agency in Halong City to get more information. I happened to end up at Halong Bay View Hostel & Pub, where the guy behind the counter spoke good English and had some useful information concerning the island. He assured me the island was super safe even in this season.
Lucky me that I went! The island is a showpiece of an off-the-beaten-track destination. Deserted beaches with crystal clear, turquoise water; impressive cliffs on the South coast of the island; super fresh and tasty seafood; and no perpetual noise. So everything one needs to take a break from everyday life. Let me say right away the island is not the cheapest budget destination you can choose, but it’s okay for some days in peace.
The infrastructure is not really designed for tourists, there is no public transport (well the island is not that big anyway) and no tourism boards or information centres anywhere. There is no other option than renting your own motorbike to explore the island; which was my plan all along. The empty streets were perfect to work on my motorbike skills!
Since not many tourists come here, almost noone spoke English. This was the time when Google Translator became my best friend. For basic conversation, there were still hands and feet. 😊
On my first day, I explored the East of the island. After discovering the beauty of the trendy bungalows around the Coto Eco Lodge, my personal heaven was found and I decided to spend the night here, even though it basically was too expensive for my budget. For the rest of the day I enjoyed the sandy beach and the ocean breeze there.
In the evening, a big celebration was held for the community leaders of Co To Island at the lodge. They obviously were enjoying and their food looked delicious. The men invited me to sit and eat with them. “Please, feel comfortable!” Oh wow! I wasn’t expecting this kindness at all. Still I was relieved from the inside after realising that ordering seafood would have made another big hole in my pocket.
I then was about to experience how Vietnamese men can drink! The game goes the following way: You address a part of the group and propose a toast to whatever comes to your mind (the location, the food, the ocean, your friendship, your joy, the fact of being together), the addressed people clink classes and chugg their schnapps glass of “happy water”, the typical Vietnamese rice schnapps. This can happen simoultaneously for different groups of people and goes on the whole time while eating. It’s a joy just to go along with their happiness.
The food was as delicious as it looked like. Grilled langouste and shrimps, some kind of crunchy fresh bird, juicy chicken, crisp sweet potatoe chips and many colourful vegetables… Sst, the bird was my favorite (although there was not much meat on it) and the barbequed, buttery seafood just as mouth-watering. The evening ended, of course, with karaoke.
The next day I wanted to explore the Southern coast of the island where I suspected the cliffs. On the way there was a lot of sand on the road, which made me learn it’s not possible to steer a motorbike on sand. What made it even more difficult was the fact that I was wearing my heavy backpack. I fell three times with my motorbike that day. After some minor scratches I decided my motorbike and I just didn’t want to get friends today. With shaking legs I returned the moto.
Damn, now I hadn’t seen what I came here for in the first place, the cliffs…
I didn’t give up. I went to a bigger hotel that looked like maybe someone could speak English. No chance. With the aid of Google Translator I asked them how much is a mototaxi to Mong Rong (the cliffs). They wrongly understood I wanted to rent a motorbike for one day. This went on for a while. When I explained that I had a small accident with the motorbike and was scared of driving back there, they finally understood and agreed to take me. But before we would head off, they invited me for lunch. More yummy seafood, this time crisp squid, with plain rice, water spinach and tofu.
Afterwards, the oldest son Huy drove me to Mong Rong as promissed. The communication was based on exchanging smiles and pointing to places to go to next or holding my camera out towards him to symbolise I want him to take a picture of me. The scenery is really stunning and I’m sad I had so less time to spend here. After an hour I had to be back to take the ferry back to the mainland. Silent we drove back to the hotel. I wanted to give him 50,000 Dong for driving me (as I had tried to communicate before) but no member of the family wanted to take my money.
These acts of kindness and generousness that I encountered throughout Vietnam keep surprising me and are far beyond from what I know in Germany. Never have I seen Germans inviting strangers to their table to eat together. Never have I seen strangers asking for the way and you just decide to change your plans and join them to show them a part of your culture or country. These actions demonstrate hospitality, compassion and trust in humanity. It is the shine in their eye when trying to make me happy that I am happy too.
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I fully enjoyed my time on Co To Island and did not at any point encounter trust issues. Instead people were open and friendly. If you feel like going on a small off-the-beaten-track adventure for yourself now, here are some basic information of how to reach the island, what to see there and what expenses you should expect.
How to get there and away
In case I could inspire you to want to check out this island, then here is the way I got there. I could not find information about this online, so I hope it can help you!
I started my journey in Halong City. Take a local bus to Bai Chay bus station (for around 7000 Dong). At the station you ask in the offices to go to Cai Rong (or Van Don town). Cai Rong is pronounced „Cai Zhong“. For me, they pointed towards a group of men wearing blue-coloured T-shirts of a certain bus company who were sitting around a table in the waiting area. The woman amongst them sold me a ticket for 30,000 Dong. (She wanted 50,000 at first, but one of the men had already shown me the price of 30,000 with his fingers before.) I sat in the waiting area until the woman approached me and pointed towards a bus. It was a yellow-, red- and cream-coloured bus to Van Don. The journey lasted around 2 hrs 30 min, which included a rapid change of busses.
They will inform you once you’ll reach Van Don. The bus stop is quite central, you can walk from here to the pier in around 20 minutes (1.5km) or take a mototaxi (see the map below). The boats leave all before 1.30pm so in case you reach too late, you can look for a guesthouse right next to the pier. They all wanted 200,000 Dong for a room without breakfast, but I found one that accepted 150,000 Dong. You might check the rooms before, they do not all fit the standards and are rather dirty.
At present, there are speedboats leaving from Cai Rong harbour to Co To at 7.30am and 1.00pm. The departure of the boats is subject to frequent changes, so inform yourself at the pier before. Tourists used to need a permit to enter the island; this is not the case any longer. However, you’ll need to register yourself before you buy your ticket. The officer sits in a small booth at the entrance of the pier, some meters behind the gate on the right side. The ticket can be purchased at one of the counters left of the entrance gate. The price is 200,000 Dong for high season and 180,000 Dong for low season. The journey takes around 1 hr 15 min. The sea is quite rough at times with some heavy waves. Once you reach on Co To island, you have to register yourself at the office. It is situated in a yellow house on the beginning of the pier on the right.
On the way back you go through the same steps, although you won’t have to report that you’re leaving. At the time of writing, there were speedboats at 10.00am and 1.30pm (price again 180,000 – 200,000 Dong). Back to Cai Rong, there was currently no direct bus to Hanoi (maybe because it was off-season). You’ll have to get a local bus to Bai Chay (Halong City) at the same place you exited the bus on the way here (just on the opposite side of the road; 2 hrs 30 min, 30,000 Dong) and then take a bigger bus to Hanoi (4 hrs, 80,000 Dong).
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Prices on the island
Motorbike rental for 200,000 Dong with 2 liters of petrol (got an offer for 150,000 Dong in the end). There are no specific shops which to turn to, ask e.g. at Ngoc Anh Hotel, Khu 4, tt Co To.
You can find accommodation from hotels to homestays to bungalows on the island. Camping is possible as well. I stayed in a beautiful bungalow at Coto Eco Lodge for 400,000 Dong/night/bungalow (regular prices: 1,000,000 Dong during high season and 500,000 Dong during low season). There is no wifi.
The guesthouses in the city might ask about 300,000 Dong, although the guy at the hostel in Halong City told me something about homestays ranging from 70,000 – 100,000 Dong/night.
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What’s there to see and do
- Marvel at Bãi đá Móng Rồng (Dragon Claw Stones) with impressive rocky cliffs and Đỉnh Cầu Mây (My bridge). Both are the best places to see the sunrise.
- Relax at Van Chai beach or Hong Van beach.
- Visit the Rocky Garden.
- Look out over the island from the lighthouse (Hai Dang) in the middle of the island.
- Make an excursion to small Co To island from Bac Van (beach and nature).
- Go for water sport at Co To Park: kayaking, stand-up-paddling, surfing…
- Join the fishermen for squid fishing at night.
Best time to go there
Tourist season is between April and September. This is when many Vietnamese visit the island and hotels may be fully booked. In October, almost no-one was there except for some fance wedding photographers. Note that in this time of the year the sea was rough and it was too dangerous to go for squid fishing.
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I hope I could inspire you a bit and give you sufficient information about this island. If you make it to the island through my help (or not), please let me know your experiences in the comments to help other travellers.
Did you explore some hidden gems on your own before? Maybe in Asia? I would love to check them out – in case you want to unravel your secret. Write a comment or shoot me a personal message. I would highly appreciate!
[Note: I did not get sponsored to mention any names here. I just included what I felt could be of any help for you so that you can have it easier than I did.]
… because sharing is caring! ♥