‘World’s Best Beaches: Vietnam’s Hang Cau Beach

[To be healthy, to be happy, we need rest time. We need sleep. But we also need recreation, preferably outdoors, in a place where we can experience the beauty that is all around us: if we open our eyes, if we have a grateful heart, and if we have a positive attitude. One nice respite is a beach. I’ve enjoyed beaches all over the world. This is a continuation of my “Best Beaches” series.]

Is this THE best beach?

A mouthful of  “red silk candy” trickled streams of sweetness past over-excited taste buds. This treat—shredded coconut fiber, roasted peanuts, in rice paper—amazed one sense. But for the past few hours, I’d experienced a magnificent scene that lit up all my senses. I saw sparkling blue-green water shining over white coral sand and black basaltic rock. A massive black volcanic cliff loomed over me, walling off the East Sea from the land’s interior. Standing under the cliff, I smelled the sea, and the life thriving within. I felt the sun striking the black rocks and reflecting heat on me, with wind cooling the warmth in a comforting massage. I heard birds screeching, imagined their wings flapping, and wanted to dance to the beat of surf smashing the offshore reef.

I’d just discovered another “Best Beach!” Maybe “the best beach,” though if you know me, my philosophy is the “best beach” is the one I’m enjoying!

The beach is Hang Cau Beach Cliff on Ly Son Island. 

Ly Son Island

Ly Son Island—a short ferry ride off Central Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province—is a volcanic island ringed by reefs, a fantastical landscape, as if from a dream. It’s 70 percent volcanic terrain, with three large volcanic craters (and two smaller ones) surrounded by a quilt of farm fields. It’s a jewel in the crown of the proposed Ly Son-Sa Huynh UNESCO Global Geopark. 

Ly Son District includes the Big Island, and the Small Island, both which are worthy of exploration. The focus here is the Ly Son itself, also known as Dao Lon, or the Big Island.

The Vietnam Coracle has published a valuable Ly Son online guidebook. I admire the way the writer talks of Ly Son’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.”

Hang Cau Beach & Cliff

On Ly Son Island, Hang Cau Beach is our focus. It’s a beach lover’s dream: listening to the waves, laying on the sand, walking in the transparent water, finding all kinds of sea life. Colorful fishing boats sit on the shoreline. A photographer shoots wedding photographs of a lovely couple fully dressed into traditional clothes. But it is more than just one photographer—it’s an entire entourage, including make-up artists and hair-stylists. In Vietnam, Ly Son is one of the most treasured places to create such lifelong memories.

But if you can take your eyes off the water scene, turn around! Behind the beach is a huge black volcanic cliff on the northern side of Thoi Loi’s volcanic tuff ring. Hang Cau literally means a cave for fishermen, since there is a vaulted cave at the foot of the cliff where fishermen take shelter preparing their fishing equipment before venturing out to sea. The cliff itself is almost 100 meters high and a kilometer long.

A large new fishing port is being built nearby, but you easily imagine fishermen huddled in the cave, preparing to go out, watching the maritime channel for Chinese boats and others sailing past.

During the 17th century to mid-19th century, the Paracel Fleet of brave Vietnamese sailors departed from Ly Son to set up Vietnam’s landmarks, claiming sovereignty, observing sea ways, drawing maps, and discovering precious  resources. The Paracel Islands is a group of over 30 small islands in the East Sea—directly off the Central Vietnamese coast—controlled by the Chinese, but claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.

Today, these islands Ly Son fisherman have regular encounters with the Chinese Navy. Sitting over beers with locals, I heard harrowing tales of frightening confrontations with canon warning shots, loudspeakers telling Vietnamese to stay away, and even illegal ship boardings. The Chinese violate the fishermen’s fishing rights in international waters around islands geographically part of Vietnam, and a long way from China. The fishermen are careful with what they say, nodding and declaring “there’s just so many of them.”

Volcanic History

You don’t have to be a science buff to be mesmerized by what’s happened geologically on Ly Son Island. It was a fiery creation over millions of years. Each eruption formed lava layers of different thickness, which are still intact until today. The entire island is a natural museum of volcanic activity, a rare find in the world.

When you stand below the Hang Cau Cliff and look up, you can identify several layers or flows that have basaltic rocks interfering or breaking the flows. Scientists have shown that Thoi Loi Volcano erupted in a shallow sea. Volcanic ash and debris fell into the water and then deposited in layers depending on their weight and size. Several basaltic rocks crashed into the very soft layers as they were being formed. Studies also show that basaltic rock exploded to the air hundreds of thousand years to a few million years ago. Most of the volcanic ash debris, however, fell 20-30 thousand years ago, or even less than ten thousand years ago. 

Then, about 6,000-7,000 years ago, when the sea level was five to seven meters higher than it is today, sea erosion carved out the vaulted caves at the foot of the cliff.

Overwhelmed by Creation

We now squeeze into the cave to get out of the sun. But inside, you feel the weight of history—both geological and human, surrounding you. The sense of time, the sense of majesty of creation, the sense of people’s longing and curiosity all envelop you. It’s a great place to take a nap—but beware, your mind may time travel. Or the opposite–you may forget about time. Nothing exists except a moment. Cherish that moment. Celebrate the creator of a world so intricate we can only comprehend a tiny sand pebble of it. 

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Scott Douglas Martell is a writer, teacher and coach. His most recent novel is The Hyena Man, an African romantic suspense. His blogs often focus on Ethiopia and Vietnam, world traveling, and counseling for a more joyful life, with topics such as brain health and spiritual awareness.

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