Ly Son is the vestige of volcano eruptions millions of years ago. The island boasts volcanic craters, pagodas in caves, cultivates garlic and is home to the Hoang Sa Flotilla.
The flotilla is immortalized in the nation's history for having protected the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagos four centuries ago.
The dry season in Ly Son lasts from March to August while the rainy season starts in September and goes on till February.
For water-based fun including swimming, scuba-diving and snorkeling, June to September would be a perfect time to visit Ly Son Island. It is hot, sunny and humid in these months.
Between December and February, the weather is mild, warm and pleasant, which is suitable for cultivating garlic, a specialty that has given the island a brand identity and the islanders a stable income.
Ly Son is formed by five mountains, four of which are dormant volcanic craters. Broadly, it is a combination of three islands including Dao Lon (Big Island or Ly Son Island), Dao Be (Small Island, as the An Binh Islet is called) and the Mu Cu Islet.
On Ly Son Island, the Thoi Loi Mountain is a good place to start. It rises from one of five dormant bowl-shaped craters formed by volcanic eruptions millions of years ago.
It is the highest mountain on Ly Son Island at 169 meters above sea level. The road leading to the mountain zigzags its way up, offering a little adventure on its own, enjoyed from the comfort of electric cars, which are the most popular means of transportation to get there.
On the top of the mountain is a 20-meter-high national flag pole that looks out to Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands.
The ordinance of Ly Son is written on the main side of the pole and the stand is painted red to match the color of the flag and a marker of Vietnam’s maritime sovereignty.
Atop the peak is a fresh water lake that is the sole supply source for the island’s residents. It holds about 30,000 cubic meters of water.
At the foot of the Thoi Loi Mountain is the Hang (Cave) Pagoda.
Formed by a dormant volcano, the 3.2-meter-high rocky cave is 24 meters deep and has an area of 480 square meters.
According to writing engraved on stones in the pagoda, an official named Tran Cong Thanh was sent to guard Ly Son Island during the reign of King Le Kinh Tong (1588-1619). Here, he discovered the Hang Pagoda. After a century, his descendants embellished and expanded the pagoda to what it is today.
The cave has an altar with statues of the Buddha – the Amitabha Buddha, Buddha Tathagata and Maitreya Buddha.
The Hang Pagoda has a large yard with a lotus lake in the center and a statue of the Goddess of Mercy looking out to the sea.
Around the yard are old tropical almond trees. In front of the pagoda is a well called "Heaven’s Well." Some people believe sipping water dripping from the stalactites will refresh and rejuvenate their body and soul.
The To Vo Gate, a small gate-shaped cliff near the sea, has one of the world’s most unique geographical features formed by remnants of volcanic activity millions of years ago when lava encountered the sea and hardened to create a unique arch.
From To Vo Gate, a 200-meter walk through a cemetery leads to the Duc Pagoda on Gieng Tien Mountain.
After climbing more than 100 steps along the mountainside to enter the pagoda, pilgrims offer prayers to the 27-meter-tall Guanyin statue facing the ocean. Local fishermen believe that the Goddess protects them from dangers at sea. They burn incense here and pray for peace before going out to sea.
Behind the pagoda are small caves with Buddhist statues.
Unlike the Thoi Loi Mountain that has only rocks, the Gieng Tien Mountain, a dormant volcanoe, has especially fertile soil, similar to the Bazan soil in the Central Highlands.
Locals use this soil and sand to fertilize their garlic fields. It is credited for giving the garlic grown in Ly Son a special flavor not found in other places.
Growing garlic and onions has become a main source of income for many Ly Son islanders.
Leaving the Big Island, boats or canoes can be hired to get to the An Binh (Small) Islet, which hosts pristine beaches and coral diving sites.
An Binh Islet has an area of less than a square kilometer and is sparsely populated. Less than 100 families live on fishing and garlic cultivation.
Previously, the islet was only reachable by hiring fishermen to take visitors on small boats from Big Island. Today, visitors can easily rent boats or canoes and get to the island in just 15 minutes. Boat trips usually depart at 8 a.m. and return to the Big Island at 2:30 p.m. daily with prices ranging from VND50,000 to VND60,000 ($2.13-2.56) per person.
On the Small Islet, the Cave Beach is famous for its turquoise waters and ideal conditions for coral diving and snorkeling.
Coracle paddling and diving are popular activities among visitors. Rides cost VND60,000 per person for a group of three or four, including rent for life jackets and goggles.
Over the past three years, residents on the island have started augmenting their earnings with tourism-related services, including homestays and other lodgings set in scenic beauty.
Another place of interest here is a small temple that worships Lord Nam Hai, or whales, who are believed to help fishermen avoid danger at sea.
A festival for commemorating Hoang Sa Soldiers is the biggest cultural and spiritual event on Ly Son Island. It has been recognized as national intangible cultural heritage.
The traditional ceremony, which has been performed for hundreds of years, pays tribute to sailor-soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the country, and establishes Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) archipelago.
During this festival, people clean up the graves of Paracel soldiers.
The Tu Linh (Four Holy Beasts) boat race festival, held from the fourth to the eighth day of the first lunar month, is another long-standing tradition in Ly Son.
The festival was first held in 1826, according to Ly Son residents, who add that it pays homage to the island's ancestral inhabitants and soldiers who fought to protect Vietnam’s national sovereignty over the Hoang Sa (Paracel) and Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelagoes.
Eight boats participating in the race are decorated following the images of four holy beasts: long (dragon), lan (unicorn), quy (turtle) and phung (phoenix). Before the festival opens, teams typically pay tribute to their specific deities. The winning team will enjoy the most peace and prosperity during the year, it is believed.
Given the tourism boost of recent years, the island now has motels, hotels and homestays with rooms costing VND200,000 - 400,000 per night.
Bep's House homestay, Athena Camping Ly Son, Cao Canh homestay or DHT Hang Cau guesthouse are popular establishments.
For luxury accommodation, Ly Son Pearl Hotel & Resort with great beach views is a good choice.
Normally, visitors tend to stay for one night on An Binh Islet, too. Some of the suggested homestays are the BeEcolodge Homestay, Ly Son Bungalow or the XaLaBin, which has rooms with views of the sea.
Known to many as the Garlic Island, Ly Son has unsurprisingly used the spice in several signature dishes.
The Ly Son garlic salad is made with garlic, basil, sugar, fish sauce, green onion, morning glory, roasted peanuts and a little peanut oil. The salad is had with rice crackers.
Another signature dish in Ly Son is seaweed salad, which also uses basil, garlic, lemon and other seasonings.
These salads can be found at the Ly Son night market or several seafood restaurants elsewhere on the 10-square-kilometer island.
Fried fish ball is another recommended specialty. The islanders do not mix different kinds of fish as is done elsewhere. The only fish they use is fresh redtail fusilier, which is caught off the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa archipelagos. The fish is seasoned with Ly Son garlic, spices, and pepper before frying.
This dish is also served at the Ly Son night market and food stalls around the island.
A fish cake noodle soup has become a popular breakfast on the island. Unlike other coastal tourist destinations like Nha Trang, Quy Nhon or Phu Yen, Ly Son’s noodle soup is made with the bright red grouper fish.
Eateries run by Ms. Phuong Chau and Ms. Bich Vien are popular places to try the dish.
At most places on the island including the night market, its signature dishes and other seafood preparations including hotpots can be enjoyed with cold beer.
After taking a flights from Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City to the Chu Lai Airport in Quang Nam Province, a taxi or bus takes visitors to the Sa Ky Port, 42 kilometers away. From Da Nang City, a two-way train trip to Quang Ngai costs VND180,000 ($7.67) person. A taxi ride is another option.
Ly Son Island can only be reached by boat from Sa Ky Port. There are three round trips by speedboat each day for VND300,000 to VND350,000, taking around half an hour. An ID, driving license or passport is required when purchasing tickets.
On the island, a motorbike can be rented from locals for VND120,000 per day.
Story by Lan Huong, Hoang Phong