A storm is brewing: Another side of Vietnam's once-forbidden island outpost

By Trang Bui   July 22, 2017 | 10:00 pm PT
One storm may have redefined the definition of paradise bliss in one fell swoop.

Five to ten years ago, there were three things you'd have said about Co To Island: primitive, tribal and off the grid. For people from the north of Vietnam, the island was a close, cheap and exotic getaway.

Since last year, the district island in the northern provine of Quang Ninh has allowed tourists without Vietnamese nationality to come there without the extensive paperwork that was required before.

When I arrived on the island this July, non-stop Vietnamese house music was shaking the island.

“Sh*t,” my travel buddy blurted out, staring at blocks of high-rise buildings in disbelief.


Hotels lining Co To’s coast, with nonstop house music banging. Photo by VnExpress/ Quynh Trang

Following the head-banging party that greeted us was a $50 jungle cottage full of mosquitoes, a $10 electric bus ride to the beach and karaoke bars blasting out a similar vibe. To spice things up, one of our hotel clerks casually mentioned that a huge storm was coming.

In the morning, her husband, the hotel owner, was adamant it wasn't a problem.

“It’s all sunny out here. Don't worry about storms.”

In the evening, a friend sent us a text update: “Over 3,000 tourists trapped on Co To Island. A 90-kilometer-per-hour storm named Talas is coming."

A ban was issued the next day on all boats going out to sea, but many stubbornly stuck to their travel plans, and very few hotels were inclined to tell their guests to cancel their trips.

The next morning, we woke up to patchy drizzle, sandy wind and a gray sky. Staying in didn't seem like an option, so we abandoned the itchy cottage, rented a motorbike and drove to a cheap motel by the shore to wait for the storm.


Bracing for the storm. Photo by VnExpress/Chu Thao Van

On the dock, locals had already set up umbrellas and tra da, banh mi and ice cream stalls. Despite the dark clouds, everyone was wandering in and out, faces astonishingly calm, eager for conversation.

“Remember the longest boat ban? Two weeks!” grinned a tattooed banh mi guy in his 20s.

“Don’t you worry, it’ll go away in a day or two,” mumbled our motel owner.

“No way it arrives today. Wait for tomorrow,” chuckled a motel clerk with his bamboo pipe, before going for a nap behind the counter.

In Co To, storms are casual like breakfast, muddy rain is lunch and the occasional black-out is a tasty dinner.

Since the 80s when the Chinese left the island for their mainland, thousands of Red River Delta citizens have abandoned their paddy fields to start a new life there. 

Now tourism is booming, so many more are seeing their chance to make it rich.

“What’s the fun of fighting for customers back home when you can be the only tattoo artist on the whole island?” shared Huan, a tattoo artist in his thirties.

Today, over 6,000 people live on the island, while up to 10,000 tourists fill up Co To’s hotels, motels and resorts on the weekends.


A rough night for the sea. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang


When authorities banned boats from going out to sea, our daily diet changed to a bowl of noodles for breakfast, a cheap lunch with the motel family and a barbecue dinner.

But the storm never came. After a few hours of rain, the first rays of sunlight broke through banks of clouds, and Co To, like a child tired of nagging a mother, eventually took a nap.

It was during this nap time that a stroll along the coast, a motorbike ride to far-flung, quiet paddy fields or a visit to sedimentary cliffs suddenly reminds you how great Co To could be.


 The kingdom of buffalos and rice paddies. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang

Co To might be loud and touristy, but once we moved past first impressions, the island was determined to bond. Talking to strangers was bound to happen, be it while rambling, looking for tickets or having lunch.

"Why are two girls traveling by yourselves? Where are your boyfriends?" we were asked by all and sundry.

Maybe a bit cheeky, but we tried to be creative each time.

"Um, we locked them at home."

or: "We'll be single forever." 

Even when we tried to explain that we were just two friends on a trip, nobody believed us. 

After a series of interrogations about our jobs, families and hometowns, they'd grin and invite us for free dinner or a free ride to the beach.

At some point, we felt like our family trees had just grown branches. The middle-aged aunt with lots of questions about our relationship status; the uncle who couldn't let us walk for 500 meters without insisting on driving us for free; the cousin who invited us for an ice cream and karaoke.

Sitting and waiting for boats to arrive, none of that seemed to bother us.

We were stranded for two days. On day four, when all the tourists were busy pushing for the earliest tickets home, we took a long stroll along the empty coast. When we got back, there were only our “newly-gained relatives” sitting there, grinning.

“Why don’t you guys just stay here with us?” the motel owner asked, smiling.

Inside, we were both eager and reluctant to leave. After all, Co To was the getaway we needed from the constant honking, the thick dusty air and the unbearable humidity of Hanoi.

And to do Co To justice, it deserves to be called a peaceful getaway.


A casual busy day. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang


Time for volleyball? Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang


Or meditation on stunning cliffs. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang


In Co To, eat yourself stupid. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang


Embrace electricity while it's still there. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang


Lie down for a sunset. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Trang


Catch the dawn from the lighthouse. Photo by Dang Duy Anh.


Do and Don’t


- Avoid storm season (July and August)

- Avoid busy weekends

- Book everything early (hotels, round-trip boat tickets, bus tickets)

- Stay in town (for more comfort and fewer mosquitoes)

- Ask for help (and discounts) whenever you need


- Ignore a storm warning

- Order without looking at the menu price

- Forget insect repellent

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