VnExpress International digs deep on why foreigners can no longer visit Vietnam’s 21 unspoiled islands in the Gulf of Thailand.

This week, a Vietnamese friend came back from the Nam Du archipelago raving about pristine beaches, seafood fresh off the boat and long, languid afternoons spent swinging in hammocks in a place that’s literally off the grid.

The pace of life is so slow, she said, Nam Du’s few residents leave their keys in their bikes and only bother to fire up their gas-powered electricity generators for a few hours a day.

She’d visited the collection of 21 islands in the Gulf of Thailand by hopping on a $10 ferry from Rach Gia, the sun-baked capital of Kien Giang Province.

I’d wanted to visit the islands since Quinn Ryan Mattingly photographed the islands in June of 2015.

“We stayed two nights,” said Mattingly, who recalled paying a local man the equivalent of five dollars to climb to the top of a lighthouse on a military base. “It was like, no problem.”

Now, it seems, there’s a problem.

I can’t go. And, if you’re reading this in English, chances are you can’t either.  

Fish drying in the sun, which you can't smell.

Last April, an Irishman named Sam Pearson described walking into the Rach Gia office of a ferry company called Superdong (it means “super crowded” you skeez) only to learn that tickets to Nam Du had been sold out for… forever.

Further inquiry suggested that there were tickets — just not for foreigners.

The sudden prohibition inspired some of the greatest minds on TripAdvisor to put their heads together, offering explanations as boring as a dearth of fresh drinking water and as amusing as a desire to limit Nam Du’s appeal to fugitives of international justice (not kidding).

One savvy observer indicated the cause was likely Article 7 of National Decree No. 71 on the management of maritime boundary areas.

The strict bit of legislation that went into effect just months after Mattingly bribed his way onto military property to take a pretty picture and reads like it was drafted (over one too many cups of coffee) shortly after a Chinese oil rig and a posse of missile ships tore into the East Sea, ostensibly to drink Vietnam’s milkshake.

But, I digress. Decree No. 71 contains some good news and some bad news, if you take it at face value.

The good news: foreigners can go to Nam Du!

The bad news: they need a valid passport, visa, residence papers and “permits for entry into maritime boundary areas issued by provincial-level public security departments.”

A vendor selling delicious fried taro cakes, which you can't try

A fish vendor on Hon Lon island selling a variety of things you can't taste.

The coast of Hon Lon, the largest of Nam Vu Archipelago's 21 islands, which you can't visit.

The road leading to Hon Lon's largest light house, which you can't climb to the top of.

Anyone who has ever tried to obtain a driver’s license in Vietnam understands the likelihood that a group of provincial policemen in the Mekong Delta would ever issue a foreigner permission to enter an area technically controlled by the military.

According to the unfortunate Superdong ticket saleswoman unfortunate enough to pick up the phone when we called, none of this would be a problem if the Nam Du Islands were a designated tourist area. Despite booming domestic tourism, Nam Du remains in the sensitive administrative penumbras of a “border area” or “frontier zone.”

Interested foreigners should plan to arrive in Rach Gia two days before they want to board the ferry, she said. Then, they sashay into the provincial police department (accompanied by a citizen willing to guarantee their good conduct) and request a two-day permit for $10-15.

“Does that work?”

“Sometimes,” she said, noting that intermediaries, like her friend Trang, can often help expedite the process.

Trang never picked up the phone, so we made four or five calls to different officers at the Kien Giang Tourism and Trade Investment Promotion Center until we got a very helpful man who called himself Mr. Hai.

“As far as I know now, [Kien Giang Province] still isn’t allowing foreigners to come to certain islands, like Nam Du,” Hai said, adding that those with a clear purpose like business or study can request special permission.

Sadly, neither myself nor any of the people I consider friends have ever known anything like a clear purpose in Vietnam.

By Calvin Godfrey

Photos by Nhung Nguyen and Phung Hoa

A beautiful bay off the coast of Hon Lon which you can't swim in.

By Calvin Godfrey