Quan Lan Island is ‘coming out’ as a holiday destination for both local and western tourists. Though still not on the typical tourist itinerary, the island is situated in Bai Tu Long Bay in the Van Don District of Quang Ninh Province, home also to the world famous Halong Bay. With an area of 11 square kms and around 6000 local residents, it is worth visiting for its beautiful white sand beaches and lush green countryside. Mass tourism is yet to make an impression here, which is another bonus. This is probably because Quan Lan is not the easiest place to get to and involves some travel challenges.
The journey takes a full day of independent travelling, first by public bus from Gia Lam bus station in Hanoi to the ferry terminal in Hon Gai. This four hour trip is not for the faint-hearted as the moves of these bus drivers would not be out of place on an F1 race track – in fact, my friends and I abandoned the bus less than halfway to Haiphong after several near misses. I called for a private car from one of the roadside restaurants which did blow the budget a bit but we wanted to arrive alive! From the ferry terminal, it’s a further four hours on an overcrowded boat. So it might sound like a horror trip but it's truly worth that much travel time to reach this great island.
Five years ago on my first trip here, in a week I only saw two other tourists. I had to order my meals in advance and rent one of the local’s motorbikes to get around. Since then, guest houses have tripled in price and, like in other tourist spots, the owners make heaps of money on national holidays and long weekends by charging unbelievably high rates for quite basic rooms. Some charge 400,000Vnd for a double room with a fan or 600,000Vnd with air-conditioning, keeping in mind that electricity is a new commodity on the island only supplied from 6 pm to 11 pm. If you are lucky and the guesthouse has its own generator, you will be supplied with power overnight. These days, food is served by some small restaurants and guest houses though menus do not exist and what you eat depends on what came over on the ferry and what last night’s catch was. Asking the price before ordering is necessary if you don’t want to run out of money, which we nearly did! Some restaurants take advantage of the isolation of the island to charge wildly inflated prices. I had to bargain for every single dish which is not much fun. Compared to five years ago, the residents of the island are more commercially-minded. I can understand that they want to raise their standard of living but it made me angry some times. When I questioned one of the local business owners about the obvious changes in the cost of everything, he said that “five years ago we were dumb.”
The one-road village of Quan Lan has changed quite a bit with many new houses beside the few remaining traditional ones. A wander through the narrow alleys reveals some century old scenes of rural life, though; cottage gardens, courtyards spread with drying food produce, women hand-washing clothes and children playing with stones and sticks. Almost every single house has a dog or two, which are not really aggressive but they do tend to bark during the night and sleep during the day!
Outside of the town, renting a motorbike or bicycle is the preferred option although there are dozens of xe lam (tuk tuk) drivers roaming the streets. This form of transport is quite expensive for tourists and, again, requires hard negotiation. We had to pay 100,000Vnd for a seven kilometre round trip, while motorbikes and bikes can be rented for 100,000Vnd and 50,000Vnd per day, respectively, plus petrol.
So, with the wind in our hair and a beach in our sights, we toured through the stunning green fields of young peanut plants and rice. A few days spent on one of the islands isolated beaches is a million miles away from the chaos of Hanoi and at least a few kilometres away from the negotiation for our evening meal. That’s the great attraction of Quan Lan Island.