Cool out at Cua Lo, Nghe An
Just 15 km from Vinh, a busy border crossing with Laos, Cua Lo, an up-and-coming coastal resort in central Nghe An Province, has gone from a sleepy beach town to a summer hot spot, pairing seaside activities with eco-adventures.
Unloading nets of wriggling squid for buyers’ perusal, most batches are snapped up as soon as the sun breaks over the faint line between blue sky and bluer water. For those who sleep through sunrise, a local market stocks fresh seafood, and all hotel chefs willingly plate guests' daily picks. Just 15km from Vinh, a busy border crossing with Laos, Cua Lo, an up-and-coming coastal resort in central Nghe An Province, is luring domestic travellers from both the north and south.
Recognized as one of Vietnam's most beautiful beaches by the World Tourism Organization, Cua Lo is defined by its natural assets: Cua (estuary), because the Lam River empties into the sea to create a shallow and clear shore, and Lo (jutting), after Lan Chau Island, a long strip that spears the north-east corner of the bay. In the summer, winds from the west mix with sea currents to wield two seasons in a day. The beach becomes packed with tourists during the summer high season, requiring advanced hotel reservations and a larger budget. The town's main drag – Binh Minh Street – runs along the beach for 10km. With hotels on one side and a natural casuarina forest on the other, the road remains shady all day. Both sides are under the careful watch of local authorities. The forest serves as a natural barrier against beach erosion, and provides a cool cover for sun-soaked tourists. In an effort to preserve Cua Lo's natural beauty, hotels must be low and stilt houses peak out from behind the tree trunks.
Islands speckle the estuary: Lan Chau Island lies 1km north-east of the beach, and Ngu (Fish) Island faces the coast, 4km out. Beachside boat operators service trips to both islands, both of which take about 10 minutes one-way and cost around VND 10,000 per passenger. Ngu Island is veined with trails inviting visitors to wander for several hours. The captain summons passengers back with a bell and ferries them to a floating village specializing in ca gio, a fish weighing up to 5kg whose meat is as white and tender as lean pork. Raising ca gio in submerged cages, the fishermen hope to relocate farther out to a 300 ha area west of Mat (Eye) Island, a move they expect will lure more tourists.
For a day-long beach break, vacationers can travel about 40km away from Cua Lo to see the monument to Phan Boi Chau (a patriot and reformer, 1867-1940), hike up Dun Mountain, or take a riverboat ride along the Lam River. Sen Village where late President Ho Chi Minh grew up, is also only about 38km away.
Longer excursions include lowland trekking to Pu Mat in Con Cuong District, a village inhabited by the Dan Lai ethnic minority. Visitors can do a home stay with a Dan Lai family and hike to famous Khe Kem waterfall, or browse brocade made in Yen Thanh-Luc Da Village. On the way back to Cua Lo, tourists can take a dip in Giang Son hot springs, just off National Highway 7. Another two-day tour explores the mountains, stopping at Quy Chau District, home to Bua and Tham Om caves and Xao Va waterfall. The Thai ethnic minority also live nearby, and will show their collection of rare antiques to interested passerby.
Eyeing the beaten path
When Cua Lo became a town in 1994, it had only eight hotels that earned VND 4 billion (USD 255,000) a year, former Chairman of Cua Lo People's Committee Pham Van Thin remembered. Now, with 170 hotels, the town is eager for business. Last year, about 675,000 tourists visited Cua Lo, generating a tourism turnover of VND81 billion ($5.2 million). Thin forecasted that in 2004, tourism would bring in over VND 200 billion (USD12.7 million).
"Cua Lo was Nghe An Province's fastest growing locality last year. Local authorities are drafting plans to expand tourism facilities and services to lure more tourists," said current chairman of Cua Lo People's Committee Ho Duc Phoc. Local authorities, focused on developing the service sector, have held courses on tourism and foreign languages. For instance, all xe om (motorbike drivers) will get free admission to a 3-month English-language course.
Also, four large-scale tourism projects are in the works: a tourism, commerce, and sport complex, slated to open next year; an ethnic cultural village and a children's park, which are both still in the planning stages; and a night market in Cua Lo’s Nghi Huong Village, will be set up soon. Cua Lo marks its 10th birthday in August, and to celebrate, the town will host many cultural and athletic events next month.