By day, the beaches of Quan Lan are picturesque. Soft white sand meets a gradient of turquoise water that lazily laps against the shore. Quaint wooden fishing boats bob on the horizon. People bask like snakes in the sun. But by night, the beaches become otherworldly.
After the sun sets, glide your hand through the black water and a constellation of fleeting green lights will flicker in its wake. The ocean here is full of bioluminescent plankton, which are tiny sea organisms that illuminate when touched. They make night swimming an almost spiritual experience. Open your eyes underwater and you’ll see hundreds of blurry star-like specs light up then disappear. This is only one of the reasons why the island is magical.
Quan Lan Island is about 40km east of Halong Bay. To get there, you take a ferry from either Halong City or Cai Rong. Dock to dock, the journey takes about 90 minutes, but it’s definitely time well spent. The route from the mainland to the island takes you through a maze of enormous limestone rocks that dramatically jut out of the ocean. It’s all the beauty of Halong Bay without the tourists.
Because of its distance from the mainland, the island is sparsely inhabited. Only about 2,000 people permanently live on this 15km-long stretch of land. Its remote location also means that the island is largely untouched by tourism’s greedy hand, making it the perfect destination for anyone looking to escape crowded beaches and lads on holiday. The island is mostly a Vietnamese destination with very few foreign tourists.
There’s nothing to do here, which is exactly why it’s so appealing. Visitors are obliged to relax and rest on the beach. It’s an island of small pleasures. You can float on your back for hours uninterrupted by waves. You can watch the sunset reflect in the ripples of the ocean. You can sit in silence. You can light a fire on the beach and swim naked because there’s no one around.
The island has this sleepy quality because up until recently, it was just a fishing village. Ever since Quan Lan native Minh Chau decided to introduce tourism to the island about 15 years ago, it has slowly begun the construction process necessary to accommodate visitors. Some locals praise the progress he inspired. You’ll notice that everything here is named after him — Minh Chau Beach, Minh Chau Resort, Minh Chau Primary School. But what some see as progress, others see as exploitation. The island is on the cusp of industrialisation, and unfortunately will probably lose its quiet appeal as it becomes more built up.
The most popular beaches on the island are Minh Chau Beach, Son Hoa Beach and Quan Lan Beach. Little shacks are set up on these beaches where you can purchase drinks like beers and coconut juice. Palm leaf umbrellas and lounge chairs are also there for beachgoers to enjoy, and all of the beaches are free to enter. At night, the shacks at Minh Chau Beach turn into karaoke stages, so unless you want to participate in the singing, it’s best avoided after dark.
There are also some less-popular beaches that are worth exploring, like Robinson Beach. To get there, you have to drive half a kilometre through the woods on a muddy, narrow path, but it’s definitely worth the effort. You’ll most likely have the beach to yourself. Look on a satellite map to find the entrance because it’s unmarked on the road.
As for accommodation, there are plenty of affordable hotels to choose from, varying in price depending on what time of year you visit. May through October is a busy time on the island, as is the sixth lunar month of each year when Quan Lan hosts the Hoi Cheo Boi Rowing Festival. Regardless, there’s no need to book a room in advance. Supply far outweighs demand here.
Getting around the island is easy if you know how to ride a motorbike. When you arrive at Quan Lan, tuk-tuks are available to take you to your hotel or to the main village where you can rent a motorbike. Taxis are few and far between. Also, there are no ATMs on the island, so bring enough cash.
If you feel like doing absolutely nothing in paradise, Quan Lan is a rare gift. Get there before it becomes too popular to experience the magic of this place.
PHOTOS BY EMILY ARNTSEN AND CHRISTOPHER HOCKER