A group of teenagers climb the large rocks around Doc Cuoc Temple at one end of the 9-km-long beach. They came down from mountainous Thai Nguyen Province a few days ago to mark the end of the school year, with a team-building day and a night of fun.
“I love the beaches here in Thanh Hoa,” says Cao Xuan Duong, 17, an 11th grader majoring in physics at the Thai Nguyen High School for the Gifted. Thai Nguyen is a hilly, land-locked province famed for its tea but, needless to say, is minus a beach.
The group of youngsters were among the thousands who headed to Sam Son for a summer holiday.
The beaches in Thanh Hoa are the most popular coastal destinations in Vietnam’s north, with Sam Son welcoming close to 5 million visitors in 2019 — more than half of the 9.5 million people who visited the province.
COVID-19 had a serious effect on the number of beach-goers, especially on the April 30 – May 1 long weekend. Holiday-makers were down by half in Sam Son compared to last year, according to provincial tourism authorities.
Sam Son in the summertime
The same tourism authorities have projected that the peak for local tourists visiting Sam Son this year will be in the second half of this month. All restaurants, hotels, and homestays in the area have begun to work at full pace to ready themselves to welcome a growing number of visitors.
Nearly three months have now passed without any cases of community transmission of COVID-19 in Vietnam, but the tourism sector has suffered terribly and the Government has encouraged people to take a staycation, and Sam Son has been the most popular so far. “Vietnamese people travel in Vietnam” has become the new tourism slogan of the year.
A series of tourism promotions were held over the course of June, leading up to the peak in July. The Sam Son Summer 2020 Street Carnival kicked off a fortnight ago, with dancers from the Sun Group Dance Troupe attracting thousands.
A traditional festival for square and round sticky rice buns got underway in the early days of July – the largest traditional festival in the beach city and with all of its wards and craft guilds honouring the Saint of Doc Cuoc Temple. Wooden ovens cook traditional square cakes during summer days of 40 degrees Celsius, which makes the festival a sweltering affair.
A ceremony to pray for good weather was also held at the city’s fish harbour, where people sought good catches out at sea for fishing families.
It was a peaceful day by the water, with beach-goers lapping up the sea breeze and gently-breaking waves. Nearby were more than 200 fishing boats belonging to the local fishing guild.
“On a day like this, we remain onshore,” says Van Dinh Hien, a 37-year-old fisherman who heads out to sea alone when the weather is kind. Next to his boat, an elderly couple were cleaning their nets. The husband ventured out to sea at midnight and returned at dawn, his bamboo traps netting a few dozen small crabs.
The tradition in the fishing village is for men to set out to sea alone. Their wives remain home doing the housework and taking care of parents and children, then helping with net repairs after each trip.
Crowds mean joy
Four women in their late 50s and early 60s just came up from the shore when a message on the loudspeaker announced, “The time for bathing is finished, everyone come up from the shore!”
They are from a town 40km away. “We come here several times every summer,” says Trinh Thi Mo. “It’s not as crowded as last year, and I prefer crowds because it’s much more fun!”
If more people means more fun, then only joy accompanied Phan Son Tung, 34, as his extended family of 32 rented a bus and travelled down from Thai Nguyen to Sam Son for a long-awaited family getaway.
“Some members of our family would normally go on team-building trips with their company during the summer, but this year we felt we wanted a family trip,” said Tung.
Big groups, either company staff or families, are a feature of Sam Son, which has been a favoured summer destination for more than a century.
‘Discovered’ in 1906 and selected by the French as a spot for getaways, Sam Son then became a coastal holiday centre of Indochina. Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai, also had a villa near the water.
After Vietnam became a republic in 1945, government offices and factories with large numbers of workers built accommodation by the beach for their staff on summer holidays.
Trade union guest houses were also popular, where workers travelled in large groups to spend a few days by the sea.
Sam Son was so popular during the 1980s that almost everyone in Hanoi with the means to do so went there for a summer break. At school, kids would boast about trips to the seashore with their parents’ companies.
The sand at Sam Son is fine, the salt in the water mild, and the sea a light blue. Its small waves are enough for kids to frolic in but not too strong to pull anyone under.
For millions of Vietnamese in the north, it was the ultimate summer destination.
Then came Vietnam’s open-door policy and Sam Son was swept up in the move towards a market economy. Businesspeople became more market-oriented, seeking more customers for their hotel or restaurant. Professional photos taken by the beach, renting a car tyre’s inner tube for fun on the water, or posing on horseback – all at a price – became popular.