The tip of the 'S'

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Tra Co Beach at the most northeastern point of S-shaped Vietnam is one of the country's most charming beaches thanks to its calm seas and sandalwood trees.

Stretching over 15 kilometers and providing an ideal place for vacationers, the sandy beach is one of the main attractions of Tra Co Island, just off the coast of Quang Ninh Province.

Legend has it that fishermen from Do Son near Hai Phong, located further south in Quang Ninh, settled the island 500 years ago, set up fishing villages, and named the area Tra Co, which combines the name of their two villages - Tra Phuong and Co Trai - in Do Son, Hai Phong.

Visitors should take the National Highway 18 from Hanoi and head toward the Mong Cai border gate, 150 kilometers from the capital. The island is linked to the mainland by a 15-kilometer causeway.

Instead of taking the bridge, it is worth catching the two-hour express boat from Hai Phong to Mui Ngoc, the southwestern tip of Tra Co Island.

Charm and tranquility

Tra Co Beach is a smooth stretch of compact sand and white sand dunes on Tra Co peninsula. Bamboo basket boats on the beach and a nearby mangrove forest add to the poetic image.

The beach is very firm so cars can drive on it without getting stuck. Tra Co is often compared to Nha Trang beach for its beauty.

"The air is so fresh. It's a far cry from the bustling, dusty streets of the city," says Linh Nga, a tourist from Hanoi.

The best season for swimming is from April to September, when the water temperature averages around 22 degrees Celsius.

A great place to watch the sun set or rise is about 6 kilometers away from the beach -- the beautiful Con Mang sand dunes where the sand is so firm that you can ride a motorbike on it.

Close to Con Mang is Vietnam's border point with China, Sa Vi.

Sacred relics at Tra Co

For history lovers, the island has plenty of sightseeing spots.

Tra Co communal house is the pride of the local people. It was built in 1462 to worship the six people who pioneered the island and established the village 500 years ago.

Local people also use the house to worship Quan He, or Nguyen Huu Cau, a leader of a rural uprising during the Le-Trinh Dynasty.

Though the site has been repaired many times, the original architectural style and sculptures still remain.

Two men in the famed 500-year-old Tra Co communal house, the pride of the local people

An island resident poses outside Nam Tho Pagoda, built in 1775 to worship Lieu Hanh, a sacred goddess of the Viet people

A fishing boat approaches the beach. Tra Co boats, which are made of bamboo and foam, are unique in Vietnam.

The 30-by-19-meter house features 48 structural pillars that were built by skilled carpenters from Thanh Hoa.

From a distance, the house looks like a boat, docked by the sea, which inspired artist Nguyen Cuong to compose the famous song Mai dinh lang bien (The roof of the fishing village's communal house).

The house's roof is slightly concave and its four scimitar-shaped corners curve upwards. Dragon heads are carved into the beams' ends. Exquisite carvings and gilded parallel panels decorate the inside of the building.

The village festival takes place at the end of the fifth month of the lunar calendar. The three-day event includes a variety of activities including a cooking competition and traditional games.

One of the contests for farmers is called ong voi or Mr. Elephant. The person who has raised the largest pig wins.

Another site in Tra Co is Linh Khanh, also called Nam Tho Pagoda, some 200 meters from the Tra Co communal house.

The pagoda, built in 1775 under the reign of King Le Canh Hung, worships Lieu Hanh, a sacred goddess of the Viet people. The pagoda boasts 63 statues and a large bell cast in 1843.

Thien Hau Temple is another site tourists shouldn't miss. The temple, built in 1550 to worship Thien Hau, or Matsu, the intelligent Chinese goddess who lived 1,000 years ago and could forecast weather changes and cure the ills of man.

On the way back from Con Mang to Tra Co, there is an old cathedral, built in 1880 and restored a decade ago. The church is a tranquil place to take a rest.

Nowadays, Tra Co has become a tourism hot spot with 45 hotels and hostels with some 600 rooms.

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