Isolated from the mainland, the Con Dao Islands are one of the star attractions in Vietnam. Long the Devil’s Island of Indochina, the preserve of political prisoners and undesirables, this place is now turning heads thanks to its striking natural beauty. In addition to hiking, diving and exploring empty coastal roads and deserted beaches, there are some excellent wildlife-watching opportunities such as the black giant squirrel and the endemic bow-fingered gecko.
Although it seems something of an island paradise, Con Son was once hell on earth for the thousands of prisoners who languished in confinement here in no less than a dozen jails during French rule and the American-backed regime.
Roughly 80% of the land area in the island chain is part of Con Dao National Park, which protects Vietnam’s most important sea-turtle nesting grounds. For the past decade, the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has been working with local park rangers on a long-term monitoring program. During nesting season (May to November) the park sets up ranger stations to rescue threatened nests and move them to the safe haven of hatcheries. Other interesting sea life around Con Dao includes the dugong, a rare marine mammal in the same family as the manatee.
Many visitors to Con Son are package-tour groups of former VC soldiers who were imprisoned on the island. The Vietnamese government subsidises these jaunts as a show of gratitude for their sacrifice.
The driest time to visit Con Dao is from November to February, although the seas are calmest from March to July. The rainy season lasts from June to September, but there are also northeast and southwest monsoons from September to November that can bring heavy winds. September and October are the hottest months, though even then the cool island breezes make Con Dao relatively comfortable when compared with HCMC or Vung Tau.
Change has been almost glacial, but with the arrival of the über-luxurious Six Senses Con Dao, the islands are now on the radar of the international jet-set. Travellers are discovering the islands as transport connections improve, but as flights are quite expensive (and the islands’ cost of living is approximately double the mainland’s), numbers are still small.
Occupied at various times by the Khmer, Malays and Vietnamese, Con Son Island also served as an early base for European commercial ventures in the region. The first recorded European arrival was a ship of Portuguese mariners in 1560. The British East India Company maintained a fortified trading post here from 1702 to 1705 – an experiment that ended when the English on the island were massacred in a revolt by the Makassar soldiers they had recruited on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Con Son Island has a strong political and cultural history, and an all-star line-up of Vietnamese revolutionary heroes were incarcerated here. (Many streets are named after them.) Under the French, Con Son was used as a major prison for opponents of colonialism, earning a reputation for the routine mistreatment and torture of prisoners. National heroine Vo Thi Sau was executed here in 1952.
In 1954 the island was taken over by the South Vietnamese government, which continued to utilise its remoteness to hold opponents of the government (including students) in horrendous conditions.
During the American War, the South Vietnamese were joined here by US forces. The US built prisons here and maintained the notorious ‘tiger cages’ as late as 1970, when news of their existence was broken by a Life magazine report.
There’s nowhere quite like it in all Vietnam. This delightful pocket-sized island capital, with its litter-free streets, well-kept municipal buildings and air of calm and prosperity would, make a perfect location for a period film.
The main seafront promenade of Ð Ton Duc Thanh is a delight to stroll, lined with French-era villas, some crumbling, others renovated into hotels. Nearby is the local market, busiest between 7am and 9am.
Of course, the town’s genteel appearance and character is tempered considerably by the presence of several prisons, cemeteries and reminders of the islands’ historic role as a penal colony. There are ghosts everywhere in Con Son.
( 7-11.30am & 1-5pm) The largest of the 11 jails on the island, this prison dates from 1862. Thousands of prisoners were held here, with up to 200 prisoners crammed into each detention building. During the French era all prisoners were kept naked, chained together in rows, with one small box serving as a toilet for hundreds. One can only imagine the squalor and stench. Today, emaciated mannequins that are all too lifelike re-create the era.
It’s a huge complex, where political and criminal classes were mixed together. ‘Solitary’ rooms where prisoners considered to be particuarly dangerous contained as many as 63 inmates, herded together so tightly that there was no room to lie down. The prison church dates from the US era, but it was never used.
The notorious cells dubbed tiger cages were built in 1940 by the French to incarcerate nearly 2000 political prisoners. There are 120 chambers with ceiling bars, where guards could poke at prisoners like tigers in a Victorian zoo. Prisoners were beaten with sticks from above, and sprinked with quick lime and water (which burnt their skin, and caused blindness).
The tiger cages were deliberately constructed away from the main prison, out of sight, and only accessed by an alleyway. They were unknown to the outside world until 1970, when a US congressional aide, Tom Harkin, visited Con Son and saw evidence of brutal torture of the prisoners he met there. Harkin had been tipped off about their existence by a former inmate and managed to break off the pre-arranged tour, and using a map given to him, discovered the tiger cages behind a vegetable garden, and photographed the cells and prisoners inside. The images were published by Life magazine in July 1970.
Hang Duong Cemetery CEMETERY
Some 20,000 Vietnamese prisoners died on Con Son and 1994 of their graves can be seen at the peaceful Hang Duong Cemetery, located at the eastern edge of town. Sadly, only 700 of these graves bear the name of the victims.
Vietnam’s most famous heroine, Vo Thi Sau (1933–52) was buried here, the first woman executed by a firing squad on Con Son, on 23 January 1952. For more Vo Thi Sau, see the boxed text below.
Today’s pilgrims come to burn incense and leave offerings at her tomb, mirrors, combs and lipstick (symbolic because she died so young). You may even encounter fruit, and meals of sticky rice and pork.
In the distance behind the cemetery you’ll see a huge monument symbolising three giant sticks of incense.
Phu Binh Camp HISTORICAL BUILDING
( 7-11.30am & 1-5pm) On the edge of town, this prison was built in 1971 by the Americans, and had 384 chambers. The cells had corrugated-iron roofs, and were infernally hot. The original structures remain in situ, but there’s not that much left to see today. It was known as Camp 7 until 1973, when it closed following evidence of torture.
After the Paris Agreements in 1973, the name was changed to Phu Binh Camp.
Revolutionary Museum MUSEUM
( 7-11am & 1.30-5pm) Located in the former French comandant’s residence, this museum has exhibits on Vietnamese resistance against the French, communist opposition to the Republic of Vietnam, and the treatment of political prisoners. You’ll also find a painting of Vo Thi Sau (facing death with her head held high), a diorama of the Con Daos and some stuffed wildlife: boas, lizards and monkeys.
An impressive-looking new Con Dao Museum building (located at the eastern end of Ð Nguyen Hue) has been constructed. Exhibits from the Revolutionary Museum will be relocated here once it opens its doors.
If breeze is blowing from the north, you can probably smell the incense from a specific grave in Con Son’s cemetary: the tomb of Vo Thi Sau, a national icon.
Vo Thi Sau, a teenage resistance fighter executed in Con Dao during the French occupation, was politically active from a very early age. She killed a French captain in a grenade attack at the age of 14, and was only captured years later following a second assassination attempt. Vo Thi Sau was taken to Con Dao and executed here, aged 19.
Visit the cemetery at midnight and you’ll find crowds of people packed around her grave, saying prayers and making offerings. The Vietnamese believe that this is the most auspicious time to pay respects and venerate the spirit of this national heroine, who was killed in the early hours of 23 January 1952.
Sandflies can be a big problem on Con Dao beaches, make sure you bring insect repellent.
The best beach in the island, Bai Dat Doc is a simply beautiful cove, consisting of a kilometre-long crescent of pale sand, backed by green hills. It has a gently shelving profile and no pollution, so it’s ideal for swimming. Though it’s backed by the luxury bungalows of the Six Senses hotel, it’s not a private beach and there are access points close to the road.
Very rarely dugongs have been seen frolicking in the water off the nearby cape.
Reached via a dirt track 1km before the airport, Bai Dram Trau is a sublime but remote 700m half-moon crescent of soft sand, fringed by casuarina trees and bookended by forest-topped rocky promontories. It’s best visited at low tide.
There’s some snorkelling on reefs offshore and three very simple seafood shacks (all open noon till dusk only).
On the north side of Con Son Town, Bai Loi Voi is a broad sand-and-shingle beach with lots of sea shells and casuarinas for shade. There’s a good stretch of sandy beach right in the centre of Con Son, around the Con Dao Resort.
Bai An Hai on the south side of town is appealing, but there are a good number of fishing boats moored nearby.
Some of the more pristine beaches are on the smaller islands, such as the beautiful white-sand beach on Tre Lon, to the west of Con Son Island.
Perhaps the best all-round island to visit is Bay Canh, to the east, which has lovely beaches, old-growth forest, mangroves, coral reefs and sea turtles (seasonal). There is a fantastic two-hour walk to a functioning French-era lighthouse on Bay Canh’s eastern tip, although it involves a steep climb of 325m. Once at the summit, the panoramic views are breathtaking.
For more information on treks and boat trips around the Con Dao Islands, visit www.condaopark.com.vn, the official website for Con Dao National Park. It costs 20,000d to enter the park by day or 40,000d by night.
Overnight turtle-watching tours cost around 1,500,000 per person if booked via the national park office or Dive! Dive! Dive!. Note that nesting turtles are very rarely seen outside the main season (late June to early September).
Diving & Snorkelling
Experienced divers who know the waters of Vietnam have long talked up Con Dao as the most pristine marine environment in the country. The waters around the islands are officially protected, and there’s abundant healthy coral (table, staghorn and brain are all in evidence). Marine life includes green and hawksbill turtles, rays, kingfish, lots of parrotfish and groupers and some sharks.
That said, things could be even better, as official protection is weak. Some boatmen still anchor directly on the reef, and illegal fishing affects fish numbers. Turtle eggs are also still occassionally traded under the counter, though penalties can be severe.
Diving is possible year-round, but for ideal conditions and good visibility, January to June is considered the best time, while November and December can see big storms. Prices are generally more expensive than at mainland destinations, but also more rewarding.
Wrecks, including a 65m freighter resting in 30m to 40m with abundant sealife, offer huge potential for more experienced divers.
Cheapo snorkelling trips are offered by some hotels but we’ve heard reports of boatmen spearfishing illegally on some of these trips. Dive! Dive! Dive!’s excursions do cost more, but are environmentally sound.
( 064-383 0701; www.dive-condao.com; Ð Nguyen Hue; 8am-9pm) An experienced, conservation -minded American-run operation, offering both both PADI and SSI courses. Instructor Larry has years of experience diving the waters of Vietnam and offers daily dive (two dives are US$160) and snorkelling tours (US$40 including equipment). Dive! Dive! Dive! is licensed to operate in 31 dive sites around the islands. The seafront dive shop is a great source of general information on the Con Daos.
There are lots of treks around Con Son Island, as much of the interior remains heavily forested. It is necessary to take a national park guide when venturing into the forest. Rates range from 180,000d to 300,000d depending on the duration of the trek.
It’s a steep uphill climb to the old fruit plantations of So Ray, following a slippery but well-marked trail (lined with information panels about trees and wildlife) through dense rainforest. The plantation is home to a sociable troop of long-tailed macaques, with sweeping views over the main town to the other Con Dao islands beyond. The return hike takes about 90 minutes.
(Dam Tre) One of the more beautiful walks leads through thick forest and mangroves, past a hilltop stream to Bamboo Lagoon. There’s good snorkelling in the bay here. This leisurely two-hour trek starts from near the airport runway, but you’ll definitely need a local guide to do this.
A hike that you can do yourself is a 1km walk (about 30 minutes each way) through rainforest to Ong Dung Bay. The trail begins a few kilometres north of town. The bay has only a rocky beach, although there is a good coral reef about 300m offshore.
Near the trailhead for Ong Dung Bay, you’ll find the ruins of the Ma Thien Lanh Bridge, which was built by prisoners under the French occupation. The bay itself has only a rocky beach, although there is a good coral reef about 300m off shore.
Two decades ago the fate of the green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) in Con Dao was in jeopardy. They were prized for their meat, and their shells had value as souvenirs. To make matters worse, the turtles’ numbers were decimated by destructive fishing practices. And yet, today, following a decade of local and foreign initiatives, the turtle has made a remarkable comeback. One of Vietnam’s most important sea-turtle nesting sites lies scattered around the shores of the Con Dao archipelago. The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has given substantial help, as have other international organisations, by setting up conservation stations on the islands of Bay Canh, Tre Lon, Tai and Cau. According to the WWF, since 1995 more than 800,000 hatchlings have been released into the sea. Up to 85% of sea-turtle eggs hatch successfully, which is the highest percentage in Vietnam. WWF has also launched a satellite tracking program (the first of its kind in Vietnam) to give conservation workers a better understanding of migration patterns, as well as key habitats used by the turtles for feeding and mating. Though the population is on the rise, many turtles still die after nesting, often by getting ensnared in fishing nets.
Visitors wishing to see the turtles in their natural habitat can arrange a trip to Bay Canh Island and spend the night at the conversation site. (Turtles only lay their eggs at night, each nest producing an average of 90 eggs.) The best time to see them is during the nesting season, which is from May to November. For information on trips, inquire at Con Dao National Park headquarters. Tours prices vary depending on numbers, but you need to budget around 1,500,000d per person plus extra for the guide, 40,000d for overnight park fees and 150,000d for basic accommodation. Dive! Dive! Dive! (Click here) also offers boat trips to see the turtles, including an afternoon dive and a night dive, plus meals and overnight camping. Non-divers and snorkellers can join these trips for a reasonable price.
However, expect to pay about double the rate for the equivalent place on the mainland.
( 064-383 0261; 44 Ð Ton Duc Thang; r 350,000-450,000d) Painted in marine blue, this guesthouse has rooms with good mattresses and duvets, the upstairs rooms are light and airy. The owners speak little or no English.
( 064-363 0308; 7 Ð Tran Phu; r 400,000-600,000d) A good option for sharers, some rooms here sleep up to five people, and all have air-con. Run by a friendly family who can speak some English and German.
( 064-383 1555; www.condaoseacabanas.com/en; Ð Nguyen Duc Thuan; r 650,000-750,000d) Well worth considering, these two rows of cute A-frame bungalows enjoy a nice position right by a stretch of beach. Frills (if not thrills) include satellite TV, two beds, a porch, minibar and showers with a view of the night sky. They’re located very close to the town’s new dock.
( 064-383 0939; www.condaoresort.com.vn; 8 Ð Nguyen Duc Thuan; r US$58-94) Facing an inviting sandy beach, this slightly dated resort hotel, complete with extensive manicured gardens and a large swimming pool, certainly enjoys a great location. Rooms are spacious and comfortable enough, but showing their age.
( 064-383 0111; www.atcvietnam.com; 8 Ð Ton Duc Thang; r US$65-90, ste from US$120) This place’s renovated accommodation is some of the most attractive in town, offering smart, inviting and comfortable rooms with terracotta tiling and great ocean-facing balconies. There are also older rooms and bungalows that need a refurb. The kidney-shaded swimming pool is lovely and breakfast is included.
( 064-383 1222; www.sixsenses.com; Dat Doc Beach; villas from US$685) Bagging an unmatched position on the island’s best beach, this ultra-luxe hotel is in a class (and location) of its own. There are fifty or so ocean-facing timber-clad beach units fusing contemporary style with rustic chic, each with its own pool, giant bath-tub and Bose stereo. Brad and Angelina stayed here in 2011.
There are several places to eat, from a casual air-conditioned cafe where you can grab a panini to the magnificent restaurant by the sands. Diving, sailing trips and trekking can all be arranged. Located 4km west of Con Son town.
( 064-383 0155; www.saigoncondao.com; 18 Ð Ton Duc Thang; r US$78-128, ste from US$172) Originally set in a cluster of old French buildings on the waterfront, an impressive new wing was recently added with a swimming pool which is where most foreign visitors are hosted. The old wing is mostly reserved for visiting veterans and party loyalists on tours of the Con Dao prisons. Service is a bit spotty for the rates charged.
If you’re on a tight budget, check out the small night market (Click here) around the intersection of Ð Tran Huy Lieu and Ð Nguyen An Ninh for cheap eats.
(Khu 3, Hoang Phi Yen; meals 70,000-160,000d; noon-9pm) South of town by a water-lily-filled lake, this lovely little restaurant enjoys a great setting, with little gazebos next to the water and an orchestra of croaking frogs. Offers authentic local cuisine including hot pots and snakehead fish straight from the lake.
(Ð Nguyen Hue; mains 25,000-170,000d; 11.30am-9pm) On the Con Son strip, offering fresh seafood from bubbling tanks. Shells in many shapes and sizes, or go for a huge fish to feed a family.
(7 Ð Nguyen Duc Thuan; mains 40,000-200,000d; lunch & dinner) It’s not much to look at (think a huge covered terrace with plastic chairs and striplights) but is popular for its fresh seafood, particularly grilled squid, grouper and crab.
(Ð Ton Duc Thanh; 7am-9.30pm) Formerly the customs house, this elegant French colonial structure has a lovely breezy, shady terrace from where you can gaze out over the bay’s fishing boats. Serves tea, coffee, shakes, beers and cocktails. French composer Camille Saint-Saens, lived in this building, writing his opera Brunhilda in 1895.
Larry of Dive! Dive! Dive! is a great contact, and very knowledgeable about the islands. Though he’s obviously keen to take you out diving or snorkelling, he’ll give you a map and chat for free and can organise motorbikes for hire.
There are three ATMs in Con Dao.
Internet access is available at hotels in town, including free wi-fi for guests, plus there are often terminals in the lobby for wired access.
National Park Headquarters ( 064-383 0669; www.condaopark.com.vn; 29 Ð Vo Thi Sau; 7-11.30am & 1.30-5pm daily) The national park headquarters is a good place to get information. Since the military controls access to parts of the national park, stop here first to learn more about possible island excursions and hikes, plus pick-up a useful free handout on walks around the island. Some hiking trails have interpretive signage in English and Vietnamese. The headquarters also has an exhibition hall with displays on the diversity of local forest and marine life, threats to the local environment, and local conservation activities.
There are three daily flights between Con Son and HCMC jointly operated by Vasco ( 064-383 1831; www.vasco.com.vn; 44 Ð Nguyen Hue) and Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com). Tickets cost US$75 one way and are rarely discounted. Con Son is also connected to Can Tho in the Mekong Delta via Vasco/Vietnam Airlines, one-way flights cost US$65.
The tiny airport is about 15km from the town centre. All of the big hotels on the island provide free transport both to and from the airport. Although it’s advisable to book a hotel in advance, it is possible to show up and grab a seat on one of the hotel shuttle vans that meet the planes; drivers charge 50,000d and will usually drop you off at your hotel or in the town centre.
There are two ferries connecting Con Son Island with Vung Tau, with sailings three to four times a week. Facilities are basic and the crossing can be very rough at certain times of years, leading to frequent cancellations. The ferries depart from Ben Dam port at 5pm, taking around 12 hours. Seats cost 145,000d but it is better to invest in a sleeper berth for 275,000d, with six bunks to a room.
Tickets can be purchased from a small office near the market in town. Look out for the sign at the kiosk on Ð Vo Thi Sau that reads BQL Cang Ben Dam Huyen Con Dao ( 8-11.30am & 1-5pm). A xe om to Ben Dam will cost about 100,000d, a taxi about 300,000d.
Exploring the islands by boat can be arranged through the national park office. A 12-person boat costs around 2,000,000d to 5,000,000d per day depending on the destinations. Local fishermen also offer excursions, but be sure to bargain hard.
Motorbike & Bicycle
This is one of the best places in Vietnam to ride a bike, with little traffic, no pollution and good surfaced roads. There’s only one main road, connecting the airport in the north to Ben Dam in the south via Con Son town.
Most hotels rent motorbikes for about US$7 to US$10 per day. Bicycles cost around US$2 per day. There are good coastal cycling routes, such as from Con Son town to Bai Nhat and onto the tiny settlement of Ben Dam. The ups and downs are pretty gentle and, thankfully, there is little motorised traffic. If motorbiking or cycling to Ben Dam, be very careful of the high winds around Mui Ca Map. Locals have been blown off their bikes during gales.
Con Son island now has several taxis ( 064-361 6161). However, as metered rates are astronomically high (around 20,000d per km!) negotiate hard for a fixed-price rate to destinations outside Con Son town.