Con Dao escape

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First published 15th December, 2006

Only a couple of hundred miles lie between Ho Chi Minh City and Con Dao -- a small group of islands in the South China Sea. Considering its proximity to the backpacker hub of Saigon, very few people make the journey, probably opting for Phu Quoc as their primary island getaway choice -- but labelling both islands with the same 'short break' brush would be unwise.

The Con Dao islands have a history of repression: The French, Vietnamese and Americans have all used the island as a place to keep 'enemies', and so its only fair you commence your stay with a round-up of the island's brutal past. Start at the museum on Ton Duc Thang and be sure to ask for the guided tour -- for little over a dollar you'll receive a ticket to the museum itself and also Phu Hai Prison, Hang Duong Cemetery and the 'Tiger Cages' -- cells used to keep prisoners in brutal conditions. All of this can be completed in a couple of hours leaving plenty of time for adventuring.

If you're had your fill of Vietnam's wartime attractions, don't fret -- there's a lot more on offer. The islands offer an escape into the great outdoors, taking you from the noise, pollution and people of the city into a world of deserted beaches and peaceful countryside.

Spend an afternoon exploring the island by motorbike. Head up (or down) the coast road which runs from the airport, through Con Son town to Ben Dam Bay stopping to make the most of the photogenic scenery. Surf crashes onto deserted stretches of rock littered beach whilst in the distance fishing boats bob in the bays. Rugged hills plummet into the South China Sea in a manner just as at home in Scotland or New Zealand as Vietnam.

Con Dao Island, Vietnam

Get away from the rugged coast and explore Con Son's interior by following the road when it forks right (signposted Ong Dung). Stop again for pictures as local people work in rice paddies and harvest sugar cane against a backdrop of forest-clad mountains. On the way home drop in at the National Park Headquarters to glean info for the following day's activities and be sure to grab a copy of their useful booklet which suggests a number of day trips. Pick the one that tickles your fancy and arrange to meet your guide in the morning (a guide is usually essential).

The next morning head out with your guide. Hiking trails are numerous, some more challenging than others. A hike to Dam Tre lagoon begins near the airport runway and rund for 6km through heavy forest -- one of the more challenging treks, especially when the rocks are slippery with a sprinkling of rain. Lugging your snorkeling gear across the mountain is asking to be disappointed though -- especially if the tide is out -- there are countless barnacle encrusted rocks to traverse, and the snorkeling in the lagoon is just average. Head to neighbouring Bay Canh island for much better snorkeling, roughly a 45 minute boat trip from the town jetty.

Con Dao Island, Vietnam

Bay Canh is also a major turtle nesting site from May to September. Turtle traffic reaches peak hour at night, when the female turtles come onto the beach to lay their eggs. Terrapins also emerge in the evening, using the light of the moon to find their way to the ocean. Obviously if you're keen to see the nightlife, you'll need to stay overnight.

Outside of the turtles, Bay Canh boasts excellent swimming, snorkelling, mangrove forests and a pleasant walk to the French built lighthouse -- all making the island well worth visiting anytime of year, but remember -- trips to the outlying islands can be affected by the weather and sea journeys can only be undertaken in calm conditions.

Contingency plans for landlubbers back on Con Son thankfully include more than the trek to Dam Tre. So Ray Plantation provides a short walk through a fruit plantation, eventually ending up with a nice breezy view from the top of the hill. Another calf-enlarging walk is that to the top of Thanh Gia, the island's highest peak at 577m. The path is concrete and steep and the trip should take about 90 minutes and provides the best view of the islands available. Leave early in the morning to avoid potential cloud cover, and don't forget your permit obtained from National Park HQ, or your calves may have to be exercised another way.

Finish your day at Con Son's Bai Nhat beach -- it's the best place to see the sunset behind 'lovers mountain' and a good way to relax those aching feet and weary legs.

Con Dao Island, Vietnam

Con Dao has three main options for accommodation -- the ATC and Saigon Con Dao Resort can be classed as mid-range choices with rooms between US$20-$30. The high end option is the colossal yet deserted Con Dao Resort with rooms from $25 to $60, some of which have ocean views and small balconies -- the Con Dao Resort is a little further out of town.

Feeding time
For dinner, forget about culinary quandaries -- options are limited to the restaurants of the three main hotels. Pizza, hamburgers, and any other western foods are off the menu. Think seafood, hotpots and salad. Try some freshly caught squid, mackerel or shrimp, served with a mountain of white rice and maybe the Vietnamese visitors at Saigon Tourist Hotel will treat you to some folk songs, accompanied by some booze-fuelled guitar. US$6-10 should easily cover a hearty meal, a couple of beers and a bit of air guitar.

About the author:
Saigon-based Jon Hoff teaches English but still struggles to get his students to listen to him. He also writes for Travelfish.

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Read 6 comment(s)

  • We visited Con Dao and it is a very strange island.

    Our Flight cost $115 each (return)

    We tried to book a Hotel before we went but they were all 'fully booked' so we arrived on the island and grabbed one of the mini buses that take people from the airport to the hotels. We walked along and eventually booked into Resort A. The cheapest room was $65 a night and not really up to standard.

    For a much cheaper option there is the nation park guest house which has double rooms 300,000 Dong we were very annoyed when we found this out. Its not easy to get too as there are no taxis, so try and grab a motorbike or its about a 10/15 min walk from the main town. Find the central market, walk past the car park next to it with it on your right and keep going up that road until you see the nation park office. The lonely plant map 2009 edition is wrong.

    There is also Condao Resort which do mini beach hut style rooms (no a/c) for $30 per night.

    There is not much options on food and Resort A was the nicest place to eat.

    Also currently there is a large film crew making a TV program and they have booked up alot of the hotels and the smaller islands are not accessible until Aug so I heard.

    The turtle Tour was really good 1,500,000 Dong and we stayed on the small island on hammocks until 3am to watch the green sea turtles lay eggs. Book directly with the national park office as our hotel rang them for us and told us it was not on. The turtles were well worth it! Bring games and munchies to the island cus there is alot of waiting.

    Rent a motorbike and explore is island, but don't forget the suncream!!!

    The museum tour was good and the guy spoke OK English also tried to sell us some tours so that might be worth investigating. it was 90,000 Dong for two of us and we got a free badge was followed him to the prisons on our motorbike.

    Over all Con Dao was a strange experience but one I will never forget.

    If anyone wants anymore info just comment and I will try and help if I can.

    York & Mel

    Posted by York on 23rd May, 2010

  • I'm thinking of going to Con Dao but I'm just a little unsure. Basically, I am going to the North and down the coast for a bit but really don't want to spend any time in Saigon. I've been to other big cities e.g. Bangkok, Cairo and I would rather see something like a nature reserve than spend my last 5 days in Vietnam taking a deep breath every time I cross the road. Thing is, there doesn't seem to be that much info on Con Dao, lack of being able to book accomodation in advance, and taxis, makes it all seem a bit..spooky! Do you think if I book a flight and just turn up, I will find accomodation and have an unwinding and relaxing time?

    Posted by Beccs on 30th July, 2010

  • Hiya, well it really depends on your personal preferences, if you don't mind being off the tourist trail and you have enough cash to buy yourself out of any problems you may have eg. None of the cheap hotels are available then it is a really nice place to go. $50 - $65 for one of the resorts.

    So the cheapest hotel (guesthouse) is the national park one at 300,000 dong. We didn't see any rooms so not 100% sure on what you will get (tv, ensuite, etc.) we didn't book when we went and managed to find a room an expensive $65 one but we did get one lol.

    If you need TV and western food to unwind then no, but if you wanna go on hoilday where the vietnam people do then this is the place. The history is really intresting and getting around on your own by motorbike is really easy.

    It is definatly different, but is not your typical beach island.

    Check out our YouTube for videos from Con Doa and the turtle egg laying

    if you have any more questions just comment back and i will try anwser them for you.

    You can give it ago booking a hotel but at the airport the resorts all wait for you off the planes so a lift will definatly not be an issue.

    Posted by York Smith on 31st July, 2010

  • York Smith

    Thanks for your post, is really appreciated. I've had a think and I'm going to (deep breath) go to Saigon and probably miss out Con Dao. Of course, I might get there and it will all change but I still feel a little uneasy about arriving in Con Dao on my own and I'm on a budget.

    I know you can get last minute trips there etc so you never know and I've made a note of your avdice.

    Thanks again.

    Posted by Beccs on 8th August, 2010

  • Hi there,
    I thinking about a side trip from Siagon to the Con Dao islands on Dec 21-24th, 2010. Are 2 full days too much? I read (the very limited) info about the island and it seems December is the driest month (but not sure if best). I am looking for some beach/sun time away from mainstream tourists (don't care too much about getting in the water)so would this "strange" island be the place for that?

    Thanks for any advice!

    Posted by JeskaM on 27th October, 2010

  • I have just booked flights and accomodation, if you scout through lots of blog sites and many booking companies different rooms turn up even when other sites tell you there is none. I also found a hotel that didn't show up anywhere 'normal'the Hai An Hotel for just £15 a night and it looks ok. Many other reviews state tires and buggy residences so might as well get eaten on the cheap. We will defo check out the National Park rooms now that I have read this thread....only 5 weeks to go .....this is our second long road trip to Vietnam and nothing to worry about.

    Posted by on 7th January, 2013

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