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.
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.
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 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.
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.
By Jon Hoff
Last updated on 21st May, 2015.