Located off the southern coast of Vietnam, the remote and utterly beautiful Con Dao Islands offer visitors a rare experience not found anywhere else in the country. The isolated archipelago is comprised of 16 islands and islets: rugged mountainous masses of rock covered in dense forest, fringed by coral reef and drowning in sublimely turquoise-azure sea. Prepare to be dazzled.
Sunlight beams through clouds illuminating jagged peaks that sharply tumble down to the water. Verdant forest clashes with barren craggy rocks, barren craggy rocks abut white sand silkily swept over by water so blue it seems digitally enhanced. Modern buildings stand amid crumbling French ruins slowly being strangled by tree roots and vines. A lone fishermen paddles to shore in a basket boat. The scenery is at once rich and desolate, a world of contradiction.
The only civilised way to reach Con Dao is by a one-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City to the main island Con Son (also known as Con Lon or “big island”), which has one central town and a main harbour Ben Dam. The cost of flying and the limited number of flights means only a trickle of travellers can get to paradise. The islands are also a refreshing enclave of protected wilderness, a chunk of the land and waters belonging to Con Dao National Park. What this means is travellers will have miles of coastal roads, hiking trails and deserted beaches all to themselves.
Con Dao’s beauty is complicated. Not long ago the island knew only the pain and suffering of thousands who were imprisoned there, earning it the name “hell on earth” and the “Devil’s Island of Indochina”.
The Portuguese first landed in the archipelago in 1516. The English East India Company planted their flag in 1702, calling the island “Pulo Condore”, before the French East India Company settled in 1721 and named it Orleans. The French officially occupied the area in 1861, and this was the beginning of 113 years of horror.
From 1862, Con Son was used as a prison by French colonialists, then transferred in 1955 to the American-backed South Vietnamese government. Captives were anti-French fighters, political dissidents, Communists and Viet Cong, but also any other citizens that the government wanted to torture and make disappear: writers, student protestors, Buddhists, people who refused to salute the flag. The prisons were finally closed in 1975, ending a horrifying chapter in history where more than 20,000 prisoners died.
Evidence of this dark past can be seen all over the island, including several prisons right in the centre of Con Son town, such as Phu Tuong. It’s home to the “tiger cages”, a particularly heinous set of incarceration cells. A free visit to the Con Dao Museum is an excellent history primer. Learn about the methods of torture, the female prisoners, the several attempted escapes and uprisings and how prisoners secretly created newspapers and formed communist schools, actually creating future leaders of the Communist Party. A visit to a few of the prisons is a must – see remnants of what can only be rightfully described as a crime against humanity.
Con Son has become a major pilgrimage for Vietnamese who travel all over the country to pay their respects to the prisoners and revolutionaries who lost their lives, and to worship Vo Thi Sau, a schoolgirl anti-French resistance fighter and the first woman to be executed by the French on Con Dao. She is now celebrated as a national martyr and a saint – a symbol of bravery, patriotism and sacrifice. Every night hundreds make pilgrimage to Hang Duong Cemetery to make offerings, pray to her and ask for something in return. Non-Vietnamese are welcome to observe as long as they are respectfully dressed and discreet; it is an interesting experience.
The stark contradiction between the island’s beauty and scars of the past can be unsettling, unnerving at times. But the island’s new story is one of nature and conservation, and life carries on for Con Son’s 7,000 inhabitants, half of which belong to the military. The island is a large military base and you’ll see plenty of men in uniform. The rest are mostly fishermen who spend their days at sea. As you quietly stroll along the town’s oceanfront promenade, with not a motorbike or soul in sight, the place feels virtually empty. Within a couple of days, the locals start recognising you.
The drives are equally breathtakingly forlorn. A single coastal road precariously winds along the southern half of the island. It’ll be hard to keep your eyes on the road and not the expansive ocean stretching out to the edge of the world. Often there is nothing but a sheer drop to the pounding surf below (be mindful that gusts of wind hit the exposed corners). Spend a few days driving around – get a great view from the lighthouse south of town and catch a memorable sunset on the southwestern edge, on the way to Ben Dam Harbour. Simply park your motorbike to the side of the road and look out towards Hon Ba and Hon Vung Islands.
If you’re in search of even more adventure, channel your inner Cousteau and Crusoe at the other 15 islands. Con Dao’s remote location, crystal clear waters and modest tourism scene make it Vietnam’s best diving spot. You can hope to see two-metre cobia, stingray, barracuda, moray eel, batfish and dugong. The islands are all part of the national park which means trips must be arranged through their office. If you are willing to splurge on the trip, you can go where few tread, see unique flora and fauna and get up close to sea turtles. The second largest island, Hon Bay Canh, has turtle breeding grounds, with a chance to see as many as 20-30 turtles nesting from April to September.
From prison to paradise, Con Dao is an experience like no other.
It’s very easy to get your bearings on Con Son. A single coastal road wraps around the southern half of the island. The airport is at one end in the north, Con Son town is in the middle of a C-shaped bay. The undeveloped northwestern side of the island is only accessible by trails.
The island’s French colonialists laid out the town in a neat grid pattern, with a wide seaside boulevard and promenade. It’s almost impossible to get lost.
Con Dao’s stunning waters are usually calm and flat from around March until October. Rainy season is from June to September, with mainly overnight downpours. Winds pick up November to January, though they have been known to come early or stay late. Beaches on the northwest coast are sheltered from the wind and are still very pleasant/swimmable, however in high winds tourist boats can’t go out (that means no diving or snorkelling).
Visibility for diving and snorkelling is optimal from April to May, with the whole diving season lasting from March until October. On the other islands, June to August is the best time for a chance to see sea turtles. June to August is also Vietnam summer holiday/high season – it’s a good idea to book your hotel and flight in advance.
There are two ATMs in town. It’s best to stock up on dong before arriving to the island, as it’s difficult to exchange money.
Almost everything is imported, which means food and accommodation are more expensive than on the mainland. There’s no true backpacker budget accommodation in town, but there is a good selection of decent guesthouses that start around 300,000 dong.
The hospital is located at the corner of Pham Van Dong and Le Hong Phong St. The town also has a very basic pharmacy.
The post office is located at 48 Nguyen Hue St, open Mon-Fri 07:00-11:00, 13:00-17:00.
WiFi is standard in accommodation. A large Vinaphone telecom tower dominates the town centre and 3G works great.
Island life means that most tourist sights and offices shut down for lunch/siesta from 11:30-13:30. Luckily the new PV Oil petrol station on Nguyen Hue Street is open all day. The station a couple blocks west of the clock tower closes for lunch.
Aside with food-stealing monkeys and wind gusts, Con Dao is generally safe. Ben Dam Harbour on the southwest coast of the island is the commercial port of sailors and sex workers. It’s good sense to avoid this area at night.
Sandflies are a nuisance. They’re most active at dawn and dusk.
By Cindy Fan. Last updated on 13th October, 2016.