First time when i heard about Con Dao island i thought is boring small place and wasnt sure what to expect.But when i got to this part of the world i decide to visit this place and see what offer. Con Dao island is on one hour flying from capital city Ho chi min . Is a totally opposite than Ho Chi Min . It is quiet and full with nice beaches .
Thankfully, in one important aspect, things have changed: until 1975, the island was used as a prison colony – first by the French colonial administration and later by the US-supported South Vietnamese government to house political captives. The ruins of the sprawling prison complex are still in place for visitors to stroll through today.
It’s a haunting walk, especially the harrowing ‘tiger cages’; these tiny, cramped boxes in which North Vietnamese prisoners were shackled, sometimes without water, are enough to make even the most fearless traveller claustrophobic. It’s also a fascinating insight into the captivity of some of Vietnam’s celebrated national heroes, including former prime minister Pham Van Dong. The Prison Museum in the former Governor’s House (on Ton Duc Thang Road) is a dry but worthwhile introduction to Con Dao’s past, and it’s where you can arrange tours to all of the island’s prison sites.
Despite its gruesome history, Con Dao’s main draw today is its beaches, which are some of the most spectacular and unspoilt in the region. Even Bai An Hai, the easiest public beach to reach here – and the first you’ll likely visit if you’re staying in one of the bungalows at Con Dao Sea Travel Resort (see ‘Where to stay’)– feels wild and untamed. Occasionally strewn with flotsam and jetsam from fishing boats, it may not have postcard-worthy immaculate white sands, but you’ll probably have the rugged strip of coast to yourself most of the time and are more likely to pass trawlermen heading out to sea than fellow tourists.
Away from the coast, about 80 percent of Con Dao is a nature reserve with thick canopies of forest protecting indigenous critters such as long-tailed macaque monkeys and giant black squirrels. From the park headquarters (29 Vo Thi Sau Street) there are trails through the wild jungle waiting to be conquered by all levels of hikers.
Outside of the hotel resorts, dining options are distinctly limited, but we recommend Phuong Hanh (38 Nguyen Hue Road) for its fresh seafood and rustic home-cooked dishes in a charming, if worn, courtyard setting. For drinks, head to the seafront Con Son Café (Ton Duc Thang Road) in the former French customs house, or CASA Guest House and Cocktail Bar (16 LeDuan Street), where basic cocktails are served from the open-fronted ground floor of the tiny but colourful guesthouse. The drinks may be fairly standard but the people-watching is top notch.
Where to stay
For all-out luxury, Six Senses is the only high-end resort on Con Son, offering plush seafront villas, personal butlers, a private beach, a dive school, cooking lessons and a lavish open-air spa. Onebedroom villas start at $600 a night.
At the budget end, accommodation is not as choice as you would find on the mainland; however, we like Con Dao Sea Travel Resort. Rooms cost from $70 a night, including breakfast and airport pick up. Service is charmingly clueless, but the rooms open straight out on to Bai An Hai and staff are able to arrange boat trips to the outlying islands.
Alternatively, Saigon Con Dao Resort, with rooms from $75 a night, is the only budget hotel with a pool, which makes up for its slightly grim location, in the shadow of the Phu Hai Son prison ruins.
All prices are listed in SGD ($1 is about 17,000 Vietnamese Dong). There are some ATMs on Con Son Island but no currency exchange facilities so it is best to obtain Vietnamese Dong before you arrive.
The airport bus will drop you at your resort, all of which (apart from the Six Senses) are located in or around Con Son town. If I’m on a budget, I’ll often stay at Phi Yen Guesthouse, which is a short walk from any of the resorts. It’s an acceptable but no frills place on the harbour front. In the early mornings there’s often a group of uniformed military officers eating noodle soup outside my room. Con Dao has a population of about 7,000, most of whom are fishermen or part of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam. According to some locals, men outnumber women 7 to 1 on the island. However, you’re unlikely to encounter anyone, male or female, as you walk along the seafront promenade. On one side, the glass-like ocean stretches to the horizon, on the other, French colonial villas crumble on street corners beneath the shadows of tropical trees, their roots twisted around the brickwork. It feels like an abandoned outpost of French Indochina. I’ve travelled all over Vietnam, but the first time I arrived in Con Son town I felt I’d really made it to the ends of the nation. As late as 2002, the only link to the mainland was a helicopter, which ran three times a week, carrying 24 passengers, most of whom were army personnel.
When the sun sets behind Shark Cape – the low light sculpting the mountains and making them look like huge buttresses on the ocean – it’s time for a pre-dinner cocktail, sitting on the wall of Con Son Café. Unlike most Vietnamese towns, where food is everywhere in the evenings, Con Son is decidedly dead. But, one place stands out. A short walk or drive out of town to the lotus lake, over a shaky wooden bridge, through a vegetable patch, and into a cluster of wooden shelters set around the lakeshore, is Quán Thanh Huyền: the best evening dinning on the island. Eat snakehead fish straight from the lake, grilled whole quail or buffalo hotpot – the broth steaming on your table – surrounded by the restaurant’s herb garden, the placid lotus lake, and the proprietor’s children competing with the cicadas and frogs for audio supremacy. After a wonderful meal, take a drive back along the silent coast road, looking out at the anthracite ocean pricked with the glow of fishing boat lights.