After a 1hr plane ride from the frenetic streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the first thing you notice is the silence. With quaint, colonial-era seaside promenades, manicured hedgerows and the occasional loudspeaker issuing forth communist slogans, Con Son, the main (and only inhabited) island on the Con Dao archipelago, feels like it’s stuck in a time warp.
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.
For guaranteed privacy, hire a motorbike (from around $8 a day) and head east past Mui Ca Map (Shark Cape) to Nhat Beach for some of the island’s clearest waters. You can also charter a boat from Con Son (from $100) to one of the smaller outlying islands – in these uninhabited spots you’ll find the islands’ native endangered turtles. Bikes and boat trips can be organised through the local scuba shop, Dive! Dive! Dive! (Nguyen Hue Street). The staff here are hugely helpful and provide English-language maps as well as excellent suggestions and tips on places to visit.
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.