When it comes to islands and beaches in Vietnam most people will immediately think of Phu Quoc Island which is really popular with tourists. However, there is another island which lies much further and hides a dark past. This is the relatively unknown island of Con Dao which you won’t find in travel brochures, or on the usual tourist maps.
Con Dao looks like a veritable paradise island now with white sandy beaches backed by rugged mountains. The surrounding waters around it are declared a marine national park with many great diving spots, and sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. But Con Dao was once a “Hell on Earth” for Vietnamese political prisoners who were sent here during the French Indochina War, and also during the Vietnam War when Viet Cong prisoners were imprisoned here by the Americans and South Vietnamese. Almost 20,000 prisoners died here during their imprisonment from disease, malnutrition and torture. Today, survivors of the prisons make this island their home and you will find ex-prisoners living side by side with their former jailers.
The fastest way to get to Con Dao is by air from Ho Chi Minh City, with the route served only by Vasco, Vietnam Airlines’ subsidiary. A return air ticket is around USD 150 and the flight time is 1 hour.
Besides air travel, you can also get there by high speed ferry from Vung Tau. Even then this option takes up to 4 hours, and the seas can be quite rough depending on the season. I would say that taking the boat is not recommended unless you want to join a boatload of sea sick passengers.
From Con Dao Airport, passenger vans are available to bring you to town for VND 50,000 (Roughly SGD 3). Otherwise, your hotel can arrange a pickup service for you when you arrive at the airport.
Although Con Dao is off the radar for international tourists, it’s a pretty popular destination for local tourists who come here as a pilgrimage to pay their respects to their national heroine, Vo Thi Sau. Many also come here to pray at the graves of the prisoners who died here as martyrs. There is a relatively wide range of hotels to choose from, ranging from the super luxury Six Senses Resort to small guest houses that only serve locals. I managed to book my hotel through Hotels.com, although the cheaper guesthouses are not listed and you can only book them directly when you arrive there, or through local travel agents.
What to See
Geologically, Con Dao is an archipelago of 16 rocky islands off the southern coast of Vietnam. The rugged and mountainous landscape of Con Dao reminds me of the volcanic origins of islands like Hawaii, but that doesn’t seem to be the case, as there are no volcanic remains to be seen. Only the largest island called Con Son, is inhabited, and the main settlement there is named after the island. The road from the airport to town goes round the coast and offers spectacular views of the coastline and surrounding islands.
Con Son Town
The main town is called Con Son and it’s quite small with a population of around 6,000 residents. It’s a sleepy little town with wide, well paved but deserted roads. Ancient looking trees line the streets and once in a while I could see French colonial ruins and restored villas. The town is compact enough that you can get around most places by walking. But there are electric tram cars and taxis which can ferry you around if you don’t want to walk. With the exception of a couple of luxury resorts, the rest of the hotels are all located in Con Son, thus making it the de facto place to stay.
The town faces the South China Sea and there is a well constructed coastal road with a pedestrian promenade and sea wall where you could walk along and get a nice view of the sea.
An Hoi Beach
Right at the southern half of Con Son town, is An Hoi Beach. Most of the hotels are situated along this beach, and it stretches for about 1 km. It’s a decent enough beach where you don’t have to leave town. There are many other beaches on the island but these are a distance from Con son and you would have to get some form of transportation to visit them.
An Hoi Beach is the closest beach to town without having to travel out of town. The only thing which I found to be bothersome was the presence of sandflies which left me with lots of itchy bites.
Con Dao Museum
If you want to know more about the island’s history then I would recommend coming here first before even visiting the prisons. Although the museum is more for the locals, most of the exhibits have English signs and narratives which makes it easy for foreigners to read what’s going on. The entrance fee is VND 10,000 which is really affordable.
The Prisons – Phu Hai
These are the main attractions in Con Son town despite their dark past. There are several prisons, but the first one that you should go to is Phu Hai where you get to buy one ticket that allows you to access 3 other prisons including the infamous French Tiger Cages. Tickets are not sold at the other prisons and you have to come here to get your ticket. The ticket costs VND 40,000 but it allows you to enter 4 different prisons.
The Prisons – French Tiger Cages
Somehow this prison is more notorious because it became well known internationally during the Vietnam War. In 1970, two US congressmen visited this prison after they were told of a secret prison run by the USA and South Vietnamese Army in Con Dao. They managed to trick their way into the prison and took photographs of the prisoners and conditions there. These photos were published in Life Magazine in 1970 and caused a public uproar in the USA which forced the prison to be shutdown.
As South East Asia’s version of Devil’s Island, I could see why Con Dao was chosen as a prison island. Escape was impossible from the island as it lies more than a 100 km from Vietnam’s southern coast and is surrounded by the South China Sea. Even if an inmate could escape the prison, they couldn’t escape the island without risking death on the open sea.
There are several other prisons besides these 2 above, but I had enough of going into eerie buildings and peeping into dark and creepy cells which are probably filled with restless spirits. So it was time to visit some more cheerful places.
Con Dao Market
This is the local market where the residents of the island come to buy and sell mostly food. It supposedly is open 24 hrs although I think that is mostly not true. The busiest time is in the morning when the residents come out to buy their daily groceries.
Van Son Temple
Just outside of Con Son town is this temple on top of a small hill. I decided to take a short ride on one of the electric trams to the foot of the hill. Built in 1964, this temple is a popular place for Vietnamese to visit and pray.
Being a tourist island, there are many restaurants to choose from in Con Son town. These range from hotel restaurants, to large seafood restaurants, to small coffee shops and even street food. Most of them serve only Vietnamese food with a couple of cafes or restaurants serving western food.
Generally, food prices on Con Dao island are more expensive than Ho Chi Minh City as most items need to be imported from the mainland and the restaurants here cater mainly to tourists.
I only spent a couple of days here as part of a working trip. So there wasn’t much time for sight seeing beside just Con Son town.
Besides what I’ve mentioned above, there are other things that you can do like sea sports. Scuba diving and snorkelling are seasonal (February to July). And island hopping to the smaller surrounding islands is quite popular during the dry season.
Hiking in Con Dao National Park is also popular for getting to some of the more secluded beaches, or to access to spectacular mountain views. You can also book a tour with the National Park to watch sea turtles nest and lay eggs (June to September).
For myself, I think the deserted roads on Con Dao are a great place to learn how to ride a motorbike if I ever wanted to.
For the moment, Con Dao remains unscathed by mass tourism. The quaint town with French colonial influences and a laid back village vibe without hordes of tourists is a rare find in today’s world of Instagram fame where unknown destinations suddenly become the next bucket list item.