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.

Getting There

Air travel to Con Dao is only with Vasco, a subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines.

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.

Con Dao’s airport can only accommodate smaller aircraft like the ATR’s. The single runway is only a kilometer long and stretches from one beach to another beach, across an isthmus.

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.

Accomodation

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.

Around the main island are smaller uninhabited islands like these which are refuges for the local wildlife.
Spectacular views of secluded bays like this one with the Six Senses Resort at the end of the bay. The Six Senses Resort is a super luxury resort with it’s own private beach and only guests are allowed into the resort’s compound. Celebrity guests like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have stayed here in the past.
Getting to see some of these landscapes require that you have some form of transport like renting a motorbike or a taxi to bring you around.
The main port of Con Dao is quite far from the main town but offers some nice views as it’s located in a channel between another island.

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 tranquil streets of Con Son which are well paved but strangely devoid of traffic. The occasional moped or car may pass by once in a while. And yes, traffic lights don’t exist here.
This is probably the town’s center although I wouldn’t have guessed it with the lack of activity around it. It’s just this clock tower in a roundabout that serves as a landmark.
Along the way, I could sometimes see old colonial buildings which have fallen into ruin, while a well maintained road runs beside it.
Like this French villa that has partially collapsed with a tree growing over it.
While some of the French colonial villas have been converted into boutique hotels.
The larger buildings have been converted into government buildings like this one which is the headquarters of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Con Dao.
Some of the more interesting French ruins are actually located on the outskirts of town, like this kiln which was used to produce lime for construction.
Across the road from the lime kiln was this ruined shell of a building which looks like some sort of barracks. The weathered texture and colours of the wall looks like an oil painting to me.
And I stumbled upon this street vendor selling some weird looking fruits. Maybe someone can tell me what these fruits are called.
The seaside promenade which is quite beautiful, but again it was quite deserted. Electric tram cars like this are similar to taxis and have a starting fare of VND 20,000 (SGD 1 is roughly VND 17,000).

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.

A walk along the sea promenade reveals some fantastic scenes. It was the rainy season when I visited and the wet weather certainly made for some dramatic skies.
There is a cafe in the middle of the promenade, but they only had a coffee bar opened when I visited. It seems that they always serve their Vietnamese coffee with a glass of green tea here.
A statue of a sea turtle reminds me that Con Dao is also a refuge for sea turtles to come ashore to nest and lay their eggs.

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 quite nice considering that it’s just right next to town. There are several hotels that front this beach.
I guess this is for the Instagram crowd.
Fishermen also make use of the beach to berth their fishing boats.
I managed to spot this fisherman paddling in his traditional bath tub shaped boat.
After he had left, it was time for me to take some photos with his boat. I wonder how they steer such a boat which has not front or back.

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 museum is housed in a distinctive building at the eastern end of the town. It contains exhibits showcasing the island’s history ranging from Neolithic times to present history, as well as, some natural history on the local flora and fauna.
More than half of the museum is dedicated to the prisons and their related history while also serving as a form of national education for the Vietnamese. Similar to the War Museum in Ho Chi Ming City, the narratives here are from the viewpoint of the Communists with the Americans and French as the bad guys.

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.

Phu Hai prison is located in town itself next to residential houses and a hotel. From the peaceful streets outside, you’d never have guessed what horrors went on behind the walls. Dating back to 1862, the prison was built by the French to house both criminal and political prisoners.
The prison has been deliberately left in a state of neglect. It does show how bad the conditions were for the prisoners then, and the derelict state of the buildings also gives out a haunted feeling.
They even built a hotel across the road from the prison so that you can stay close to the creepy old prison where thousands of people died.
Entering through the main gate, I found myself in another world. It was quiet and deserted except for a couple of cleaners taking a rest on some benches. The ancient looking trees must have been planted since French colonial times. I wonder how many horrors they have witnessed over the years.
These iron doors lead to large community cells where scores of prisoners were housed together.
Looking through the iron bars, i could only imagine how terrible it would be to be lockd up in there.
Prisoners would be naked and shackled by their feet to the iron rod next to each to each other, elbow to elbow. Now imagine that you couldn’t get up even to relieve yourself.
There were smaller cells where maybe 20 to 30 prisoners were kept together. Like this cell which was used to house women.

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.

A sign on the road leading to the Tiger Cages. It’s quite a distance from Phu Hai prison but it’s still walkable.
The main entrance which doesn’t sell tickets. I found out the hard way that I have to go back to Phu Hai prison to buy a ticket.
The prison was undergoing a major renovation when I visited with many of the buildings missing their roofs. Built by the French during the French Indochina War, this prison was taken over by the Americans during the Vietnam War.
There were 2 rows of buildings where the Tiger Cages are located. From the ground level they looked like normal jail cells.
Climbing up to the second floor I could see why these cells got their Tiger Cage description.
Prisoners were tortured by their jailers who’d beat them with sticks or poured lime down into the cells causing burns to the skin.
Men, women and even children were kept in these cells.
There were 120 cells or Tiger Cages in 2 buildings with 60 cells each. The barred window looks into the next building of cells.
Besides the Tiger Cages, there are also these Solariums or open cells where prisoners were left exposed to the Sun and rain as a form of torture.

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.

Most of the stalls sell fresh food ranging from freshly caught seafood to meats and vegetables.
This stall was selling fresh coconuts and the kids were curiously looking at me with my camera.

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.

Sitting in these electric trams does give that resort feel, and are a cheap way to get around Con Son town.
The main gate to the temple at the foot of the hill.
A short but rather steep flight of more than 100 steps lead up the hill to the temple grounds.
The temple grounds at the top of the hill are actually quite spacious.
Many local tourists come here to offer their prayers.
A large bronze bell that’s used during important ceremonies and occasions.
From the top of the hill you do get some spectacular views of Con Son town and the surrounding landscape.

Food Choices

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.

As an island, seafood is plentiful here and there are several large restaurants where you can indulge in seafood.
Although, I don’t I will be indulging in any of these.
One of the more international style cafes serving fusion and western meals. The prices here quite expensive but they do serve some really good cocktails.

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.

Other Activities

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.

2 thoughts on “The Prison Island

  1. This is such a thoughtful post, Edwin. The images are contrasting. There’s so much natural beauty and there’s a dark sordid history. I was heartbroken when I visited the museum in HCMC. I didn’t know of what had happened in Vietnam and very few blogs speak about it. It’s a learning. I hope we become better humans in the future and learn from the past. Thank you for such a detailed post. It couldn’t have been easy writing it.

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