Con Dao archipelago
The remote Con Dao group of islands, about 180 km from Vung Tau, has a local population of around 5,000. The main island, Con Son, was the site of a much-feared former penal colony until 1975. Most of the archipelago is now a national park with some good beaches, clear water with pristine coral, lush tropical forest with many flowers, coconut groves, and few visitors. Accommodation options remain limited, but new air links are generating more interest in visiting this largely unspoilt area.
Once known as ‘Poulo Condor’ and long considered a Southeast Asian ‘Devil's Island’, Con Son is the largest island in the archipelago. The infamous Con Son prison complex was established by the French colonial authority early in the 1860’s. From then until 1975 the French colonial administration, followed by the Saigon government, incarcerated political prisoners in brutal conditions, often in tiny underground boxes known as ‘tiger cages’. The Hang Duong cemetery holds the remains of the many prisoners that died there.
Throughout the colonial period and the island’s use by the Saigon regime, Con Dao’s only inhabitants were the prisoners, their guards, and a small contingent of soldiers and administrators. The true extent of the appalling treatment of inmates only became known after victory and reunification in May 1975.
Since then, a small town has developed on the western side of Con Son in and around the old penal colony complex. It’s an attractive community with excellent civic amenities and a road layout that would put most Vietnamese towns to shame, despite its size.
Con Dao is located at a point where cool and warm ocean currents converge and create a localised climatic system. From June to September, frequent fierce squalls buffet the islands from the west whilst the east is sheltered. In September, the currents and winds reverse, and areas with eastern exposure are wet and windy until January. The weather is calm all over the archipelago during the remainder of the year.
This unusual weather pattern means that swimming, snorkelling and diving is usually available somewhere, but don’t take chances with rough weather.
The French wardens forced prisoners to collect live coral and turn it into lime. The coral reefs survived, but only to face further damage from uncontrolled and destructive fishing practices. The island’s forest preserve was upgraded to a National Park in 1993 to include the fourteen islands and their surrounding marine areas.
The forest coverage on the islands is dense. A sizable proportion of it is in pristine condition, particularly the humid hill forest growing at more than 500m above sea level.
Even though control over exploitation of marine areas was only begun as late as 1993, and despite the damage wreaked by the French, over a thousand hectares of Con Dao National Park's coral reefs survive in the shallow waters - a stark contrast to other areas of Vietnam that have low coral coverage as a result of overexploitation, destructive fishing practices, and sedimentation.
The entire marine area is rich in biodiversity: over 1,300 species of sea animals have already been identified. The ecosystems on Con Dao are favourable habitats for rare species such as the Hawksbill and Green Turtles, and Dugong, the strange creatures popularly known as ‘sea cows’ and believed to be the source of the mermaid legends from their habit of sunbathing on rocks.
The World Wildlife Fund has been active in protecting sea turtles and dugong. Since 1995, more than 300,000 baby turtles have been released to the sea and nearly 1,000 mature turtles have been tagged.
Con Dao National Park is now considered one of the best examples of marine conservation in Vietnam, complete with regulations to limit fishing and prohibit destructive fishing practices, and is a model for marine conservation throughout the country. There are plans for eco-friendly development within the park’s boundaries.
Con Dao has significant value for many types of conservation and eco-friendly tourism development. Five-star PADI scuba diving is now available; several outstanding dive sites offer sightings of dolphins, turtles and dugong, as well as a wide range of other species.
Con Dao is definitely a place for nature lovers, but also an opportunity to visit an unspoilt tropical island before development. There is little doubt that it will soon become a popular destination, so if you want peace and solitude in a pristine setting, now’s the time to go.
There is a small museum in what used to be the French Governor’s residence overlooking the main bay. Its four rooms cover the islands’ history, most of which centres upon the penal colony. The first room contains general information about the archipelago. The second is called Hell on Earth. On its walls are faded photographs, illustrations and paintings depicting the inhuman treatment meted out by the gaolers.
Under the French, there was some semblance of order and control. Prisoners incarcerated for relatively minor offences could gain privileges for co-operation and be released to the mainland. Under the Saigon regime, prisoners were treated even more brutally. Pictures of the comfortable life of the prison administrators and their guests contrast eerily with the squalor of the inmates. Various artefacts, memorabilia and examples of the instruments of torture are on display – particularly poignant are fragments of paper weapons and costumes made by inmates as props for New Year celebration performances.
The third room has a wall of photographs of prominent Vietnamese agitators and revolutionaries who underwent slow execution in the tiger cages, and other prisoners who served time and later rose to prominence after liberation. There is also a display of makeshift weapons. The final room depicts the years since liberation.
The museum arranges a tour of the complex with a guide. However, the level of English spoken is low, so patience and a phrase book are helpful. The tour should take a couple of hours.
The main island offers good camping, hiking and trekking opportunities – the National Park Headquarters on the outskirts of the town can provide you with information about suitable trails and paths. The resorts offer some water sports, and there are opportunities for scuba diving and snorkelling. The full service PADI Diving Centre is located on the seafront.
There are some good beaches on Con Son. Some can be reached on foot, but the better locations involve a long hike or hiring a motorbike. There are many secluded beaches on the other islands.
The national flag carrier Vietnam Airlines now operates several flights a day, 50 minutes, from Ho Chi Minh City to Con Dao, and a boat service links Vung Tau with Con Son by an overnight twelve hour trip.
There are no taxis on the island and few ‘xe oms’ (motorbike taxis). However, your hotel may provide a car service, and it’s easy to hire a motorbike to get around the island. Prices are somewhat higher than on the mainland.
While the new Six Senses Con Dao offers the best accommodation on the island, the other options are sparse and most are ‘local’ standard. Restaurants are limited and the cuisine is rudimentary. Don’t be misled by tales of exotic fruits in abundance – it’s mainly bananas and coconuts. Everything else comes from the mainland. However, the seafood is first-rate.