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Con Dao highlights and travel guide

Con Dao Overview

Located off the Southeast Coast of Vietnam, sat peacefully isolated in the South China Sea, is the stunning Con Dao Archipelago. Made up of 16 mountainous, craggy islands, this remote part of Vietnam feels like a truly forgotten corner of the planet.

With a population of roughly 7000 people and a relatively small number of tourists, the deserted beaches and deep thick jungles make Con Dao an alluring destination. Visitors to the island are greeted with phenomenal views of the rich green, jungle which covers the mountainous islands before fading off into sandy beaches and crystal waters. The islands’ isolation and dark past mean these islands have been beautifully preserved and mostly untouched by the rapid development which has stormed across Vietnam’s holiday destinations.

Con Dao highlights
Con Dao highlights, overview

Con Son is the largest, and most well-known of the islands in the Con Dao Archipelago. To those arriving on the island with no knowledge of the island's dark past, it is understandable to be absorbed by the stunning beauty of the surroundings. However, for many Vietnamese people, the island is associated with the brutality and torture faced by the thousands of prisoners who were incarcerated on the islands. This somewhat split personality of the island is both a reminder of the past and look into the future for this remote and beautiful island.

Originally part of the Khmer Empire, the area was claimed by the Vietnamese in the 17th century. In 1702, the British East India Trading Company established a base on the Con Son island with a factory and a settlement. This, however, was short-lived as in 1705 the English on Con Son were massacred, and the settlement and factory were destroyed.

The island came under French rule in 1861 during the French colonial era in Vietnam, and it was during this time that the island was initially used as a prison. The French transferred masses of Vietnamese Nationalists to the island where they were imprisoned and brutally punished for their anti-French behaviour. The conditions in the prisons were inhumane and torturous with the barbaric tiger cages becoming an infamous feature of the island.

The horrific practices were maintained by the South Vietnam government and the US during the Vietnam War, who incarcerated thousands of Vietnamese Communists on the island. As well as being known for their horrific conditions, the prisons also became known as a sort of training ground or school in communism with many of the revolution's leaders having spent time in the crowded cells.

The prisons continued to function until 1975 when they were shut down after scenes of the horrendous torture were photographed by US photographer Tom Harkin. During the time that the prisons were open, it is thought that roughly 20,000 prisoners died in the walls of the compounds.

Today, many of the prisons are open to the public and serve as a grave reminder of what took place here. Although visitor numbers to the island are relatively low, subsidised trips for the survivors of the prisons are organised in order for them to pay their respects to lost family and friends. Although graphic and disturbing, the museums ground the island in their history and ensure the memorie of those who suffered and lost their lives here are not lost.

Con Son's iniquitous past, which only ended relatively recently, combined with the topography of the island has meant that development has remained at bay. Most buildings are not more than two stories and the national park spreads, undisturbed over the majority of the island. The preservation of the remarkable natural environment has meant that the island is a thriving ecosystem home to many species of amazing animals. The forests house black giant squirrels and the surrounding water is inhabited by dugong, a marine mammal which is close to extinction.

Like most of southern Vietnam, the Con Dao archipelago experiences a dry season throughout the winter months from December to April and a wet season from May to November. The heaviest rains are usually seen from August to October. There is also the added factor of strong winds and rough seas which sweep around the island at this from September to December.  

See and Do

For many travelling to Con Dao, the idyllic beaches and quiet shores are the main allure. Although the beaches are thin, and some only accessible at low tide, there are plenty to choose from and dotted around the perimeter of the island.

Con Son, the main island has some of the most incredible beaches in the whole of Vietnam. The thin wisps of soft white sand are bordered on one side by palm trees and the other sprawling, turquoise waters.

Con Dao see and do
The road across the island, Sunset on the island

An Hai Beach is one of the most popular on the beach owing to its beautiful scenery and ease of access from Con Son Town. It's a great beach for lounging in the sun and looking out to sea at the occasional fishing boat.

Dat Doc beach arches around the coastline, its crescent of silky sand leading to beautifully clear swimming water. The beach backs onto the private bungalows of the Six Senses luxury resort. A recent addition to the island, the resort has already welcomed top profile guests, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie whose stay garnered a lot of attention. Despite the luxury resort and the celebrity guests, the beach is still accessible to the general public via access points off the main road.

Nhat Beach only shows itself at low tide, spending the rest of the time submerged beneath the lapping waves. As the tide relents, the white moon of sand, dotted by the occasional ocean-smoothed rock, emerges to dry itself in the hot sun. The wonder of this exquisite beach is the peace and space it allows visitors in order to fully appreciate its undisturbed beauty.

As well as the main island of Con Son, the smaller surrounding islands make a for a great trip. Bay Canh Island sits out in the ocean, east of Con Son, and trips can be arranged, but clearance has to be given by the National Park Office. Once on the rugged island, visitors can camp overnight accompanied by the forest rangers. If it is the right season, there is also the chance to release baby turtles into the sea.

The sea offers just as much as the land, with the surrounding waters being some of the best diving waters in the country. There is a handful of business offering diving trips in the surrounding waters with dives to suit all abilities. From March to August is the best time to discover the amazing world beneath the surface as the water is calm and the visibility is at is best. It is important to get maximum visibility in order to see the incredible species that can be found in the waters surrounding the Con Dao archipelago. Over 200 species of fish as well as dugongs and sea turtles can be seen swimming in the coral and surrounding waters.

Further inland, the Con Son National Park has many amazing trekking opportunities filled with remarkable scenery and wildlife. Whether you want to tackle the mountain's highest peak, find a waterfall to cool down in or discover a secluded patch for a rest, you will not be disappointed by what awaits on Con Son island.

One of the best ways to see the dense primary forest is by hiring a local guide who can take you to the hidden waterfalls and secluded beaches. Their expert knowledge may also help you spot some of the animals inhabiting the area. Black giant squirrels and crab-eating macaques can be seen high in the trees whilst small lizards such as the bow-fingered gecko scuttle between the branches.

Con Dao prison
Con Dao Prison system

A popular place to visit whilst exploring the island is the So Ray fruit plantations which sit roughly 260 meters above sea level. Once the sight of a forced labour camp for prisoners who were forced to grow crops for their French imprisoners, the plantation is now the playground for the tribes of monkeys who eagerly await gifts of bananas from the visitors.

One of the reasons that the incredible landscape of the island has been kept in such remarkably good condition is that until 1975 it was the setting some of the most savage prisons imaginable.

Known as The Devil's Island, thousands upon thousands of prisoners were incarcerated on the penal colony for crimes against the ruling forces. The oldest and biggest prison on the island is Phu Hai. The tiny, hot cells were crammed with hundreds of prisoners, many of whom died because of the squalid conditions. Today the grounds have been preserved as a museum with skeletal mannequins depicting the horrific conditions.

Phu Tong Camp is also open to the public known for its practice of torturing prisoners in the tiger cages. The infamous tiger cages are also open to the public. Upon viewing the nightmare inducing, dehumanising cells there is gut wrenching smack of reality, these were used until as recently as the 1970s. Prisoners were locked in the underground cages and guards would douse them in caustic lime and beat them through the bars above. It wasn't until photographer Tom Harkin detoured from his governmental tour and photographed the harrowing scenes that this system was condemned and shut down.


Con Dao Cemetery

The majority of prisoners who lost their lives in the camp were buried in unmarked mass graves, but they have now been moved to Hang Duong Cemetery. Whilst some of the graves in the cemetery bear names, a large number are left unidentified and sadly, nameless. Each night people come to pay their respects to those who died in the prisons. The sombre and evocative ceremony takes place daily at midnight with people bringing offerings and pray at the graves of family, friends and respected independence fighters.

One of the most high-profile cases from the penal colony on Con Son is the execution of the young woman named Vo Thi Sau. This tragic story tells of a girl who was captured at just 17 and later sent Con Son for her actions as part of a French resistance group. At the age of 19 she was sentenced to execution, and after just one night on Con Son, she was brutally executed by firing squad. Vo Thi Sau has been canonized and is regarded as a national martyr for the stoicism and bravery she showed in the face of such cruelty. It is said the Vo Thi Sau refused to wear a blindfold as she was brutally executed and was calmly singing songs of flowers in bloom. Her enduring faith in the fight for independence and resolute belief that bloodshed would one day cleanse the soil of Vietnam, have led to Vo Thi Sau becoming a revered patriotic symbol.

Culture and Arts

The culture of Con Son is unique to this island destination. The small population and relatively low number of tourists create a laid-back culture on the island. There is a sense of community and safety that comes only with small, isolated populations and people here seem more carefree than their city-dwelling counterparts. The quiet promenade which flanks the beach, devoid of traffic, provides a place for people to stop and take a moment, to chat with friends, play games or bask in the beauty of the island. Moments and places like this surely influence the relaxed mentality of the island.

The daily market is one of the best places to experience a bit of local culture with the flurry of activity peaking in the early hours of the morning. Each day, the small modest building fills with a crowd of stalls selling fresh produce and wholesome, satisfying breakfast dishes. This is a fantastic opportunity to grab some delicious food and do a spot of people watching.

Phi Yen temple, Co Dao
Phi Yen temple and Prince Cai Temple. Con Dao island

Folklore also plays a role in the island's cultural identity. The tragic story of Phi Yen tells of a young heroine who was trapped between her loyalty to her husband and her undying motherly love for her son. The story which straddles the realms of history can be uncovered at the Phi Yen Shrine. Phi Yen or Flying Swallow was the wife of Lord Nguyen Anh, a ruler known for his cooperation with the French. It is said that during their time taking refuge in Con Dau, Nguyen Anh promised their son as an insurance in a deal with the French. Phi Yen protested, fearing for her son and outraged, Nguyen An ordered that their son was to be thrown into the sea and drowned. The tale has it that even after this horrific ordeal, Phi Yen remained loyal to her husband. In a final show of loyalty to her cruel husband, to avoid the advances of another man, she cast herself into the sea. The story of Phi Yen and Nguyen Anh is surrounded by uncertainty but is ingrained in the culture of the island. People visit the Phi Yen Shrine to pray for the ideals the loving mother and loyal wife represented.

The son of Nguyen Anh and Phi Yen also has its own temple on the island. Prince Cai Temple has a shrine to the young boy and the small grave. The white model of a horse speaks of the youth and innocence lost in the death of the child.  

Food and Drink

The food scene on Con Son is still relatively limited but is growing with the slowly increasing levels of visitors to the island.

The night market on Tran Huy Lieu street is a great place to pick up a flavoursome Vietnamese dish to refuel after a day of exploring the wild island. The menus feature a ion of freshly prepared seafood dishes as well as the regular Vietnamese staples. The seafood options vary daily depending on what is available, but the fresh produce along with mouthwatering Vietnamese sauces always makes for a winning combination. One of the more popular, and readily available, seafood dishes on the island is the thick, flavoursome oyster porridge. Vendors have perfected their recipe over time and serve up steaming bowls of the porridge from their stalls.

Shellfish is also popular on the island. Red lobsters and moon crabs make regular appearances on the menu.

For those in search of some home comforts, Caffe Infiniti and La Caffe Deli offer some great western options.

Festivals and events

As well as celebrating all of the National Holidays in Vietnam, once a year, local people and visitors to the island flock to the Phi Yen Temple to make offerings to devoted mother and wife.

Although the main celebration takes place on the 18th day of the 10th lunar month, preparations begin well in advance with each person being assigned a different task. In order to show their respect for Phi Yen's actions and the ideals she represented, nine groups make offerings of special food at the shrine. Local music, dance performances and traditional games bring joy to the celebration of Phi Yen's life.
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