Numbers vary, but according to estimates there are 7,000 to 8,000 people living on the Con Dao archipelago, the remotest inhabited islands in Vietnam. Fourteen of them are expats.
That there is a foreign community here at all is due to tourism. Speak to many mainland Vietnamese and expats, and they’ve never heard of the place. Despite having a dark history — Con Dao was once the notorious French penal colony of Poulo Condore — and despite being home to some of the most unfettered natural scenery in Vietnam, for many the islands lying 185km southeast of Vung Tau remain off the map.
Which is a real shame. The 16 islands that make up this archipelago, with their grandiose scenery, deliberate lack of development and tropical climate are special. The ruins of the old prisons, with their mannequins showing the suffering of the Vietnamese inmates, add to the mystique. This place is wild. Dark and wild. Get stuck in the storms here and you feel the impact of nature. When it rains it doesn’t only pour. Here it’s an avalanche.
For such a small place there is a lot to do, and during my two visits I have been constantly enchanted by the scenery. Beaches intermingle with black rock cliffs covered in strange, other-worldly fauna. In places the plant life takes on an emerald green colour. Against the backdrop of the volcanic rock, the effect is startling. Add to this the soaring grandiose views of cliffs, sea and the other islands, and the effect is calming.
But inland, the aspect changes. The foliage turns into thick rainforest, with paths winding through the thick undergrowth leading to hidden shrines. As with the islands’ marine areas, this part of Con Dao is a national park, which means conservation. There are issues with the way nature is being preserved, but having this status is the reason the islands are so undeveloped. Con Dao has a unique ecosystem, and one that is getting some protection.
But to see all this — the museums, the graveyard and the ruins of the prisons both in and outside the main town of Con Son — you need transport. With only one road circling the main island and non-existent traffic, hiring a motorbike here is safe and the best way to travel.
If you do manage to get transport, then Bar 200 in town has a map of the islands, and serves up decent western food as well. It’s a good starting point for any exploration of the islands — and a good endpoint, too. Another option for food is the five-star Six Senses Resort on Dat Doc Beach. Here the cuisine is taken to a whole new level, as is the accommodation.
For contrast, make sure you travel down to the fishing port of Ben Dam on the southwest of the main island. There you’ll see tiny karaoke joints and quan nhau (drinking restaurants) mixed with small, square-shaped convenience stores and shacks selling street food. A quay sticks out into the sea where the day’s fishing catch is unloaded and the day-to-day commerce of the fishing industry takes place.
Ben Dam has a rough and ready feel to it and on one visit, when I arrive, there has been a fight between two red-faced, long-haired fishermen. They’ve been drinking, something has happened, and only when a policeman turns up do they get separated.
“The fishermen live a very hard life,” I am informed. “When they go out to sea, they don’t see land for a month or two months at a time. It makes them crazy.”
From Under the Sea
An archipelago, Con Dao is a natural destination for divers, and I’ve been to the depths of the sea here twice. Both were great experiences — despite the fishing and other man-made destruction, the coral and fish life remains intact.
On one occasion I got caught up in a tropical typhoon. We were on a converted wooden fishing boat, about to do a second fun dive with island-based outfit Con Dao Diving Centre. We waited for the swirling winds and rain to die down before heading back into the water. The diving visibility wasn’t great — I was unlucky, I was told, as two weeks before the water had been perfectly clear — yet despite the storm, we still had a great dive.
But my best memory will be the night I went to watch turtles clamber up onto a deserted beach before laying eggs and returning to the sea. We started out at 8pm for Bay Canh Island and it was only at midnight that the rangers finally brought us round to watch a turtle laying her eggs. It was an other-worldly experience, one that was worth the four-hour wait.
To find out about diving in Con Dao, click on divecondao.com. This is the online home of Con Dao Diving Centre and Bar 200. Additional information about the islands can be found on Wikitravel.
Six Senses is the only five star resort on the islands. It’s also one of the top resorts in Vietnam. For more info, go to sixsenses.com/condao. Information on other places to stay can be found on TripAdvisor. Accommodation starts at about VND500,000 a night in bed-and-breakfast type places like Hai An Hotel.
At the time of writing VASCO (Vietnam Air Services Company) is operating five return flights a day to Con Dao from Ho Chi Minh City. Return flights cost between VND1 million and VND3.1 million.
Photos by Nick Ross