South-East Asia offers many well-known island destinations. When we planned our island holiday there, we wanted to try something not fully explored. We went for Con Dao archipelago, an island group about 250 km away from Ho Chi Minh City.
Without any doubts, it was a real secret island escape. Con Dao has everything you can imagine: wide sandy beaches, turquoise clear water of South China Sea, a jungle national park and only a very few tourists. But the island also hides some cruel secrets of the past. During the French colonial time, political convicts served their sentences in Con Dao prison. Until this day infamous Tiger Cages, which can be visited on former prison’s ground, stand for the cruelty of the past era. Vietnamese travel to Con Son, Con Dao’s largest island, to pay tribute to their national heroes, who fought against the regime. Maybe the fact, that the islands were off limits for the outside world for such a long time, is the reason why Con Dao’s vibrant nature stayed untouched for so long.
Here is why we were fascinated by the island treasure:
Only a small propeller plane for up to 30 passengers can land on the isle. After getting off, we felt a little like explorers from the old times. The airport is rather an airstrip surrounded by hills and thick tropical forest.
It almost looks like a scene from Jurassic Park movie! By the way, the runway literally crosses the island and ends with a beach on both sides.
Until now Con Dao remains very authentic. Not many foreign tourists visit the island. A couple of government-run resorts offer accommodation mostly to Vietnamese. On the main street of Con Son Town, local children were waving and called “Hello” when we were passing by. Outside the Con Dao Museum, a Vietnamese group took selfies with us to show the “tourists” to their families.
Coming to Con Dao after visiting busy Hanoi and Mekong Delta felt like a holiday within the holiday. There are almost no cars and only a few motorbikes on the island. Compared to big Vietnamese cities it’s nothing.
That makes it an excellent opportunity to learn how to ride a scooter. And you’ll definitely need one if you want to explore the island. Renting is surprisingly easy and cheap. Just ask for a bike at your accommodation. 5 minutes and around 6 Euro/day later you’ll be riding along the coast from one end of the island to the other.
After coming back home, you’ll have a perfect adventurous story about riding a scooter in Vietnamese traffic.
Sea & beaches
The warm, clear, turquoise water of South China Sea is excellent. There are many beaches along the coast of Con Son. Our personal favourite was Bai Dam Trau.
It is located about 20 minutes by scooter from Con Son Town close to the airport, so from time to time, you can see a propeller landing just above your head. (You’ll need to get off the main road and continue on a sandy path to get to the beach. Just ask locals, they’ll gladly help you.)
The beach is wide, the water is warm, and there’s almost nobody there. You don’t need more. Only perhaps a beach-bar. Yes, there is one. Fresh coconut is available almost 24/7.
A word of advice: be careful about sand flies. Their bites hurt and can get infected. Some say DEET repellents don’t work. We used a regular spray with DEET and never got stung.
Jungle à la Jurassic Park
We went for a hike in Con Dao’s thick jungle. We followed a path, which had been built by French colonialists. It felt a bit bizarre when we found a chapel dedicated to Virgin Mary in the middle of a rainforest. We didn’t meet anybody on the hike. Only some monkeys were curiously observing our steps.
It even got scary, when the group became bigger, and they started screaming. Luckily, they are not used to tourists yet, so they left us in peace. (Please keep it that way and don’t feed the monkeys under any circumstances.)
For getting into the park, you need permission from local park authority (no entrance fee). They also write down the place, where you plan to go and your accommodation address. Just in case… In the end, it’s a jungle. Don’t worry though. The screams are just monkeys, not velociraptors.
Con Dao is not a touristy place yet. But it probably soon will be. You can see the town being built from hour to hour. New hotels, B&Bs, guesthouses spring up like mushrooms.
In the museum, there is a miniature model of how Con Son’s coastline should look like in 20 years. According to it, Con Dao will probably become another Phú Quốc. So, visit the archipelago as soon as possible.
How to get there
VASCO (Vietnam Airlines) operates flights from Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho in Mekong Delta. We visited Mekong Delta first, flew in from Can Tho (the cheaper alternative) and continued to Ho Chi Minh City. This is a very nice itinerary for Southern Vietnam.
Where to stay
The guesthouse/hostel we stayed in was brand new facility called Uyên’s house. It was a lovely, private, family run accommodation. The architecture is great, but the walls are thin, so it’s nothing for light sleepers. The family is new in business, and they’re trying to do their best.
If you like luxury resorts, Six Senses Con Dao is the place for you. Even Angelina Jolie spent her holiday there.
Where to eat
Like I mentioned above, the island is always changing, so perhaps restaurants we visited don’t exist anymore.
Infiniti Cafe & Lounge
A lovely restaurant and bar with superb design. We mostly tried fish and seafood. Ask for a table upstairs for a romantic barbecue in tree crown. The restaurant belongs to the family, who owns Uyen’s House.
A place run by Gordon from South-Africa and Martin from the Czech Republic. Great place for your first dinner on Con Son, as the owners are very helpful, explain what to do, where to go and how to go there. They serve great burgers and pizzas (a nice change after days of Asian cuisine). They also run a snorkelling and diving school, and you can book your trips with them.
Thu Ba Restaurant
According to locals, the best seafood and fish restaurant on the island. It was indeed the best fish dish we had during the whole Vietnam trip.
LACASA Con Dao
Perfect for an after-dinner drink. The cocktail variations are incredible.
Snorkelling and safety
Unfortunately, when we came, the diving season was over. Because of high winds, the diving companies weren’t able to leave the port. Vietnamese navy (a part of it is stationed on Con Dao) decides every morning whether the ships are allowed on the sea. We booked our snorkelling trip through Bar200, but it was cancelled the next morning.
So, a local guy took us and some other hostel-guests snorkelling close to Bai Dam Trau Beach. He meant well, but it could have ended in a disaster. The currents were extreme. We almost couldn’t make it back to the beach. Some of us got nasty shell scratches trying to hold on to rocks full of muscle shells. Lesson learnt: If Navy says it’s not the weather for snorkelling, then don’t do it. After all, there are no lifeguards at the beach.