Con Dao Island
I finally had the opportunity to visit Con Dao Island. It is one of the few places in Vietnam that I have not yet explored and was happy for the opportunity. Every Year the owner of V’Explore Travel takes all the employees and families for a trip and I had the honor of also being invited. The island chain has a history of conflict and its historic information depends on the viewpoint of the teller. The best general information I have been able to put together is that the island was originally discovered by the Portuguese in the 1500’s but not settled. In around 1700 the English settled on the uninhabited Island and built a fortified trading settlement and factory for the manufacture of????? In 1705 the English traders were killed and the Vietnamese. In the Late 1700’s under a wartime treaty that was never honored, the islands were given to the French. The islands remained in limbo until the French arrived in early 1860’s and built the first penitentiary to house enemies of the French. Naval interventions in Vietnam started in the 1840’s and ended with the French overtaking Saigon and in 1862, south Vietnam was declared a French Colony……… Then the horror began. After the prison being open for only one year, there was an uprising and many facilities burned. The French retaliated by hunting down and killing all island residents securing the island. After then, Con Dao Island was used for incarceration, execution, and torture of anyone resisting French rule. With the end of the Indochina war in 1954, the Islands were returned to South Vietnam, but that was not the end of the story. It continued as a prison for South Vietnam with more facilities being added until in the end, with the help of the Americans, there was a total of 7 prisons with two of them being erected specifically for
POW’s from the Vietnam War. The Island has a total population of 5-7000 people with about half of them serving in the Vietnamese military. Con Son town is approximately 2 km long by 500 meters wide making everything in walking distance. Con Dao Island has many Vietnamese tourists that mostly visit to worship the spirit of one young female prisoner that is significant in Vietnam history.
How to get there
The two main modes to get to Con Dao Island are either by ferry from Vung Tao or by air. The overnight ferry looks quite uncomfortable with multiple bunks in a room. If you have bags, you have to keep them with you. The cost is less than 300.000 (15USD) dong. The other and more preferable mode is to fly. Flights can be had via VASCO )Vietnam airlines Service Company) www.vietnamairlines.com and run 3 or 4 times a day. The airplanes are turbo props and the flight is 1 hour. Ticket cost is currently about 1.5 million dong each way (75USD). As for me……. I flew to Con Dao Island via VASCO air. The approach to the island was beautiful. There was a stunning view of Volcanic islands worthy of a Jurassic Park movie. At one end of the main island on an archipelago, was a runway that began on Island edge and ending on the other side. I felt as if flying into nowhere….. It was almost true.
Where to stay
There is some confusion to the names of the area. The main town is called Con Son and the island Con Dao according to Vietnamese, however, Google and tour resources often refer to Con Dao Island, as Con Son Island. After a 12 km hair rising ride on the only road to town, we arrived at our resort which is one of a number you can stay. The most exclusive at the moment is the Six Senses Resort. We stayed at the ACT Resort, however, there are a number of guesthouses also available and can be booked online with Agoda or Hotels.com. You might find it more expensive to stay on Con Dao but this is partly due to logistics, and that power is generated with fuel oil or Diesel. The town only has about 5000 people and is quite small so location is not really an issue. Getting around Con Dao is easy. Motorcycle rentals are available at many locations and taxis are available for hire. I am sure that bicycles are also available but did not see any on the road.
Con Dao Island Prisons and Attractions
Tours are available through the hotels. Our group arranged a bus tour to three different prison sights and was shown what the Vietnamese authorities deemed the highlights. The tour was somewhat political and I was happy that I could only understand little of what the guide had to say. I did some exploring on my own and discovered that there were 7 prisons built in Con Son. The first of 3 was built in 1862 by the French and called Bagne prison. Bagne 2 was built in 1916, next to Bagne 1, and was renamed into Nhan Vi prison. (Prison 2 or Phu Son prison). Bagne 3 was added in 1928. This prison was renamed into Bac Ai prison, also known as prison 3, Phu Tho prison or Biet Lap Chuong Ga Prison. Chuong Cop was the fourth prison built in 1940 which has a notorious history of having the tiger cages.
An additional facility was constructed in 1941, originally called auxiliary Lao 3 and renamed into Bac Ai prison. (Prison 3 or Phu Cuong prison). The final two were P.O.W. camps built by the Americans and South Vietnamese in 1968 and 1971. In addition to the prison sights, there are cemeteries and torture areas with a very gruesome history. For me, it was a fascinating day. Sadly, (or perhaps not to others) much of the old French settlement and fortifications have been destroyed in order to build resorts like the one I was staying in, however, a person can still walk through back yards and patches of bush seeing the ghosts of the past.
There are a few beaches a person can visit but I was a bit surprised that there was less beach area than I expected. The 30 km ride on the only main road on the island was beautiful and worth renting a vehicle for the day. The other activity we found is to dive or snorkel for half a day. It was quite a distance over some choppy water to small area with colorful corals. My impression was that if snorkeling or diving is a person’s passion, there are many areas that are smaller and a bit of a boat ride to get to. It looks good for hard core divers, but for a day of recreation, Nha Trang probably has more to offer. It did feel good swimming in the warm waters.
With the exception of your resort, night life is almost nonexistent. The two places you can possible find evening entertainment is a large night market that runs the length of Tran Huy Lieu st, or a restaurant/Bar run by a local dive company next to the market called Bar200.
Con Dao Island offers a lot of food venues. You will have no problems finding good food. There are seafood restaurants everywhere, the biggest being on the main road towards the end of town. These are mainly tourist restaurants that are very good with comfortable seating, but also a bit pricey compared to the mainland. For those with a sense of adventure, I suggest going to the night market and sampling the vast selection of different dishes that include local delicacies such as Rabbit and frog. If you want a pizza or burger, try the Bar200.
Is Con Dao Island worth adding to your Vietnam Vacation?
I guess it depends on your interests. If you are an active traveler, I suggest other destinations, however, if you want simple relaxation is a part of the world that is exotic and mysterious to our perception, a Con Dao Island resort may be the place you want to be. Expect everything to be more expensive than the mainland. For me (keeping in mind that I live and work in tourism and as a guide in Vietnam), it was fascinating and now perhaps on the list of my favorite places. I want one day to return and explore even more deeply if it is possible. Foreigners are still kept in the dark and not allowed access to many areas. I also became a bit endeared to the local people as they seemed different than any others I have experienced. It felt good to simply be accepted and not fussed about like a celebrity, looked at as a source of money or prospective husband or scorned. Just another person.