Con Dao is an island off the southern coast of Vietnam.
Con Dao islands are a group of 16 islands. The largest island is known as Con Son.
Con Dao served as a prison island for political prisoners during the French colonial era, when it was known as Poulo Condore, and in later years the Saigon regime imprisoned opponents of the regime in the infamous cells known as the "tiger cages". The old prison buildings are still standing and are open to the public as is a small museum tracing the island's history.
The prison system is not unlike the prisons on Phu Quoc except that Viet Cong were held here during the American war while the prisons on Phu Quoc were for the regular North Vietnamese Army. Being traitors to their own country (The Republic of South Vietnam) the conditions on Con Dao were especially harsh. Surprisingly jailers and former inmates live here in peace.
Besides having an interesting history, (Marco Polo even stopped over) Con Dao is also an island of immense natural beauty with forested hills, deserted sandy beaches and extensive coral reefs making for some excellent diving.
The Con Dao Islands separated from the mainland about 15,000 years ago. This has resulted in the development of dozens of undiscovered or undocumented species of wildlife.
The entire archipelago falls under the oversight of the Con Dao National Park.
Con Dao is another sad example of a National Park doing little to preserve the environment, however due its remote and little known location it has been preserved (So far) from the effects of development. 80% of the land area of the archipelago is a National park offering primary jungle teeming with interesting life such as the endemic black squirrel and the crab eating macaque. Beautiful beaches and hidden lagoons are also to be found here, with very few tourists Con Dao is a paradise off the beaten track. For now at least.
Most of the surrounding marine are is a no-take marine protected area (MPA). Sadly as in all of Vietnam the national park is a travesty. The national park is in no way responsible for the amazing health of the pristine reefs that surround the islands, home to a large variety of marine life incomparable to anywhere else in Vietnam.
Recently (2011) funding was withdrawn by a key aid organization DANIDA, as evidence was produced that they were operating in violation of their charter and that the Park was run for personal profit at the expense of the environment. Consider carefully and ask around on the island before using any of the National Park services.
International oversight is desperately needed to be sure the environmental abuses are halted. Recent reports (2010) to the National Park of the spotting of slaughtered turtle shells drying in the sun on the roof of the Anh Dao hotel have produced no inquiry, investigation or prosecution of the hotel. There was a recent (2012) N.P. operation undertaken by the Park against Anh Dao Hotel, the receptionist was caught trafficking in about 200 Green turtle eggs, she was fined USD $250 and not made to reveal who she was buying them for, anything for a price.
Despite the overall lethargy, the National Park seems to be rousing from its long sleep as more and more pressure is brought to bear by international visitors. Some real positive actions have been noted and while credit is due, these actions are the job of the Park.
If you encounter difficulties getting tickets, do not give up. Despite what the writer above says, you will frequently find tickets available ONLY at local travel agents in Vietnam. Vasco website will say the flights are booked out months in advance. this is the scam. They are directing you to travel agents who split the commissions with the Vasco booking agents.
There are several points worth noting about these services:
If you have not booked with a hotel and have your airport transfer arranged, getting into town is easy. There are a number of vans available coming to the airport for all the flights and the all of the hotel buses will be happy to take you along for 50,000 VND, (6/2013) they will even drop you at your destination if you know it. None of the drivers speak English , this is Vietnam after all, if you have an intended destination write it down, show it to the driver. Shared vans back to the airport can be arranged by your hotel for the same VND 50,000
Taxis are also available depending on arrival time. (EXPENSIVE!) Have your hotel information written down for your driver. See the next section for more information on taxis.
Today Con Dao has great historical import and attracts Vietnamese and increasing numbers of foreign tourists to the renovated prisons.
Prisoners were kept in extremely overcrowded conditions on the island and as many as 20,000 are believed to have died here and this can be relived here. A guide from the nearby Revolutionary Museum is costs less than US$1 and includes an informative guided tour.
A must do is a midnight stop at the tomb of national heroine Vo Thi Sau. You will likely find dozens of people praying, burning incense and making offerings.
The Cemetery is a National Shrine to 20,000 + heroes in this country, you will not score any points by wearing short pants, or showing your shoulders in and around the Cemetery. Please Do Not Even Think about riding your motorbike over the graves ! The Vietnamese come to this island for the sole purpose of visiting this cemetery. Again the recent influx of budget tourists is starting to strain the feelings of the local people here, as few actually benefit from your visit. The foreign money is concentrated in the larger government run hotels. Please do give a moments thought about where you spend your money. Book services for motorbikes outside of your hotel, eat in the local places, shop in the local market.
Con Dao is part of a maritime and national park and is made up of 16 or so islands. The islands are mostly rugged and still have a lot of original forest cover and associated flora and fauna. The most famous indigenous animal is the dugong or sea cow. With an estimated population of 8-10 it is rarely seen. Several species of rare squirrel and monkeys are found here and there is an important breeding program for turtles on Bay Canh island near to Con Dao island.
The islands have very nice beaches, great swimming and snorkeling opportunities (however snorkeling on the main island is generally only good in one area accessible from May to October) and a very relaxed, colonial feel to them. Con Dao is a nice antidote to the crowded cities.
The Turtle Tour can be booked at the national park office and you may see a sea turtle laying eggs. Turtle season is ONLY from June to Early September. The N.P. will gladly sell you tickets out of season and promise turtles, the trip is not cheap. Be aware and do not fall for this.
Rainforest hikes can be booked through the National Park Office. Some hikes require a guide. Some of the trails are unmarked, so having a native guide is useful. Most of the rangers only speak Vietnamese. There is good information available for self guided hikes along with appropriate free maps at Dive! Dive! Dive! and Senses Diving.
The N.P. guides will generally trundle you though the woods, stop and have a few shots of whiskey with their buddies and trundle you back, to get home in time to have a nap. The trails are seeing much more traffic now, and only the hike to the far north bay Dam Tre,and several of the north beaches require a guide and awareness of the tides ! Do be careful ! Though these hikes can be done unguided you may miss a whole lot like some beautiful waterfalls, if you do not have somebody knowledgeable to point them out.
Motorbikes can be rented through most hotels, and riding them up Con Dao's mountain roads can offer some of the best views for travelers looking to take in Con Dao's natural beauty and scenery. (please try local options first, as most hotels take a 30% commission on rentals of their staff motorcycles, after paying them around $100 per month, the greed is abhorrent)
Watch out for the strong wind that can whip up usually October to March at the southern most point of the island near Nhat Beach, so far no westerners have been injured by the strong gusts that can be found there. Lets try to keep it that way ! You may have to abandon your motorbike and walk back to town.
Con Dao has the best diving and snorkeling in Vietnam. The coral is relatively untouched and very impressive, with giant coral heads (relative to the rest of Southeast Asia). The marine life includes turtles, rays, giant barracuda, cuttlefish, cobia, and dugongs as well as a whole host of tropical reef fish. There are sixteen islands to choose from. Water clarity, unfortunately, is not great (though no worse than popular spots such as Thailand, for example) and during the winter, prevailing winds may limit access to all of the dive sites.
Snorkeling All three dive operators take snorkelers along as well for around 50 USD. In addition, small speedboats (referred to as "canoes" by the locals) can be hired for private fishing and/or snorkeling trips. There is some snorkeling off the shore of the main island, but even the best sites are a far cry from what can be accessed by boat. (Additionally, sites on National Park land require an entrance/usage fee, which *must* be paid at the National Park office to the north of the main town.)
Trips to the turtle sanctuary can be arranged through the National Park office North of the main town. Overnight stays can be arranged. This office will also provide very detailed information about possible treks and walking opportunities but be aware the island has plenty of no go areas due to the large military presence here. Be aware that the turtles are likely only nesting in July and August and into September with a few hatch-lings still coming out in September- October. Do not book a turtle tour outside of this time as it is very likely you will not see any.
There is a good fruit and vegetable market in Con Son town that starts early - 6am or so. Prices are cheap and the locals don't seem to overcharge foreign purchasers. As the number of budget travelers increases and the full blown screaming fits over 1000 dong on the part of the back pack crowd, you can be sure that the attitudes of the vendors will change. Please keep it under control, you may win the fight over 1000 dong but the next traveler behind you will surely pay the price for your "success". Everything here is simply more expensive as it has to come by ship or plane.
Dining options are becoming more plentiful on Con Dao. Western food has arrived, as has ice cream!
For lunchtime, you can also find some local restaurants that serve good noodle soups for 15000 dong. One is located on Nguyen Hue street, after the crossing with Vo Thi Sau street, when you drive towards East on the left side.
Most of the larger hotels have restaurants attached to them. Decent food is available at most hotels, but be prepared to pay somewhat more than Saigon prices. Also, hotels may not have everything on their menu available. Ice for drinks may run out before the end of the evening.
Con Dao is remote.
As in all of rural and most of developed Vietnam, medical care is rudimentary.
Evacuation by helicopter to Saigon takes 5 hours, costs $5,000 and must be prepaid in cash.
Serious issues that need evacuation to Thailand will require 8 or more hours as a result of the government not allowing "Medical Wings" access to Con Dao with out first stopping in Saigon adding four hours to the trip and costing $30,000.
So if you are considering travel here, seriously consider getting good travel insurance.
There are some stray dogs around and people do get the occasional nip. (So far, no Westerners )The dogs become aggressive and territorial at night, and during the day they can be found sleeping in the middle of the road.
There is NO malaria here. However Dengue Fever does make an occasional appearance as with all of Vietnam. Outbreaks are short and generally occur in October and November, so far no tourists have been stricken
Mosquito season is February to April. The mosquitoes are not abundant, nor are their bites particularly painful. Regular mosquito repellent is available and it works, purchase in the pharmacy, across the street on the left side of the market under the name Soffell.
There are sand flies that move around the island. The bites are painful and easily infected. Do NOT scratch. Immerse in hot water. Take a HOT shower to get relief to sleep. Mosquito repellant does not work for sand flies.
Sand fly season is January to May, but they come and go all year,
Do not drink the water. In the interest of environmental conservation and the reduction of plastic waste, refill your 1.5 liter water bottles from larger purified containers. Most hotels will arrange a 20 liter bottle for your hotel room for about $3.
There is a shop near the market which sells cold beer and Vietnamese wine though they seem to have started the habit of overcharging westerners.
There are currently several relatively cheap resorts on the island although more are being built.
Pricing is comparable to Con Dao Camping (for the budget rooms) on up to about $85 a night. The facilities are much nicer, and being further down the beach they are not as badly effected by the ongoing construction of the abomination of a pier that is under construction right next door to Con Dao Camping. They are aware of the cultural differences regarding noise and generally keep a separate wing for Westerners, a blessing when the island is busy ! Non smoking rooms are being considered.
There is also the Con Dao resort and the Con Dao Sea Travel hotel towards the end of town. Both offer bungalows right on the beach at the end of town,where the beach is quiet and nice, although sometimes littered. The prices range from $45-70 USD. Sea Travel -large bungalows open right onto the beach and offer some of the best views and locations for Con Dao, especially on a budget.
Con Dao Camping formerly the first choice in budget accommodation on the island at around $35 per night. Not a camp site, but a handful of bungalows/cabins located on the beach half with stunning views of the ocean. All have air-con, tv, toilet, wi-fi, shower and are clean and comfortable.
Elsewhere in Con Son there are small guest houses and hotels which offer room rates from $15 - $35 US per night Though are not on the beach they are usually clean and relatively new and comfortable.
Only the larger resorts (Saigon Con Dao, Sea Travel, ATC and Con Dao resort) offer pick ups from the airport. Most of the bus drivers however are very friendly and will offer stranded travelers a lift into the town.
The Six Senses Con Dao resort and spa located 10 minutes from the airport and 10minutes to the town. The 50 private pool villas offer space and privacy along with an uncompromising standard of luxury. All villas feature stunning views and butler service.
There are no laundromats around (as of Dec 2014); however, some hotels may offer laundry service. Alternately, Luy's Laundry (012-789-92370) will handwash your clothes (and then apparently dunk them in potpourri) for 20,000 VND per kg, including free motorcycle pickup from anywhere in town.
Is almost non-existent.
This may be the one of the few places in Vietnam where bicycles and motorcycles can be safely left outside of the house at night. However common sense must prevail. Hotel rooms do get pilfered when left unlocked. People get very complacent here as it does feel, and is generally so safe.
All of the weather forecasts that are available on the internet are simply wrong.
It appears that due to a lack of resources and the very unique location of Con Dao at the confluence of two major ocean currents that an accurate weather forecast cannot be made. It rains only in July, August and early September. The rain is primarily at night and can be heavy but not tropical monsoon downpour type. Despite every website saying that there will be a 30% chance of thunderstorms every single day, there have been 6 thunderstorms in Con Dao Town in the last 18 months. Rain showers in the daytime are generally brief. (About 30 minutes)
It is a little cloudy 95% of the time, and always breezy. Maximum temperatures are about 31* in the day and minimums are about 27* at night.
From November to late January the winds are strong from the east, and can close the harbor for a few days at a time. This will not affect you on land, but it may severely affect snorkeling/diving options (since visibility and access at different sites are highly dependent on the wind). Flights are commonly subject to delays during this period, but 99% of the time you will be on the island on the day you are scheduled, you may be a few hours late.