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Con Dao

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Southern Vietnam : Con Dao
Revision as of 12:37, 10 September 2012 by 123.30.165.133 (Talk)

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Con Dao Island

Con Dao is an island off the southern coast of Vietnam.


Understand

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.

Besides having an interesting history, 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.

Con Dao is a shining example of good conservation. 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). The level of protection and care shown to this island is evident in the pristine reefs that surround it, home to a large variety of marine life incomparable to anywhere else in Vietnam.

Con Cao National Park is currently under going scrutiny of its operations by the World Wildlife Fund and The United Nations Development Program, both groups played a key role in the set up of the National park. Recently funding was withdrawn by another key aid organization DANIDA, as evidence was produced that they were operating in violation of their charter and that the Park was run for personal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 environment abuses are halted. Recent reports 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.

Get in

Con Dao Airport (IATA: VCS)is served by VASCO (a Vietnam Airlines subsidiary) and Air Mekong from Saigon (IATA: SGN).

  • Flights operated by VASCO (Vietnam Airlines) may be booked at Vietnam Airlines offices or through most tour operators in Saigon. It may be better to book through an official Vietnam Airlines office or through their official website to avoid complications or scams. This being said, there have been reports of a scam involving the sale of all the tickets on a given flight to tour operators by Vasco agents making the flight appear to be sold-out when it is not. This forces travelers to book through a reseller and they split their profit with the originating Vasco agent. The day before the flight the unsold tickets are released back to the airline. If you are trying to book internationally you may find working with a Vietnamese travel agent online can get you tickets when the Vasco website says they are sold out. Flights have increased to as many as 9 per day (7/12) but they are often booked far in advance, book early! $115 Return (May 2010); $80 Return (Nov 2010); $60-$100 Return (4/2011); $120- $170 Return (2/2012)
  • Flights Operated by Air Mekong may be booked on their website or at Air Mekong offices. Air Mekong has yet to have problems with scams the way Vasco has. The pricing is generally cheaper/more transparent and service is usually better.
  • DO NOT TAKE THE BOAT. If you have not skipped to the next paragraph please read the following carefully: There is a boat from Vung Tau which takes about 11 hours. The boat from Vung Tau only leaves on certain days and it is best to book a week before hand to get a seat. Tickets must be brought in Vung Tau (No Phone calls, staff speak Vietnamese only). Several travelers who have made the trip do not recommended it. If coming from Saigon the costs for taxi's, possible lost days waiting in scenic Vung Tau for the boat to go in the windy seasons, transfer from Ben Dam post to the main town.... Overall it is much better to fly. The boat will cost you the same or more.
There have been reports of the boat operator requiring motorbikes taken aboard to have their tanks emptied before loading.  This is for safety purposes (of course) and they will be more than happy to help you with this process.

The Con Dao Seaport where the boat will anchor is on the far south end of the island and is a long way from much else.

There are several points worth noting about these services:

  • The Con Dao (Con Son) Airport is on the far north end of the island and a long way from anything else. If you have booked a hotel they will arrange airport transfer for you.
  • VASCO (Vietnam Airlines) operates ATR72-500 turboprop service on this route so overhead bin space is limited. Depending on your ticket VASCO/Vietnam Airlines will allow 10-20kg free baggage (Excess baggage is relatively inexpensive by international standards).


  • Air Mekong provides the only jet service to the airport with their Bombardier CRJ-900 aircraft. Overhead bin space is limited.

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, (9/2012) they will even drop you at your destination if you know it.

Taxis are also available depending on arrival time. Have your hotel information written down for your driver. See the next section for more information on taxis.

Get around

  • On Foot Con Son Village is small, flat and easily traversed on foot. Because of the intense sun and very little shade on the streets walking is best left for the morning or evening.
  • Motorbikes can be easily rented and there is relatively little traffic. There has been an enormous increase in the number of motorbikes for rent, better deals are often found outside of hotels, as the hotels mark up the same bikes you can hire locally. Checking with a western dive shop for recommendations may help you sort things out. There is only one petrol station on the island and it has very limited hours 7-10:30 a.m. and 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. Be sure to get a bike with a full tank of gas as there is none available for sale on the streets as in the rest of Vietnam. They are fun to ride but a drag to push around. Since many of the spots to visit require riding up some hills, you will be better served by a manual gear bike. The light traffic and gentle hills make Con Dao a forgiving place to learn to ride a geared bike.
  • Driver You maybe able to arrange for your hotel or Dive! Dive! Dive! to take you limited places for a fee usually about $70 a day for car and driver, without hotel markup.
  • Xe Om Motorbike taxis are easily found in Con Son Village. As in all of Vietnam most of these guys are hard working and honest, but there are a few scoundrels.
  • Taxis are becoming more plentiful on Con Dao. They are generally more expensive then the vans and buses, and presently there are no English speaking drivers. Write down your destination before you choose to use their service, no reports of overcharging yet.
  • Bicycle Are a great way to get around the town, it is small and flat.

Rentals of simple single speed push bikes are only available at Dive! Dive! Dive! (50,000 VND per day) You could ride one up to the airport or Ben Dam port but it would be an ambitious undertaking.

  • Helmets It is illegal to ride a motorized vehicle without a helmet or a Vietnamese Driving license, the local cop Mr. Tan really likes to increase his salary at the expense of un-helmeted western riders. Riding without a helmet is illegal and simply foolish with the primitive medical care available here, especially if you are not carrying adequate travel insurance. Evacuation to Bangkok costs $30,000 paid in advance. This money cannot possibly be raised on the island. Travel here without proper insurance at your own risk!

See

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.

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 although it is rarely seen. Several species of rare squirrel and apes 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 for 1,500,000 Dong and you may see a 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. There is good information available on the island for self guided hikes and most of the rangers only speak Vietnamese.

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, requires a guide and awareness of the tides ! Do be careful !

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 at any time at the southern most point of the island near Nhat Beach, several westerners have not heeded warnings and been injured by the strong gusts that can be found there.

Do

Con Dao has the best diving in Vietnam. You can dive most times of the year as there are 16 islands to choose from and you can get good visibility pretty much most of the year. Having dive insurance is mandatory in Con Dao due to it's remote location.


  • Dive ! Dive ! Dive ![1] (36 Ton Duc Thang Street)is on Con Dao. They are affiliated with S.S.I. and owned by an American. They are the only full time resident expats and the only western owned and operated business on the island.

They have extensive local experience and knowledge of the islands both above and below the water. They do daily dive and snorkeling trips from a 15 meter custom built dive boat or 5 meter speed boat and also have diving on the only penetrable wreck in Vietnam: A 60-meter steel freighter. They also have bicycles, snorkeling gear and camping gear for rental. Buy today, dive tomorrow diving and medical insurance available. Stop in for tourist information as they are likely the only people you will meet on the island who speak English, Dutch, French, and German. Also they are a terrific resource in regard to bookings for all of the new budget accommodation opening on the islands, from $15 a night double. They also run turtle trips to a much higher standard then the National Park, at a comparable price, and have great hiking guides. When not out on their boat the Vietnamese staff working there are available to lead you all around the island with hiking and snorkeling day trips to all the spots. From 600,000 per day.

  • There is a branch office of Rainbow Divers (Vietnam's most renowned and awarded PADI dive centers)that operates out of the Six Senses Resort on Dat Doc Beach. They offer daily dive trips with the archipelago's most experienced dive guides and crew. [2]
  • 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 with a few hatch lings still coming out in September. Do not book a turtle tour outside of this time as it is very likely you will not see any, the national park will thoughtfully refund you 10% if this does happen.

There is the option of the local boats to go out snorkeling, however they have demonstrated little to no concern for the environment or the reefs here. Again in life you get what you pay for.

One customer had this to say.

"Don’t make the same mistake I did, and go out with a local boat on a snorkeling trip, organized through a local hotel. These boats have utter disregard for the environment. On this trip the boat anchored three times onto the reef, each time destroying large plate corals. Not only that the boat rammed the reef twice and one of the crew was out illegally poaching grouper with a spear-gun whilst we were snorkeling in a protected area. Even if ****** can’t take you out he will be able to find someone who’s environmentally responsible who can, don’t go in search of the cheapest option or you’ll be supporting this irresponsible behavior."

Tony "The Tiger" will be in hot pursuit of any Westerner he meets on Con Dao, bringing his legacy of high pressures sales of snorkeling and fishing trips to the island from Phu Quoc. He is currently under investigation by the authorities for bringing his fishing trips into protected areas.

His boats, while perfectly safe in the waters of Phu Quoc, are converted fishing boats and are far from stable in our open ocean environment, board the "Vomit Comet" with a supply of sea sickness bags as none are provided !

Buy

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.

Eat

Dining options are still relatively limited, although new restaurants have opened in the last few months.

  • Thu Ba. Previously recommended Thu Ba,just north of the island has had a change of ownership and there has been a sad loss of what was the best restaurant on the island to what is now just a mediocre place, noisy, full of local drunks. Sorry to see them go ! Still the place is great for a seafood dinner.
  • Phuong Han, 38C Nguyen Hue. Becoming quite popular with the tourist crowd, atmosphere needs some work, but the food is good and it is reasonably priced. Very popular for lunch.
  • Tri Ky, Nguyen Duc Thuan St. Offers tasty, fresh seafood at reasonable prices, and has an English menu available, although offerings are relatively sparse. If not well-versed in Vietnamese, the "pick and point" method is usually best for communicating to waitresses what seafood you want.

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.

  • Seatravel Con Dao. The Seatravel Con Dao resort has an open-air lobby that doubles as a restaurant, and offers outside seating with excellent views of the ocean. Food prices are somewhat pricey (for Vietnam), but that is the case with most of the hotel restaurants on the island. English menu available, however, some of the better foods, such as their beef and veggie pho, are not listed and usually best ordered by simply asking the waitstaff directly. Western-style breakfast omelette is excellent as well.
  • Saigon Con Dao. The Saigon Con Dao resort also has a restaurant, with views of both the ocean and the old Con Dao prison museum. A pretty good variety of food, and excellent Vietnamese coffee. English menu available.
  • Six Senses Resort. The Six Senses also offers some more upscale dining options for travelers, but the location of the hotel is outside of the main town. If staying at one of the other hotels (ATC, Seatravel, Con Dao Resort, Saigon Con Dao Resort)located closer to the main town, it is best to get to Six Senses by motorbike. If they are busy, they will turn you away even if the restaurant is empty.

Thu Tam, opposite Con Dao Resort and relocated last year from Ben Dam Port, has continued its old policy of having the waitresses offer additional services after hours under the guidance of the owner/mamasan. Some are reportedly under age, please lets not support this place.

Safety

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. If you find that insurance is not available in your home country, consider an online company from the USA, they do cover people from all over the world for as little as $1 a day !

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. Walking the streets at night alone is not smart anywhere. When confronted by dogs, do not act scared or run. Stand your ground and yell at them, bend down as if to pick up a rock, and they will run like they are on fire.

Health

There is NO malaria here.

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 well for sand flies.


Sand fly season is January to May

Dive! Dive! Dive! does have for sale a special home made sand fly repellent it may not smell great but it works ! Mosquito repellent does not work on sand flies, (Read that again, believe it and save yourself some agony)

Do not drink the water. In the interest of environmental conservation and the reduction of plastic waste, refill your 1 liter water bottles from larger purified containers.

Refill your water bottle for 5000 dong for 1.5 liters at Dive Dive Dive, (half the market price), and you will help reduce the amount of plastic waste generated on the island. Shop is open from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Water jug is near the front door, self service.

Drink

  • Hotels & Restaurants Beer is available at hotels and restaurants. Cocktails and mixed drinks, while offered on hotel menus, will not always be available. Ice has been known to run out early in the evening.
  • BYOB There is a shop near the market which has a surprisingly excellent selection of wine and sells cold beer.

Join the fishermen if you are in Con Dao during their few returns to dry land. They seemingly enjoy sitting on the street with a case of beer drinking and chatting. By and large they are very friendly but don't be surprised if you attract a fair few stares as a foreigner.

While a few drinks with the fishermen can be okay, in fact they are not supposed to be moored in this harbor. There have been incidents of indecent exposure and some harassment of western women. Ladies, please do cover up. They are drunk and entirely uneducated, this is not the west. We are working to get the laws governing the south harbor enforced in the hope that this on going problem can be eliminated.

Sleep

There are currently several relatively cheap resorts on the island although more are being built.

  • National park guest house - just outside of town (300,000 Dong)(Currently fully booked with Six Senses Staff)
  • A.T.C. resort - is slightly over priced compared to the other hotels but the food is good.
  • Saigon Con Dao - (Government Owned) is lacking in character, but is clean and has a nice swimming pool.

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 is a bit of a dump, with reports of rats in the rooms, but the large bungalows open right onto the beach and offer some of the best views and locations for Con Dao, especially on a budget. The manager knows some English and is helpful with relocating unsatisfied customers to the Con Dao Resort, which is further from the beach but offers more standard, less "rustic" rooms, as well as a pool. Con Dao Camping has now closed as a result of a beach improvement plan. Reopening next January on the other side of the bay. Elsewhere in Con Son there are small guesthouses and hotels which offer room rates from $15 - $35 US per night Whilst these are not on the beach they are usually clean and relatively new and comfortable. Contact www.dive-condao.com for recommendations, new places are opening everyday and they know the good, bad and ugly.

Only the larger resorts (Saigon Con Dao, Seatravel, 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 20 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes to the town. The 50 private pool villas offer space and privacy along with an uncompromised standard of luxury. All villas feature stunning outdoor bathrooms. Villa include breakfast starting from US$555+++/night. Early bird booking can get 10% off. Contact sales-condao@sixsenses.com.

Crime

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.

Weather

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.

In general....

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 33* 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 effect your stay on Con Dao as otherwise the weather is beautiful on land. 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. There is no extra charge on the part of the airlines for the very exciting landing you will have at our tiny airport. The boat ( You are not thinking of taking it right ?) is often delayed for a week or more during this time.




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