Vietnam: Con Dao


Claire Slobodian savours the empty beaches and sleepy island life on Vietnam’s untamed gem, the Con Dao Islands

After experiencing the frantic streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the first thing you notice on arriving at the sleepy Con Dao Islands, just a 45-minute flight south of Vietnam’s largest city, is the silence. With quaint colonial-era seaside promenades, manicured hedgerows and the occasional loudspeaker issuing forth Communist slogans, Con Son (the main and only inhabited island) feels like some forgotten corner of Southeast Asia, stuck in a time warp.

That’s more than partly true. Until 1975, the island was used as a prison colony by the French colonial administration and later the US-supported South Vietnamese government to house political captives. Nowadays, Con Son is a less gruesome site, but the ruins of the sprawling prison complex are still in place for visitors to stroll.

It’s a haunting walk, especially the harrowing ‘tiger cages’, which are enough to make even the most fearless traveller claustrophobic, but also a fascinating insight into the captivity of some of Vietnam’s celebrated national heroes, including former Prime Minister Pham Van Dong. The Prison Museum in the former Governor’s House (Ton Duc Thang Rd) is a dry but worthwhile introduction to Con Dao’s past and also where you can arrange tours to all of the island’s prison sites.

On the lighter side, and one of the island’s main draws, Con Dao also boasts some of the most spectacular beaches in the region. Even Bai An Hai, the easiest public beach to reach here, feels wild and untamed. Occasionally strewn with flotsam and jetsam from fishing boats, it may not have postcard-worthy, immaculate white sands, but you’ll probably have the rugged strip of coast to yourself most of the time – and you’re more likely to pass neighbourhood trawlermen heading out to sea than fellow tourists.

For guaranteed privacy, hire a motorbike (from around $50/day) and head east past Mui Ca Map (Shark Cape) to Nhat Beach for some of the island’s clearest waters. You can also charter a boat from Con Son (from $640) to one of the smaller outlying islands: uninhabited spots where you’ll find endangered turtles native to the islands. Bikes and boat trips can be organised through local scuba shop Dive! Dive! Dive! (36 Ton Duc Thang Rd, – they’re enormously helpful, and provide English-language maps as well as excellent suggestions on places to visit.

Away from the coast, 80 percent of the island is a nature reserve with thick canopies of forest protecting indigenous critters such as long-tailed macaque monkeys and giant black squirrels. From the park headquarters (Vo Thi Sau St,, there are trails through the wild jungle available for all levels of hiker.

Outside of the hotel resorts, the dining options are distinctly limited, but we recommend Phuong Hanh (38 Nguyen Hue Rd) in town for fresh seafood and rustic home-cooked dishes in a charming, if worn, courtyard setting. For drinks, head to the seafront Con Son Café (Ton Duc Thang Rd) in the former French customs house, or CASA Guest House and Cocktail Bar (16 Le Duan St), which serves up basic cocktails from the open-fronted ground floor of the tiny but colourful guesthouse. The drinks may be fairly standard, but the people-watching is top notch. 

How to get there
Vietnam Airlines ( and Hong Kong Airlines ( both fly from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City, from $1,760 return excluding taxes and surcharges. From there, Air Mekong ( and Vietnam Airlines run the 45-minute flight to Con Dao four times daily, from $640.

Where to stay
For all-out luxury, Six Senses ( is the only high-end resort on the island; it features plush seafront villas complete with individual plunge pools, personal butlers and outdoor rainforest showers. It’s also the only resort with its own private beach and entertainment options, including a dive school, cooking lessons and a lavish open-air spa. One-bedroom villas start at $5,000/night.

On a more conscious budget, try Con Dao Sea Travel (, which was the first to bring seafront bungalows to the island, with rooms from $480/night including breakfast and airport pick-up. Service is charmingly clueless, but the rooms open straight out on to Bai An Hai and staff are able to arrange boat trips to the outlying islands.

Alternatively, Saigon Con Dao (rooms from $500/night) is the only budget hotel with a swimming pool, which makes up for its slightly grim location in the shadow of the Phu Hai Son Prison ruins.


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