As the sun’s last rays streaked the sky bubble-gum pink and tangerine, the residents of Con Dao Island were calling it a day, and 2.4km-long beachfront promenade that serves as this small Vietnamese island’s social hub was filling up as the afternoon heat finally relented.
Teenage boys pulled up on Honda scooters, kicking off their shoes and rolling up their jeans to play soccer on the white sand; young mothers led small charges by the hand into the gently lapping aquamarine water; an elderly woman, her teeth lacquered black in the style of her ancestors, watched a group of children fly colorful, animal-shaped kites on the pier, built in 1873.
If not for the communist slogans being piped out of the town’s loudspeakers, it would have been hard to believe this was Vietnam. Where, after all, were the motorbikes, the honking horns, the shiny high-rises and the constant activity that has come to characterize this rapidly developing country?
Until recently, the isolated 16-island archipelago of Con Dao (its largest island, Con Son, is commonly called Con Dao Island), 180km off the mainland’s southeastern coast, was a place most Vietnamese wanted to forget. For 113 years, this island was home to one of the country’s harshest prison systems, established by French colonists in 1862 and later ruled by South Vietnamese and US forces until Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975, at which point the prisons were closed. These days, officials on government-sponsored group tours make pilgrimages to the crumbling stone prisons, which have been turned into museums that depict the suffering endured by their comrades.
Other buildings constructed by the French have been converted into cafes and private homes in the main town, which consists of little more than a daily market, a few seafood restaurants and a couple of souvenir shops selling shells, carved wooden canes, and Ho Chi Minh paraphernalia. The few signs along the quiet streets lined with flame-trees and bougainvillea tout pearls of wisdom such as “With the party comes peace, comfort, and happiness.”
HOW TO GET THERE
Getting to Con Dao involves a connection in Ho Chi Minh City. A recent online search found round-trip flights in June from Taipei to Ho Chi Minh City starting at NT$12,900 for China Airlines and NT$12,400 for Eva Air. Another search found round-trip airfare between Ho Chi Minh City and Con Dao on Vietnam Airlines in June starting at US$224; the Vietnam-based travel Web site ivivu.com is a good place to book
WHERE TO STAY
» The newly built rooms at the government-run Saigon Con Dao Resort (18-24 Ton Duc Thang Street; 84-64-363-0779; saigoncondao.com) cover the basics with king-size beds and faux-marble baths; ask for a pool-view room in the main building. Service doesn’t cater to Western clientele and will require a Zen-like attitude. Rates start at US$60 night, including breakfast. US dollars are widely accepted
» The year-old Con Dao Seatravel (6 Nguyen Duc Thuan Street; 84-64-363-0768; condaoseatravel.com) has brought the first beachfront bungalows to the island; its 12 rooms, which run US$60 a night and include breakfast, feature shiny wooden furniture. Sliding glass doors open onto a terrace
» Six Senses Hideaway Con Dao (sixsenses.com; 66-2-631-9777) plans to bring its “barefoot luxury” concept to the island starting in December, heralding the arrival of Con Dao’s first high-end property. Its eco-chic villas will allow guests to enjoy a 1.6km-long private beach and private pools
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
» Try Ky (Nguyen Duc Thuan Street; 84-64-383-0294) serves a wide range of local, freshly caught seafood that diners select from tanks. The delicate steamed crab is exceptional
» For good, basic Vietnamese food, try Phuong Hanh (38 Nguyen Hue Street; 84-64-383-0180), a family-run restaurant that serves dishes like lemongrass beef and fish cooked in a clay pot
» Pick up a trekker’s lunch from the early-morning food vendors at Con Son Market, which sell snacks like sandwiches filled with pate, and freshly grilled waffle-like biscuits
» Con Son Cafe (2 Ton Duc Thang Street; 84-64-363-0670) is a great place for a morning coffee, an afternoon mango shake or a sunset Saigon beer
» Con Dao National Park (29 Vo Thi Sau Street; 84-64-383-0669; condaopark.com.vn) offers the best service and prices for exploring the island and its environs. Treks led by park employees start at about US$8 a person and boat trips cost roughly US$65 a day
» After a two-year hiatus, Rainbow Divers (divevietnam.com), a big dive operator, reopens its Con Dao office in November; dives from US$90
But despite, or perhaps because of, its ugly history, Con Dao is one of Southeast Asia’s most untouched and breathtaking getaways. Its past, coupled with its remoteness, have spared it from the million-plus hordes that descend on coastal boomtowns like Nha Trang and Danang every year. (According to government figures, in 2008 Con Dao received 20,000 visitors, only 2,600 of whom were foreign.)
A lack of development and, until recently, of access (the number of 45-minute flights from Ho Chi Minh City has gradually increased from a handful per week four years ago to three times a day now) has also helped to keep the islands’ beaches empty and immaculate. The azure waters are brimming with Vietnam’s best coral reefs, and the forests bustle with macaque monkeys and black squirrels, one of several species indigenous to Con Dao.
Indeed, efforts to preserve Con Dao’s natural beauty are unrivaled in the rest of Vietnam. Of the archipelago’s total area, 83 percent is protected by the Con Dao National Park, including more than 130km² that make up the country’s first marine reserve.
With help from organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and the United Nations Development Program, the park has just won approval for a US$16.5 million development plan through 2020, which will finance natural resource protection, research and eco-tourism.