Last updated February 2016 | Words, photos and film by Vietnam Coracle
You’re likely to experience two sides to the Con Dao Islands when you visit: one day spent swimming in the clear sea, walking upon white sand beaches, driving along deserted coast roads, and drinking cocktails on the seafront promenade; another spent visiting the prisons, learning about former inmates – many of whom are celebrated national heroes – and witnessing remnants of their forced labour, which caused hundreds of prisoners to die. The former is the future of the Con Dao Islands as a tropical paradise. The latter is its past as a penal colony, set up by the French colonial administration. Scroll down to read more about the history and legend surrounding the islands, as well as the present state of this dazzling archipelago. Or click here to discover the best beaches, or to go straight to Travel Information click here. Watch my video of the Con Dao islands here.
Con Son is the largest of 15 islands in the Con Dao Archipelago, 80km from the mainland Mekong Delta region and 230km from Saigon. The island’s remoteness and former use as a penal colony have kept it in relatively pristine condition: 80% is still forested. The thick canopy provides habitat for all sorts of exotic sounding animals endemic to the archipelago: the Con Dao bow-fingered gecko and Con Dao black giant squirrel are just two. The islands are rugged and mountainous, the highest peak reaching 557m. The ocean is home to dugongs (sea cows) and sea turtles that lay their eggs on the beaches from March to August. The winter months on Con Son are dry, but rough seas and strong winds from the northeast make the island feel fantastically remote at this time of year. The summer months bring occasional monsoon rains, but the seas remain calm and clear; the bays beautiful and tranquil.
Tens of thousands of political prisoners were held on Con Son Island between 1862 and 1975. The prisons became known as ‘university’ for a generation of independence activists from all over Vietnam. Many, who were unaffiliated to political groups when detained, were hardened by the treatment they received in the prisons, and left as members of one party or another, particularly the Indochinese Communist Party – predecessor of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. Some prisoners were famous independence advocates before entering the prisons, others grew to fame after being released from Con Son, having learnt much in the ‘Schools of Bolshevism’ on the island. Many, however, never left the island: they died from malnourishment, mistreatment, hard labour or were executed. They became martyrs for their cause, commemorated on the island and throughout Vietnam today. An estimated 22,000 prisoners lost their lives on Con Son Island. Most of the dead were dumped in the shadow of a mountain behind Con Son town. In 1975 their remains were collected and buried in Hang Duong Cemetery, which occupies the site today.
The prisons closed in 1975. Since then, Vietnamese come on sombre pilgrimages to remember national heroes or relatives who were imprisoned or died on the island. Perhaps the most famous of all the victims of the Con Son prisons is Vo Thi Sau. Involved in anti-colonial activities from the age of 14, she was eventually captured by the French and imprisoned on Con Son. In 1952, at the age of 19, she became the first woman to be executed on the island. Today her grave is the sight of a nightly vigil where Vietnamese come to pay their respects with offerings, including combs and mirrors which symbolize her youth. But, as Vietnam becomes more popular with foreign tourists and flights to Con Son more regular, it is the natural beauty of the island that most visitors come to see. For tourists, it’s impossible to ignore the island’s grim past, but for pilgrims too, it’s equally impossible to ignore the scenic surrounds of the former prison island. Vietnam today is a youthful country – over 50% of the population are under the age of 25 – and most of them are increasingly likely to think of Con Son Island as a place of relaxation and recreation, rather than one of sober reflection.
The Con Dao Islands are only a short flight from Saigon. I prefer to take the dawn flight – leaving Tan Son Nhat Airport at 5:55am – because this means I get the whole of that day on the islands. Just forty-five minutes after taking off from the early dust and bustle of Saigon, the propeller aircraft glides between a few tiny green dots in the East Sea, heading towards the short runway squeezed in at the eastern point of Con Son Island. To the right, the island’s jagged, sea-beaten north shore stretches to its western tip. The glowing dawn light haloes around the edges of the forested mountains, and crashing rollers break near the end of the runway; Saigon is already a distant memory.
VIDEO: My film of the Con Dao Islands
There are still only a handful of places to stay on the island and most will arrange a pick up at the airport. If staying at one of the cheaper guesthouses you’ll have to negotiate a ride (about $2) on one of the buses that belong to the bigger resorts. From the airport, the road winds its way around a high, blustery cape, the East Sea slamming against the rock face below. There is only really one road on the island. It follows the coastline from the small airport in the north to the small fishing port in the south, passing through the small town of Con Son, clustered around a bay, in the middle. As the bus rounds the cape, the sea flattens, the wind drops and the scene changes; wild desolation becomes tropical tranquility. The translucent water is so motionless it looks as though you could walk across it to the little islands that pop up around the bay, like giant whales coming up for air. A long finger of white sand stretches beneath a green, mountainous headland, where the luxurious Six Senses Resort is located. Everything is still and quiet – no traffic, no wind, no waves, no people, no buildings.
The airport bus will drop you at your resort, all of which (apart from the Six Senses) are located in or around Con Son town. If I’m on a budget, I’ll often stay at Phi Yen Guesthouse, which is a short walk from any of the resorts. It’s an acceptable but no frills place on the harbour front. In the early mornings there’s often a group of uniformed military officers eating noodle soup outside my room. Con Dao has a population of about 7,000, most of whom are fishermen or part of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam. According to some locals, men outnumber women 7 to 1 on the island. However, you’re unlikely to encounter anyone, male or female, as you walk along the seafront promenade. On one side, the glass-like ocean stretches to the horizon, on the other, French colonial villas crumble on street corners beneath the shadows of tropical trees, their roots twisted around the brickwork. It feels like an abandoned outpost of French Indochina. I’ve travelled all over Vietnam, but the first time I arrived in Con Son town I felt I’d really made it to the ends of the nation. As late as 2002, the only link to the mainland was a helicopter, which ran three times a week, carrying 24 passengers, most of whom were army personnel.
Con Son Café is right at the centre of the seafront promenade. It’s a great place for a coffee in the morning or a cocktail in the evening. The café is housed in the old French customs house. The small building is flanked by two umbrella trees and opens onto a jetty, where supply ships used to dock and unload provisions and prisoners. The pier is known as Wharf 914 after the number of prisoners who died constructing it. Con Son Cafe is also where the French composer, Camille Saint-Saens, lived in 1895, while completing his opera, Brunhilda.
Chợ Côn Đảo (Con Dao Market) is located away from the seafront, in amongst the small, sleepy streets of Con Son town. A few years ago, I described this market as ‘a Soviet-style bunker; a grey concrete shell that belies the buzz of activity that takes place inside its military façade.’ However, since then, the market has received a makeover, including a bright new coat of paint which makes it look quite chic and contemporary. Inside, dozens of food vendors pack themselves into the shade of the market. Locals sit at wooden benches, slurping all kinds of breakfast foods and beverages – noodle soups, rice pancakes, rice porridge, iced coffees, fruit juices, sticky desserts. There’s a constant hum of voices as customers share stories with food vendors. Outside, fish, fruit and vegetables are hacked and packed. Lying on the tarmac in the sun are two sharks, their fins chopped off – probably to be put on ice and flown to one of the smart restaurants in Saigon, for use in the infamous shark fin soup. Perhaps all the men are in their barracks or out at sea, because the market belongs to the women at this hour – here, the gender ratios are reversed. The food is delicious, the produce fresh, and, unlike some Vietnamese markets, it’s well-organized and clean. However, get here early as it starts to empty from about 8:00am.
The prisons belong to the relatively recent past, but history and myth on the Con Dao Islands goes back centuries, and is often just as harrowing and macabre. Both the Malays and the Khmers held the islands for a time. Contact with the West started with Arab traders in the 9th century. After that, came the familiar succession of European colonial powers: Spanish and Portuguese mariners in the 16th century, the British East India Company in the 18th century (who set up a fort in 1702, but abandoned it a few years later, when they were massacred by their own mercenary workforce), and the French from the 19th century onwards. It is also said that Marco Polo, on his way back from China, took refuge on the islands during a storm in 1294.
One story, part history, part legend, took place on the islands in the late 18th century and marks the advent of French colonial ambitions in Vietnam. The heroine is Phi Yen, or ‘Flying Swallow’. Phi Yen was one of the wives of Nguyen Anh, the last remaining prince of the Nguyen Lords, who ruled southern Vietnam from the 17th century. In 1783 Prince Nguyen Anh escaped capture from his military and political rivals, the Tay Son brothers, by retreating to the Con Dao Islands. He and Phi Yen took refuge in a grotto on the island of Hon Ba. Nguyen Anh sought the help of Pigneau de Behaine, an influential French missionary in the Mekong region. The Prince agreed to cede the Con Dao Islands and the port of Danang to the French, in exchange for their military support in defeating the Tay Son brothers and returning him to power.
Phi Yen’s son, Prince Cai, was to be sent with Behaine to the court of Louis XVI in France, as insurance for the deal. But Phi Yen refused to let her young son undertake such a dangerous and uncertain journey. Nguyen Anh was furious. He ordered Cai be thrown into the sea and drowned. In Cai’s place the son of one of Nguyen Anh’s other wives was sent to France instead. Phi Yen was left on the islands to die.
In 1787 Louis XVI agreed to the treaty with Nguyen Anh, but was overthrown in the French Revolution of 1789 before the treaty could be realised. However, some military support and supplies still got through to Vietnam, allowing the prince to wage war on the Tay Son brothers. In 1802 he was victorious and declared himself ruler of all Vietnam. He took the royal title, Emperor Gia Long, and moved the imperial capital to Hue, beginning what would be Vietnam’s last imperial dynasty. But the stain of French assistance would haunt Gia Long and his successors, until the dynasty became nothing more than an impotent arm of French Indochina. Today, Nguyen Anh is a much-maligned figure in Vietnamese history, a fact attested to by his lonely, seldom-visited tomb on the Perfume River, outside Hue.
Phi Yen remained on the Con Dao Islands, until one day she was courted by another man. Traditionally, a good wife never betrays her husband, no matter what he’s done. Not wishing to be disloyal to Nguyen Anh, Phi Yen refused the approaches of her suitor and threw herself into the sea. Today, unlike her husband, Phi Yen is revered as a faithful, loyal wife and a loving mother – her two greatest attributes tragically coming into conflict with each other. She is worshiped on Con Son Island at Miếu Bà Phi Yến (Phi Yen’s Shrine). The small, squat temple is set under a flame tree at the foot of a mountain by a lotus lake. History and legend intertwine on the Con Dao Islands: no one knows for sure what happened to Phi Yen or if Prince Nguyen Anh ever stayed on Hon Ba Island. The Vietnamese have an expression for such stories: người ta nói – ‘people say….’ Today, people say the ghosts of Phi Yen and her son still haunt the Con Dao Archipelago.
Con Son is a wild and rugged island. Mountains and rocky headlands plunge straight into the sea, so there aren’t that many long, sandy beaches, like the ones you find on Phu Quoc Island. However, there are a few spots around the island where the mountains give way to some stunning strips of sand and turquoise water, which are, for my money, more spectacular than Phu Quoc. All but one of these beaches is out of town, so it’s a good idea to hire transport – a scooter is ideal!
Bãi An Hải (An Hai Beach) is a sandy continuation of the harbour front that stretches southwest of Con Son town. Fringed by palm trees and overlooked by green mountains, this beach is dotted with the only beachfront accommodation on the island (apart from Six Senses Resort). However, even if you’re not staying at one of the beachfront resorts, you can still access this beach by walking or driving to the southernmost section of sand, where the road nearly meets the sea. The water here is clear and cool like aftershave, and great for swimming. Sandflies can sometimes be a problem, especially in the morning and late afternoon.
At the tip of the headland that juts out south of Con Son town is Mũi Cá Mập (Shark Cape). A fierce wind smacks the side of your scooter as the road twists around the cape to reveal the best view on the island. Looking down, you can see the road cutting along the coastline below the windswept southern slopes of the highest mountain on Con Son Island. Big boulders, that were dynamited during the construction of the road (also paid for with prisoners’ lives), lie strewn on the sea side of the tarmac, decreasing in size as they roll down to meet the rice-white sand and gin-clear water of Nhat Beach, behind which, the Jurassic Park-like island of Hon Ba looms (where Prince Nguyen Anh and Phi Yen are said to have stayed).
Beyond Nhat Beach the road ends at the nondescript fishing port of Ben Dam, in a beautiful lagoon, sheltered by Hon Ba Island. There is a rough edge to this place despite its lovely setting. I saw drunken fishermen with red faces, their arms thrown around each other, staggering up the road from a heavy session of rice wine. A uniformed official approached them nervously from the opposite direction. The drunken sailors fell silent and stared the official down as he passed them by without a word. However, the ugly market by the pier has some good fresh fruit and you can watch the blue wooden fishing boats unload their silver fish into wicker baskets full of ice. From the pier it’s possible to hire a small boat for the short trip over to Hon Ba Island.
Down a dirt road in the northwest of the island is Dam Trau Beach; a sandy cove shaded by casuarina trees and flanked by rocky headlands covered in tropical foliage. The beach is near the airport – the runway ends just as the tarmac meets the sand – so it’s possible to see the small propeller aircraft take-off and land. The dirt road is signposted with a little wooden sign saying ‘Dam Trau’. A hundred metres before you reach the beach there’s a small shrine to Prince Cai, Phi Yen’s son. Dam Trau is a gorgeous beach, but during the last couple years a few makeshift cafes have opened up on the sand. They’re shabby and temporary-looking, which spoils the view. However, it’s nice to have some food and drink available on this side of the island, (previously, the only place for refreshments in this area was the airport cafe!). Dam Trau and Nhat are two of the loveliest beaches on the island. The moon dictates when to visit, as both are only accessible during low tide.
When the sun sets behind Shark Cape – the low light sculpting the mountains and making them look like huge buttresses on the ocean – it’s time for a pre-dinner cocktail, sitting on the wall of Con Son Café. Unlike most Vietnamese towns, where food is everywhere in the evenings, Con Son is decidedly dead. But, one place stands out. A short walk or drive out of town to the lotus lake, over a shaky wooden bridge, through a vegetable patch, and into a cluster of wooden shelters set around the lakeshore, is Quán Thanh Huyền: the best evening dinning on the island. Eat snakehead fish straight from the lake, grilled whole quail or buffalo hotpot – the broth steaming on your table – surrounded by the restaurant’s herb garden, the placid lotus lake, and the proprietor’s children competing with the cicadas and frogs for audio supremacy. After a wonderful meal, take a drive back along the silent coast road, looking out at the anthracite ocean pricked with the glow of fishing boat lights.
Two hundred years or so after Prince Nguyen Anh and Phi Yen fled to the island of Hon Ba, another rich and famous couple arrived on the Con Dao Islands. In 2011, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie took a family holiday at the luxurious Con Dao Six Senses Resort. Their visit marked the massive shift in Con Son’s image from prison island to glamorous getaway. But, as long as the prisons are preserved as a memorial to those who suffered, the dark past of the Con Dao Islands will always live side-by-side with the beaches, palms trees and, no doubt, dozens of luxury resorts and residences that are bound to be built in the coming years. Once a place of malnourishment and disease, it seems inevitable that soon it will become a place for fat cats and superstars. But, for now at least, the Con Dao Islands are quiet and gorgeous. Luxury is available at the Six Senses Resort, good midrange seafront accommodation is in Con Son town, and it is still possible to enjoy the islands on a budget by staying in one of the guesthouses. (For more about budget travel to Con Dao read this). Come now, before trucks clutter the small island roads and construction shatters the silence and serenity of peaceful Con Son.
Note: The following information was updated in February 2016. Remember that things change quickly in developing Vietnam. This information is accurate at the time of writing, but some details are bound to be out-of-date by the time you read them. Please let me know of any changes, so I can update my guides.
Not long ago, the islands could only be reached by military helicopter. These days, there are daily flights from Saigon and weekly flights from Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. There’s also a boat service from Vung Tau.
A boat leaves several times a week from the seaside town of Vung Tau at the mouth of the Nha Be River. The journey takes 11 hours, leaving at dusk and arriving at dawn. There are some sleeping berths on board, but conditions are rather cramped and there’s the distinct odour of previous passengers whose stomachs didn’t take too kindly to the rough seas. It’s sure to be an ‘experience’ if you have the time, but most travellers would be better off flying. However, I can’t imagine a more romantic introduction to the Con Dao Islands than arriving in the beautiful surrounds of Ben Dam harbour at dawn. Tickets are around $10. Information and sailing times can be found at the below website and address: the site is in Vietnamese but provides live online support in English. Note that boat times and sailings are subject to change according to weather conditions:
Email: OSC–[email protected]
02 Le Loi Street, Ward 01, Vung Tau (+8464) 3852008 or 6254008 – although not much English is spoken.
There are 5 to 6 flights a day from the domestic terminal of Saigon’s Tan Son Nhat Airport with VASCO – a branch of Vietnam Airlines. The dawn flight (leaving Saigon at 5:55am) is great for those with limited time. Return fares are between $100-$150. Book early to avoid disappointment – especially if travelling on a weekend or public holiday. A nice option, if you’re travelling in the Mekong Delta, is the four times weekly flight from Can Tho ($100 return). Another alternative is to buy two one-way tickets: Can Tho to Con Dao ($50) and Con Dao to Saigon ($70). This is easily done on the Vietnam Airlines website and is often cheaper than a straightforward return fare from Saigon: www.vietnamairlines.com
Con Son town and the seafront promenade are wonderful for walking. The town’s beach (An Hai Beach) is also within walking distance. There are a number of treks on Con Son Island, but you’ll need transport to get to the beginning of some of the trails – click here for more details on treks.
Cycling is nice as the roads are all but empty and the scenery gorgeous. Bikes can be hired from most accommodations on the island. However, in my opinion, there’s no point in coming to Con Son Island unless you hire a scooter. This gives you the freedom to really explore the island – find deserted beaches, go down dirt tracks and admire the views from the coast roads. Vietnam in general is best seen on a scooter, and Con Son Island is the perfect place to learn to drive if you don’t already know how. The well-maintained but empty roads give you all the space and time you need to get familiar with driving.
Note that there are only three gas stations on the island: two in Con Son town, the other near Ben Dam port. These gas stations close for lunch so remember to fill up as soon as you get your scooter, and keep an eye on the fuel gauge so as not to run dry on the other side of the island!
Scooters can be hired from all resorts and guesthouses, as well as Dive, Dive, Dive! Prices are around 100-150,000VNĐ ($5-7) manual/automatic per day. Renting from guesthouses and Dive, Dive Dive! is cheaper than the resorts.
Boats to explore the outlying islands can be organized through the National Park Headquarters. Try to get a group together as this will spread the cost, which is around $70-100. Note that during rough seas boat trips can be cancelled. This is most likely from November to February.
Park Headquarters: www.condaopark.com.vn
Taxi: Con Sơn Taxi (0643 908 908) has a modest fleet of cars that are always available to take you into town, or to the beaches around the island, or (particularly useful) to drop off and collect you at the beginning and end of trailheads.
SEE & DO:
You’ll get the most out of Con Son Island by wandering and exploring independently on foot or on two wheels. The town and the island’s rural roads will reveal enough of their charm and beauty to keep you going for a few days: beaches, buildings, forests, markets and mountains.
There are now several well-marked, beautiful treks you can do on your own. One, in the hills behind Con Son town (map), takes you past the remains of Ma Thien Lanh Bridge (built by prisoners) and through the jungle to a rocky cove, called Bai Ong Dung, on the north side of the island. You can make a loop by coming back on the path through So Ray fruit plantation. Several other trailheads are also signposted just above the Ma Thien Lanh Bridge, all leading into the jungle and to the other side of the island. In the north of the island, the long 11km round trip path to Dam Tre Lagoon is signposted to the right (due east) a couple of kilometres before reaching the airport (map). Dive, Dive, Dive! offers a useful map of these treks. Some of the longer walks still require a guide, which can be arranged at National Park Headquarters.
Con Dao offers by far the best diving in Vietnam. Dive, Dive, Dive! has their office on Nguyen Hue Street. The owner, Larry, is a long term Vietnam expat who’s passionate about diving and snorkeling in the area, and has his finger on the pulse when it comes to environmental concerns and other major issues facing the islands. He can arrange diving and snorkeling trips throughout the archipelago on his own, hand-built dive boat. Larry and his staff are experienced, efficient and affable. Larry also produces a handy leaflet for any visitor to the Con Dao. Drop in at their shop, or call 0084 64 383 0701, or check out their website at www.dive-condao.com
A good new Con Dao gift shop (see map) has recently opened on Nguyen An Ninh Street in Con Son Town. Island specialties, such as bags of tropical almonds (grown on the enormous old trees lining the town’s streets), local grape liquor, and fresh honey, are all available.
Then, of course, there are the prisons. There are a few on the island (map), all within walking distance of town. Strangely, their names in Vietnamese all translate rather romantically; ‘Rich Mountain’ and ‘Rich Ocean’, for example. All of them are open to the public. You can purchase tickets at the entrances. Some of the prisons are grey concrete blocks, others look less threatening – resembling a French colonial seminary rather than a prison. But, one look inside the cells at the horrific, green, corpse-like mannequins brings home the reality of conditions here.
The equally disturbing museum used to be held in the old Governor’s House just behind Con Son Café. It has recently been relocated to a sprawling new building on Nguyen Hue Street. They’ve fleshed-out the exhibits to fill the enormous new space, and information is now in English and Vietnamese. However, it’s hard to imagine they’ll ever fill the massive car park with the dozens of coaches it’s built to accommodate. Opening hours are 7.30-11.30am and 1.30-5pm daily. There are photographs of some of the more famous of Con Son’s former inmates. These include the likes of Pham Van Dong and Ton Duc Thang – who became long serving prime minister and president of Vietnam respectively. Also, there are portraits of those who lost their lives on the islands, like 19 year Vo Thi Sau, the first woman to be executed here. Her grave, and hundreds of others, can be visited at the sobering Hang Duong Cemetery behind Con Son town on Nguyen An Ninh Street (map). Every night around midnight, a moving vigil is held at Vo Thi Sau’s tomb. Candles and incense are lit on her grave, and offerings of flowers, fruits, combs and mirrors (symbolizing her youth) are laid on her tomb. Foreign visitors are welcome, but make sure you dress (and act) respectfully (no shorts or bare arms). It’s a good idea to purchase some incense (10,000vnđ [$0.50]) at the cemetery entrance to lay at the grave.
There is still only a limited choice of places to stay on the Con Dao Islands – incredible considering its natural beauty and proximity to Saigon. Lack of competition keeps prices relatively high, and value for money isn’t great. In general, expect to pay 25% more than you would on the mainland. However, I think 2-4 days on the islands is well-worth the extra cash. All accommodation is on the main island of Con Son.
Six Senses Resort and Spa – $600-$2000; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] There’s only one place in this category at present – although many more luxury resorts are planned for the coming years. The Con Dao Six Senses Resort opened a few of years ago. The Six Senses brand has a reputation for atmospheric resorts in superb natural surroundings throughout Southeast Asia, and this one received a lot of media attention in 2011, when ‘Brangelina’ stayed here. The resort consists of contemporary-looking private villas made entirely of wood, built along a lovely, long stretch of sand. The villas are very well-made, and all of them have ocean views and private plunge pools, as well as other chic touches like in-room espresso machines. Service here is exceptional: staff are incredibly well-trained and very friendly.
Of course, all this luxury comes at a price: the cheapest villas start at around $600 a night, and continue up to $3,000 for the large family villas. When you’re paying this amount it’s difficult to determine value for money. When I can, I love staying in luxury resorts, and I have no qualms about paying hundreds of dollars for outstanding accommodation and service in amazing locations. However, as nice as the Six Senses is, its secluded location – over a headland and out of Con Son town – seems, to me at least, to be a disadvantage: there’s no opportunity for evening strolls along the seafront promenade, no spontaneous walks around the lovely old town. The charms of Con Son town and the bay it fronts are a highlight of staying on the Con Dao Islands, and I think it’d be a shame to miss out on that by staying out of town. However, Six Senses resorts are supposed to be ‘hideaways’, and if you stay here you definitely get a sense of being on a remote island in the middle of the South China Sea. Check Rates & Availability for Six Senses Con Dao.
You’ll pay $20-$30 above the ‘real’ value of these mid-range hotels, but it’s worth it for the location: either on the beach or on the seafront promenade in town.
Con Dao Resort – $60-$140; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – Right on An Hai beach with clean, comfortable, but sparse rooms, Con Dao Resort is the best option in this category. Pay a little extra for one of the sea-view rooms, which have easily the best vistas over the bay of any accommodation on the island (including Six Senses). There’s a pool, tennis court and seafront gardens. Breakfast is plentiful if a bit on the ‘school dinners’ side. For a few years this resort got negative reports for being ‘run-down’. It has addressed this by building a new wing, in which the rooms are new, crisp and comfortable, though more expensive than the old wing. The resort is definitely aimed at domestic tour groups rather than foreign visitors, but I think it’s still bright, airy, and good, solid mid-range accommodation. Check Rates & Availability for Con Dao Resort.
Con Dao Seatravel Resort – $50-$80; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – Next door to Con Dao Resort, this place shares the same great beach location. Nicely made wooden bungalows are set under trees right on the beach. The resort has recently expanded, adding slightly cheaper bungalows around a pretty garden. Inside, rooms are spacious if a little empty. There’s an indoor-outdoor restaurant and a good beach bar. Service can sometimes be a little too laid-back, but once you’re on the patio of your bungalow you forget about the resort’s shortcomings. Although I’ve had mostly positive experiences here, Seatravel gets a lot of bad reports on Tripadvisor (see relevant comments at bottom of this page). However, they seem to be addressing these issues and have also lowered their rates, making these the best value rooms in the mid-range category. Check Rates & Availability for Seatravel Resort.
Saigon Con Dao Resort – $70-$120; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – There are two wings to this resort, located on the seafront promenade in Con Son town: the old wing is made up of single storey, not-so-lovingly converted, French villas; the new wing is a four storey building – rather insensitive considering its low-rise neighbours. The rooms in either wing are good but quite plain, as is the resort as a whole. The pool, however, is lovely. Get a sea/pool view room and enjoy the wonderful vistas. The resort was built practically on top of Phu Hai Prison, a rather strange and uncomfortable location – do they advertise ‘prison view’ rooms? The resort’s main strength is its location on the charming, utterly beautiful seafront promenade. Check Rates & Availability for Saigon Con Dao Resort.
ATC Resort – $60-$200; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – With a string of converted 1930s French villas along the seafront promenade, some of ATC’s rooms offer genuine ‘colonial’ ambience. Some, however, are more reminiscent of cheaply made suburban bungalows. There’s quite a variety of rooms: from stark, one-room lodgings, to large villas with kitchen, dining room and plunge pool. Some rooms are minimally and coldly furnished; some have modern flourishes, such as sleek deck chairs on the patio. Stylistically, it’s all a bit incoherent, but there are great views of the seafront promenade and a big new pool. Their larger villas would be great for a group of friends or a big family, thus spreading the cost. Check Room Types, Rates & Availability for ATC Resort.
Thien Tan Star Hotel – $35-$65; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – This is the newest beachfront option, between Con Dao Camping Hotel and Seatravel Resort. Rooms and prices vary but in general rooms are clean (if a little soulless) and good value considering its oceanfront location. Next door, the almost identically named Thien Tan Hotel offers cheaper, mustier rooms for $15-30 – very good value if sharing a room between 2 people and trying to stay on a budget. Check Rates & Availability for Thien Tan Star Hotel.
As with the mid-range places, expect to pay a few more dollars than you’re used to for ‘budget’ accommodation on Con Son. Many of these places have rooms that sleep up to 6 people: this is great value if you’re travelling on a budget with a group of friends.
Phi Yen Hotel – $25-$40; 34 Ton Duc Thang; Tel: 064 3630 111; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – This used to be my go-to place for a cheap trip to the island. However, Phi Yen Hotel has recently come under new management and the prices have gone up slightly, but, thankfully, so has the quality. This hotel is now under the same management as Con Dao Camping (see below), which is good news for budget travellers because the latter offers the only reasonably priced beach front accommodation on the island. And they’ve done a similarly good job with the previously run-down Phi Yen Hotel. Once a good if shabby cheapie on the seafront promenade, Phi Yen Hotel is now a bright, clean budget option with a new restaurant, that caters to the overflow from Con Dao Camping. You should be able to get a room here for 500,000VNĐ ($25) – great value for double occupancy. They also hire motorbikes for a competitive 100,000VNĐ ($5) a day. Its newly repainted façade fronts right onto the seafront promenade; a stone’s throw from Con Son Café, An Hai Beach and the prisons. Check Rates & Availability for Phi Yen Hotel.
Con Dao Camping – $30-$40; 2 Nguyen Duc Thuan Street; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – The name for this place refers to the style of the rooms here: pyramidal, A-frame bungalows. This is the only cheap accommodation right on the beach. It’s great value, especially for double occupancy. Rooms are cosy if a bit cramped, but you can’t beat the location. Note: it looks a bit messy around Con Dao Camping at the moment due to the reconstruction of Con Son harbour and the seafront park. However, this should be completed sometime in 2016. Check Rates & Availability for Con Dao Camping.
Hai Nga Mini Hotel – 300-700,000VNĐ ($15-35); 7 Tran Phu Street; Tel: 064 363 0308; [MAP] – This is as close as Con Son gets to dorm accommodation. Rooms here are basic but clean. The larger rooms sleep up to 7 people, so they are good value for a group of budget travellers. Staff are very friendly, and the owner speaks four languages, thanks to time spent in Eastern Europe. Prices work like this: 300-350,000VNĐ for single/double occupancy, and 80,000VNĐ extra for each extra bed or person after that.
Anh Dao Hotel – $20-30; 22 Tran Phu: Tel: 064 363 0170; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – Next door to Hai Nga Mini Hotel, this place is a very clean, very well-run guesthouse with the kind of spotless rooms you get in these types of places all over Vietnam (albeit for $10, not $30!). Its location is back from the ocean in the quiet, shady streets, not far from Con Dao Market. This is a good option if Con Dao Camping is fully booked – otherwise why would you spend $30 to stay here when you could be staying right on the beach for the same price! If it doesn’t look like it’s very busy, you should be able to negotiate down to $20. Check Rates & Availability for Anh Dao Hotel.
CAMPING: National Park Headquarters; www.condaopark.com [MAP] – If you have a tent you should be allowed to pitch it in the gardens here for a small fee. Camping is also now available on Dam Trau Beach [MAP], in the north of the island, near the airport. Làng Đầm Trầu is just to the right as you enter the beach from the dirt road. This new set up is a budget backpacker paradise, with great seafood, comfy sofas and hammocks, and good two-man tents for around 350,000vnd ($6) a night, or pitch your own tent on the sand for around 100,000vnđ ($4).
Nhà Nghỉ Sở Rẩy (So Ray Guesthouse) – 350,000VNĐ ($17); Huynh Thuc Khang Street; Tel: 0913 829 373 [MAP] – It’s way out of Con Son town, so you’ll need your own wheels, but the rural location of this guesthouse – in amongst fruit trees and hills – makes it a very different option for a night or two. The guesthouse is in the shadow of the So Ray fruit plantation that was started by the French. The construction of the Ma Thien Lanh Bridge through the jungle to the plantation caused hundreds of prisoners to die. It’s possible to trek up to the plantation from the guesthouse. Rooms are decent but a little musty. The guesthouse is on Huynh Thuc Khang Street – it’s on the right hand side about a kilometre after the intersection of Nguyen Van Linh and Hoang Phi Yen streets. This is thoroughly off the beaten path, and no English is spoken.
Khanh Linh Mini Hotel – 500-700,000VNĐ ($25-35); Pham Van Dong Street; Tel: 064 360 8018 [MAP] – This new mini hotel is just opposite the park where the night market is. Rooms are very clean, new and comfortable with lots of wooden furniture. However, rooms rates are way too high – the more expensive ones are at the front with balconies, but they are the same price as the beachfront bungalows at Con Dao Camping!
New guesthouses and mini hotels are opening up all the time, especially around the night market area and on the backstreets, as well as a cluster near the seafront, at the intersection of Nguyen Hue and Ton Duc Thang streets. The general standard of all these places is good: clean, new rooms and friendly owners. They are all a bit overpriced but that’s just how it is on Con Son Island. Here’s the information for a few of the best new places:
Red Hotel – $20-$30; 17 Nguyen An Ninh Street; 064 363 0079: Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – My pick of these mini hotels, Red has spacious, clean, and colourful rooms. They also rent motorbikes.
Trung Hau Hotel – $25; Khu 7 Nguyen Van Linh; Tel: 0918 826 039: Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] –
Excellent new mini hotel in the quiet, shady backstreets. Very calm, clean and relaxed. They rent motorbikes too.
Hong Ngoc Guesthouse and Hoang Ngoc Guesthouse – $25; Nguyen An Ninh Street; Tel: 064 383 0417: Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – These guesthouses are next to each other and run by the same family. Good, clean, plain rooms. Close to the night market and the seafront promenade.
Con Son Island Hotel – $20-$30; Ton Duc Thang: Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – A great location at the beginning of the seafront promenade, rooms are clean and plain. There are two or three other similar guesthouses either side of this one.
For more information and recommendations of budget accommodation on Con Son Island take a look at my guide to Con Dao Islands on a Budget.
EAT & DRINK:
Con Son Island doesn’t have the wide variety of food that you would expect to find in most Vietnamese towns, but there are still some good options for a nice meal on the island.
Quán Ăn Thanh Huyền – $5-$15 per person; Khu 3, Hoang Phi Yen Street; Tel: 064 363 0411 [MAP] – My favourite place to eat on the island for food and atmosphere, this place is 5 minutes out of town by motorbike, on the left hand side after crossing the lotus lake. There’s a sign for the restaurant: drive down the dirt track and over a rickety wooden bridge until you see a few shacks over a pond and a big sign on top saying ‘Saigon Beer’. It might not promise much from its ramshackle entrance, but once you settle down in one of the makeshift ‘gazebos’ clustered around ponds, paddies and herb gardens, you’ll start to appreciate the ambience here. The menu is short and exotic, and the food is fresh and delicious. Try the chicken with kaffir lime leaf (gà luộc lá chanh) or the buffalo hotpot (lẩu trâu). There’s now an English menu, but some of the translations can be hard to understand. It’s especially nice to arrive just before dusk while there’s still some light left to enjoy the surroundings. Bring bug spray so as not to let the mosquitoes ruin a great meal!
Con Dao Market – $1-2 per person; corner of Vo Thi Sau and Pham Van Dong streets [MAP] – This recently repainted market hides all sorts of delicious breakfast foods. It’s a great place to fill up in the mornings, especially if you’re staying at one of the cheaper accommodations that don’t include breakfast. The earlier you get here the better. The market is also a good place to buy ingredients for a picnic to keep you going during the day while you’re exploring the island.
ATC Resort Restaurant – $5-$15 per person; 8 Ton Duc Thang Street [MAP] – This is the pick of the resort restaurants in Con Son town. There’s an extensive and reasonably priced menu with all sorts of classic Vietnamese dishes on it. The food is fresh and well-presented. Try the canh chua cá – sour fish soup – a southern classic. First and second floor seating offer great views over the promenade and out to sea. It’s a particularly good spot for a late lunch: after the Vietnamese tour groups have left, you’ll have the restaurant and sea views all to yourself. Come around 1pm. However, sometimes it’s so quite that it closes!
Six Senses Resort – $20-$60 per person [MAP] – The restaurant and bar here are open to non-guests, but prices are high. The menu has lots of classic Vietnamese dishes as well as some European favourites. The latter isn’t available anywhere else on the island (except at Infiniti Cafe, see below), so if you’re craving some familiar food, this is the place to come. Ingredients are carefully selected and the food is good. The Six Senses bar used to have a great Happy Hour from 4-6pm. Sadly, the management has brought this to an end, and, with cocktails at $15 a glass, it’s difficult to find a reason to visit this exclusive resort if you’re not a guest.
Try Ky (& others) – $5-15 Nguyen Duc Thuan Street [MAP] – Tri Ky is the most popular of a handful of restaurants that line Nguyen Duc Thuan Street on the opposite side of the road from the ocean. All these places have long menus and there’s plenty of shellfish and live seafood to choose from. The food is fine but not memorable, and prices are much higher than on the mainland. However, portions are large and, on my last visit, there were signs that quality is catching up to mainland standards.
Nguyet Hy Restaurant – $3-8; 1 Vo Thi Sau Street [MAP] – This place used to be a superb Saigon-style shellfish restaurant, however it has now changed into a BBQ eatery, specializing in Sichuan-style grills – famous for their spiciness. It was empty each time I passed on my last visit, and I didn’t get a chance to try it, but it might be worth a go, especially if you see other diners there.
Infiniti Cafe – $2-7; corner of Pham Van Dong and Nguyen Van Troi streets [MAP] – This popular cafe serves fruit juices, smoothies, coffee, cocktails and ice cream. It also bakes its own bread (try the homemade pizzas) and offers excellent western-style dishes, including set breakfasts. It’s a cute, ‘mini-cafe’ of the sort that’s trendy in Saigon and Hanoi. The staff are young and friendly. It’s great for a refreshing drink in the middle of the day or a relaxing post-dinner cocktail. Undoubtedly the ‘trendiest’ place on the island and a good place to meet other travellers.
Seatravel Resort Restaurant – $7-15 per person; 6 Nguyen Duc Thuan Street [ – For a while this place was quite popular, but I was never very impressed by the food here. Now, it seems, I’m not alone in that opinion: at my last visit to the island, the restaurant was deserted every night. It’s a shame because the location is fantastic: tables are laid out on a wooden deck under big trees near the beach, and live seafood is displayed in a big water tank. However, the new beach bar is very nice the cocktails are great – get here around 5pm and it should be Happy Hour (although there was some confusion over this on my last visit).
Con Son Café – $2-5 per drink; Ton Duc Thang Street [MAP] – In the middle of the seafront promenade, Con Son Café remains the only place (apart from the resorts) for a sundown cocktail in town by the sea. A few tables are set under big trees in front of the old French customs house, but you can also take your drink over the road and sit on the seafront wall. It’s a superb setting and the cocktails are surprisingly strong. However, as Con Dao has grown in popularity, Con Son Café has started playing loud pop music to entertain its (increasingly young and hip) customers from the bright lights of Saigon. However, on my last visit they had at least closed the 3D mini cinema on the premises – the volume of which was so loud that it drowned out the lapping of the waves and the peace of the promenade. Barring the loud music (mostly on weekends), the cafe is still a stunning place to be. Note that this cafe is sometimes closed for long periods during the winter months when strong winds blow in from the sea (November to February).
Night Market [MAP] – The area around the intersection of Tran Huy Lieu and Nguyen An Ninh streets has recently been turned into a night market. There are currently around a dozen stalls selling food and souvenirs. Food includes local shellfish, hotpots, and soups. It’s reasonably-priced, good quality and a nice place to spend an hour or two eating and drinking in the cool evening air. Perhaps this night market might one day become as popular and lively as the one in Duong Dong town on Phu Quoc island. Watch this space!
Other Options: The Coco Restaurant at the Con Dao Resort (see map) has recently been spruced up: the menu is long and the food is good. Bar 200 is a new addition to the island’s slowly growing list of western-style bar-cafe-restaurants. You’ll find it behind Con Dao Market on a corner of Phan Van Dong Street (see map). Coffees, beer, and pizzas are all available. The intersection of Tran Phu and Pham Hung streets has several street stalls selling noodle soups throughout the day which are decent enough and very cheap (see map). And there is also a new soup and hotpot street eatery on Pham Hung Street, just up from the Phi Yen Hotel, near the seafront promenade. Food is good and it brings in a local crowd: serves breakfasts and dinner (see map).
There isn’t really a ‘bad’ time to visit the Con Dao Islands. Either side of New Year (November to February) is the driest time of year, but the sea can be quite choppy. Summer months are hot with calm, clear waters, but there’s always the chance of some heavy monsoon rain. September to November can be surprisingly windy (not great for lying on the beach). My favourite time to be on the islands is March and April: the weather is hot and dry, and the sea is blue and smooth as glass.
The Con Dao Islands:
View Con Dao Islands in a LARGER MAP
Travelling around the Con Dao Islands:
Selected Resources for Travellers & Expats: What's this?