Less touristy than other island choices in South East Asia, Con Dao islands off the south coast of Vietnam are said to be a must see dive spot. I visited out of season and wondered in advance whether it might not be a good choice with reports of unpredictable weather and near guarantees I wouldn’t get to use my snorkel. I happily discovered a simple and unique paradise, that has many more reasons to visit than simply escaping by boat.
Con Son is the main island in the group called Con Dao, which are about an hours flight from Ho Chi Minh City airport. With a torturous history as a prison island, it is now slowly becoming a place for tourists to visit and experience the incredible natural beauty.
I love the ocean and wasn’t sure I’d want to go without the sea being an option in windy January. I’m so glad I made the effort.
Here’s some of what to expect if you do the same:
The Reality of History
A visit to Con Son is an opportunity to be up close with the difficult side of Vietnam’s history. Several prison buildings are open to tourists to view for a small fee and although it isn’t an easy way to spend a couple of hours, it’s worth it to try and begin to appreciate what people went through here. It felt important not to forget what this place used to be; this made seeing the island’s beauty even more poignant.
Some parts of the prison have mannequins that do shock some. Perhaps it’s the atmosphere that moves them to fear a plastic object. That and the contrast between the daunting grey buildings looming overhead and the beautiful courtyard that has naturally grown into a place full of life.
Near Empty Beaches with Delicious Coconuts
Con Son has many beaches; best explored by moped. In early January we were highly recommended not to take a moped due to the high winds and exposed areas. The initial disappointment led to several walking adventures along quiet, empty beaches with no-one to interrupt our day.
A taxi to the beach by the airport was worth every Dong. It’s a peaceful place, with waves to bob in and a couple of decent beach bars. But there will be a surprise photo opportunity that is surprisingly exciting to watch between sips of coconut milk!
This island is full of green. The national park office was closed in January 2016, so there was no access to guides or professional advice. However, a friendly expat gave us a route that leads to a beach. It’s not an easy walk but was full of plants, butterflies, black squirrels and even has a few of the monkey residents hanging around. Only 2 other people were braving the walk, so it became a rugged adventure away from the tourist-packed parts of Vietnam.
It’s worth researching the current state of the national park office in advance of your visit if you’re planning to trek here.
The market is the centre of the village and all of life is here. Smiles and dragon fruit are on offer all morning. It’s a great start to the day to wander the streets and get a taste of the local spirit.
If you eat fish, you will be really happy with island food! Fishermen bring in a fresh catch every day.
As a vegetarian, I was concerned I’d be eating breadsticks in a place still so untouched by tourism. I was delighted to discover a vegetarian haven in Thu Ba. They are happy to create delicious tofu combinations, with freshly cooked local recipes. I went back every day (but from what I could see, everyone else did too).
If you’re planning a visit to Con Son…
Tom at Vietnam Chronicle has by far my favourite guide to Con Dao islands. The Dive Dive Dive centre were also helpful via email in advance, but not open when I was there at the end of December/ early January. Bar 200 was a great alternative source of information on first arrival, sharing a map, tourist information and general chat about island life for free.
It doesn’t have to be dive season to visit these islands; they have much more to offer. I’d love to return and see that side to it too though.
Have you been? What was your experience?
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