A fresh gust sweeps across the thick woodland of Con Dao Islands – a breeze that brings with it excitement and delight with every new hiking trail discovered or rare marine life sighted. It is a far cry from the hardship Vietnamese soldiers faced here decades ago when the island played host to the notorious prison camps.
The Con Dao Islands is a group of 16 islets off the southern coast of Vietnam, only an hour away from Ho Chi Minh City. The archipelago is dotted with delicate beaches, blessed with one of the most abundant marine biodiversity in Asia, thousands of hectares of lush forests, and jagged outcrops of rocks forming islands that gain and lose real estate with the changing of the tides. Many seafarers used to stop by the island, such as Italian explorer Marco Polo whose fleet anchored at Con Dao in 1924 to seek shelter from a typhoon.
The centre of activity is located on the main island of Con Son, while the other islands mostly remain untouched. Rich history hangs in the air. From 1862 to 1975 during the French colonial rule, Con Dao, then called Poulo Condore, was where the North Vietnamese prisoners were held captive and some tortured. It’s been more than four decades since the jails were shut down, and Con Dao’s reputation has transformed from being a setting for fear to one of the promising new tourist spots in Vietnam.
Flights to Con Son have improved connectivity to the Con Dao islands. Relics from the prison camps, gorgeous and secluded beaches, pristine waters, and experiencing the laid-back lifestyle of the locals are just some of the features on any Con Dao itinerary. Although the government has plans to develop Con Dao into a centre of economy and tourism come 2030, they aim to do so while ensuring that the countryside and environment are preserved.
Getting lost in nature is now becoming a challenge; not so much here. Prepare for a lot of walking as 80 percent of the island comprise of jungles. If you happen to visit during April to September, spot turtles laying eggs on the beach of nearby Hon Bay Canh Island.
If you’re game for a two-hour walk and a 325-metre climb, on the island’s eastern tip is a working lighthouse that dates back to the French rule where you can get a stunning view of the entire island. The Van Son Temple, also known as the Cloudy Hill Palace, a hilltop Buddhist pagoda is another visual treat, never mind the hundreds of steps leading up the structure.
Hiking trails through the Con Dao National Park lead to marvellous waterfalls and other natural formations. Along the trek, be prepared to encounter numerous birds, monkeys, and black squirrels, a species native to the island.
Con Dao has some of the best diving spots in Southeast Asia. If its scuba diving that catches your fancy, it is best to visit around March to October. Underwater adventures here are exciting as you can swim next to hundreds of colourful fish, barracudas, moray eels, cobias, stingrays, and the occasional whale shark. For the perfect accommodation that matches the serene setting of this tropical paradise, the Six Senses Con Dao is situated along the crescent-shaped Dat Doc Beach. ◼