After the frenetic streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the first thing you notice on arriving at the sleepy Con Dao Islands, only a 45-minute flight from Vietnam’s capital, is the silence.
With quaint colonial-era seaside promenades, manicured hedgerows and the occasional loud speaker issuing forth Communist slogans, Con Son, the main (and only inhabited) island, feels like a forgotten corner of Southeast Asia, as if it is 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 far less gruesome site, but the ruins of the sprawling prison complex are still in place for visitors to stroll among.
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 Road) 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 and the first you’ll likely walk along if staying in one of the bungalows at Con Dao Sea Travel Resort, 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 are more likely to pass neighbourhood trawlermen heading out to sea than fellow tourists.
For guaranteed privacy, hire a motorbike 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 to one of the smaller outlying islands, uninhabited spots where you’ll find the islands’ native endangered turtles. Bikes and boat trips can be organised through local scuba shop Dive! Dive! Dive! (36 Ton Duc Thang Road, www.dive-condao.com), who were 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 tail macaque monkeys and giant black squirrels. From the park headquarters (Vo Thi Sau Street, www.condaopark.com.vn) there are trails through the wild jungle available for all levels of hiker. Outside of the hotel resorts, dining options are distinctly limited, but we recommend Phuong Hanh (38 Nguyen Hue Road) in town for fresh seafood and rustic home-cooked dishes in a charming, if worn courtyard setting.
Head to the seafront Con Son Café (Ton Duc Thang Road) in the former French customs house or CASA Guest House and Bar (16 Le Duan Street), who serve up basic mixed drinks from the open-fronted ground floor of their tiny but colourful guesthouse.
The drinks may be fairly standard here, but the people watching is certainly top notch.
Need to know
Emirates flies direct to Ho Chi Minh City from Dhs2,885 return.
Dubai to Vietnam
Flight time: Eight hours
Time difference: Three hours ahead of Dubai
Dhs1 = 5779 Dong