Con Dao Archipelago
The remote Con Dao group of islands
is about 180km from Vung Tau, and has a local population of
around 5,000. The main island, Con Son, was a much-feared
former penal colony until 1975. Most of the archipelago is
now a National Park with some good beaches, clear water with
pristine coral, lush tropical forest with many flowers, coconut
groves, and few visitors. Accommodation is limited, but a
new air link is starting to generate interest in visiting
this largely unspoilt area.
Once known as ‘Poulo Condor’ and long considered a Southeast
Asian ‘Devil's Island’, Con Son is the largest island in the
archipelago. The infamous Con Son prison complex was established
by the French colonial authority early in the nineteenth century.
From then until 1975 the French colonial administration, followed
by the Saigon government, incarcerated political prisoners
in brutal conditions, often in tiny underground boxes known
as ‘tiger cages’. The Hang Duong cemetery holds the remains
of the many prisoners that died there.
the colonial period and its use by the Saigon regime, Con
Dao’s only inhabitants were the prisoners, their guards, and
a small contingent of soldiers and administrators. The true
extent of the appalling treatment of inmates only became known
after victory and reunification in May 1975.
Since then, a
small town has developed on the western side of Con Son in
and around the old penal colony complex. It’s an attractive
community with excellent civic amenities and a road layout
that would put most Vietnamese towns to shame, despite its
Con Dao is located at a point where cool and warm
ocean currents converge and create a localised climatic system.
From June to September, frequent fierce squalls buffet the
west facing aspects of the islands whilst the east is sheltered.
In September, the currents and winds reverse thus exposing
the east of the islands to bad weather until January. The
weather is calm all over the archipelago during the remainder
of the year.
This unusual weather pattern
allows swimming, snorkelling and diving to be an all-year-round
The French wardens forced prisoners to collect live coral
and turn it into lime. The coral reefs survived, but only
to face further damage from uncontrolled and destructive fishing.
The National Park was established in 1977, but protection
extended only to the flora and fauna on land. The park now
covers fourteen of the sixteen islands and their surrounding
The forest cover
on the islands is dense: a sizable proportion is in pristine
condition, particularly the humid hill forest growing above
500m above sea level.
Even though control
over the exploitative use of the sea was established as late
as 1993, and despite the damage wreaked by the French, over
a thousand hectares of Con Dao National Park's coral reefs
survive in the shallow waters - a stark contrast to other
areas of Vietnam that have low coral cover as a result of
overexploitation, destructive fishing, and sedimentation.
The entire marine
area is rich in biodiversity: over 1,300 species of sea animals
have already been identified. The ecosystems on Con Dao are
favourable habitats for rare species such as the Hawksbill
and Green Turtles, and Dugong, the strange creatures popularly
known as ‘sea cows’ and believed to be the source of the ‘mermaid’
legends from their habit of sunbathing on rocks.
The World Wide Fund for Nature has been active in protecting
sea turtles and dugong. Since 1995, more than 300,000 baby
turtles have been released to the sea and nearly 1,000 mature
turtles have been tagged.
Con Dao National
Park is now considered one of the best examples of marine
conservation in Vietnam, complete with regulations to limit
fishing activities and prohibit destructive fishing, and is
a model for marine conservation throughout the country. There
are plans for eco-friendly development within the park’s boundaries.
Con Dao has significant value for many types of conservation
and eco-friendly tourism development. Five-star PADI scuba
diving will soon be available: there are several outstanding
dive sites offering sightings of dolphins, turtles and dugong
as well as a wide range of other species.
Con Dao is definitely
a place for nature lovers, but also an opportunity to visit
an unspoilt tropical island before development. There is little
doubt that it will soon become a popular destination, so if
you want peace and solitude in a pristine setting, now’s the
time to go.
There is a small museum in what used to be the French Governor’s
residence overlooking the main bay. Its four rooms cover the
islands’ history, most of which centres upon the penal colony.
The first room contains general information about the archipelago.
The second is called ‘Hell on Earth’. On its walls are faded
photographs, illustrations and paintings depicting the inhuman
treatment meted out by their gaolers.
Under the French,
there was some semblance of order and control. Prisoners incarcerated
for relatively minor offences could gain privileges for co-operation
and be released to the mainland. Under the Saigon regime,
prisoners were treated even more brutally. Pictures of the
comfortable life of the prison administrators and their guests
contrast eerily with the squalor of the inmates. Various artefacts,
memorabilia and examples of the instruments of torture are
on display – particularly poignant are fragments of paper
weapons and costumes made by inmates as props for New Year
third room has a wall of photographs of prominent Vietnamese
agitators and revolutionaries who underwent slow execution
in the tiger cages, and other prisoners who served time and
later rose to prominence after liberation. There is also a
display of makeshift weapons. The final room depicts the years
The museum arranges
a tour of the complex with a guide. However, the level of
English spoken is low, so patience and a phrase book are necessary.
The tour should take a couple of hours.
The main island
offers good camping, hiking and trekking opportunities – the
National Park Headquarters on the outskirts of the town can
provide you with information about suitable trails and paths.
There are no organised water sports, but there are opportunities
for scuba diving and snorkelling. The Diving Centre is located
on the seafront. Services are limited at present, but the
centre should be in full operation later this year. Boat services
are a bit problematic at present, but should improve soon.
There are some
good beaches on Con Son. Some can be reached on foot, but
the better locations involve a long hike or hiring a motorbike.
There are many secluded beaches on the on the other islands.
A fast boat service linking Vung Tau with Con Lon was established
last year, and in May 2004, the national flag carrier, Vietnam
Airlines, began operating six flights a week from Ho Chi Minh
City to Con Dao. The aeroplane takes about 50 minutes, and
the boat takes twelve hours.
There are no taxis on the islands, and virtually no ‘xe oms’
(motorbike taxis). However, it’s easy to hire a small motorbike
to get around the island. Prices are somewhat higher than
on the mainland.
is basic and limited - the best hotel on the island is lower
than our ‘local’ standard. Restaurants are few and far between,
and the cuisine is rudimentary. Don’t be misled by tales of
exotic fruits in abundance – it’s mainly bananas and coconuts.
Everything else comes from the mainland. However, the seafood
Con Dao’s exposed position in the East China Sea means its
weather patterns differ from those on the mainland. The wet
season is from July to September. During this period, the
western sides of the islands are subject to frequent violent
squalls with strong winds and visibility down to about 100m.
They last about half an hour, but can be quite frightening.
Swimming, diving and snorkelling can be dangerous.
to January, the wind reverses leaving the western side reasonably
calm and the eastern side wet and windy.
to June, conditions are usually calm all over the archipelago.