Con Dao is a group of islands off the coast of Vietnam, about 230 km southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. There are 16 islands, with the largest (Con Son) being home to the main town, port, and airport.
[Hon Troc – one of the islands of the Con Dao island group.]
Con Dao is most famous for its history as a brutal prison island established by French colonialists. It’s become a place of pilgrimage to honor the prisoners who died here, though even now there are Vietnamese who won’t go there because of the ghosts of its past.
It’s also famous for being a tropical paradise with deserted beaches, and it’s only recently that the island group is starting to garner international attention. In fact this year it made it to The New York Times list of 52 places to love in 2021.
The NY Times describes it as a tropical paradise with a terrible past. To their credit, the Tines found the most appropriate international writer to cover this story. Seriously, it will make you cry, just like the prison museums on the island will make you cry. I didn’t open a travel listicle expecting to be kicked in the feels, and after reading it you will begin to understand why some Vietnamese are reluctant to visit.
To top that listing off, Travel+Leisure included one of the beaches of Con Dao on their list of the world’s 25 best beaches. Unfortunately for Con Dao (or fortunately depending on how you look at it), Con Dao has been unable to receive international travellers at this moment in history when it’s receiving so much international attention.
It was good fortune for me though, a foreigner stranded in Vietnam during the pandemic while international travel has closed down. I had been able to experience Hoi An without international crowds, and now it was time I finally visited Con Dao.
The main ferry port to Con Dao is via Vung Tau, about 185 km away, though the closest port is at Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta (122 km away). I’m not a fan of long ferry rides, so I planned my trip to take the shortest ferry ride in the middle of the dry season (Jan-Feb-Mar being the driest time of year).
Map of Con Dao
Map of Con Dao featuring places mentioned in this article.
Con Dao notes
Over the years I’ve heard about Con Dao for its history as a prison, and for its beaches. What isn’t mentioned as much is the township. I was surprised with what a delightful town it is. I would rank it under Hoi An as the best small town in Vietnam.
The town is laid out in the typical style that the French built in their colonies in the 19th century. It’s a rectangular grid that faces the waterfront. Battambang in Cambodia has a similar layout with gridded-out streets facing the river.
Con Son Town is the main town on the main island of Con Son, though you will also get by just calling it Con Dao.
The streets are easy to walk, and some old buildings here have survived to give the town character.
In all of my travels, I think that these 19th-century French street grids are the pinnacle of urban design, and I don’t understand why new town planners don’t just copy what already works.
[A sign showing the old street name of Rue Mariadassou.]
The streets have wide footpaths (a luxury in Vietnam), and everything is kept in a clean and orderly condition.
There are nice parks in the town as well.
At the southern end of the town is An Hai Beach. It’s a wide stretch of white-sand beach, and only a few hotels are here.
There are some new developments happening on the beach which blocked the walking path, but so far there isn’t any plan to go crazy with high rises like the beach cities on the mainland.
Some parts of the town have already been gridded out in preparation for future use. I found a plan of some future projects that might go here.
Trees of Con Dao
I came to Con Dao expecting to be wowed by the beaches. Instead, I was entranced by the trees of Con Son Town. Here are some of my favourites.
Outside the town
The population of Dao is just over 8,000 people, so it becomes rural outside the main town quickly.
There are some good temples within walking distance of the town centre, including An Son Mieu.
Van Son Pagoda is on a little hill.
The slight exertion up the hill will reward you with good views.
Around Con Son
To see Con Son beyond the town you will need wheels, so I rented a scooter to drive around the island. There is not much traffic here and the roads are in good condition. Some sections of the road reminded me of the Great Ocean Road in Australia and the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
The views were stopping me in my tracks, as it was with my fellow tourists.
In terms of beaches, the highlight of Con Dao is Nhat Beach. I first saw this from the taxi ride from the port. I must have audibly gasped when I saw it because the taxi driver turned around to look at me with a knowing smile.
The rock formation that is doing an impersonation of Sugarloaf Mountain is Love Peak. There were also some tourists here, but the beach was big enough to get this photo.
A nice beach here, though good luck getting down there.
Con Dao is a popular domestic tour destination, and these electric trolleys can be seen everywhere carting groups around.
Some of the beaches are only accessible by paths through the jungle. I went by one spot that must have been a path to a beach.
Bang Beach is another beach that requires a walk through the jungle. This beach at least has instructions on how to walk there. I came unprepared for this walk, plus I figured I should go with someone if I am walking in the jungle.
A beach I can’t believe I didn’t go to was Bai Dong, on the east side of the airport. The beach is in the flight path of the airport, so you can do some planespotting here.
[Bai Dong as viewed when taking off from Con Dao Airport.]
Visiting the prisons
The biggest tourist attraction here of course are the prisons, and for first-time visitors to Con Dao, you can’t not go.
The French-built prison cells were known as tiger cages.
Some of the prison cells have dummies depicting shackled prisoners and prisoners being beaten.
All of the information plaques on the island are in Vietnamese and English. I thought that if they were going to be talking about the atrocities of the French colonialists they would also include the French language.
[Sorry my French friends, we’re talking about you, not to you.]
Opposite the prison is Lo Voi Beach. There is a park here with no development of any kind. That is because the grounds were used as a burial place for dead prisoners. The park was being landscaped into a more fitting memorial garden when I visited.
It is estimated that around 10,000 prisoners were buried here. With the wind whistling through the trees I would not want to be here at night. If you are ghost-sensitive you may feel your hairs stand on end.
Not far from the French prison is the American Camp.
There is no information here, so a guide would have been useful.
Con Dao Museum
I went to the prisons without realising I was meant to buy a ticket from the museum first. They let me in and told me to buy a ticket later. The ticket covers the museum entrance and the prisons.
[Museum ticket 50,000 VND ($2.17 USD).]
Having been to the prison I could see how it became known as a hell on earth.
The museum has items collected from the prisons as well as historical artifacts from the island. Apropos of nothing, here is a pickled dugong.
The train nerd in me was excited for half a second to see some railway history. There was no passenger rail here though, and this mining railway was built with slave labour.
The museum features photos and stories of some of the most notable prisoners. A group of young revolutionaries were imprisoned here in the 1930s, and it became known as the communist school. The names are a who’s who of Vietnamese street names, with just about every city having a street named after these people.
The first photo is Ton Duc Thang, who went on to become the president of North Vietnam, and then the first president of reunified Vietnam. Next to him is Le Duan, who was 2IC under Ho Chi Minh, and then the leading decision-maker after Ho’s death.
Perhaps the most famous name of all those who came to Con Dao is Vo Thi Sau.
Vo Thi Sau was a schoolgirl turned revolutionary guerilla who was just 14 when she lobbed her first grenade at French occupiers. She was eventually caught by authorities and she ended up at Con Dao. At age 18 she was executed by firing squad at a police post. While she never went to the prison at Con Dao, she has become a symbol of the resistance against colonial occupation. She was a bad-ass in a land full of bad-ass women.
It is the next part of the history tour where you see how Vo Thi Sau has captured the hearts of modern Vietnam. On the way to the revolutionary cemetery is the Con Dao Temple.
The temple is a monument to the thousands who died on the island. In the centre of the main altar is Ho Chi Minh. While he wasn’t in Con Dao, he was no stranger to being a political prisoner. To his right is Vo Thi Sau, and Le Hong Phong (the second leader of the Communist Party of Vietnam) is to his left.
At the cemetery entrance, there is a map that shows the location of the most prominent figures who are buried here. To find Vo Thi Sau, I just looked for the crowd.
Throughout the day there is a steady stream of people who come here to leave offerings and say a prayer for good fortune. There is a full-time attendant who cleans up the flowers and offerings. The truly dedicated visit the grave at midnight to make their wishes.
The grave of Vo Thi Sau is now a major pilgrimage site of Vietnam. I have heard that people fly from as far as Hanoi on a day trip just to make an offering at the grave. I know people who go back to their hometown temples to pray when starting a new job or some other event in their life is happening, so this doesn’t surprise me.
Food in Con Dao
With my ferry trip starting so early I waited until I arrived before having my first meal of the day, and I couldn’t have got off to a better start. Near where I was staying was this banh mi shop, so that was an easy decision to make.
I’ve eaten enough banh mi’s in my life to know when it’s going to be a good one. Sometimes you can tell by the presentation of the ingredients. Having an in-house bakery is also a good sign. I didn’t get a decent photo, but it was amazing.
[Banh Mi 20,000 VND ($0.87 USD).]
After spending the week before in the Mekong Delta I was happy to sit down to a western breakfast at Infiniti.
[Infiniti breakfast and coffee deal 160,000 VND ($6.95).]
I prefer the com tam (broken rice) lunch places, which is the standard meat and veg with rice. Here a typical fish, veg, rice, and soup was 40,000 VND ($1.74 USD).
[Com Tam at Quan May Hong.]
Con Dao is well known for seafood, and there are seafood restaurants everywhere. These are the sort of places best visited with groups, so I didn’t visit any.
Banh Khot is a famous dish that is best known in Vung Tau (often called Banh Khot Vung Tau).
Given that Con Dao is part of Vung Tau Province it seemed appropriate to try Banh Khot Con Dao.
[Banh Khot 35,000 VND ($1.52 USD).]
While the local restaurants are getting by with domestic tourists, the foreign restaurants are having a hard time getting by. I went to Con Dao Dive Center that has a restaurant and cafe attached, where I had fruit muesli and coffee.
[Fruit muesli at The Den Coffee.]
Every morning I walked by this bun rieu place it was always packed out, so I made a note to have breakfast here one day.
This one was not as strong as some bowls, so probably good for bun rieu novices. I forgot to note the price, but I think it was 40,000 VND ($1.74 USD).
While I was in Con Dao a new supermarket was being set up (they were still unpacking boxes when I walked by), so this might be the place to go for self-caterers and other snacks.
After the good fortune of stumbling upon a great banh mi, I went to the nearest cafe, which turned out to be the best cafe in Con Dao. Infiniti coffee is the place to go for espresso-based coffee, and this was my daily haunt while I was here.
Phien Khuc is an old wooden house that was in full bloom when I visited.
Le Condor Cafe is another cool place to get a coffee.
Havana was not a Cuban theme bar, but it’s a good spot for a Vietnamese iced coffee.
Con Dao coconuts and food security
I stopped for a coconut break with a friendly local dog, and there I pondered Con Dao coconuts and food security on the island.
Back on the mainland, there is a coconut ice cream chain that I’ve seen named after Con Dao. I saw this shop in Hanoi, and I wondered if the coconuts had come all the way from Con Dao.
When I got the ferry from Soc Trang my illusion of Con Dao being laden with coconuts was destroyed when I saw that our ferry was being loaded with coconuts. I felt like I was watching people sending coal to Newcastle. It was pre-dawn, so it like they were sneaking coconuts to Con Dao under cover of darkness.
While riding around Con Dao I hardly saw any coconut trees. In fact, there is hardly any sort of agriculture here, so the island is reliant on the ferries and air services that bring food from the mainland every day.
Vietnam treats Con Dao as a strategic island chain, especially since China are occupying islands of Vietnam anfd other Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea (or East Sea as it is known here). With that in mind, and the rising amount of visitors, they are planning to send underwater power cables here, along with building freshwater plants. I think they should also look at hydroponic agriculture. And yes, plant some more coconut trees.
Bamboo Airways and rise of Con Dao as a domestic tourist destination
Con Dao is becoming more popular as a domestic tourist destination, and part of that has to do with Bamboo Airways.
I spent four nights in Con Dao, and I was surprised by how busy it was every day during the week. Some tourist towns in Vietnam have fared badly in this pandemic era, but here it was business as usual.
It helps that is now easier than ever to get here. Previously there was only a turboprop service with VASCO (a subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines).
If you were coming from anywhere else in the country you had to fly via Saigon first. There are no competing flights from Saigon either, so the flights are more expensive than anywhere else. My return flight was the most expensive domestic ticket I’ve ever bought here.
Con Dao Airport is wedged between two beaches with no room to expand. The runway is too short for A320/737 aircraft that is used by most low-cost airlines, so Bamboo Airways have expanded their fleet to include Embraer 195 jets. They are smaller aircraft that can land on the runway at Con Dao, and have the range to travel to the north of Vietnam.
Bamboo’s strategy has been to open up completely new markets. The book Blue Ocean Strategy describes how business can be found in unexplored market spaces, finding new demand and making the competition irrelevant. In this case, Bamboo Airways has invested in smaller jets that can land at Con Dao, and started offering direct flights from provincial northern cities. Instead of this new airline just offering the usual routes between Hanoi and Saigon, it’s offering flights from Vinh, Hai Phong, and Thanh Hoa to Con Dao. There is a stronger pilgrimage market from the north, especially with northern revolutionaries being imprisoned here. When I departed I counted five flights in one day from Hanoi.
With a steady stream of domestic tourists, there are plenty of budget hotel options to choose from. The prices are slightly higher than for comparable accommodation on the mainland, but overall it’s still a good deal here. I stayed at the Red Hotel for $16.69 USD per night, and this was a good budget hotel option.
Even though Con Dao is a tropical island, it’s not really a beach holiday destination. Its remote location and mountainous topography prevent it from becoming the next beach boom town. If you want a hotel by the beach, then the municipal beach at An Hai Beach is where to be.
Con Dao Camping Hotel have budget A-frame huts by the beach.
Tan Son Nhat Con Dao Resort is the largest resort-style accommodation on this part of the beach.
The Secret Con Dao is not on the beach, but it has oceanfront views in the middle of the town.
If you have points with InterContinental Hotels Group to burn, or if you are looking to spend your childrens inheritance, then the Six Senses Con Dao is for you.
The passenger ferry is the cheapest way to get to Con Dao, and the Vung Tau to Con Dao service is the most convenient from Ho Chi Minh City. There is also talk of extending this service to Ho Chi Minh City. Until that happens, getting a ferry to Vung Tau first is a good excuse to visit Vung Tau on the way.
The ferry from Soc Trang to Con Dao is the quickest boat trip, though the time saved is more than lost if you are coming straight from Saigon. I planned my trip to tour around the Mekong Delta before getting the ferry.
[Superdong Con Dao I at Con Dao.
A taxi from the port to the town cost 200,000 VND, and from the town to the airport a taxi was 240,000 VND.
Up until recently, VASCO had a stranglehold on flights to Con Dao. They are a subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines, and they fly from Saigon and Can Tho. To add variety to my travel I flew with VASCO back to Saigon.
With Bamboo Airways entering the market with their smaller jets, they have opened up new travel options. Now instead of backtracking to Saigon, you could put together an itinerary where you go from Saigon -> Con Dao -> Da Nang (for Hoi An). At the time of my visit, the destinations available were Can Tho, Da Nang, Hai Phong, Hanoi, Thanh Hoa, and Vinh. Bamboo is also looking to compete with VASCO on the HCMC route, as well as introducing flights from the central provinces and the Central Highlands.