During the time of the Vietnam war, Con Dao was the place that many Vietnamese political prisoners were kept and killed. You can say that Con Dao is somehow the Lord Voldermort, a “You-Know-Who He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” kind of place where terrors and bloody torture happened daily that people shudder just by hearing its name. Even after the bloody war had ended, this place is still the symbol of cruelty and death to many Vietnamese, making them uncomfortable living on this island.
Times goes by, wiping out the ghosts of the past and giving Con Dao its beautiful nature back. Nowadays, the paradise-lookalike archipelago is a quiet and breathtaking group of islands with the endless blue ocean and evergreen forest. Praised as “One among ten most charming and mysterious islands on the planet”, Con Dao is definitely an unmissable destination for those who love the untouched beauty of nature and history myths from many unique structures and remnants of French colonial in the mainland.
I. Con Dao’s location
Con Dao archipelago is the combination of 16 different mountainous islands and islets, stretching on a 76-kilometer square land and home to nearly 5,000 habitats. Most of Con Dao’s residents are fishermen or part of the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam. You will hear people call Con Dao as “Con Son” and vice versa. Con Son is the largest island of 16 ones making up this historic archipelago. About 80 kilometers away from the Mekong Delta region, Con Son is the main destination for tourists when they travel to Con Dao.
II. Best time to travel to Con Dao
Con Dao is, not an exaggeration, paradise on earth. During the summertime, it has occasional monsoon rains with a calm sea. You can enjoy the best of the beautiful bays and crystal clear water sea at this time of the year. This kind of tranquility remains throughout the year to winter times, when the air is much drier and the wind is stronger. Everything here is perfectly still and quiet. So, the best time to visit Con Dao can be varied, depending on your main intention.
- If you are into historical trips, you can visit anytime except for the storm season, starting from September to October.
- If you want to have an adventure in this tropical heaven on earth, you should consider visiting Con Dao during the dry season, from November to February or between June and September – this is a specific time you can witness turtles nesting on Hon Bay Canh Island.
- And finally, for sporty tourists, February till July is a perfectly ideal time for diving excursions since the waters around Con Dao Island is between 20 and 30 meters.
III. How to travel to Con Dao
- Getting to Con Dao by plane: Con Dao island is only a short flight (45 minutes) from Ho Chi Minh Airport. Bookings can be made offline through Luxury Travel or online. You can also flight from Can Tho, a small and lovely city near Ho Chi Minh city to get to Con Dao.
- Getting to Con Dao by high-speed boat from Can Tho or Vung Tau city: If you want a brand new thrilling experience, you should give the high-speed boat a try. This is a new experience for tourists to travel to Con Dao. You will depart from Can Tho or Vung Tau city and your boat trip will last from two hours and a half to four hours, enough time for you to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the sea and fresh air.
- Getting around on Con Dao island: Many vehicles are helping you travel around this small island. Thanks to the flat and laid out roads in Con Son town, tourists can get around on foot or by bike pleasantly. Most tourists attraction like historic prisons, museums, Van Son pagoda or the beaches can be reached by bike, but if you want to travel out of town, taxi or private van is the best option due to the steep and hilly road along the coast.
IV. Tourist attraction in Con Son that you can’t miss
1. Con Dao Prison – the biggest and most infamous tourist attraction
Con Son has a total population of around 5,000. Visiting Con Son, there is no way you can miss its biggest, most populated and famous island: Con Dao.
From 1862 to 1975, more than tens of thousands of political prisoners were kept, tortured and killed in this small and quiet island. The people who were imprisoned can be anyone: students, Buddhists, writers, protestors or the ones who refused to salute the flag, but most of them are Viet Cong, communists and political dissidents. Ironically called ‘university for Vietnamese independence activists’, this prison was built and owned by the colonial French later, the South Vietnamese and Americans. Many people who were neutral in times of war were tortured to change their mind, thus leaving as a member of one party or another, especially the Indochinese Communist Party, predecessor of the current Communist Party of Vietnam. The ‘Schools of Bolshevism’ on this island also trained many famous independence advocates when these people were released. However, a large number of prisoners could never leave this place: they die from mistreatment, hard labor, malnourishment or worse, were executed. There were around 22,000 prisoners were buried or dumped on various mountains on Con Dao. It was not until 1975 that the prison was closed and people collected their remains and buried in Hang Duong Cemetery, which becomes a famous tourist attraction today.
Today, Vietnamese people not only come to Con Dao for its untouched beauty of nature but also to remember their passed away national heroes who were imprisoned and lost their life here. If international reporters who have been here called the prison “hell on earth”, the ‘tiger cages’ section can be considered the scariest, bloodies and deepest part of that hell. It is a huge site with 400 to 500 prisoners held captive like animals there. They were starved, diseased, doused and tortured underground by turnkeys who stood on the roof with weapons in their hands to hurt anyone who dared to stand upon them.
The most famous prisoner of Con Dao prison is a young girl whose name is Vo Thi Sau. She was an anti-colonial activist at the age of 14 and imprisoned in Con Son by the French. When she was 19, she became the very first female prisoner to be executed on the island because of her rebellious acts. Today, her grave is a famous historic site where Vietnamese come to pay their respects with offerings at night to pray for protection and bravery. Most of her offerings are combs, mirrors and the iconic white flowers (Hoa Le Ki Ma) to represent her sacrificed youth.
You can also visit the Phu Tuong Prison (Trai Phu Tuong) – one of the most prominent sites on the island. It was built by the French then owned by the American-backed South Vietnamese government after the French backing out. The new rulers built 60 more chambers, and today, you can see scary skeletal mannequins in many cages to partly get the real experience of a cruel, bloody chapter of history. This used to be a female jail in times of war because, in Con Dao, women or children were not spared from tortured or death. In 1969, there was a bloody protest of women who disemboweled themselves in front of prison wardens.
Another terrifying prison that is worth visiting is the Cow Shed, built by the French in 1930. The whole sites spread on a 4,000 square meter area, with a total of 35 chambers where prisoners were kept like cattle behind locked bars. Across the road from that prison, you will see a memorial shrine for a mass grave – one way or another, this is the first cemetery of Con Dao prison. Due to the uprising in prisoner numbers, prisoners were forced to dig a huge grave for their people, then buried alive. You should also spend time visiting Ma Thien Lanh Bridge – a French colonial construction using prisoners’ labor, or So Ray, a plantation they were forced to work on until they lost their lives.
2. Visiting several historic temples and pagodas on Con Dao
As called ‘the land of history and myths’, Con Dao has many temples and pagodas of different periods for tourists to take their time traveling. And a very special thing about Con Dao is that, here, the locals worship not one but women as saints who sacred themselves for the sake of loyalty and eidolon, namely Lady Phi Yen and Ms. Vo Thi Sau. These are, not an exaggeration, the most famous temples and there are some who travel to Con Dao just to visit these two places..
3. The Legend of Phi Yen and Phi Yen Temple
Phi Yen means flying swallow in English. She is one of the wives of Prince Nguyen Anh, the very last heir of Nguyen Lord who ruled half of the country. After escaping from his enemy – Tay Son brothers in 1783, he went to Con Dao Island to ask for shelter. He and Phi Yen refuge in a small boat to get to Hon Ba island. The prince then sought help from a French missionary and agree to offer the whole area of Con Dao Island as well as Danang port to the French in exchange for their military support so that he could defeat political river – Tay Son brothers to regain his power and status. He left Phi Yen on the island, and not long after that, all his attempts failed.
Phi Yen was left on the Con Dao Islands, until one day another man courted her, making Phi Yen do an extreme action. In Vietnam, traditionally a wife can never betray her spouse no matter what he has done to her, so in an attempt to refuse all her suitors, Phi Yen threw herself into the sea. Her loyalty making her a legend on the island and people her built not one, but two temples to worship her. You can come and pray for her protection at Miếu Bà Phi Yến (Phi Yen’s Shrine, also called An Son temple) or you can visit Phi Yen Temple II, which is located near Con Dao Airport and her son’s temple: Prince Cai.
4. Prince Cai Temple and Grave
Located near the Dam Trau beach, Prince Cai’s temple and grave can be easily spotted. He is the only son of Phi Yen. If you come to Con Dao, sooner or later, you will hear a local myth about Prince Cai: his mother, Phi Yen was held captive by her husband Nguyen Anh when she stopped him from sending his oldest son, Prince Canh to the French Colony looking for military support. Feeling insulted and betrayed, he kept her captive in a small cave on the mountain. He forgot his wife on the run when Tay Son brothers attacked the island, and when Prince Cai – he was 4 years old at that time, asked for his mom, Nguyen Anh angrily threw him into the sea in the belief that he was no better than his mother.
His small body reaches the shore and the locals buried him while Phi Yen escaped the cave thanks to the help of a tiger and a chimpanzee. She was heartbroken seeing her son’s grave and guarding it until one man courted her, indirectly causing the death of a royal wife. Today, some locals still believe the spirits of Phi Yen and her son still haunt Con Dao Archipelago.
*Note: These two temples are very holy, therefore appropriate dress is strictly required. This means that all men and women need to have their shoulders and knees covered. These two are active temples, so you may come across monks or praying worshippers, so respect is a crucial thing.
5. Vo Thi Sau’s grave in Con Dao
Almost every Vietnamese knows about the brave story of Vo Thi Sau – the very first female prisoner in Con Dao to be executed. She spits into the guard’s face and sang the country’s anthem in her last moment. People have been saying that because Vo Thi Sau died at such a young age and with a spirit so strong, her ghost is still wandering somewhere on this island and if you pray hard enough, she may deliver your wish.
So if you come to Con Dao, you will witness the world’s strangest custom: visit a grave after 11pm. People on the island pray for protection when they land their boat to the sea, young couples pray for love and loyalty or fortune. Many Vietnamese travelers come all the way to Con Dao just to visit Vo Thi Sau’s grave to pray. So at midnight, you will see many people surrounding her grave with offerings in their hands. No matter what they buy, there are always white flowers – her most favorite.
6. Nui Chua Mot
This is the only Buddhist temple on the island. According to Chinese geomancy, the location of this temple is ideal because the temple is in front of a huge mountain and facing the sea. The atmosphere here is so quiet you can enjoy yourself in the green scenery with the salty sea wind. This small and ancient temple is also home to a huge number of monkeys, so be aware if you bring along any food or fruits – you may have more than one little thief supervised!
7. Con Dao National Park
Since this park is government-protected, you will need to buy tickets for the entrance. This is also a military base, you may come across some off-limit areas but the good thing is, there are no threats and you should be relieved knowing that you are protected by the Vietnamese military while visiting this breathtaking forest. So, remember to bring your entrance tickets with you everywhere because you may get stopped and asked for it by soldiers. You should contact the office to check the weather, trail conditions or any possible threats before pack your packages. You need to get out before nightfall, so remember to keep track of your time.
V. Beaches and bay tourists should not miss on Con Dao
1. Nhat Beach
Bai Nhat is actually a bunch of small beaches broken up by dark boulders, which were dynamited to build the road. The interesting thing here is that the beach only appears at a specific time during the day when the tide is low that water recedes. You can visit here from 2pm to 7pm every day. Bai Nhat is a picturesque beach, with white sand, wonderful natural scenery with water calm and clear enough to see your toes while standing in it. And Bai Nhat is considered the best place to watch the sunset in not only Con Son but in Vietnam generally. Many couples come to this beach to take their wedding photoshoots because of the view and the stories about its backdrop mountains, which resembles two people embracing each other dearly.
If you just in for the sunset watching part, Bai Nhat beach is where you can have the best view in Con Dao. Just walk to the very end of Southern Con Dao named Mui Ca Map (Shark Cape) where you can have the whole view.
2. Dam Trau Beach
Located 15 kilometers to the North of Con Son Town Center, Dam Trau Beach somehow has the softest and deepest sand in Vietnam. Even though tourists may need to trek to get here, we guarantee that your journey is totally worth it when you see how breathtaking and pristine the beach is. Calm and peaceful, this is a perfect place for you to watch the sunset with a drink in your hand and enjoy some freshly caught seafood in the soothing sound of the calm waves.
Dam Trau Beach is just 500 meters away from Prince Cai’s shrine.
3. Lo Voi Beach
Located in the Northern part of Con Son Town center and extremely close to the infamous Con Dao prison complexes, Lo Voi is one of the most pristine beaches in Vietnam. Since its tourism is barely developing, there are almost no hotels here so there is no exaggeration to say that this beach is protected and sheltered by a hilly headland. The best time for you to visit this place is in the morning when the tide recedes, you can see the very first light shining on this island while slowly walking around the wet, soft sand and collect some stunning shells on the shore. The view here is gorgeous with constant winds with the smell of the ocean and salt and wooden bodies of old fishing vessels lied randomly on the sand. The water here is quite shallow so tourists can swim in this beach, too our recommendation is when the sunsets.
4. Con Son (An Hai) Beach
Overlooked by the evergreen mountains and palm tree shadow, An Hai beach is the main beach in Con Son Island, where most resorts, hotels, and tourism agencies are located. The beach here is very crowded and popular so if you want a quieter place, you can head further South. The water here is quite clear, but the sandflies have always been a problem for people with sensitive skin and since a new boat pier is being constructed, you can see that the water is not so clear like it used to be with more trash in the water.
The most crowded time in An Hai beach is an hour or two before sunset, when people play in the surf, watch the sunset behind Shark Cape and enjoy some drinks and snacks at the local food stalls with friends.
5. Dat Doc Beach
This is the beach that brings fame to Con Dao with its ultra-luxurious Six Sense Resort, where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jollie spent their vacation several years ago. The sand here is a little bit darker and inundated with seaweed, but you will be surprised that this lovely beach is totally trash free. The vast majority of the sand is owned and guarded by the resort, but you can use the wider bay to have some fun with water sports like snorkeling, swimming, fishing, camping under a palm tree or taking a nap.
Since the beach here is exposed to the prevailing winds, the strong current under the sea can take you away so remember not to swim too far.
6. Dam Tre Bay
You can only visit the bay via a gorgeous hiking trail crossing a thick jungle since Dam Tre Bay is located at the Northern tip of Con Son. You don’t have to worry about the hadazous trails as it is cleared and widen to served tourism several years ago. Despite that, your trekking will last for a couple of hours, but it will be worth it when you reach Dam Tre in the early time of the day when the tide is out, leaving the water low enough so you can get down to the lagoon to bathe. What can be better than a fresh swim after a long, arduous walk through the jungle? This is also a great spot for snorkeling and sunset watching.
7. Ong Dung, Bang & Dat Tham Beaches
Surrounded by lush rainforest and wildlife on Con Dao’s remote and undeveloped western coast, these three beaches (Ong Dung, Bang, and Dat Tham) is something not many tourists know about thus, can only be reached on foot. Since they are all isolated and peaceful, these three beaches make a good base for fishing trips, scuba diving or snorkeling, kayaking and coral watching. From there, you will also have the chance to visit nearby islands like Tre Lon island and Tre Nho island. The insignificant evidence of human interference here makes these three a perfect destination for a city-getaway trip.
You can also visit fishing and boat ports and Ben Dam Bay
All the port in Con Dao is very scenic and Instagrammable, especially the Ben Dam. Situated in a beautiful lagoon sheltered by Hon Ba island, the port is the most prosaic you can hope to find with the beautiful setting and drank fisherman with faces so red staggering around the pier. If you want to swim, you can rent a small boat to ride to Hon Ba Island to swim in the beautiful beach there.
VI. Things to do on your trip to Con Dao
Apart from visiting historic sites and beautiful beaches, here is a list of popular activities in Con Dao for you to try:
1. Watching turtle nesting on the island
Con Dao is famous for this activity since 14 out of its 16 islands are observed to be turtle nesting sites. The turtle nesting season in Con Dao starts from May and ends in October with peaks between June and September. This is the largest turtle sanctuary and this activity is one of the most important ones on the island.
Visiting this, people will need to be patient and a little good luck because the turtle is very sensitive and easily frightened. Every year, a huge number of turtle, around 400 female ones come to the beaches of Con Dao to lay eggs. They will dig a hole, lay eggs there then cover them up and disappear in the ocean to come back to their male partners at sea.
2. Boat Trips and Water sports
If you need a break from all the bustling lifestyle in the city, booking a boat to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the sea and nature in Con Dao is a great choice. And if you are more of a sporty person, then congratulations, Con Dao is one of the best destinations for water sports like scuba diving and snorkeling in Vietnam! This is a great chance for you to immerse yourself in the marine world with turtles, batfish, cobia, whale sharks, and a school of tropical reef fish. The price of a sea tour is very reasonable and you won’t be disappointed!
Many professionals choose Con Dao as an ideal place for fishing since it brings out a totally different feeling from fishing in Nha Trang or Phu Quoc. Based on the weather condition and temperature that you have a different experience of fishing in Con Dao, and while professionals fishing maybe all the rages here, there is a lot of normal fishing for tourists who are just here for the hands-on experience and excitement.
5.Visit the local markets to go shopping
In Asia, if you want to understand the lifestyle and culture of a region, you have to visit its local markets – the same applies to Con Dao. Con Dao market is one of the most crowded places since many tourists are attracted here for the local food and specialties for souvenirs. You can also choose to visit the night market, an open-air seafood stall and restaurant complex located on Tran Huy Lieu Street. Apart from fresh seafood, you can buy many lovely street foods as well as fruits and snacks that you can bring home to your family and friends.
VII. Best food and drink to try while you are in Con Dao
1. Street food
Of course, no trip to Con Dao is completed with a chance to enjoy the tastiest and freshest seafood. You can eat many famous Vietnam food here with an authentic taste like Com Tam, Bun Rieu, Pho or Spring Rolls at a famous restaurant like Pho Nam Dinh, Quan Ngoc Minh, or Diem Tam. When it comes to seafood, remember not to miss out on the Thu Ba restaurant on Vo Thi Sau street with daily treats depending on the freshest catch and season. Vegetarian restaurants in Con Dao is equally famous since there are a lot of tourists coming to the island every year.
Con Dao has many excellent Western Food restaurants like the Bar200 or the Six Sense Con Dao resort Dining restaurants. And if you are looking for some bars or lounge, head to Dam Trau beach with several beach low-key bars with delicious drinks like fresh fruit shakes or cold beer and a cool view.