Con Dao is an island off the southern coast of Vietnam.
Con Dao served as a prison island for political prisoners during the French colonial era, when it was known as Poulo Condore, and in later years the Saigon regime imprisoned opponents of the regime in the infamous cells known as the "tiger cages". The old prison buildings are still standing and are open to the public as is a small museum tracing the island's history.
Besides having an interesting history, Con Dao is also an island of immense natural beauty with forested hills, deserted sandy beaches and extensive coral reefs making for some excellent diving.
Con Dao is a shining example of good conservation. 80% of the land area of the archipelago is a national park offering primary jungle teeming with interesting life such as the endemic black squirrel and the crab eating macaque. Beautiful beaches and hidden lagoons are also to be found here, with very few tourists. Con Dao is a paradise off the beaten track. For now at least.
Most of the surrounding seas are a "no-take" marine protected area (MPA). The level of protection and care shown to this island is evident in the pristine reefs that surround it, home to a large variety of marine life not found anywhere else in Vietnam.
Con Cao National Park is currently undergoing scrutiny of its operations by the World Wildlife Fund and The United Nations Development Program. Both groups played a key role in the setup of the national park. Recently funding was withdrawn by another key aid organization DANIDA, as evidence was produced that the park was operating in violation of its charter and that the park was run for personal profit at the expense of the environment. Ask around on the island before using any of the national park services. International oversight is needed to be sure the environmental abuses are halted.
Recent reports to national park officials of the spotting of slaughtered turtle shells drying in the sun on the roof of the Anh Dao Hotel have produced no inquiry, investigation, or prosecution.
Con Dao Airport (VCS) is served by VASCO (Vietnam Airlines) and Air Mekong from Saigon (SGN).
Flights operated by VASCO (Vietnam Airlines) Can be booked at Vietnam Airlines offices or most tour operators in Saigon.
- USD115 return (May 2010) -
- USD80 return (Nov 2010)
- USD60-100 return (4/2011)
- USD120-170 return (Feb 2012)
Vasco agents run a bit of a scam in that they often sell all of the tickets to tour operators who then resell them (Then split the profits), only to release the tickets the day before a flight. If you are trying to book internationally you may find working with a Vietnamese travel agent online can get you tickets when the Vasco website says they are sold out.
Air Mekong does not have this problem and the pricing is generally cheaper with better service. Flights have increased to as many as 9 per day (7/12) but they are often booked far in advance, book early !
There is a boat from Vung Tau which takes about 11 hours. The boat from Vung Tau only leaves on certain days and it is best to book a week before hand to get a seat. Tickets must be brought in Vung Tau (no phone calls, staff speak Vietnamese only) or on Con Dao. Several travellers who have made the trip do not recommended it. If coming from Saigon the costs for taxis, possible lost days waiting for the boat to depart in the windy seasons, transfer from Ben Dam post to the main town, all add up. Overall it is much better to fly. The boat will cost you the same or more.
There are several points worth noting about these services:
- The Con Dao (Con Son) Airport is on the far north end of the island and a long way to anywhere else. Arranging a hotel before you get there is best. The hotels will provide a minibus to and from the airport.
- VASCO (Vietnam Airlines) operates ATR72-500 turboprop service on this route so overhead bin space is limited. Depending on your ticket, VASCO/Vietnam Airlines will allow 10-20 kg free baggage (Excess baggage is relatively inexpensive by international standards).
- The Con Dao Seaport where the boat will anchor is on the far south end of the island and is a long way from anything else.
- Air Mekong provides the only jet service to the airport with their new Bombardier CRJ-900 aircraft.
Taxis have arrived on Con Dao! However they are generally more expensive then vans and buses, and there are as yet no English speaking drivers, write your destination down before you arrive if you choose to use their service. No reports of overcharging as of yet. If you have not booked with one of the hotels and have your airport transfer arranged, getting into town can be difficult. Simply hop on any of the hotel buses, pay the driver around 50,000 dong and they will take you to town. From there it is a short walk to any of the other hotels.
- Con Son Village is small, flat and easily traversed on foot. Because of the intense sun and very little shade on the streets, walking is best left for the morning or evening.
- Motorbikes can be easily rented from main hotels and there is relatively little traffic. There has been an enormous increase in the number of motorbikes for rent. Better deals are often found outside of hotels, as the hotels mark up the same bikes you can hire locally.
- Be warned that there is only one petrol station on the island and it has very limited hours 07;00-10:30 and 14:00-16:00. Be sure to get a bike with a full tank of gas as there is none available for sale on the streets as in the rest of Vietnam. They are fun to ride, but a drag to push around.
- Since many of the spots to visit require riding up some hills, you will be better served by a manual gear bicycle. The light traffic and gentle hills make Con Dao a forgiving place to learn to ride a geared bike.
- You maybe able to arrange for your hotel to take you places for a fee, usually about USD70 a day for car and driver, without hotel markup.
- Motorbike taxis are easily found in Con Son Village. As in all of Vietnam most of these guys are hard working and honest, but there are a few scoundrels.
- It is illegal to ride a motorized vehicle without a helmet or a Vietnamese driving license. The local cop, Mr. Tan, really likes to increase his salary at the expense of un-helmeted visitors. Riding without a helmet is illegal and simply foolish with the primitive medical care available here, especially if you are not carrying adequate travel insurance. Evacuation to Bangkok costs USD30,000 paid in advance. This money cannot possibly be raised on the island. Travel here without proper insurance at your own risk !
- Today Con Dao has great historical import and attracts Vietnamese and increasing numbers of tourists to the renovated prisons. Prisoners were kept in extremely overcrowded conditions on the island and as many as 20,000 are believed to have died here. A guide from the nearby Revolutionary Museum is costs less than USD1 and includes an informative guided tour. The prison cemetery is a national shrine to 20,000+ heroes. You will not score any points here by wearing short pants, or showing your shoulders in and around the cemetery. Do not even think about riding your motorbike over the graves! The Vietnamese come to this island for the sole purpose of visiting this cemetery. Again, the recent influx of budget tourists is starting to strain the feelings of the local people here, as few actually benefit from your visit. The foreign money is concentrated in the larger government-run hotels. Give a moments thought about where you spend your money. Book services for motorbikes outside of your hotel, eat in the local places, shop in the local market.
- Con Dao is part of a maritime and national park and is made up of 16 or so islands. The islands are mostly rugged and still have a lot of original forest cover and associated flora and fauna. The most famous indigenous animal is the dugong or sea cow although it is rarely seen. Several species of rare squirrel and apes are found here and there is an important breeding program for turtles on Bay Canh Island, near Con Dao Island.
- The islands have very nice beaches, great swimming, and snorkelling opportunities (however snorkelling on the main island is generally only good in one area accessible from May-Oct) and have a very relaxed, colonial feel to them. Con Dao is a nice antidote to the crowded cities.
- Rain forest hikes can be booked through the national park Office. Some hikes require a guide. Some of the trails are unmarked, so having a native guide is useful. There is good information available on the island for self-guided hikes and most of the rangers only speak Vietnamese.
- The park guides will generally shepard you though the woods, stop and have a few shots of whiskey with their buddies, then shepard you back to get home in time to have a nap. The trails are seeing much more traffic now, and only the hike to the far north bay, Dam Tre, requires a guide and awareness of the tides.
- Watch out for the strong wind that can whip up at any time at the southernmost point of the island near Nhat Beach. Several visitors have not heeded warnings and have been injured by the strong gusts that can be found there.
Con Dao has the best diving in Vietnam. You can dive most times of the year as there are 16 islands to choose from and you can get good visibility pretty much most of the year. Having dive insurance is mandatory in Con Dao due to it's remote location.
- Dive! Dive! Dive!, 4 Nguyen Hue St. Daily dive and snorkelling trips from a 15 m custom-built dive boat or 5 m speedboat. Opened in 2010 and affiliated with S.S.I., owned by an American. Having completed in excess of 1,000 dives on the islands, there is simply nobody who knows the diving better. They are the only full-time resident expats and the only fully Western-owned and operated business on the island. Turtle trips in season. Bicycles, snorkelling gear, and camping gear for rent. Buy today, dive tomorrow diving and medical insurance available. Stop in for tourist information. Also they are a good resource for bookings for all of the new budget accommodations opening on the islands, from USD15 a night double.
- Rainbow Divers. PADI dive centre operating out of the Six Senses Resort on Dat Doc Beach. They offer daily dive trips.
- Turtle Sanctuary (Tickets purchased at national park office north of town). The turtle tour can be booked at the national park office. You may see a turtle laying eggs. Turtle season is ONLY from Jun-early September. Turtles are likely only nesting in Jul-Aug with a few hatchlings still coming out in September. The park will happily sell you tickets out of season and promise turtles. The trip is not cheap. Be aware and do not fall for this. Do not book a turtle tour outside of this time as it is very likely you will not see any. The national park will thoughtfully refund you 10% if this does happen. Overnight stays can be arranged. This office will also provide very detailed information about possible treks and walking opportunities, but be aware the island has plenty of no-go areas due to the large military presence there. 1,500,000 dong.
There is a good fruit and vegetable market in Con Son town that opens early, 06:00 or so. Prices are cheap and the locals don't seem to overcharge foreign purchasers. As the number of budget travellers increases and the full blown screaming fits over 1,000 dong on the part of the backpack crowd, you can be sure that the attitudes of the vendors will change. Please keep it under control, you may win the fight over 1,000 dong but the next traveller will surely pay the price for your "success". Everything here is simply more expensive as it has to come by ship or plane.
The town hotels all have restaurants open to the public. See Sleep.
- Noodle Shop (Nguyen Hue St and Vo Thi Sau St, when you drive east on the left side). For lunchtime, you can also find some local restaurants that serve good noodle soups for 15,000 dong. This is one of them.
- Phuong Han, 38C Nguyen Hue. Popular with the tourist crowd. Atmosphere needs some work, but the food is good and it is reasonably priced. Very popular for lunch.
- Tri Ky, Nguyen Duc Thuan St. Offers tasty, fresh seafood at reasonable prices, and has an English menu available, although offerings are relatively sparse.
- Beer is available at hotels and restaurants. Cocktails and mixed drinks when offered on hotel menus will not always be available.
- There is a shop near the market which has a surprisingly excellent selection of wine and sells cold beer.
- Join the fishermen if you are in Con Dao during their few returns to dry land. They enjoy sitting on the street with a case of beer drinking and chatting. By and large they are very friendly, but don't be surprised if you attract a few stares as a foreigner. While a few drinks with the fishermen can be OK, in fact they are not supposed to be moored in this harbour. There have been incidents of indecent exposure and some harassment of Western women, so avoid drunks of whatever nationality.
In Con Son there are small guesthouses and hotels which offer room rates from USD15-35 per night While not on the beach, they are usually clean and relatively new and comfortable. View [ for recommendations, new places are opening everyday and they know the good, bad, and the ugly.
- A.T.C. Resort. Slightly overpriced compared to the other hotels but the food is good.
- National Park Guesthouse (Just outside of town). 300,000 dong.
- Saigon Con Dao. Bungalows right on the beach at the end of town. Government-owned. Lacking in character, but is clean and has a nice swimming pool. The restaurant has views of both the ocean and the old Con Dao Prison Museum. A good variety of food, and excellent Vietnamese coffee. English menu available. USD45-70.
- Seatravel Con Dao Resort. Bungalows right on the beach at the end of town, where the beach is quiet and nice, although sometimes littered. Sea Travel is a bit of a dump, with reports of rats in the rooms, but the large bungalows open right onto the beach and offer some of the best views and locations for Con Dao, especially on a budget. The manager knows some English and is helpful with relocating unsatisfied customers to the Con Dao Resort, which is further from the beach but offers more standard, less "rustic" rooms, as well as a pool.Has an open-air lobby that doubles as a restaurant, and offers outside seating with views of the ocean. Food is pricey (for Vietnam), but that is the case with most hotel restaurants. English menu available, however, some of the better foods, such as their beef and veggie pho, are not listed and usually best ordered by simply asking the waitstaff directly. Western-style breakfast omelette is excellent. USD45-70.
- Six Senses (On a more isolated, separate beach between the town and the airport). Resort and spa. The beach is more private and cleaner than the larger stretch of beach shared by the other hotels, and the resort is arranged as private bungalows, with each bungalow having unobstructed views of the water. The resort is much more expensive than the other hotel options, but also offers visitors amenities not available at the other hotels. Airport transfer is USD20 per person. Has upscale dining options. If they are busy, they will turn you away even if the restaurant is empty.
- Con Dao is remote. As in all of rural and most of developed Vietnam, medical care is rudimentary. Evacuation by helicopter to Saigon takes 5 hours, costs USD5,000 and must be prepaid in cash. Serious issues that need evacuation to Thailand will require 8 or more hours as a result of the government not allowing "Medical Wings" access to Con Dao without first stopping in Saigon adding four hours to the trip and costing USD30,000. So if you are considering travel here, consider getting good travel insurance. If you find that insurance is not available in your home country, consider an online company from the USA, they do cover people from all over the world for as little as USD1 a day.
- There are some stray dogs around and people do get the occasional nip. The dogs become aggressive and territorial at night, and during the day they can be found sleeping in the middle of the road. Walking the streets at night alone is not smart anywhere. When confronted by dogs, do not act scared or run. Stand your ground and yell at them, bend down as if to pick up a rock, and they will run like they are on fire.
- Is almost non existent. It is said to be the only place in Vietnam where bicycles and motorcycles are left outside the house at night.
However common sense must prevail, hotel rooms do get pilfered when left unlocked, people get very complacent here as it does feel, and is so safe.
- There is NO malaria here. Mosquito season is Feb-Apr. The mosquitoes are not abundant, nor are their bites particularly painful. Regular mosquito repellent is available and it works. Purchase in the pharmacy, across the street on the left side of the market under the name Soffell.
- There are sand flies that move around the island. The bites are painful and easily infected. Do NOT scratch. Immerse in hot water. Take a HOT shower to get relief to sleep. Mosquito repellent does not work well for sand flies. Treat with hot water, hydro-cortisone cream or anti-histamine tablets. Sand fly season is Jan-May.
- Dive! Dive! Dive! sells a special homemade sand fly repellent that works much better then DEET, and is safe. It may not smell great but it works!
- Do not drink tap water! In the interest of reducing plastic waste, refill your 1-2 L water bottles. Cold water is 5,000 dong a litre, half the market price, and you will help reduce the amount of plastic waste generated on the island.