Côn Đảo is an island off the southern coast of Vietnam. 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 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.
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 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. Funding was withdrawn by another key aid organization DANIDA, as evidence was produced that the park was operating in violation of its charter and that the park was run for personal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.
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.
- 1 Con Dao Airport (VCS IATA). Served by Vasco (owned by Vietnam Airlines) from Saigon (SGN IATA).
- Flights operated by Vasco can be booked at Vietnam Airlines offices or most tour operators in Saigon, or online through Vietnam Airlines.
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. Vasco tickets are also bookable through the Vietnam Airlines website, which is considerably more stable and less likely to crash.
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 which generally costs 50,000 đong.
- 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). Also, depending on the flight, you may be asked to check your carry-on if you also have a personal item.
- 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.
Taxis on Con Dao are generally more expensive than 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.
- There is only one petrol station on the island and it is only open 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 US$70 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 US$30,000 paid in advance. This money cannot possibly be raised on the island. Travel here without proper insurance at your own risk !
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 costs less than US$1 and includes an informative guided tour. The prison cemetery is a national shrine to more than 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.
The 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.
Côn Đảo Prisons
The prisons reached their greatest extent in 1973, with a total of seven camps, as well as a number of outlying buildings. Camps 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 are consistently opened to the public. You must start at camp 3 downtown, as this is where tickets are sold; the price is comparable to other public museums in Vietnam. Camp 3 is in the center of Con Son town; coming from Võ Thị Sáu, turn at the t-intersection near the Vietin Bank and the entrance is hard to miss. After visiting Camp 3, the others can be visited in any order you like.
Camp 3 dates to the French colonial era and one can easily spot the French influence in the architecture. This prison contains a chapel in the center, an outdour auditorium, kitchen and dining area, a mill where hard labor was performed, large group cells, and isolation cells. Here, one can learn about the social lives of prisoners as well as a few famed inmates who were imprisoned in that section.
Camps 1, 4, and 5 are all accessed through one entrance and referred to on signage as the French tiger cages. The French tiger cages can be found adjacent to the museum to the east. A small structure to the right of the drive leading to the parking area and entrance has an exhibition that explains some aspects of the tiger cages (camp 4). The tiger cages are housed in two buildings, the first one reconstructed with mannequins and dioramas, and the second in a state of ruin, ordered destroyed by the Saigon regime after they were exposed in the July 17, 1970 issue of Life Magazine (recommended reading before visiting, available for free on Google Books) by a US congressional team investigating the prison. One may notice a striking similarity between these cells and some of those in the film Papillon. Neighboring camp enclosures can be explored, though they are not as well-maintained; if you do explore, wear long pants and closed-toed shoes to keep the birdox-like grass pricklies and biting red ants off your skin. Unmarked, in the grassy field in the corner of Camp 1, is the spot where Võ Thị Sáu was executed.
Camp 6 is referred to as the American tiger cages. These cells were meant to fulfill the same roll as the French tiger cages, built in 1973 by an American firm after the Saigon regime was pressured to destroy and stop using them. To get there from the French tiger cages, follow the same road east, away from the center of town, and take the first left. The parking area is to the left, opposite another prison camp which is not visitable. The American tiger cages have sixteen structures subdivided into sections by concrete walls. Though less well-maintained, most of the individual cells can be opened and explored. Many have writing on the wall which appear to have been left from former inmates. It is now home to bats.
Outlying prison buildings - a few prison buildings, ruins more accurately, lie on the outskirts of town in all directions. Heading east from the town center on the corner of Nguyễn Chí Thanh and Nguyễn Văn Cừ, on the way to the airport, lies Sở Lò Vôi, a lime kiln where prisoners carried out forced labor as well as a prison across the street.
The Cow Pens and Pig Sty lie on Võ Thị Sáu, just after the intersection with Nguyễ Văn Linh. The cow pens are on the right and the pig sty to the left; these structures are prisons named after their resemblance to cow pens and pig sties.
Sở Muối is located on the coastal road to Ben Dam, right at an intersection near the entrance to a Buddhist temple. The ruins are simple and were once large cells.
Sở Rẫy is a former plantation where prisoners carried out forced labor. Only accessible by trail; for directions, see section “suggested hikes” under Côn Đảo National Park.
Côn Đảo National Park
Before visiting the trails of the park, it is necessary to first stop at the ticket office. To get to the ticket office, follow Võ Thị Sáu St. out of town; the road turns and eventually forks. Follow the fork up the hill and eventually you will find a small structure from where you can buy a day ticket for 60,000 đong (as of Feb 2018). The office is across the road from an historical site with a marker, the ruins of Ma Thien Lanh Bridge which many prisoners died building.
- 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 squirrels 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.
- Hang Đức Mẹ (short and easy; ~500 m uphill on stone pathway and steps) - Hang Đức Mẹ is a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin Mary. To get there, drive uphill past the ticket office and past a few driveways that lead to park structures, parking at the first roadside parking area marked by a sign and a path leading into the woods. Follow the path which eventually forks and turn right (the turn will be obvious from signs). Ascend the stairs to reach the grotto; the left fork is longer and leads to a beach.
- Ông Đụng Beach (short and easy; ~500 m downhill on stone path with steps) - To get to the entrance to this trail, continue past the entrance to Hang Đức Mẹ and park at the second roadside parking area (continuing farther will lead to a dead end). Descend the steps and you will soon reach the beach; though on the smaller and rockier side, it is peaceful and seldom crowded with trees for shade and some swings on the shore, as well as a ranger station and bathrooms. Also opportunities to encounter some of the local monkeys.
- Sở Rẫy (moderately strenuous; a bit over a kilometer up a steep hill and rougher trail) - The trail to Sở Rẫy is harder to find than others, but rewarding as at the time lies an abandoned colonial plantation once worked by prisoners and an observation tower with excellent views of Côn Sơn town and the sea. To find the trail entrance from the town, head down Võ Thị Sáu as if you were going to the park office, but instead of taking the uphill fork to the right, continue on the level road to the left (Huỳnh Thúc Kháng). Keeping going and watch on your right for a sign tucked between a residence and an automotive business; it is easy to miss! If you are coming from the park office, take the sharp left at the bottom of the hill to reach this road, You may also come from the direction of Miếu An Sơn temple, in which case you simply turn left from the parking lot and watch to your left for the sign (though the sign is considerably harder to spot from this direction). The trail first goes between two properties and can be at first hard to follow as some of the vegetation grows quite freely and the trail sometimes seems to go on top of a low wall. Soon, however, the trail becomes clear as it enters the forest. It is an uneven trail, but well-marked with informative signs along the way. You will soon find a steep, rocky trail; watch your step here! At the top of the hill lies Sở Rẫy, the plantation's ruins straight ahead and the observation tower down a short path to the right. There are few interpretive signs, but the old buildings can be fun to explore.
- The park guides will generally shepherd you though the woods, stop and have a few shots of whiskey with their buddies, then shepherd 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 its 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 SSI, owned by an American. Having completed more than 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.
- Snorkeling: Con Dao Explorer offers daily tours including snorkeling trip to Bay Canh or Hon Cau island. ☏ , ☏
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.
- Bar200, Pham Van Dong. Near the market, and associated with Senses diving, serves decent western food, cocktails and good breakfasts.
- 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 US$15-35 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. USD1200-3300.
- 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 US$5,000 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 US$30,000. 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 US, they do cover people from all over the world for as little as US$1 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.
- Crime 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 than 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.