9. Con Dao – a beautiful island

11.08.2015 – 15.08.2015

The final place to visit during this trip was Con Dao – an island 150 km way from the mainland, and therefore off the usual tourists route.
Before booking the flights I got in touch with the local dive centre DiveDiveDive. The American owner Larry provided great advise, and kept me updated about the weather, which helped me avoiding a wet and very windy weekend.

But finally I was on the 05:55 Vietnam Airline flight from HCMC The little propeller machine was fully booked, but there was only one further foreigner on board – otherwise there were only Vietnamese travelling with quite a lot of luggage. I found out later why.
The flight is less than an hour, unfortunately I fell asleep so I missed the apparently nice landing at the airport on the island, located next to the beach.

The airport is located in the north of the island, and most accommodations are in the main village Con Son centre of the island. There is no public transport on the island, but I read that taxis try to overcharge tourists, so it is better to ask one of the minibuses from the hotels to get to Con Son for 50.000 Dong. But before heading out Freek, a Dutch and the only other non-Vietnamese passenger, and I were approached by a woman telling us that there are no minibuses, and soon it was agreed that we and a Vietnamese girl get a taxi for 50.000 Dong into the village. We got dropped off near the dive centre at the western end of the village without any hassle. The hotel recommended was near the dive centre, and by chance Freek stayed next door.

Con Son Island guesthouse is a good place to stay. Located on the far south side of the village, near the pier and the dive centre, close to some food places, and a 15 minute walk from the village centre. The en-suite room was spacious and clean, with a comfortable bed. The owners speak very little English, but you can still communicate with them. For 400.000 Dong it was a good deal.

After settling in it was time for breakfast. There was a little food place next door serving the usual Pho, grilled meat (it smelled good) and Banh Mi. I have eaten there twice, and Pho and cam dish are very nice. It was a good chance for Freek and me to get to know each other. Apparently we both came here for the same reason – to check if this really is the best dive place in Vietnam.
So after breakfast we headed around the corner to Dive!Dive!Dive!, one of three dive centres on the island. I communicated with the owner Larry quite a bit, and he was more then helpful the whole time. We met Larry and his partner in the shop, and both of them are great people. You could easily sit down and listen to Larry’s stories for hours. You instantly feel how much he cares for the island. I can only recommend to head to Dive!Dive!Dive!, even if you don’t want to dive. The information and advise you can get there about the island is priceless. You can also hire bicycles and motorbikes. An automatic costs 120.000 Dong per day. Unlike in other places you get the bike with a full tank, and you just return it with a full tank (I only saw one petrol station in Con Son). In addition you get a good map of the island with recommended places to visit, eat and drink. And we even got fins and snorkels for free. So you got everything needed for the island. And obviously, they offer dive tours. They offer a normal day trip with two dives (or snorkelling) or a day trip with two day dives, one night dive and dinner served on the boat. However, due to low amount of foreign tourists on the islands trips are not running every day, and costs are higher than in Hoi An or Nha Trang. Thankfully we were lucky and others were interested in the full day trip, so we booked the big tour. I was really looking forward to it.

However, due to the information I got from Larry regarding the treatment of turtles, and the role of the National park I decided not to go ahead with a tour I was really interested in – a trip to see the turtles nesting on an island close by. Hearing that turtles get killed to get to the eggs inside or to serve them as food (despite the fact it is illegal) I didn’t want to support the organisations involved. So I didn’t do one of the main attractions on the island.

Instead it was time to explore the island by scooter. Usually I di not hire a bike in Vietnam, but there is hardly any traffic on the island, and the roads are in decent condition. So it is ok to do so. And it is the perfect way to travel around here.
The island itself has a limited road network. The main road leads from the airport in the north along the coast to the west of the island. There is also a road leading into the centre of the island from on Con Son, which is then connected to the other main road near the beach. There are also some smaller dirt road. So overall it is easy to navigate around the island.
In addition of the beaches Con Dao is a popular place for Vietnamese to come there because of the (sad) history of the island. In the past it was used by the French and the US as a prisoner island, and thousand have died here. There are quite a few memorial sites around the island, a constant reminder of the terrible crimes committed on the island.

With our bikes we were heading to the west of the island – driving along the south coast. The scenery here on the island is just spectacular. One moment you pass a beautiful beach and suddenly you drive long the coast with hills that reminded me more of The Scottish Highlands than an island in Vietnam. You could easily stop every two minutes to enjoy the view. We followed the road until it stopped at the western end of the island.
The plan was to leave the bikes here and go for a little walk, but this was changed immediately when a large group of locals having food and drinks there spotted us. We got instantly invited, and suddenly had some cold beer and grilled meat (normal meat as well as inner parts) in front of us. It was a great atmosphere, with lots of laugh. I am not sure who had more the fun, the two foreigners or the locals

 

. When they left I was impressed that they picked up all the garbage, and then all items (buckets full of garbage, a little bbq etc.) were loaded onto two bikes, and the rest of them were picked up by a little truck. I am sure a few more would have fitted on the car.
After the surprise lunch we just climbed up a little hill where a tower is, climbing up the ladder you get rewarded with a great view of the surrounding area. A good place to go if you are not afraid getting up a not-very-solid-tower.

We headed back to Con Son to visit two important sites on Con Dao. Within the village, close to the pier is a museum in a beautiful colonial building, highlighting the history of the island. Unfortunately the signs explaining maps and pictures are only in Vietnamese, so without a guide it is difficult to get a feel for the place.
Another important site in the village (just outside on the main road) is the old French Prison Trai Phu Tuong. This place should be a must-see. It shows the conditions the prisoners lived in, with small cages where they were hoarded, some even without a roof. It is not difficult to imagine why so many have died here. Life-size prisoner and guard dummies added to the impressions. We arrived quite late, so we only had 30 minutes time – an hour would have been much better.

Late afternoon the beach and road next to the pier becomes alive – the beach gets busy with kids playing football, families enjoying a swim in the sea, and a few stalls selling grilled meat, drinks and other snacks appearing on the street. The water was a great way to cool down, though the and in the water was muddy, and not as nice as other beaches. Also as the pier is nearby you will see some oil and petrol in the water. So it is a nice place to watch the locals and to cool down a bit, but there are much better places for some beach time. Still, a visit in the afternoon is recommended, even if it is on,y to have a coffee at the café opposite the pier.

For dinner we headed to one of the recommended restaurants – Thu Ba. It is located near the market, and from the hotel it is 15-20 minute walk. As I wanted to have a few beer we walked there – while it was raining. I was glad that we found it to get dry. Thu Ba is a larger restaurant, with good service and great food. When on an island I try to eat as much seafood as possible, and the prawns and squid was very tasty.
On our way back I still found some space in my belly for a little snack from a food stall – once again a great little treat.
Instead of heading to a bar we bought some beer and heading out of the village to the south – following the road we drove on earlier. We stopped next to some hills, sat down, enjoying a cold beer and a great view. Except of the lights coming from the fishing boats in the distance, there was no other light, and no noise. So it was a great place to watch the clear sky. It is difficult to find such spots, so you should enjoy them whenever you can. A great way to end a day.

The next day it was time to explore another part of the island. We read about a hill in the national park that offers a great view over the whole island. From there you could walk then to one of the northern beaches.
So after getting a delicious Banh Mi at the market (the stall is at the entrance from the main road into the food court) we headed out of the village via the northern road. When leaving the village you pass two more historic sites, a little prison and a working site of the prisoners. You can walk around the working site, but I couldn’t enter the prison.
The road then leads to the middle of the islands, seeing more jungles, streams and fields. It is a different feel to the coastal road. Unfortunately we couldn’t find the headquarter of the National Park (it is located on the left hand side when crossing a little bridge) to buy a ticket for the park. Continuing on the road I stopped to look around, when a group of soldiers, equipped with rifles and shovels, passed me. The officer saw my confused face and pointed towards a little path heading up a hill. I nodded and drove up the path, but after a few minutes it didn’t look like going to the office. So I turned back and drove pass the soldiers again. The officers stopped me, gave his rifle to one of the soldiers, and suddenly jumped onto my bike, and giving me directions. With a soldier riding pillion on my bike I had no choice to do as told, and headed back to the path. The locals we passed (and Freek) looked surprised about our military escort. Obviously I rode more careful (I still remembered the rifle), and after driving into a forest we stopped next to some stairs leading to a little path. Apparently we arrived near the northern beach Ong Dung Beach. The officer was clearly happy that he helped us, we accepted our faith that we wouldn’t head up the hill. It was now Freek’s turn to give the soldier a lift to his group again. I must admit, it was a first to have the military leading the way…

A little path through the jungle (you really feel the humidity here) brings you to Ong Dung beach, a little secluded beach. It is not a beautiful beach, instead of sand it was a rock beach (the sand was under water). However, it is very quiet. There are some benches and table to sit down, and a few locals were working on a house. Unfortunately they only sold some warm soft drinks. So you should bring enough water to this part. The water here is clear and offers some nice swimming. And it is a good place to snorkel, so bring mask, snorkels and fins with you – you can see some corals and lots of fish. I didn’t know until later that if you swim 150m out you reach a larger coral reef.
When not swimming you can enjoy the peaceful atmosphere, and you will most likely meet the local monkey, who enjoys the attention of the visitors. One warning though – look after your belonging. I stored my bag in the house, while Freek wrapped his bag around a tree – but this didn’t stop the monkey to bite its way through the bag to get something out.
While relaxing with a book a Dutch Czech couple joined us on the beach, but instead driving up there they somehow found their way here walking from a little path leading off the main road. So there seems to be some nice walking opportunities around there.
Later in the afternoon it was time to head off. Not fancy another 2 hour walk Freek and I gave Marco and Monica a lift to their bike and headed then to Thua Tam for a very early dinner. It is located near the guesthouse on the road towards the west exit of the village. It was recommended by DiveDiveDive, and the selection of food we ordered (rice, seafood and fish) was great. And like many other places they had a few tanks with the fish on offer still swimming around. Unfortunately two days later we found out that they serves turtle meat. So please do not visit the place and spend money there. Larry removed it from his list immediately when heard about it.

I spent a bit more time to enjoy the atmosphere next to the pier, and on my way to the shops I passed a street full of food stalls along a street selling fish and seafood. The selection look great. From the pier head east and turn left before you pass a little park. Follow that road and you get there. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to eat there.

One of the most important sites on Con Dao is the Hang Duong cemetery, where most victims of the prisons re buried. The best time is to head there lte night, as it is the time when the Vietnamese tourists go there to pay respect to the dead.
After enjoying a delicious Pho near the market and having a great shake in a café opposite the petrol station (try the mango or papaya shake – they are one of the best I ever had…) I met Freek and headed to the cemetery. It is just outside of the village, very easy to find. If you head there in the dark take a scooter or taxi, it is not a nice walk in the dark.
The cemetery is really looked after, and even in the darkness it looked impressive. It is divided into different sections with graves, though mot of it lies in the dark. Following the path (or just the other visitors) you get to one section lid by lights, fires and candles. There is a shrine between the graves, and here the Vietnamese deliver their offerings. And now I understood why all passengers on my flight carried so many bags with them – it was solely for this purpose. I saw groups arriving with trolleys full of food, flowers and other items.
After putting the offering on the shrine some took incense sticks to put them next to graves where the previous sticks were finish – the visitors and staff made sure there was always a burning incense stick next to the grave.
Just standing there, seeing the locals and amount of graves, you cannot help but being sad. It was really moving. It is not a place shouting out with pictures and big sings, it is a place to remember the victims of terrible crimes.
After heading o the memorial located on the end of the path it was nearly midnight when driving back to the hotel. It was the time where I was rather quiet and thoughtful, taking in what I have seen. Travelling to Con Dao this really is the only must-do. But please show respect when visiting this important site for the Vietnamese.

Before the dive trip started at noon the next day I headed out with the scooter again. Buying another Banh Mi at the market I drove to the main road in the middle on the island. Before crossing a little bridge there is a café. It is located in a great place, and full with locals. Perfect for my early morning ca fe sua da and my Banh Mi. One of the staff saw me taking pictures of the surroundings in front of the café, came out and offered to take pictures of me. Says everything about the service you can expect there.
I followed the main road cutting through the island until I came to the lotus lake. Actually, there are two lakes on both sides of the road, full of flowers. It is a beautiful place, especially with the mountains in the background. You could also watch the locals trying to catch their dinner or lunch there. From here I also spotted the local temple located on top of a hill. To reach it you have to get to the little smaller parallel road, either by driving through a dirt road or heading back into the centre where you will a crossing to turn left. The final path leading to the temple is small and steep. But the reward is worth the trip. The temple itself is very nice, but it is the view from up there. It is just stunning, the blue sea and the beaches ahead of you, and as soon you turn you can see part of the island. There is actually a little path heading further up the hill. Maybe not the easiest place to find, but worthwhile the effort.

At noon the dive trip started – we were 6 people, Freek and I the only qualified divers, but Marco and Monika joined us on board as well. The Dive!Dive!Dive! boat was bespoked for divers with a platform to enter and exit the water safely. Water, cakes and fruits were available for free, while soft drinks was extra. On board we were joined by Larry and his dive guides Son and Amy – from Edinburgh. You really find Scots everywhere. And of course a captain and, very important, a chef.
We headed off to our first dive sites. It took an hour to get there, but it was nice to sit back and see the island from the sea. The briefing before the dive was short and spot on, and after getting the gear on, I was in the water with Son and Freek. The 1 hour dive was just great. Visibility was a bit limited thanks to the rain the day before. But Son clearly knows the area, and was able to show us the areas full of fish and corals. You can clearly see the different to Cham islands, the corals look healthy and not damaged. It was a great dive – and as a bonus I saw my first ever lion fish
The second dive was equally good, the highlight was to see my first clownfish, and seeing some moonfish swimming around us during the our safety stop. I couldn’t have asked for more.

On the way to the spot for dinner and night dive we could sit back to enjoy the peaceful sea to watch the sun setting slowly. Our dinner place was 30 minutes away from the harbour, close to one of the little islands around this area. The place was just perfect for the sunset. Dinner on board was just great. A selection of fish, prawns, squid, spring rolls, rice paper, noodles and rice and vegetables. The chef on board really knows how to cook. Unfortunately I had to make sure I didn’t eat too much before the final dive. And I could have had much more from the great food.

Then the night dive started. I never done a night dive before, so I was looking forward to it. Larry provided everyone with strong torches, and in addition Freek and I got a second, weaker torch, which was better for taking pictures (a Go-Po is not the perfect choice for night dives). With three divers and three guides (Larry joining us with his camera) we were back in the water – and it felt strange diving into the dark (still pleasantly warm) water. It was one of the most amazing things I have ever done. Everything looked so different. We spotted sea urchins everywhere, little fish were following me (swimming towards the light and into my shortie!!!). I even saw a sleeping kettle fish and a bamboo shark. Unfortunately I missed the little nurse shark. Still it was just amazing. After 50 minutes the dive was over. It was weird floating on the dark water, looking up into the stars and moon – it felt so relaxing. It is difficult to explain it to anyone who haven’t done it…except to say do it.

I was clearly not the only one who enjoyed it. The other divers and snorkelers were equally excited. No one felt being let down. At 9pm we were back at the pier, a perfect trip was over. I was unable to do anything but falling into my bed…

For my last full day I decided to explore more of the island. So after a last breakfast with Freek, who was leaving that morning, at the market (they serve a great Bun Cha dish inside the little food hall) I was off. Unfortunately I didn’t have anything to hold my GoPro onto the bike, so I turned Vietnamese and used celotape to connect it to the side mirror.
The first stop on my ride was just after the village – the US war prison Phu An camp and Trai Phu Binh. These two complexes looked a bit more modern, with a roof over each mass cell (no idea how many prisoners were perched into each cell). But they had the infamous tiger cages there. Prisoners couldn’t move in them, just lying flat on the face. Again, it is a sobering place to visit to learn more about the war in Vietnam.


Following the road you pass some nice scenery and views (as well as the luxurious Six Sense resort). Before the airport turn left onto a dirt road, which leads probably to the best beach on Con Dao – Dam Trau. It is located in a wider bay, with nice sand and clear blue water. There are no rocks in the water, so no need for shoes when going into the water. Unlike the other beaches here you find sun loungers and comfortable seats in one of three food places. I just made myself comfortable in one pillow seat in the middle place, looking out to the beach. I decided to take advantage of being on an island and ordered fresh crabs. I should have checked the menu a bit better. I got 1kg, or two full crabs served – all for 350.000 Dong.


After the tasty lunch I just used the time to relax and swim for a bit. The beach itself was empty though later that afternoon a few Vietnamese tourists turned up as well. But it still didn’t feel crowded. The peaceful atmosphere was sometimes interrupted when 2 planes  landed – the tarmac starts at the beach. But it didn’t ruin the place –  it added something to it. It is definitely a great place, and unlike the remote beach I visited earlier it was nice to get food and drinks served.

I spent the late afternoon once again near the pier in Con Son. I just liked the atmosphere there, and trying some of the little snacks. I caused some laughter when I told one of the women selling food “Em dep lam”, which was followed by clear hand signals to ask me if I want to take her to Europe. It was clearly entertaining for everyone around.

For dinner I headed to a little food place near the market for some soup. The food was good, and it was nice to watch the families sitting outside, and the kids running around. It was a reminder how un-touristy this main village of Con Dao feels. I finished my night with a last smoothie at the café opposite the petrol station (it was just too good not to return).

This was the end of a great trip. The next morning I was picked up at 6am by a minibus to get me for the red eye flight at 7:30 – the guesthouse arranged it for me, and like the taxi on arrival the price was 50.000 Dong.

Overall I loved Con Dao. Its non-touristy feel, the lack of big hotels and the beautiful scenery makes it a great place to visit. It beats the far more popular Pho Quoc by miles, even though Phu Quoc has nicer beaches. The high price to get there (return flight is around 3.500.000 Dong with Vietnam Airlines) and the lower standard of infrastructure might make it less interesting for other groups – so the island is still on few itineraries.  But if you prefer a low key place, with some great food, lovely locals who are still keen to talk to the few Westerners visiting the island (I only saw 10-15 other Westerners during my stay), some interesting but sad history and some nice diving – then Con Dao island won’t disappoint. It is a special place to visit.

Accommodation:
You won’t find very cheap backpacker places, or beach huts (though Con Dao camping comes close. Con Son Island is definitely a good choice. The owners are lovely and welcoming people (even with a lack of English), the room was good, and it was close to the pier, though a 10 – 15 minute walk to the market. Would stay there again.

Recommendation:
The best thing to do when heading to Con Dao is to get in touch with Larry at Dive!Dive!Dive!. The diving on offer is great, and he can help you with getting around with some amazing advise. He is a great guy (as is his staff). And the diving offered is superb, good equipment and great guides. Worth every single Dong. For food go to Thu Ba, get a Banh Mi from the stall outside the food court next to the market, have the crab at Dam Trau beach – or just try the little snacks at the pier. Next time I would head to the stalls selling sea food on Duong Tran Huy Lieu. For places to visit go to Hang Duong cemetery at night – it is a moving place to be. The various prison buildings are also a must-see. But do not miss the great scenery on the island. Exploring it by scooter is a nice way – there is hardly any traffic.
And again – do not visit Thu Kam restaurant, as they serve turtle meat

2 thoughts on “9. Con Dao – a beautiful island

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