On the geographical map of Vietnam, Con Dao is an archipelago of Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province and is located about 230 kilometers southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. Con Dao has an area of up to 76 square kilometers and it consists of 16 islands.
Con Son is the largest of the islands that make up the Con Dao Archipelago. The island’s remoteness and former use as a penal colony have kept it in relatively pristine condition: even today, 80% of Con Son is still forested. The thick canopy provides a habitat for all sorts of exotic-sounding animals endemic to the archipelago. The islands are rugged and mountainous, with the highest peak reaching 557m. The ocean is home to dugongs (sea cows) and sea turtles that lay their eggs on the beaches from March to August. The winter months on Con Son Island are generally dry, but rough seas and strong winds from the northeast make the island feel fantastically remote at this time of year. The summer months bring occasional monsoon rains, but the seas remain calm and clear, the bays beautiful and tranquil.
The Con Dao Islands are only a short flight from Saigon. Just forty-five minutes after taking off from the dust and bustle of the city, the propeller aircraft glides between a few tiny green dots in the East Sea, heading towards the short runway squeezed in at the eastern point of Con Son Island. To the right, the island’s jagged, sea-beaten north shore stretches to its western tip.
Between 1862 and 1975, tens of thousands of political prisoners were held on Con Son Island. The prisons, set up by the colonial French and later run by the South Vietnamese and Americans, became known as ‘university’ for a generation of independence activists from all over Vietnam. Some prisoners were famous independence advocates before entering the prisons, others grew to fame after being released from Con Son, having learnt much in the ‘Schools of Bolshevism’ on the island. Many, however, never left the island: they died from malnourishment, mistreatment, hard labour, or were executed. An estimated 22,000 prisoners lost their lives on Con Son Island.
The prisons closed in 1975. Since then, Vietnamese come on sombre pilgrimages to remember national heroes or relatives who were imprisoned or died on the island. Perhaps the most famous of all the victims of the Con Son prisons is Vo Thi Sau. Involved in anti-colonial activities from the age of 14, she was eventually captured by the French and imprisoned on Con Son. In 1952, at the age of 19, she became the first woman to be executed on the island. Today her grave is the sight of a nightly vigil where Vietnamese come to pay their respects with offerings, including combs and mirrors which symbolize her youth.
Bay Canh Island
Hon Bay is the second-largest island of the 16 islands in the Con Dao Islands. Located in the East of Con Dao, Hon Bay Canh is covered by primary forest, mangrove forest in tropical island ecosystem with 882 species of plants and nearly 150 species of animals. At this point, you will have the opportunity to dive into the coral reefs, fish and other marine life in coral reefs. There are a variety of types of coral species with different patterns like coral plate, table type, branch, block They are all in the Red Book of Vietnam. In addition, Hon Bay Canh has rich marine resources with dolphins, blue turtles, sea cows, rock snails, scalloped eared clams, sea cucumbers, butterfish, brain corals.
One characteristic of Hon Bay is the mangrove ecosystem. Con Dao mangrove forest is distributed mainly on the surface of dead coral reef, sand and soft clay. This is also the difference of Con Dao mangrove forests, so when tidal water is withdrawn, you can still walk easily in the forest, not as muddy as other places.
At night, you also learn about the life of a crayfish only in Con Dao that people used to call "tank crab". The crabs are very shy, just listen to the rustling of people walking on the ground, then they will hide. This is the largest crab fish in Vietnam with a length of carapace up to 10cm, one leg and the other is small but strong, strong enough to rip the leaves and eat the plants. One special thing about this species is that when the legs break, they can grow back. Scientists are still in the process of research and identifying this particular species.
Mui Ca Map (Shark Cape)
At the tip of the headland that juts out south of Con Son town is Mui Ca Map (Shark Cape). A fierce wind smacks the side of your scooter as the road twists around the cape to reveal the best view on the island. Looking down, you can see the road cutting along the coastline below the windswept southern slopes of Nui Thnh Gia, the highest mountain on Con Son Island. Big boulders that were dynamited during the construction of the road, (also paid for with prisoners’ lives), lie strewn on the sea side of the tarmac, decreasing in size as they roll down to meet the rice-white sand and gin-clear water of Nhat Beach, behind which the Jurassic Park-like island of Hon Ba looms. The swimming is excellent, especially before noon, when the water is often calmest, and when the tide is usually out so that more beach is exposed.
Con Son (An Hai) Beach
An Hai Beach is a sandy continuation of the harbourfront that stretches southwest of Con Son town. Fringed by palm trees and overlooked by green mountains, this beach is dotted with the only beachfront accommodation within walking distance of the town. However, even if you’re not staying at one of the beachfront resorts, you can still access this beach by walking or driving to the southernmost section of sand, where the road nearly meets the sea. The water here is clear and cool, and great for swimming. An hour or so before sunset, dozens of Vietnamese tourists and locals come out to play in the surf. It’s a great time to be here: watching the sun set behind Shark Cape, having a drink and snack from one of the street vendors, before walking back along the silent coast road, looking out at the anthracite ocean pricked with the glow of fishing boat lights.
Lo Voi Beach
At the northeastern end of Con Son town’s fabulous seafront promenade, Loi Voi Beach is a ribbon of white sand spreading out under a line of casuarina trees. It’s a gorgeous spot: the water is shallow and blue, there’s a constant sea breeze drifting through the trees, the wooden skeletons of wrecked fishing vessels lie entombed in the sand, and the rugged hills of Shark Cape lead out into the ocean to south. The beach is protected and calm, sheltered by a hilly headland. As always on Con Son Island, just as you’re wallowing in the tranquility of Lo Voi Beach, you’re reminded that the past stalks every corner of this island. During the century that Con Son served as a prison island, many of the remains of the thousands of prisoners who died in captivity were discarded under the casuarina trees between the road and the beach. A memorial plaque by the roadside, covered in fresh flowers and burning incense, serves as a reminder.
Dat Doc Beach
Although the vast majority of the sand at the western end of Dat Doc Beach is now owned (and conspicuously guarded) by the ultra-luxurious Six Senses Resort, the wider bay is just as appealing to swim, snorkel, wander, and find a large shady tree under which to camp for a few hours. The road runs very close to the coast, allowing you to park your motorbike on the verge and scramble down to a nice, isolated spot. At low-tide there are some sandy patches, but most of Dat Doc Bay is rocky. The views are dramatic and there’s no one around at all. The bay itself is protected from the winds and usually quite good for swimming. But if you swim be very careful not to go out too far, where the sea is exposed to the prevailing winds and the current can take you away.
Dam Trau Beach
In the northwest of the island, Dam Trau Beach is a sandy cove shaded by casuarina trees and flanked by rocky headlands covered in tropical foliage. Just a couple of years ago, the beach was only accessible via a sandy dirt lane through the foliage. Now, however, a wide new paved road has been constructed, ultimately to facilitate development of the beach. For now, Dam Trau is still very quiet and peaceful for most of the day. But, in the late afternoons, tour buses often arrive (they can do so now because of the new road) and disgorge dozens of visitors. However, there’s lots of space so the beach is never crowded.
Dam Trau is right next to the airport (the runway ends just as the tarmac meets the sand), so when the flights come in to land, everyone on the beach stops to gaze as the small propeller aircraft drift down over the sea. It’s nice to have some food and drink available on this side of the island, because previously the only place for refreshments was the airport cafe. A hundred metres before you reach the beach there’s a small shrine to Prince Cai.
Dam Tre Bay
Only accessible via a beautiful hiking trail through thick jungle, Dam Tre is a lagoon right at the northern tip of Con Son Island. The trek takes a couple of hours and should be made in the mornings, when the tide is out, so that when you arrive at Dam Tre the water level will be low enough to get down to the lagoon and bathe. Swimming here is a real treat, especially after the hot and sweaty walk. The water is beautiful and there’s good snorkeling too. (Remember to bring drinking water.) It’s a gorgeous spot, and it’s easier than ever to get here, since the pathway has recently been cleared and widened.
Ong Dung, Bang & Dat Tham Beaches
On the remote and undeveloped western coast, these three beaches (Ong Dung, Bang, and Dat Tham) can only be reached on foot. At the new National Park headquarters, in the hills just behind Con Son town, well-marked trails lead through the jungle to the other side of the island, where they descend to the waters’ edge. Although none of these beaches are particularly sandy, or even that good for swimming, they are peaceful, isolated and without any significant human interference.
Ben Dam Bay & Port
At the southern tip, the coast road ends at the island’s main fishing port of Ben Dam. Situated in a beautiful lagoon sheltered by Hon Ba Island, Ben Dam is as scenic a harbour as you could hope to find. The port itself is rather more prosaic: there’s a rough edge to Ben Dam despite its lovely setting, with red-faced drunken fishermen staggering up and down the pier. You wouldn’t really want to swim in the harbour, but the market by the pier has some fresh fruit and snacks, and you can watch the blue wooden fishing boats unload their silver fish into wicker baskets full of ice. From the pier it’s possible to hire a small boat for the short trip over to Hon Ba Island, where there’s a decent beach.