Introducing Con Dao Islands
Isolated from the mainland, the Con Dao Islands are one of the star attractions in Vietnam. Long the Devil’s Island of Indochina, the preserve of political prisoners and undesirables, this place is now turning heads thanks to its striking natural beauty. Con Son, the largest of this chain of 15 islands and islets, is ringed with lovely beaches, coral reefs and scenic bays, and remains partially covered in thick forests. In addition to hiking, diving and exploring empty coastal roads and deserted beaches, there are some excellent wildlife-watching opportunities.
Con Son Island (with a total land area of 20 sq km) is also known by its Europeanised Malay name, Ile Poulo Condore (Pulau Kun-dur), which means ‘Island of the Squashes’. Although it seems something of an island paradise, Con Son was once hell on earth for the thousands of prisoners who languished in confinement during the French- and American-backed regimes.
Roughly 80% of the land area in the island chain is part of Con Dao National Park, which protects Vietnam’s most important sea turtle nesting grounds. For the last decade the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has been working with local park rangers on a long-term monitoring program. During nesting season (May to November) the park sets up ranger stations to rescue threatened nests and move them to the safe haven of hatcheries.
Other interesting sea life around Con Dao includes the dugong, a rare and seldom-seen marine mammal in the same family as the manatee. Dugongs live as far north as Japan, and as far south as the subtropical coasts of Australia. Their numbers have been on a steady decline, and increasingly efforts are being made to protect these gentle creatures. Major threats include coastal road development, which causes the destruction of shallow-water beds of seagrass, the dugong’s staple diet.
Con Dao is one of those rare places in Vietnam where there are very few structures over two storeys, and where the visitor experience is almost hassle-free. Owing to the relatively high cost and the inaccessibility of the islands, mass tourism has thankfully been kept at bay.
Even today, most visitors to Con Son are package-tour groups of former VC soldiers who were imprisoned on the island. The Vietnamese government generously subsidises these jaunts as a show of gratitude for their sacrifice. However, travellers are discovering the islands and numbers are on the rise, so it is only a matter of time before these little islands become a big attraction.
The driest time to visit Con Dao is from November to February, although the seas are calmest from March to July. The rainy season lasts from June to September, but there are also northeast and southwest monsoons from September to November that can bring heavy winds. In November 1997 typhoon Linda unleashed her fury here: 300 fishing boats were lost, reefs were wiped out and the forests flattened. September and October are the hottest months, though even then the cool island breezes make Con Dao relatively comfortable when compared with HCMC or Vung Tau.
Change has been almost glacial compared with the mainland resorts of Nha Trang and Mui Ne, but things are really starting to move. The arrival of the super-luxurious Six Senses is a sign of the times and puts Con Dao on the map for the international jet-set. Watch this space.