Con Dao Islands, located some 100 km off the southern coast of Vietnam, is an archipelago of 16 small islands and islets. Rated as one of undiscovered places in Southeast Asia by The Guardian, the natural beauty of Con Dao is made up of windy bays filled with unspoiled beaches, sweeping arcs of sand, rolling green mountains, and dramatic cliffs that abut the sea.
But that truly ravishing picture offers little clue to the history of a place once called “hell on earth” that terrified many generations of Vietnamese people. For 113 years, Con Son, the largest of the islands, was home to one of the country’s harshest prison systems established by the French colonists in 1862 and later used by the American-backed government until 1975 when the fall of Saigon marked the end of Vietnam War. Thousands of political rebels and criminals were held in 11 jails that spreading along the shore of Con Son in horrific conditions. The most famous site in this prison system is the French Tiger Cages which consist of 120 chambers with ceiling bars and 60 solariums no roof. The cages, which were deliberately constructed hidden from the main prison and only accessed by a narrow passage, remained unknown until 1970, when a U.S. congressional delegation investigating the Vietnam War discovered and exposed them to the world.
Nowadays, there are four jails are open to visitors, namely Phu Hai, Phu Tuong, Phu Binh and Phu An. Con Dao remains a place of pilgrimage for most of Vietnamese people, especially former prisoners, travel every year to pay respects to senior Vietnam political leaders and thousands of people who died for the country’s independence and freedom. One of the most famous heroes is Vo Thi Sau, an anti-French resistance fighter who was arrested and executed by the French when she was just 18 years old. By that reason, she was considered as a nationalist martyr and a symbol of revolutionary spirit.
The images of the 3-meter high grey stone walls, the blue-green painted windows, hundreds of human-sized models of emaciated naked prisoners, closely chained together in rows offer a stern but powerful reminder of the island’s dark past. For many people, it is the prison that makes the greatest impression on Con Dao, not the beaches.
Despite of its tragic history, Con Dao remains one of Vietnam’s most untouched places. Its remote location together with its past as an inland prison helped to keep the island’s beaches almost empty and clean. About 13 km northeast of Con Son town is the crescent-shaped Dam Trau beach – the island’s most beautiful beach with soft golden sand, turquoise water and the serene only disrupted by flights from the mainland to the nearby airport.
Nearly 83% of the archipelago’s total area is protected by the Con Dao National Park including a marine protected area which is home to sea turtles, dolphins, the dugong and some species indigenous to Con Dao like long-tailed macaque monkeys and black squirrels. The island is said to be the country’s best diving place with clear waters and rich fine coral reefs at Hon Bay Canh, where the endangered hawksbill and green turtles lay their eggs on fine sand during the nesting season between April and September. Those crave for some soft adventures can participate in exciting hiking trails arranged by the Con Dao National Park through dense tropical jungles. The rewards after several trekking hours are immaculate beaches with almost nobody and an untouched nature.
When most popular coastal towns in Vietnam like Nha Trang or Mui Ne are being descended by millions of travelers every year, Con Dao’s laid-back pace of life and spectacular beauty remain largely undisturbed. These are more than enough to attract tourists especially those who seek to a getaway from the bustling life. History still goes along with the island and its 7,000 residents. Relics of the prison system are still standing as a testimony to the dark chapter with torture, imprisonment and death. No one can ignore. Be awed at breathtaking sunset or listen to the dreadful silence of the jails, Con Dao always offers a mixed experience that will never leave its visitors.
Con Dao archipelago is accessible within an hour’s flight from Ho Chi Minh City or Can Tho. Vietnam Airline is the only airline operates direct flights to the island. Con Dao Airport is 15 kilometers northeast of Con Son Town.
A cheaper way is by Superdong speed boat from Tran De port in Soc Trang province. Every day, there is one roundtrip with boat departing from Tran De at 8:00 AM and returning from Con Dao at 1:00 PM. The ticket price is 310,000 VND or approximately $14 per way. It takes about 2.5 hours to get to Ben Dam Port on Con Son Island. From here, you can take shuttle bus to the Con Son town which is located 12km away.
Vivian – June 2018