The Con Dao Islands of Vietnam

The Con Dao Islands of Vietnam

michael carterWhere in the world are the Con Dao Islands?

If you happen to be wandering around Vietnam or are looking for your next tropical adventure, head east of Ho Chi Minh City to the port city of Vung Tau. The Con Dao Island group is a cluster of 16 islands located about 80 km offshore from Vung Tau. A now-daily high-speed catamaran service connects the mainland with Con Son, the only permanently inhabited island of the bunch. Traveling there takes about four hours overall.

A Con Dao Anecdote: The Day of My Arrival

Just past high noon, the ”cat” docks at the harbor, which is about 12 km from Con Son town. Con Son claims the title of largest community on the islands, proudly housing approximately 7,000 denizens. In Vung Tau, I had hooked up with a fellow intrepid traveler, Jim. Jim and I grew up in the same Canadian town; additionally, this was the first trip to Con Dao for either of us.

A-frame cottages at Con Dao Camping

I don’t know the collective noun for taxi drivers offhand, so I’ll use the term ‘annoyance’. Hordes of taxi drivers waited as we disembarked, certainly eager to offer their services. “Where are you staying?”, “Where do you want to go?” Impossible questions to answer, as neither of us had ever been there before and therefore, had absolutely no idea.

We decided to incorporate the distraction of snapping a few photos of the undeniably scenic harbor as an opportunity to ignore the mini-fleet of vultures. Soon, a bus pulled up beside us and the driver opened its doors — ”jump in,” he welcomed with hand gestures.

“How much?”

No reply.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked in broken English.

“Don’t know, somewhere near the center of town.”

Understood or not, the hand gesture came into play again.

I felt unquestionably uneasy as we boarded a bus going to an unknown destination with no set price. We were the only passengers. Ah yes, the joys of an intrepid traveler.

When there appeared to be enough buildings surrounding us to indicate we happened to be in some sort of town, we requested to get off. How much did we have to pay? Absolutely nothing!

Café Soleil

As we stepped off the bus, I noticed a sign on a tree that read ”Piano Café.” Across the street, a small, open-air spot named Café Soleil beckoned. The only person in sight was a bare-chested, middle-aged man. We ordered two ca phê den da, which they didn’t have. Fortunately, Mr. Bare Torso walked a couple of doors down the road and got two for us.

Coffee shop in Vietnam. Best Vietnamese coffee in town.

A woman and a small kid soon appeared. She almost immediately touched my arm and smiled. After returning, the guy wrote a number on a piece of paper. He then wrote 1975 and pointed to himself — indicating his year of birth. He handed the pen and paper to me, particularly intent. In an effort to humor him, I wrote 1976 and pointed to my chest. A confused look washed over his face and he shook his head in disbelief. I decided to come clean and wrote my true year of birth. He gave me a thumbs-up and revealed the other number he had written — 2047. The soothsayer foretold my longevity. I am not going to die until 2047.

Despite their hospitality, we still felt damned hot. Plus, we still didn’t exactly know where we were or where we were going to stay.

Hospitality Abounds

Jim had one of those so-called “smartphones” that some people seem to enjoy carrying around these days. With the aid of his contraption, he located a nearby place that promised something good to eat. Other than the three early morning beers on the boat, my stomach was empty. After a feed, we could ask around for accommodation options.

A tree in Con Son Town, Con Dao Islands, Vietnam

The phone map touted a restaurant called Villa Maison, supposedly only about three or four blocks away. As we headed out, an idle taxi saw us hauling our bags,  filled mostly with wine we had brought over from Vung Tau. He asks the usual “where do you want to go?” question.

“It’s OK, it’s not far. We’ll walk.”

“Come in,” he says, utilizing the traditional hand gestures that graduates of Con Dao Bus & Taxi Driving Schools are required to master.

The Villa Maison was indeed only about three blocks away. The taxi driver charged us… absolutely nothing! (Now I know for sure I was certainly on a different planet.)

A friendly Villa Maison waitress welcomed us with cold, wet face towels, a lemon drink, and iced water. No charge.

Without a doubt, great first-day hospitality all around.

What to do for a few days?

Relax. If you want nightlife, head back to Vung Tau. We ended up staying at a property known as Con Dao Camping. Not camping as we know it, but rather a collection of A-frame cottages that snoozed beneath some trees, necklacing a fine beach. I spent a lot of time reading, writing, and thinking that life was a breeze. Tourists and residents alike consider Con Dao a peaceful existence, but it hadn’t always been thought of that way.

Entrance to Trai Phu Hai Prison on the Con Dao Islands.

At one time, many called this island the Hell of Southeast Asia. The French called it the Devil’s Island of the east. Why? The island used to house some of the most notoriously horrific prisons. Wardens kept their prisoners in horrendous conditions. It was here that people were subjected to in the infamous Tiger Cages. This is an article on its own, but do some research on the Internet if you don’t know about the tortuous Tiger Cages.

Michael standing behind prison bars in Trai Phu Hai Prison

I spent a morning walking through the worst prison on the island, as well as a couple of smaller ones. They were truly despicable places.

More Than Horrific Prisons

But there is more to do than reading, writing, and hanging out in prisons. When you decide to get out of Con Son town and explore the island a little more, the best option is likely to rent a motorbike. Another option is what Jim and I decided to do — hire an elephant taxi. NO, not an actual elephant, but electric vehicles that act as a major taxi service both in Con Son town and around the island.

An Elephant Taxi. One of the many unique elephant taxis.

We stopped off at various near-deserted beaches. We spent probably too much time dangling from cliff faces that dropped off into the ocean, snapping a lot of pictures.

Rather than writing a lot of words using repetitive adjectives to describe ”scenic,” I’ll let some of the pictures speak for themselves.

The Life of Lassitude Comes to an End

This was a whirlwind 10-day trip to Vietnam from neighboring Cambodia. I spent six of those days visiting Con Dao.

With every departure from a new destination, I am always torn as to whether I will ever get to — or want to — return, or whether I will continue to seek out new destinations. I’ve been to Vietnam numerous times but this was my first to these islands. I think I’ll go back someday, but for the time being, my quest is to visit what is the unknown for me. If you happen to follow my adventures on Dreams Abroad, I hope to introduce you to both recently- visited places and newly- discovered ones.

To read more about Michael’s island adventures, check out Michael’s Tioman Tale Part One and his Tioman Tale Part Two!

53 thoughts on “The Con Dao Islands of Vietnam

  1. What sensational writing, Michael. Your piece really transported me to those Islands. So many, many miles away.

    1. Thanks. Many people have had their travel plans derailed this year so reading and writing about travel offers a small escape at least.

  2. Wow that seems like an amazing adventure! It is always fun checking out new places, and as always, great pictures!

    1. I’ve travelled in every country of what is considered as South East Asia, with the exception of Timor Leste. I find the entire region to be incredibly diverse and interesting. But if I had to choose just one favourite, in many aspects it would be Vietnam.

  3. Some of the elephant taxis are pretty basic looking but most are fixed up and decorated as if the owners were trying to out-do one another.

  4. I have travelled from North to south of Vietnam, but I must have missed The Con Dao Islands. Hoepfully when the travel ban lifts I can visit here

    1. They used to be a bit inconvenient to reach. (Plane or slow overnight boat only). I think it was around October/November of 2018 when the catamaran service from Vung Tau started up. Hopefully Con Dao doesn’t lose its charm with the new influx of visitors. When I went, the passengers were at least 98% Vietnamese – so far so good regarding a tourist invasion. I hesitated to write this piece because I would really hate to see it become a ‘hot’destination.

  5. I have never been but sounds like you have a wonderful experience and adventure in that place. I just to visit that beautiful place, someday!

  6. Everyone I’ve spoken with recently has expressed their strong desire to get back on the travel circuit. I don’t think you’d regret putting Vietnam on your list.

  7. The pictures of the scenic beaches definitely describe them better than words! What a lovely island. I would love to visit there after quarantine ends.

    1. When writing about things such as beaches and sunsets, it becomes difficult to avoid over-used (and therefore under-effective) adjectives to describe them. A picture truly is worth a thousand words in these circumstances.

  8. Oh my goodness, Con Dao Islands looks like such a lovely place to visit and explore. I hope that after this whole COVID thing settles, I’ll be able to go visit myself!

  9. To Emily, Amber & Orlie above – My response to your comments is similar. I think it is safe to say that anyone reading articles on this website has an interest in travel/adventure/new experiences. Let’s collectively cross our fingers and hope we can soon resume unabated travel ambitions.

  10. It’s nice story at Con Dao Island.
    Actually most Vietnamese people come to the island for their spiritual trip to Hang Duong Ceremony. That’s where you will find it crowded at night.

  11. I spoke with a couple of Vietnamese women on the boat going to Con Son. They enlightened me on some of the history I wasn’t aware of even though I had done a bit of research beforehand. Their mission was to go to Hang Duong Cemetery for the spiritual purpose you talk about.
    Thanks for reminded me of this point.

  12. You are BRAVE! To jump on a bus not knowing where you were going and not even have a hostel/hotel booked?!?!?! Man oh man! It looks like you had an amazing time and I can’t wait to hear more about your adventures.

    1. Venturing into the unknown is what travel is all about to me. The age old question is – What is the difference between a traveller and a tourist. The best reply I’ve ever heard to this is – A traveller doesn’t know where s/he is going; a tourist doesn’t know where s/he has been.

  13. You are much braver than I am when traveling to destinations off the beaten path. My heart wants to go but my head says no.

  14. I have been to Hanoi, Vietnam before but not yet Con Dao Islands. This is the first time I heard about the place. I hope to check it out soon.

  15. Rose Ann & Catalina above. Glad I could tweak your interest _- although I do hope the islands don’t become TOO discovered.

  16. What serene beach and lovely place. Vietnam is in my bucket list and I would consider Con Dao Island too.

    1. Thanks for your comment. and I hope you make it there some day. I mentioned before in my responses and I will repeat again here – Vietnam is one of my favourite countries in this region. Perhaps I should try to land a job as a spokesperson for their tourist board. (ha-ha)

  17. That looks like such a beautiful place. I’m loving all these great photos. Vietnam has always been on my list. I would love to visit some day.

  18. It looks perfect, not crowded with tourists. I enjoy discovering hidden gems. And the pic of that Elephant Taxi, stunning.

    1. Not crowded (yet) with foreign tourists. Hopefully it can retain that quaintness as much as possible. I feel a bit guilty revealing this information of Con Dao – but if I didn’t do it, someone else would.

    1. This history is indeed interesting. If you read about this place a bit before visiting, you will be able to see what an important role it played in Vietnam’s history.

  19. I would love to visit Vietnam, especially the Con Dao Island someday! I love Vietnamese food and of course I love learning history!

    1. Yes, they do – or at least they did when I was there.(mid-2019)
      During my visit, I noticed a place called Rainbow Divers – but apparently they had closed. I also had dinner at a place called Bar 200 – which was more of an eatery and less of a bar, as they closed when business tailed off – in my case, around 8:00 p.m. I believe the owner was South African. Anyway, he would tell all who would listen that his pizza was second-to-none, world class. (It was far from it). But he did seem to have a thriving diving business going, and at the time, this seemed to be the go-to guy for it. It wasn’t cheap though.

    1. I wish I could go there now as well. And I’m currently just next door in Cambodia. The border restrictions between the two countries have loosened a bit for Cambodians & Vietnamese, but foreigners still face quarantines and various other costly nuisances if they want to go. I’m hoping to pay a visit soon though.
      I’m glad you found that the pictures help tell the full story of this trip.

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