Con Dao Island travel guide and information
Today, Sapa Travel will show you how to travel Con Dao Island and when to visit
Con Dao islands are a group of 16 islands. The largest island is known as Con Son.
Con Dao served as a prison island for political prisoners during the French colonial era, when it was known as Poulo Condore, and in later years the Saigon regime imprisoned opponents of the regime in the infamous cells known as the “tiger cages”. The old prison buildings are still standing and are open to the public as is a small museum tracing the island’s history.
Besides having an interesting history, Con Dao is also an island of immense natural beauty with forested hills, deserted sandy beaches and extensive coral reefs making for some excellent diving.
Con Dao is another sad example of a National Park doing nothing to preserve the environment, however due its remote and little known location it has been preserved (So far) from the effects of development. 80% of the land area of the archipelago is a National park offering primary jungle teeming with interesting life such as the endemic black squirrel and the crab eating macaque. Beautiful beaches and hidden lagoons are also to be found here, with very few tourists Con Dao is a paradise off the beaten track. For now at least.
Most of the surrounding marine are is a no-take marine protected area (MPA). Sadly as in all of Vietnam the national park is a travesty. The national park is in no way responsible for the amazing health of the pristine reefs that surround the islands, home to a large variety of marine life incomparable to anywhere else in Vietnam.
Con Cao National Park is currently under going scrutiny of its operations by the World Wildlife Fund and The United Nations Development Program, both groups played a key role in the set up of the National park. Recently funding was withdrawn by another key aid organization DANIDA, as evidence was produced that they were operating in violation of their charter and that the Park was run for personal profit at the expense of the environment. Consider carefully and ask around on the island before using any of the National Park services. International oversight is desperately needed to be sure the environment abuses are halted. Recent reports to the National Park of the spotting of slaughtered turtle shells drying in the sun on the roof of the Anh Dao hotel have produced no inquiry, investigation or prosecution of the hotel.
How to get there
Con Dao Airport (IATA: VCS) is served by VASCO (a Vietnam Airlines [http://www.firstchoice.vn/vietnam/flights/ )
Flights operated by VASCO (Vietnam Airlines) may be booked at Vietnam Airlines offices or through most tour operators in Saigon. It may be better to book through an official Vietnam Airlines office or through their official website to avoid complications or scams.
There is an overnight ferry from Vung Tau Port (not the city centre, ask to be dropped off at 1007 D 30/4 and it’s a five minute walk from the main street) which takes around 12 hours and leaves at 5pm. The boat from Vung Tau only leaves on certain days and information on dates of departure is hard to obtain although when last checked, ferries were running daily when the seas are generally calm (March to July). The price is 250,000 VND for a bunk. The boat is divided in to large cabins each filled with a large number of bunks. There is no luggage storage so keep an eye on your valuables. There is a small noodle stall on the deck which also sells drinks and cigarettes. It’s also possible to stock up at the terminal with well priced supplies and takeaway food. Tickets can be purchased at the terminal up to an hour in advance. The trip can be rough and the boat is reasonably small. At Ben Dam port, on the main island of Con Son (pronounced like concern), minibuses greet passengers and cost 50,000 VND for the ride into town. They will drop you off at your hotel, if booked, or will take you one of their mate’s establishments if you haven’t.
There are several points worth noting about these services:
– The Con Dao (Con Son) Airport is on the far north end of the island and a long way from anything else. If you have booked a hotel they will arrange airport transfer for you.
– VASCO (Vietnam Airlines) operates ATR72-500 turboprop service on this route so overhead bin space is limited. Depending on your ticket VASCO/Vietnam Airlines will allow 10-20kg free baggage (Excess baggage is relatively inexpensive by international standards).
– Air Mekong no longer runs, they stopped running in February 2013.
– If you have not booked with a hotel and have your airport transfer arranged, getting into town is easy. There are a number of vans available coming to the airport for all the flights and the all of the hotel buses will be happy to take you along for 50,000 VND, (6/2013) they will even drop you at your destination if you know it.
– Taxis are also available depending on arrival time. Have your hotel information written down for your driver. See the next section for more information on taxis.
How to get around
On Foot Con Son Village is small, flat and easily traversed on foot. Because of the intense sun and very little shade on the streets walking is best left for the morning or evening.
Motorbikes can be easily rented and there is relatively little traffic. There has been an enormous increase in the number of motorbikes for rent, better deals are often found outside of hotels, as the hotels mark up the same bikes you can hire locally.There is only one petrol station on the island and it has very limited hours 7-10:30 a.m. and 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. Be sure to get a bike with a full tank of gas as there is none available for sale on the streets as in the rest of Vietnam. They are fun to ride but a drag to push around.
Driver You maybe able to arrange for your hotel to take you limited places for a fee.
Xe Om Motorbike taxis are easily found in Con Son Village. As in all of Vietnam most of these guys are hard working and honest, but there are a few scoundrels.
Taxis are becoming more plentiful on Con Dao. They are generally more expensive then the vans and buses, and presently there are no English speaking drivers. Write down your destination before you choose to use their service, no reports of overcharging yet.
Bicycle Are a great way to get around the town, it is small and flat.
You could ride one up to the airport or Ben Dam port but it would be an ambitious undertaking.
Helmets It is illegal to ride a motorized vehicle without a helmet or a Vietnamese Driving license.
What to see
Today Con Dao has great historical import and attracts Vietnamese and increasing numbers of foreign tourists to the renovated prisons.
Prisoners were kept in extremely overcrowded conditions on the island and as many as 20,000 are believed to have died here and this can be relived here. A guide from the nearby Revolutionary Museum is costs less than US$1 and includes an informative guided tour.
The Cemetery is a National Shrine to 20,000 + heroes in this country, you will not score any points by wearing short pants, or showing your shoulders in and around the Cemetery. Please Do Not Even Think about riding your motorbike over the graves ! The Vietnamese come to this island for the sole purpose of visiting this cemetery. Again the recent influx of budget tourists is starting to strain the feelings of the local people here, as few actually benefit from your visit. The foreign money is concentrated in the larger government run hotels. Please do give a moments thought about where you spend your money. Book services for motorbikes outside of your hotel, eat in the local places, shop in the local market.
Con Dao is part of a maritime and national park and is made up of 16 or so islands. The islands are mostly rugged and still have a lot of original forest cover and associated flora and fauna. The most famous indigenous animal is the dugong or sea cow. With an estimated population of 8-10 it is rarely seen. Several species of rare squirrel and monkeys are found here and there is an important breeding program for turtles on Bay Canh island near to Con Dao island.
The islands have very nice beaches, great swimming and snorkeling opportunities (however snorkeling on the main island is generally only good in one area accessible from May to October) and a very relaxed, colonial feel to them. Con Dao is a nice antidote to the crowded cities.
The Turtle Tour can be booked at the national park office for 1,500,000 Dong and you may see a turtle laying eggs. Turtle season is ONLY from June to Early September. The N.P. will gladly sell you tickets out of season and promise turtles, the trip is not cheap. Be aware and do not fall for this.
Rainforest hikes can be booked through the National Park Office. Some hikes require a guide. Some of the trails are unmarked, so having a native guide is useful. There is good information available on the island for self guided hikes and most of the rangers only speak Vietnamese.
The N.P. guides will generally trundle you though the woods, stop and have a few shots of whiskey with their buddies and trundle you back, to get home in time to have a nap. The trails are seeing much more traffic now, and only the hike to the far north bay, Dam Tre, requires a guide and awareness of the tides ! Do be careful !
Motorbikes can be rented through most hotels, and riding them up Con Dao’s mountain roads can offer some of the best views for travelers looking to take in Con Dao’s natural beauty and scenery. (please try local options first, as most hotels take a 30% commission on rentals of their staff motorcycles, after paying them around $100 per month, the greed is abhorrent)
Watch out for the strong wind that can whip up at any time at the southern most point of the island near Nhat Beach, several westerners have not heeded warnings and been injured by the strong gusts that can be found there.
What to do
Con Dao has the best diving in Vietnam. The coral is relatively untouched and very impressive. The marine life is the best in Vietnam, boasting turtles, rays, giant barracuda, cuttlefish, cobia as well as a whole host of tropical reef fish. You can dive most times of the year as there are 16 islands to choose from and you can get good visibility pretty much most of the year. Having dive insurance is mandatory in Con Dao due to its remote location.
Dive ! Dive ! Dive ! (Nguyen Hue Street) Is affiliated with S.S.I. and owned by an American and offer PADI courses. $90 for one dive, $70 for second dive (March 2013).
They have extensive local experience and knowledge of the islands both above and below the water. They do daily dive and snorkeling trips from a 15 meter custom built dive boat or 5 meter speed boat and also have diving on the only penetrable wreck in Vietnam: A 60-meter steel freighter. They also have bicycles, snorkeling gear and camping gear for rental. Buy today, dive tomorrow diving and medical insurance available. Stop in for tourist information as they are likely the only people you will meet on the island who speak English, Dutch, French, and German. Also they are a terrific resource in regard to bookings for all of the new budget accommodation opening on the islands, from $15 a night double. They also run turtle trips to a much higher standard then the National Park, at a comparable price, and have great hiking guides.
Senses Diving Con Dao
Senses Diving are a PADI Dive Resort run by friendly English and South African PADI instructors who have been on the island for over 18 months.
Operating daily dive and snorkeling trips, a range of PADI courses as well as trekking, historical and turtle watching tours. Also offering local tourist information, travel and booking advice on Con Dao and Vietnam in general. Based at the Six Senses Resort at Dat Doc Beach(office hours from 9am-4pm)and CASA Cocktail Bar, 16 Le Duan st.(from 5.30pm till late. Prices are comparable to other dive companies operating on the island. Website – www.divecondao.com – email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Trips to the turtle sanctuary can be arranged through the National Park office North of the main town. Overnight stays can be arranged. This office will also provide very detailed information about possible treks and walking opportunities but be aware the island has plenty of no go areas due to the large military presence here.
Be aware that the turtles are likely only nesting in July and August with a few hatch-lings still coming out in September. Do not book a turtle tour outside of this time as it is very likely you will not see any.
There is a good fruit and vegetable market in Con Son town that starts early – 6am or so. Prices are cheap and the locals don’t seem to overcharge foreign purchasers. As the number of budget travelers increases and the full blown screaming fits over 1000 dong on the part of the back pack crowd, you can be sure that the attitudes of the vendors will change. Please keep it under control, you may win the fight over 1000 dong but the next traveler behind you will surely pay the price for your “success”. Everything here is simply more expensive as it has to come by ship or plane.
Where to eat
Dining options are still relatively limited, although new restaurants have opened in the last few months.
Thu Ba. Good local restaurant with good service and good seafood.
Phuong Han, 38C Nguyen Hue. Becoming quite popular with the tourist crowd, atmosphere needs some work, but the food is good and it is reasonably priced. Very popular for lunch.
Tri Ky, Nguyen Duc Thuan St. Offers tasty, fresh seafood at reasonable prices, and has an English menu available, although offerings are relatively sparse. If not well-versed in Vietnamese, the “pick and point” method is usually best for communicating to waitresses what seafood you want.
For lunchtime, you can also find some local restaurants that serve good noodle soups for 15000 dong. One is located on Nguyen Hue street, after the crossing with Vo Thi Sau street, when you drive towards East on the left side.
Most of the larger hotels have restaurants attached to them. Decent food is available at most hotels, but be prepared to pay somewhat more than Saigon prices. Also, hotels may not have everything on their menu available. Ice for drinks may run out before the end of the evening.
Seatravel Con Dao, 6 Nguyen Duc Thuan, Con Dao province, Vietnam. The Seatravel Con Dao resort has an open-air lobby that doubles as a restaurant, and offers outside seating with excellent views of the ocean. Food prices are somewhat pricey (for Vietnam), but that is the case with most of the hotel restaurants on the island. English menu available, however, some of the better foods, such as their beef and veggie pho, are not listed and usually best ordered by simply asking the waitstaff directly. Western-style breakfast omelette is excellent as well. You can be served with great western taste menu with caesar salad, greek salad or pan fried salmon and garlic.
Saigon Con Dao. The Saigon Con Dao resort also has a restaurant, with views of both the ocean and the old Con Dao prison museum. A pretty good variety of food, and excellent Vietnamese coffee. English menu available.
Six Senses Resort. The Six Senses also offers some more upscale dining options for travelers, but the location of the hotel is outside of the main town. If staying at one of the other hotels (ATC, Seatravel, Con Dao Resort, Saigon Con Dao Resort)located closer to the main town, it is best to get to Six Senses by motorbike. It is best to check with them for availability before making your way there.
Where to drink
Hotels & Restaurants Beer is available at hotels and restaurants. Cocktails and mixed drinks, while offered on hotel menus, will not always be available. Ice has been known to run out early in the evening.
CASA Cocktails Bar- 16 Le Duan street, the only bar in the town at the moment. Available for a wide range of expertly made cocktails, selection of international wines and cold beers. Very relaxed atmosphere, with chilled music. A warm, friendly welcome from the owners, who speak excellent English. Great place to unwind after a day of trekking or diving – gets busy with travelers in the evenings. It is also a meeting point for divers and is the town office of Senses Diving.
Easy to find – near Thu Tam “mini-mart”- the biggest family store in Con Dao. 5 minutes walk from Phuong Hanh and Thu Ba – two favorite local restaurants.
BYOB There is a shop near the market which sells cold beer and Vietnamese wine.
Where to stay
There are currently several relatively cheap resorts on the island although more are being built.
National park guest house – just outside of town (300,000 Dong)
A.T.C. resort – is slightly over priced compared to the other hotels but the food is good.
Saigon Con Dao – (Government Owned) is lacking in character, but is clean and has a nice swimming pool.
Taxis Duy Khai www.condaodulich.com.vn Clean rooms with a/c and fan with ensuite bathroom. Central location. 300,000 dbl.
Nha Nghi Ba Doan Great location, welcoming and hospitable owners. Clean, spacious, light rooms with a/c, fridge, tv and ensuite with hot shower. Large communal area with sea view and kitchen facilities. 350,000 for double.
There is also the Con Dao resort and the Con Dao Sea Travel hotel towards the end of town. Both offer bungalows right on the beach at the end of town,where the beach is quiet and nice, although sometimes littered. The prices range from $45-70 USD. Sea Travel -large bungalows open right onto the beach and offer some of the best views and locations for Con Dao, especially on a budget.
Con Dao Camping is the first choice in budget accommodation on the island at around $35 per night. Not a camp site, but a handful of bungalows/cabins located on the beach with stunning views. All have air-con, tv, toilet, wi-fi, shower and are clean and comfortable.
Elsewhere in Con Son there are small guest houses and hotels which offer room rates from $15 – $35 US per night Whilst these are not on the beach they are usually clean and relatively new and comfortable.
Only the larger resorts (Saigon Con Dao, Sea Travel, ATC and Con Dao resort) offer pick ups from the airport. Most of the bus drivers however are very friendly and will offer stranded travelers a lift into the town.
The Six Senses Con Dao resort and spa located 10 minutes from the airport and 10minutes to the town. The 50 private pool villas offer space and privacy along with an uncompromising standard of luxury. All villas feature stunning views and butler service.
Con Dao is remote.
As in all of rural and most of developed Vietnam, medical care is rudimentary.
Evacuation by helicopter to Saigon takes 5 hours, costs $5,000 and must be prepaid in cash.
Serious issues that need evacuation to Thailand will require 8 or more hours as a result of the government not allowing “Medical Wings” access to Con Dao with out first stopping in Saigon adding four hours to the trip and costing $30,000.
So if you are considering travel here, seriously consider getting good travel insurance.
There are some stray dogs around and people do get the occasional nip. (So far, no Westerners )The dogs become aggressive and territorial at night, and during the day they can be found sleeping in the middle of the road.
There is NO malaria here.
Mosquito season is February to April. The mosquitoes are not abundant, nor are their bites particularly painful. Regular mosquito repellent is available and it works, purchase in the pharmacy, across the street on the left side of the market under the name Soffell.
There are sand flies that move around the island. The bites are painful and easily infected. Do NOT scratch. Immerse in hot water. Take a HOT shower to get relief to sleep. Mosquito repellant does not work well for sand flies. You can buy proper repellant just past the pharmacy at 4 Nguyen Hue Street, they also have treatment if you are having a severe reaction).
Sand fly season is January to May
Do not drink the water. In the interest of environmental conservation and the reduction of plastic waste, refill your 1 liter water bottles from larger purified containers.