The path to the beach on Con Dao Island. By Lee Starnes
With several different beaches, each as peaceful and secluded as the next, Con Dao travellers are spoiled for choice. Inside the park, take a hike to Ong Dung Beach, a stony coastal spot where visitors can snorkel close to shore, or head further afield to Dam Trau Beach. Closer to town, Dat Doc Beach also affords visitors a place to sunbathe.
For those who prefer a more active experience, there are a few companies on the island that provide snorkeling and diving excursions. These tour operators typically offer full-day trips to some of Vietnam's best underwater sightseeing. On land, travelers are able to arrange a hiking guide through the local national park office or set off on their own with a national park map. Wildlife watchers can also arrange trips through Con Dao National Park to visit Bay Canh Island, where you’ll find a turtle sanctuary.
Beyond its outdoor activities, Con Dao is also home to one of the most infamous former prisons in Vietnam. Throughout the 20th century, the island's prison complex was a crucial incarceration facility for the French as well as the Americans. Within the island prison, roughly 20,000 prisoners lost their lives due to abuse and malnourishment. Visitors can get some solid background on the island's history at the newly built Con Dao Museum.
Today, Vietnamese consider the island haunted. For local tourists, a visit to the island’s cemetery, where thousands of Con Dao's former inmates have been laid to rest, is considered a must. The most famous prisoner to pass through the island's penitentiary – and there are many – is Vo Thi Sau, a young Vietnamese girl who was arrested for her activities against the French and later became the first Vietnamese woman executed by colonial forces.
Spend your first day getting acquainted with the island and its history at the Con Dao Museum. This brand-new facility gives good insight into Con Dao’s past as well as its present. From there, take a stroll down the waterfront road to Quay 914, the island's original pier, which acquired its name from the number of prisoners who lost their lives during its construction. After that, purchase a ticket for the prison complex and explore the island’s historical sights. Con Dao’s largest facilities, Phu Hai and Phu Son, are recommended. Bear in mind, however, that all museums and prison facilities close for a midday siesta, so you may have to take a break in your sightseeing.
In the afternoon, take a drive along the coast toward the fishing village on the southern end of the island. Con Son's scenic coastline is reason enough to make the trip, however the fishing village also has its own fresh seafood and small shops on the waterfront. Travellers can also head to the western side of the island by heading for Ong Dung Beach. Make sure you stop to purchase a national park entry ticket at the office en route to Ong Dung. During turtle-hatching season, curious travellers can also arrange an evening tour to Bay Canh Island to watch the area's sea turtles lay their eggs.
On your second day, continue your island adventures with a trek out to Dam Trau Beach for a lazy day by the water. Be sure to bring your own snacks and supplies, as there are no shops to be found out here. Hiking enthusiasts can also book a guide to make the trip out to Dam Tre Bay, depending upon the island's conditions during your stay, home to one of the island's most exclusive snorkelling beach.
Beyond the historical sights and beaches of Con Dao, any additional time spent on the island should go toward sunbathing, snorkelling or diving. There are only a handful of snorkelling and diving outfits on the island, however the good news is that all of them are reputable outfits that provide safe, reliable equipment and experienced instructors. Daylong snorkelling and diving tours can be booked through each respective company.
Con Dao's coolest weather takes place between September and January while its hottest months are June, July and August. Given the island's location, Con Dao is also prone to strong winds in December and January. Wildlife watchers should also note that turtle-hatching season takes place from mid-August to early December; go to Bay Canh Island outside of these times and you won't see much.
Flights operated by Vietnam Airlines depart daily from Ho Chi Minh City and arrive at the island's modest airport. Seats tend to book up fast, and it is recommended that travellers book in advance. If you don’t find a seat, sometimes the hotels can provide assistance.
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