Ho Chi Minh

Con Dao Island: Infamous Hell Prison Turned Paradise

Con Dao Island (Vietnamese spelling: Côn Đảo) is the commonly used name for both Con Dao Archipelago and its biggest island which is actually Con Son (Côn Sơn). The archipelago consists of 16 mountainous islands and islets. The same Con Dao is also a district of Ba Ria – Vung Tau Province.

Con Dao Island is recommended by the Travel+Leisure and Lonely Planet thanks to its amazing beaches brimming with fun activities. The international fame of Con Dao Island especially spiked after Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, together with their 6 children, took a vacation in the Six Senses Con Dao Resort.

How to Get to Con Dao Island

How to Get to Con Dao Island
[ image from Vietnam Coracle ]

Con Dao is 230 km away from Ho Chi Minh City. It’s also 185 km away from Vung Tau (Vũng Tàu), the nearest seaside city to Ho Chi Minh where you can get a ferry to Con Dao. The other way to ConDao is by plane.

By Plane

There are flights from Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City and Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi straight to Con Dao Airport on Con Son Island. It takes less than an hour by plane from Ho Chi Minh City and around two and a half hours from Hanoi.

By Land + Ferry

If you want to include the seaside of Vung Tau for an extended trip, you can book a travel coach (commonly called travel bus in Vietnam) or a travel Limousine then take the ferry to Con Son Island. Going by land and ferry is around half the cost of an airplane.

It takes about 2 hours of driving or less than 100 km from Saigon to Vung Tau. Prices are around 200 000 VND with popular booking agents such as Klook or a transport specialist like Baolau.

You can also use Klook to book a ferry ticket in advance. Côn Đảo Express 36 is the fastest hydrofoil from Cat Lo Terminal (cảng Cát Lở) to Con Son Terminal. The ferry takes around 3 hours or 97 nautical miles with one-way tickets ranging from 500 000 VND to 1 200 000 VND.

Interesting Facts about Con Dao Island

Interesting Facts about Con Dao Island
[ image from Vietnam Coracle ]

1. Archaeological excursions determined prehistoric human life in the area of Con Dao Archipelago.

2. The name misconception is due mainly to the name Côn Đảo being used for many locations on Con Son island throughout history. Also, đảo in Vietnamese means island.

3. Vietnamese historical records before the 20th century mostly used the name Con Lon (Côn Lôn) for Con Son Island.

4. The island used to be a Khmer territory until the 17th century. According to researchers, Con Lon is the Vietnamese spelling of the Khmer word Koh Tralach and the Malaysian word Pulau Kundur meaning ‘island of the gourd’.

5. The same word is spelled Poulo Condor in English and French records. It’s also the name used by Italian explorer Marco Polo when he came to the island in 1294.

History of Con Son Island

914 Wharf
914 Wharf
[ by Tony Pham from Unsplash ]

From the 15th to the 18th century, a number of European companies, especially British and French, laid eyes on Con Son Island. As part of the Peace of Paris 1783, Lord Nguyen Anh (Nguyễn Ánh) of the Nguyen Dynasty signed with French King Louis XVI the Versailles Treaty.

The treaty agreed on an exchange of Touron (present-day Danang) and Con Lon Archipelago for French military reinforcement against the Tay Son Dynasty (nhà Tây Sơn) but failed due to the French Revolution.

During his refuge from the Tay Son brothers, Lord Nguyen Anh stayed on Con Lon. Nowadays on Con Son Island, there’s a mountain called Lord (núi Chúa), a shrine for Nguyen Anh’s wife, and one for her son.

In 1861, the French declared sovereignty over Con Lon in a race against the British. Before the Vietnamese Reunification in 1975, Con Dao Island was the largest prison island and incarceration area in Indochina. In 1977, the Vietnamese government officially established Con Dao Archipelago.

Historical Sites on Con Son Island

Besides the Con Dao Prison which will be explained further below, there are many historical sites across the island as proof of the wars against the French and the US.

914 Wharf

The 914 Wharf (cầu tàu 914) was the first construction built by prisoners of Con Dao Island in 1973. French supply ships from the mainland would unload provisions and prisoners from the mainland here. 914 was the number of prisoners that died building it.

They also built a French guest house nearby which has been turned into a cafe. In 1895, the French composer, Camille Saint-Saens spent time in this building while completing the opera Brunhilde by Ernest Guiraud which he renamed Frédégonde.

Ma Thien Lanh Bridge

Ma Thien Lanh Bridge (cầu Ma Thiên Lãnh) was an unfinished bridge opened by the French from 1930 to 1945 for logistics. Nowadays, it leads straight to the entrance of Con Dao National Park with a small memorial for prisoners who built it.

Island’s Chief Palace

Island’s Chief Palace (Dinh Chùa Đảo) was the working and living space of 53  successive colonial governors. It’s now a part of Con Dao Prison historic sites with objects on display in Vietnamese, English, and French.

Hang Duong Cemetery

Hang Duong Cemetery (Nghĩa trang Hàng Dương) is the biggest one for war victims of Con Dao with over 2000 tombstones. It also has a tomb of Võ Thị Sáu, a Vietnamese school girl turned War Icon against French colonialists and a National Hero.

The Map of Things to Do on Con Dao Island

The Map of Things to Do on Con Dao Island
[ by Tony Pham from Unsplash ]

Tours of Con Dao Island can easily be found at its hotels, the Con Dao National Park office, and online websites like Tripadvisor. Most tour maps include pretty much all the highlighted destinations.

Luckily, all amenities on the island are gathered around the ferry terminal. Furthermore, it’s very easy to follow your own itinerary by renting a motorbike or a bicycle at a rental shop close to the ferry, or rent a car at Con Dao National Park.

View all locations mentioned

Find Your Con Dao Beach

Dam Trau Beach
Dam Trau Beach
[ image from Vietnam Coracle ]

Most of the beaches are quite rugged so always have footwear on, even when going into the water.

1. Ong Dung Beach (bãi ông Đụng) is one of the most popular beaches of Con Dao Island. It’s a beautiful and calm beach with high tides for snorkeling. You can also rent a small boat at the ranger station to get to the Hon Tre Lon and Hon Tre Nho Islands.

2. Dat Tham Beach (bãi Đất Thắm) is a C-shaped coastline with tranquil waters and white sands ideal for lazing.

3. Dong Beach (bãi Dong) disappears when it’s high tide. It’s on the way to Dam Tre Bay (vịnh Đầm Tre)— a rocky C-shaped bay surrounded by bamboo (tre in Vietnamese). The bay also has clean public toilets near the ranger station.

4. Dam Trau Beach (bãi Đầm Trầu) is a bit further away from the central area, near the airport. It’s more peaceful, cleaner, and the waves are calm all-year-round.

Fresh seafood from small diners, beach chairs on the golden sand, and planes passing overhead can make for a great day out. The beach also has public toilets and even rental tents to camp for the night.

5. Dat Doc Beach (bãi Đất Dốc) is another good snorkeling spot but it belongs to Con Dao Six Senses Resort so you need to be a guest to access it.

Diving and Snorkeling on Con Dao Island

Dive Center Con Dao
[ by Con Dao Dive Center from Facebook ]

Diving and snorkeling on Con Dao Island include coral diving as well as the chance to see dugongs, dolphins, green sea turtles, and hawksbill sea turtles. Diving is only from around March to October when the sea is calm so schedule ahead. Con Dao Dive Center is a good agent with PADI licensed instructors.

Con Dao National Park

Con Dao National Park
[ image from Vietnam Coracle ]

Con Dao National Park (Vườn quốc gia Côn Đảo) has some easy hikes for you to explore Con Dao Island in all of its natural beauty. Established in 1993, it’s part of the Ramsar Convention as a Wetland of International Importance.

The park is mainly tropical evergreen and tropical semi-deciduous forest. If you’re lucky, you may see some endemic species along your hike, especially the black squirrel or Ratufa bicolor condorensis (sóc đen Côn Đảo) and a macaque (Old World monkey) known as Macaca fascicularis condorensis (khỉ đuôi dài Côn Đảo).

Hiking Essentials

You need to purchase tickets for 60 000 VND per person at the booth right by the entrance. Get a free map from the ticket booth and keep the ticket to show to rangers later. Near the entrance is also the office which provides services and a parking space.

Equipment like mats, mosquito nets, life-vests, and snorkeling goggles can be rented for the day here. Currently, there’s no accommodation to stay overnight in Con Dao National Park so it’s best to finish your hiking or swimming before nightfall.

On the map, you’ll see 3 easy paved trails starting from the entrance and only requiring basic sports footwear. Your hotel can help you choose the best trail according to weather or ocean conditions.

During the Hikes

Even though the map isn’t very detailed, there are directional signposts on the way so a guide isn’t required. However, there isn’t any amenity along the way so stock up on adequate water and snacks.

Most of the trails are developed enough for motorbikes but there are parts, stairs for example, where you’ll have to park your vehicle to the side, hike, and come back for it later. If you’re doing more than one trail you can rest on the beds and hammocks near the entrance in between hikes.

During the dry season, the forest has a high risk of fire so don’t light fire nor smoke while hiking. Also, the trails can get a bit slippery during the rainy season so check with the park office beforehand.

The Trails

The Trails
[ by Marek Michalsky from Unsplash ]

So Ray and Ong Dung Beach Loop

It’s only 1.4 km to Ong Dung Beach. You can double back or if you include Sở Rẫy in a loop, the total distance is 7.4 km.

So Ray is a fruit plantation in the middle of the forest and home to many species on Con Dao Island. The trail from here to the beach is where you’ll most likely run into monkeys. 

However, it’s best to not approach them as they are familiar with humans who feed them which is something you shouldn’t do. Even if you see a lone monkey, there’s a high chance a whole troop is nearby ready to snatch your possessions.

Virgin Mary Cave to Bang Beach and/or Dat Tham Beach

The total distance is 6.2 km to Bang Beach and a further 600 m to Dat Tham Beach. During the rainy season, you can see the flowing Hoai Duong Waterfall (thác Hoài Dương).

Dong Beach to Dam Tre Bay

You may need to bike or drive to the beginning of this hike as it’s actually about 15 km away from the entrance of the park. As mentioned, you can rent a car at the park, but bicycles and motorbikes you must rent in town.

It’s in a completely different direction from the other two, even passing the Con Dao Airport. Once at Dong Beach the hike to Dam Tre Bay is 11 km.

Con Dao National Park Tours

The park office provides daily eco-tours around the island which last 5-8 hours. Extensive 2-3 days tours include popular destinations of Con Dao Island. They also have boats to take you out snorkeling and fishing.

Green Sea Turtles Eco-tours

You can book a tour to see sea turtles laying eggs on the beach or release baby turtles into the sea. Contact them via their official website and they’ll inform you about the schedule.

This eco-tour usually takes place on Hon Bay Canh Island. The turtles can be green sea turtles (rùa biển xanh) or Chelonia mydas and hawksbill sea turtles (đồi mồi) or Eretmochelys imbricata.

Con Dao Prison

Con Dao Prison
[ by Văn Tuấn from Zingnews.vn ]

Con Dao Prison (nhà tù Côn Đảo) stands alongside Phu Quoc and the infamous Hoa Lo as one of Vietnam’s most horrific prisons. It was built by French colonialists in 1861 for political prisoners.

In 1954, it was turned over to the South Vietnamese government. From the 1960s to the 1970s, the US took charge of this prison.

Throughout the wars, the nature of its victims never changed. The monstrosities committed on prisoners here, especially the Tiger Cages, raised many international concerns and made it the most feared island in Indochina.

Con Dao Prison was officially closed in 1975 following the Reunification of Vietnam. Now it’s been converted into a museum and a Special National Heritage Site. The prison includes two more prison sites around the island’s center but you only have to pay one time for entry which is 40 000 VN per person.

The Infamous Tiger Cages of Vietnam

Tiger Cages of Vietnam
[ by Văn Tuấn from Zingnews.vn ]

The Tiger Cages (chuồng cọp) were one of the most gruesome methods of torture and interrogation. They included isolation chambers where prisoners were shackled to the wet, cold concrete floors suffering the worst living conditions imaginable.

One of the most infamous contraptions was the ‘outdoor box’ made of barbed wire. The prisoners were laid naked under the elements after being beaten and left to starve. There are dioramas of them in Ho Chi Minh City’s War Remnants Museum and Hoa Lo Prison Relic in Hanoi.

The Tiger Cages operated in secret but it was brought to light in 1970 by an American reporter, Don Luce. It led to international protests and resulted in the release of hundreds of prisoners.

Con Dao Museum

If you want an in-depth look at the history of the Con Dao Prison and the island in general, check out the Con Dao Museum near the main prison camp. The entrance fee is 40 000 VND per person and exhibits have Vietnamese, English, and French explanation.

Van Son Pagoda and Cross Mountain

Van Son Pagoda (Vân Sơn Tự) is the only Buddhist spiritual gathering place for people on the island built in 1964. From the pagoda, you can actually see the top of Cross Mountain (núi Thánh Giá) which is the tallest vantage point on Con Dao Island. It takes around one hour from the bottom to the misty mountain top.

Other Islands in Con Dao Archipelago

Other Islands in Con Dao Archipelago
[ image from Condaoecotourism ]

Hon Ba (Hòn Bà), Hon Bay Canh (Hòn Bảy Cạnh), Hon Tre Lon (Hòn Tre Lớn), Hon Tre Nho (Hòn Tre Nhỏ) Islands are the go-to for snorkeling and fishing tours. If you have prior training, you can also rent a boat at the shop near the central coast.

Best Time to Visit Con Dao Island

Best Time to Visit Con Dao Island
[ image from Vietnam Coracle ]

The sea is calm from March to September with sunshine during the day and possible light rain in the afternoon, making it convenient to enjoy any activity. Furthermore, from July to September is turtle breeding season.

From October to next March there’s no rain but the sea is more turbulent, especially in the western and north-western parts of the island. Meteo Blue is a great tool to get live updates on the weather of Con Dao Island.

Hotels on Con Dao Island

Hotels on Con Dao Island
[ image from Sixsensescondao ]

Besides Con Dao Six Senses Resort, there are a few more luxurious choices on the island. You can bring it down a notch by staying at the hotels relatively close to the ferry terminal. For cheaper options, there are some inns and homestays also in the central area.

Eating on Con Dao Island

Eating on Con Dao Island
[ image from Vietnam Coracle ]

Around the market and the beaches are where you’ll be able to get the freshest seafood at casual eateries or more fancy restaurants. Don’t be afraid to try fermented oyster (mắm hàu) and fermented sea urchin (mắm nhum) for an unforgettable local taste.

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