When I first heard of the Con Dao Islands in Southern Vietnam I was immediately obsessed. Admittedly, I knew next to nothing about them, but the pictures looked pretty damn amazing. So, without doing all that much research, I booked a spur-of-the-moment flight there just a couple weeks ago.
If you haven’t heard of the Con Dao Islands before, that’s OK. Neither had I up until a few short months ago. The archipelago is made up of 16 islands located roughly 230 km away from Ho Chi Minh City (my new home!).
The largest of the Con Dao Islands is called Con Son, and it is on this slice of paradise that travelers to the Con Dao Islands base themselves. Not too shabby considering Con Son is home to some of the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam!
With turquoise waters, golden beaches and world-class snorkeling and diving, Con Dao is pretty much paradise. But oddly enough, compared to most beach destinations in Vietnam, relatively few tourists visit the Con Dao Islands. But those who do make the effort are definitely in for a treat.
My Guide to the Con Dao Islands
The Beaches of Con Son
I visited the Con Dao Islands in December, when the weather on Con Son is at its windiest. I didn’t get to see the placid and clear waters that exist in the springtime, but the beaches and scenery were still marvelous.
Even in December, many of the beaches were totally swimmable. The best beaches for taking a dip (according to my experience in December) are Dam Trau Beach and Nhat Beach, the former is sheltered from the winter’s northeastern winds. But there are numerous beaches peppered around the island that are easily accessible by motorbike or taxi (read more below on how to get around Con Son below). Even if they aren’t swimmable, they are well worth a visit.
Tip #1: The tides are extreme
Many of the island’s beaches are only accessible at low tide. It’s a good idea to inquire at a local dive shop as to what’s going on with the tides during your visit.
Tip #2: Con Son can be windy
Con Son gets some pretty vicious winds, but they hit different sides of the island during different times of year. When I visited in December, the winds were coming from the northeast, which means some beaches were insanely windy while others were paradise. Again, just ask around as to which beaches are best to visit when you’re there.
Tip #3: Beware of sandflies on Con Son
There are swarms of sandflies that plague some of the beaches on Con Son. I didn’t experience them, but it’s just something to know about.
Hiking on Con Son
There are a few great hiking trails on Con Son Island. I can’t say I’ve actually done any of them, but rumor has it they’re lovely. The hikes all take you through the forest-covered hills, where you’ll likely spot black squirrels, macaques and rare species of bird. Trails lead to old plantations, hillside viewpoints and rock-studded snorkeling spots.
Tip #1: The trails are super slippery
The hiking paths on Con Son aren’t challenging but they are made of moss-covered stone and they are extremely slippery. Seriously, I attempted to hike one (in shoes!) and turned back after 10 minutes. I was slipping and sliding all over and was petrified I would seriously injure myself. I felt kind of foolish for turning around, but after talking to a longtime expat in the area, he agreed that the paths are treacherous even in legit hiking boots.
Tip #2: Register with the park ranger
For any of the hikes you’ll need to register at the little booth located at the beginning of the trails. The office used to be located in the center of town, but it’s now located up the hill, near the beginning of the trails (including the path to Ong Dung beach). Basically all you have to do is sign your name. The hikes are absolutely free.
Tip #3: Some trails might be closed
The hiking paths are not open year-round. According to what I’ve read, they’re closed during the summer months. When I was there in December the path to Ong Dung Beach was closed due to “blasting.” So just note that you might not be able to hike all the trails.
Getting around Con Son
Motorbiking around remote Southeast Asian islands is definitely one of my favorite pastimes. And Con Son Island is one of my all-time favorite islands to cruise around on a scooter. There is basically only one road on the island, which unfolds along the coast leading from the airport all the way to the southern tip of the island.
For such a remote and rugged island, the roads are shockingly good. And since they are largely empty, this is actually a great place to learn how to ride a scooter. The road leads to a handful of stunning beaches, most of which are swimmable, and the vistas are unreal. Con Son is a great place to just hop on a bike and see what you can find. You can arrange to rent a scooter at your hotel or guesthouse or rent one in town for roughly 100,000 dong ($5) a day.
Tip #1: Pack a lunch
Food is kind of scarce on Con Son, especially for a vegetarian like me. So if you’re heading out of town for the day, it’s probably best to pack a little picnic of banh mi sandwiches or fruit or anything at all. If you’re headed to Dam Trau Beach (near the airport) there are two modest seafood restaurants that have plenty of fresh seafood dishes, vegetarian options and cold drinks. Other than that, restaurants are scant around the island.
Tip #2: Beware of wind gusts
Again, it can be super windy in the winter months. When you’re riding along a cliff on a little motorbike these wind gusts can feel a little scary. So just go slow and use caution if it’s windy.
Tip #3: Alternatives to renting a motorbike
While motorbiking is my preferred way of getting around Con Son Island, there are alternatives. Taxis abound on Con Son and it’s a cinch to hire one to take you to any of the island’s many attractions. That being said, it’s definitely going to be a pricier option. You can also rent bicycles.
Check out Con Son’s prisons
Sure, it sounds a bit dark, but Con Son is actually (in)famous for its prisons. Con Son was formerly, and notoriously, an island used to jail political prisoners during the French and American wars. And it is also home to what have become known as the ‘tiger cages.’
In 1940, the French built a series of prison blocks on the island where they housed thousands of political prisoners. A secret, hidden section of one prison was comprised of cramped cells that were later used to house political prisoners in the 1960s and 70s, during the Vietnam War.
Prisoners were shackled, abused, prodded with sharp objects and tortured with lime, a noxious, skin-burning agent. The ‘tiger cages’ were exposed after a series of photographs were published in Life magazine in 1970. The photos and the attention they garnered rapidly led to the demolition of the ‘tiger cages.’ The prison itself closed in 1975. These prisons are a dark contrast to the cerulean seas that surround the island of Con Son, but it’s definitely an interesting, if disturbing, part of this island’s past.
Tip #1: Where to buy tickets
There are four prison attractions (including an expansive cemetery) on Con Son, but you can’t just roll up to them and purchase a ticket. Tickets for all four attractions need to be purchased at Trai Phu Hai, in the center of town. Confusing, I know. Tickets costs 40,000 dong ($2) per person and can be used to access all four attractions for one day only.
Make sure to visit the little museum outside of the American prison, which houses the ‘tiger cages.’ It gives a really good history of these prison blocks, including some excellent (and disturbing) photos taken while the prisons were still in use.
Snorkeling and Diving on Con Dao
It’s possible to arrange trips either through your hotel or at any one of the tour offices that are scattered around town. For diving, Dive Con Dao could be a great option, though I don’t have personal experience using them.
Note that diving and snorkeling trips might be canceled or unavailable in the winter months due to the high winds and low visibility.
Where to eat on Con Son
The main town on Con Son is super small – like really small. There are a handful of seafood restaurants and local Vietnamese eateries. There is also a night market with a few food stalls and a wet market to purchase fruits and veggies. Additionally, there are two western-oriented restaurants in town. Because I’m a vegetarian I had a bit of a hard time on Con Son, but most people should be just fine.
Options are scarce and the quality low, but there are a few great options for vegetarians and carnivores alike. I alternated between the following places during my five days on the island.
Bar 200: This place is so amazing. It’s owned by a super-friendly and knowledgeable expat. He makes his own bread and pizza dough and his pizzas are literally the best I’ve had in a really long time. (I highly suggest the cheese pizza with blue cheese!) The western breakfasts are huge and delicious. Most foreigners eat here once or twice a day. It’s really that good.
Thuba: This is a super popular seafood restaurant in the heart of town. It’s always packed with tourists and locals and it has plenty of vegetarian options. The friendly owner speaks perfect English so she can help with orders, especially helpful for vegetarians and vegans.
Infinity: This place is super trendy. It’s a great place to chill out with a coffee beverage or grab a meal. I won’t say it was my favorite place to eat, mainly because the portions were small and the prices high. For western food I’d definitely recommend Bar 200, but options are limited on the island, so it’s nice to mix things up.
Note: If you’re a vegetarian or vegan traveling to the Con Dao Islands, read this vegan guide to Con Son. It saved my life!
Where to stay on Con Son
I had read that there were only a handful of places to stay on Con Son Island but I was actually surprised at how many options there were once I landed there. Because I was there over New Year’s things were pretty booked up on Agoda. There were three options left in downtown Con Son, so I opted for Xuan Anh Hotel for $17 a night. I thought it would be awful, but it was awesome for a budget hotel. We had great views of the hills and the room was an excellent value.
If you have money to burn, Six Senses Resort appears to be the place to be – thought it’s definitely out of my price range! Even Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt stayed there. And finally, if you want to “camp” beachfront, Con Dao Camping Hotel looked like a really fun option. It’s actually made up of super cute bungalows located on a lovely stretch of beach.
When to visit the Con Dao Islands
I honestly believe these islands are magical no matter when you visit them. But I can understand why many would be disappointed with the windy conditions I experienced in the winter.
In the winter months – from November through January – the winds really pick up on the Con Dao Islands. The most ideal time to visit is between March and May, when the winds die down and the water is placid. The monsoon season occurs in the summer months, so sporadic rain is to be expected.
Is it worth visiting the Con Dao Islands in the winter?
My answers is yes. I’m sure others might disagree with me. I was there in late-December and the winds were pretty intense the entire of time. To be fair, I think I was there during an exceptionally windy few days. There were gusts of up to 35 mph. I was fine with it, because I knew what to expect. I definitely don’t regret visiting Con Dao when I did!
OK, I think that about sums it up. I hope this guide helps!
Have you heard of Vietnam’s Con Dao Islands? Do you think you’d like to visit?