HCMC Dining Guide

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Con Dao: Vietnam's Last Paradise?

During my travels in Vietnam, I've been struck by how readily developers obliterate beautiful places in the name of tourism, often ruining the very places they are trying to attract people to. Nha Trang, home to a stunning bay surrounded by mountains, is now a wall of high-rise hotels and proposed mega-projects. Ha Long Bay has been terribly polluted by tourism boats, and Phu Quoc is undergoing a transformation that will render it unrecognizable in a few years. I understand tourism is important to the economy, but at what cost?

Fortunately, last week I discovered there is still one largely untouched paradise: the Con Dao archipelago, a collection of 16 mountainous islands about 150 miles south of Saigon. Me and Natasha arrived at the tiny airport on Con Son, the main island, in the morning and had five days in the sun to look forward to.

The weather was beautiful almost the whole time, even though it's the wet season in southern Vietnam. The island is very quiet, with just a couple of stoplights and little in the way of traffic. This was definitely the easiest motorbike driving I've done in Vietnam, as the roads are good and there are few people around to almost run you over.
The main beach in town. Incredibly, it was always this empty.
After lunch at the excellent Bar200 we headed to the other side of the island from town, to Dam Trau Beach, which is at the end of the airport runway, so the twin-engine prop planes which Vietnam Airlines flies to the island occasionally rumbled overhead. Con Son is remarkably undeveloped - there are no high-rises or garish Vinpearl eyesores; no beer clubs blasting Vietdub at 200 decibels; and no backpacker bars full of shaggy gap year kids in 333 singlets. The main road doesn't even completely circle the island, and it's usually hemmed in by rainforest. It's incredible.

There is also a lot of history to Con Dao - it was once an outpost of the British East Indies Company, and the French turned it into a notorious penal colony, the facilities for which the government of South Vietnam gladly used to punish its enemies before the country was reunited in 1975. There are several old prisons and a museum which document this gruesome past, but we focused on beaches and motorbike drives instead.

Dam Trau
The water was crystal clear and the sand largely empty, allowing us to soak up some serious rays in peace and quiet. Well, not until the truckload of army soldiers who were drinking and singing appalling karaoke left early in the afternoon.

The next couple days consisted of similar lazing about in the sun, and one evening we went to dinner at the Six Senses Con Dao, regarded as one of the finest (and most expensive) resorts in the country. (Brad and Angelina stayed here when they visited a few years ago.) The property is stunning, with a private beach and pool and a tasteful wooden design. The dinner at their By The Beach restaurant was incredible, and completely worth the huge tab (the meal cost as much as our four nights of accommodation at Con Dao Camping and five days of motorbike rental combined). If you're planning a trip to Con Dao and can afford a blowout meal, definitely go for it.

The next day we drove to the western side of the island, where the rugged scenery doesn't even look like Vietnam. This area is much more exposed to the wind than around the main beach, which was generally pretty calm.
Finally, on the last day we did one of the many hikes available in Con Dao National Park. The archipelago is very diverse and largely protected (at least on paper), both on land and below the water, with a number of trails and dive sites available. Some of the smaller islands are nesting grounds for sea turtles, and numerous fish species can be found in the area. This trail ran just over a kilometer to the abandoned So Ray plantation, built during the French colonial years.

The highlight of the hike was the wildlife - we had been told to keep an eye out for monkeys and a large species of squirrel, For most of the hike all we saw were birds, bats and some insects, but as we neared the plantation we heard the sound of larger animals in the trees. After looking closely we spotted several black giant squirrels hopping around the branches. Over the next half hour we saw several more in addition to a pair of moneys, and they all kept their distance. This was the first time I had seen such wildlife in nature in Vietnam - other places have monkeys, but they are so used to human contact that they walk right up and steal whatever food you have. I enjoyed having to work to see the animals.
View from the plantation's watchtower
The main market in town.
 Afterwards we drove over to the beautiful Van Son Pagoda, which overlooks the stunning East Sea from the side of a hill.

With time for one last quick drive around the point to the west side of the island, we took in the simply incredible view for a few minutes, and then it was time to reluctantly head back to Saigon and its noise, traffic and pollution.

Mother nature treated us to a beautiful sunset over the Mekong Delta on the way back.

Con Dao is easily one of the best destinations I've been to in Vietnam, and I've been almost everywhere. It is quiet, gorgeous, largely untouched and has some great food. It is still largely off the tourist trail since flights to it and accommodation once there are generally more expensive than elsewhere in Vietnam, but surely it will be 'discovered' at some point. I sincerely hope that, whenever that happens, it doesn't go the way of Phu Quoc. Vietnam has a chance here to retain something truly special, and me and Natasha are already figuring out when we can go back for more.


  1. how much was the dinner the Six Senses Con Dao Mike?

    1. It was around 4 million ($200) for a bottle of wine, two entrees and a shared starter plus service charge and tax.