Vietnam’s prison-island paradise

Despite being a quick 45-minute turboprop flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Con Son is a world away from Vietnam’s well-beaten tourist trail, with inexplicably few Western travellers.

At 5 am and 6 pm, government loudspeakers crackle to life all over Vietnam. Relics of an era before homes had televisions and radios, these public address systems – broadcasting news, propaganda and weather reports – are usually barely audible above the din of this modern nation: a mix of motorcycle engines, truck horns and construction.

But on Con Son, the news carries loud and clear over the tiny township of just 5,000 residents, two sets of traffic lights and one seaside promenade. Visiting the largest island in the Con Dao archipelago – a group of 16 mostly uninhabited picturesque islands in the South China Sea – is like stepping back in time.

Despite being a short 45-minute turboprop flight from Ho Chi Minh City, the island paradise of Con Son is a world away from Vietnam’s well-beaten tourist trail. It is a throwback that has somehow flown under the radar, escaping the overdevelopment of mainland resort towns like Nha Trang and the party beaches of Phu Quoc. There are no touts, only peaceful empty beaches, and peak season means being just one of a dozen Westerners.

It won’t stay this way forever, though. The island’s first resort, the ultra-luxe Six Senses Con Dao, opened at Dat Doc Bay on the island’s east coast in 2010, and a megaresort is currently under construction in the south. There is also talk of an Italian-backed spiritual retreat, as well as rumours about extending the airport’s runway so that bigger planes can land.

Lotus flowers in the morning market (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

Lotus flowers in the morning market (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

But for now, most of the visitors are domestic Vietnamese paying homage to the island’s dark past. Known as Southeast Asia’s Devil’s Island, Con Son was once a penal colony used to brutal and cruel effect first by French colonists and later during the Vietnam War. The French worked 914 men to death building the island’s jetty, while Vietnam War prisoners were kept in infamous “tiger cages”, where captives – actual or suspected Communists – were shackled to the floor of deep concrete pits with steel bars for a roof. The main prison walls still dominate the town as a constant reminder, and the gaols and cemeteries have become pilgrimage sites to the thousands of Vietnamese who suffered and died on the island between 1862 and 1975.

But though the horrific memories hang heavy still, modern island life is languid and laid back. Con Son’s steep green interior is fringed by warm turquoise water and coral reefs. Flame trees and bougainvillea give licks of colour to the jungle, and frangipani and magnolia trees line the wide, quiet boulevards. A single main road wraps about halfway around the island; a motorbike ride along the shoreline takes in ponds filled with lotus flowers, spectacular reddish-orange cliffs and one empty white-sand beach after another. The sea is calm, clean and perfect for swimming year-round.

The bustling marketplace will be deserted at noon for naptime (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

The bustling marketplace will be deserted at noon for naptime (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

The island’s daily routine starts at the bustling marketplace, where squid, crabs, clams, rambutans, plantains, mangos, dragonfruit and lotus flowers are piled for sale outside. Inside, young soldiers in jungle greens sit at the food stalls on low plastic chairs, gulping down breakfasts of bun rieu (crab noodle soup) or bun thit nuong (char-grilled pork with vermicelli noodles) while the morning sun floods the doorway. By 9 am, the food is sold out and by noon the market is deserted.

Then, nothing happens until 2 pm, when new afternoon stallholders will arrive, selling roast pork sandwiches, sugarcane juice and rice paper rolls. For two hours, the postmistress goes home, the market is empty, the island naps and the sun beats down on the blue sea. There is nothing to do but swim at one of several beautiful beaches: it doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll have it to yourself.

Blue paradise on the coast of Nhat Beach (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

Blue paradise on the coast of Nhat Beach (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

If this were the mainland, you might find hourly booze-cruises around the harbour. If you want to see the archipelago from Con Dao, ask around in the evening and you’ll be able to hitch a ride with a fisherman early the next day. Slowly putt-putting out of the harbour in a brightly painted blue-and-orange ramshackle boat, the fisherman will likely take you towards the bays and reefs of the tiny outer islands. A snorkel and goggles will be enough to catch a glimpse of a turtle, and the diving is renowned as some of Vietnam’s best.

As the heat of the day passes, many travellers choose to explore the island via motorbike.

At An Hai bay, 1km south of Con Son town, pearlers and fishermen moor their boats, keeping coracles –  circular bamboo vessels, waterproofed with coconut-palm resin and propelled by paddle – on the shore as dinghies. For the next 6km, climb the road along the bay until it reaches the island’s southmost tip, with views in every direction. The archipelago unfolds to the east; the harbour and Con Son town to the north; the island’s rugged and rocky interior to the west.

Hugging the cliffs, the road winds past steep-walled crystal-clear bays and culminates at the island’s jewel – the wide flats of Nhat Beach. Here mountains give way to an expanse of deserted white sand that runs hundreds of metres from shore at low tide, with the warm water waist-deep for hundred of metres more. Stay until twilight when the horizon twinkles with the lights of container ships plying the busy South China Sea.

The heat of the day sets behind Nhat Beach (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

The heat of the day sets behind Nhat Beach (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

Come evening, Con Son town’s seaside promenade takes its turn as the island’s social hub. The sky turns pink and barbecue carts roll up roasting corn, chicken skewers and pork. Swimmers – mostly Vietnamese tourists who shun the sand at daytime – arrive for a dusk dip. The waterfront swells with people.

Across the road from the beach, colonial French villas crumble in various stages of disrepair; their jungled gardens slowly taking over. French composer Camille Saint-Saens stayed in one while he finished work on his opera Brunhilda in 1895; today, that same building is the popular Con Son cafe, which provides only the essentials: beer, ice cream and Vietnamese coffee.

Dusk falls on Con Son's seaside promenade (Credit: Credit: Tom Westbrook)

Dusk falls on Con Son’s seaside promenade (Credit: Tom Westbrook)

By night, a different market opens on Tran Huy Lieu, two blocks to the east. Half the street is taken over with chairs and metal foldout tables; beer flows as roadside stalls barbecue shellfish, calamari and the rest of the day’s catch. It is a delicious way to end the day – with only the nagging thought that the return flight back to the mainland is all too soon.

1,198 Responses to “ Vietnam’s prison-island paradise ”

  1. delhi escort says:

    delhi escort

    Vietnam’s prison-island paradise » review » biotraverse

  2. porn online says:

    porn online

    Vietnam’s prison-island paradise » review » biotraverse

  3. Jacquelyn says:

    It’s hard to come by knowledgeable people for this topic,
    however, you seem like you know what you’re talking about!
    Thanks

  4. What’s up, of course this post is truly good and I have learned lot of things
    from it regarding blogging. thanks.

  5. Hi, Neat post. There is a problem along with your website in web explorer, might check this?
    IE nonetheless is the market leader and a big portion of people will miss your wonderful writing due to this problem.

  6. I have read so many posts concerning the blogger lovers but this piece of
    writing is truly a good paragraph, keep it up.

  7. The CPG recommends that physicians avoid prescribing testosterone too
    improve sexusl dysfunction in women who do nott havve HSDD.

    Also visit my blog; dr dov rand new jersey

  8. In the second study, researchers at Aurota Health Care,
    a big community-based health care system in Wisconsin, nalyzed health and demographic data
    from 7,245 men with low testosterone levels from 2011-2014.

    Here is my site :: http://www.elesawypastries.com/en/component/k2/itemlist/user/170028

  9. Nearly 45,000 men in the study received hormone therapy, and they tenddd to have more advanced disease.

    my web siote … anti aging supplements that work

  10. Latrice says:

    In fact, the fineswt Testosterone Treatment Miami on the market can safely
    enhance an user’s physical health, in addition to his oor her stafe of mind.

    Here is mmy website anbti aging supplements and vitamins; Latrice,

  11. Hildegarde says:

    Some of the advantages of HGH, Human Growth Hormone replacement therapy are a reduction of fat,
    a gain of nnew muscle, reduction of wrinkles (aka healthy and thicker skin), re-growth
    or regeneration of internal organs, increase bone strength and density, reinforce oor balance the immune
    system and general anti-aging properties.

    Feel free to visit my web blog :: anti aging supplements for dogs – Hildegarde

  12. Oh my goodness! Incredible article dude! Thanks, However I am encountering difficulties with your RSS.

    I don’t understand why I cannot subscribe to it. Is there anybody having identical RSS issues?

    Anyone who knows the solution will you kindly
    respond? Thanx!!

  13. Consequently, lads with low testosterone levels may endure laate or
    impproper growth of sexual organs with muscle strength, increased bone mass and higher levels of body fat.

    My webpage http://akinakinwumi.com/?option=com_k2&view=itemlist&task=user&id=29495

  14. Wesley says:

    Unusual testosterone levels can increase symptoms
    of enlarged prostate (benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH).

    My site … testosterone therapy side effects testicles (Wesley)

  15. great points altogether, you just received a logo new reader.
    What might you suggest in regards to your publish that you simply made a
    few days ago? Any sure?

  16. Testosterone supplements are commonly used by guys who want to raise the amount
    oof the Male hormone testosterone that controls functions including
    muscle gain and sexual desire.

    Take a look at my website :: http://leelaeyeclinic.com/?option=com_k2&view=itemlist&task=user&id=94260