It was only on my third visit to Vietnam that I learned about Con Dao Island. And even then, it was just in passing conversation with another ex-pat I had met in Hoi An.
In fact, some Vietnamese friends I asked about Con Dao scrunched their faces in confusion, as they had little knowledge of the island themselves. It's that much of a secret!
Having said that, many of the tourists who visit Con Dao are Vietnamese. For this reason, you won't find many locals who speak English; even most menus are in Vietnamese. So be prepared for lots of Google translate, pointing, and miming.
Where is Con Dao
Con Dao Island is about 80km (50 miles) off the Mekong Delta coast in Southern Vietnam. The Con Dao archipelago is made up of 16 islands, but you can only travel to the main island.
Travel to the surrounding islands is only permitted with a national park ranger.
How to Get to Con Dao Island
The best way to get to Con Dao is by plane. There are several flights a day from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), but you can also find direct flights from Hanoi, Da Nang, and Vinh.
Flying time from HCMC is less than an hour, while from Hanoi, it's about 2 hours 30 minutes.
Most flights to Con Dao are operated by Vietnam Air Services Company (VASCO - a subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines) on small twin-engine turboprops.
When you land at Con Dao airport, you realize why; it's tiny! There is a small arrival hall with an old baggage carousel. Con Dao is the smallest airport I have traveled to in Vietnam for sure.
Con Dao Airport to the City
The trip from Con Dao airport to the city is about a 40-minute drive. There are always taxis parked outside the airport, so finding a ride into central Con Dao should be easy.
I organized my taxi through my hotel before arrival, so someone was waiting for me at the airport. The cost was exactly the same.
Where to Stay in Con Dao
Most accommodation is in and around Con Dao's small city. I stayed at the Phuc Loc An Hotel, right in the center of town, within walking distance to central sights, restaurants, coffee shops, the market, and the beachfront.
In fact, no matter where to stay in Con Dao city, you'll be within walking distance of everything.
Getting Around Con Dao
If you want to explore the rest of the island or national park, you will need to hire a scooter or taxi to get around.
I chose to rent a scooter as I like the freedom of moving around on my own. My scooter rental cost 150,000 VND per day, which I booked through my hotel.
Things to do in Con Dao
Con Dao has something for everyone, from museums, culture, and history to exploring national parks, hiking, snorkeling, and scuba diving.
One of the most popular activities in Con Dao is a turtle tour where you get to watch baby turtles hatching on Bãi Cạnh Island (Bay Canh Island).
It's a really early start for the turtle hatching so, you have the option to leave really early from Con Dao or camp out at the ranger station on Bay Canh Island.
Ummm, camp out on a deserted island, for sure!
Con Dao National Park
In the mountainous terrain above the city lies Con Dao National Park (Vườn quốc gia Côn Đảo), making a large part of the 5,998 hectares of protected forest on the island.
There are several walks and hikes through the Con Dao National Park's forests. Some of these require strenuous hiking through dangerous slippery terrain, so definitely don't attempt these trails alone.
Also, the island's microclimate is unpredictable. I witnessed the weather go from bright and sunny to black clouds and torrential rain in a matter of 30 minutes. So, check with the ranger station about weather conditions before heading into the forest.
I found the park rangers very helpful, and most speak good English as they take regular nature tours for tourists.
Con Dao Prisons & Museums
Con Dao has a dark and eventful history. The island was used as a detention facility for political prisoners during Vietnam's French and American occupation.
Torture was part of the prisoners' daily routine, including the infamous tiger cages, which you can still see today.
Walking through the old prisons is a somber experience. The high walls, iron gates, gloomy hot cells, and details of torture methods give you some insight into what life might have been like for those held captive.
There are also old monuments and museums to explore.
Although much of the island is rocky with many cliffs, there are a few beaches to explore.
There are several beaches outside of town, but these are very secluded, which is great if you're just hitting the beach for a tan but might be dangerous for swimming.
The currents around the island are strong, and there is no one around if you get into any trouble.
Still, there are some spectacular deserted beaches to explore on Con Dao; I highly recommend renting a scooter and go exploring.
The main beach near the city is Con Son Bay Beach (Bãi Tắm vịnh Côn Sơn) or An Hai Beach (Bãi tắm An Hải) to the south is probably the safest place to swim. The water is calm, and there is a fair amount of beach sand to lay on.
Snorkeling & Diving
As the island is far off the mainland coast, away from rives and pollution, snorkeling and scuba diving in Con Dao are the best in Vietnam. The water is clean and marine life abundant.
The Con Dao National Park operates most of the tours, which you can book at the park office or via their website.
If you're looking for a party island, Con Dao is not the place. The island is very conservative, with a focus on cultural and eco-tourism.
There are a couple of bars, but they're very tame and more for winding down in the evening rather than partying all night.
Con Dao Food & Restaurants
Food options in Con Dao are limited. If you love seafood, then you'll be spoiled for choice, with just about every restaurant featuring a seafood dish.
For western-style meals, there are only a handful of places available in Con Dao.
Is Con Dao Worth the Trip?
I loved Con Dao and will definitely be going back. It's an entirely unique Vietnamese island experience.
Having said that, I would recommend seeing mainland Vietnam before traveling to Con Dao so you can truly appreciate its unique beauty.
I most enjoyed just riding around the island and taking in the breathtaking landscape and panoramic views.
If you are looking for an environmental experience, Con Dao is the best place in Vietnam. Especially when it comes to marine life and scuba diving.
Having learned about the prison camps at the war museum in HCMC, visiting the island and detention centers gave me a better perspective. The local government has done an excellent job of preserving these dark pieces of history.
I would recommend a minimum of three nights in Con Dao; five would be best to explore the entire island, national park, and surrounding islands.