Before, tourists from the Mekong Delta who headed for Con Dao had to travel to HCM City first, where they could reach the final destination by air or ship. Fortunately, since June 1, they have been able to embark on a 40-minute flight, in an ATR-72 aircraft, from Can Tho to Con Dao, where they can immerse themselves in the pristine beauty of Nature and seek solace in historical and spiritual reflections.
Visitors to Con Dao this summer will have an opportunity to glean insights into these historical spots and, at the same time, relish the plaintive cries of cicadas, the shade of ancient trees and the charm of Queen’s crape myrtles. Meanwhile, a trip to Hang Duong Cemetery, surrounded by mountains, allows tourists to pay homage to Vo Thi Sau, a famous war heroine, and thousands of other deceased soldiers and slide into moments of contemplation and quietude.
Moreover, according to Claire Wrathall, 350 people died building Ma Thien Lanh Bridge near the So Ray Plantation. A hike through luxuriant rainforests would, Claire Wrathall recalled, lead tourists to an area “cleared for cultivation purposes and grinding down prisoners.” Also chilling were 11 prison complexes, the oldest of which was built by the French in 1862 and four of which stood in testament to Con Dao’s ghastly history. From the perspective of this foreign tourist, it would not be an exaggeration to deem Con Dao as Hell on Earth.
Further, in March 2011, the Travel Asia & Australia section of the Financial Times ran the article “The Spirit and the Devil of the Sea” by Claire Wrathall. She wrote that pre-1975 Con Dao was a “penal colony” marked by extreme cruelty, with more than 20,000 prisoners passing away in custody. Spine-tingling reminders of its dark past abound, including a plaque in memory of 914 people who succumbed to death while working on the construction of a jerry in Con Son.
After a trip to Con Dao last summer, a 28-year-old entrepreneur from HCM City wrote in an essay published on the Buddhist Culture magazine: “Each of us was filled with tranquility and happiness throughout our four-day stay on the islands. The enigmatic atmosphere around prisons and graveyards did not evoke fear, but deepened our nascent love for this place. Some of us struggled to hold back tears as our tour guide told us about prison life, about love and about the courage of prisoners, whose heart and soul were as pure as gold. Our slight fear of ghosts vanished, giving way to our appreciation for sacred, historical tales about these islands.” This entrepreneur even compared Con Dao to a Zen master.
The only asphalted road in eastern Con Dao brings tourists from Co Ong Airport to town and leads directly to Ben Dam Port in the south. Western Con Dao has no road and mountain trails are often steep. However, tourists can walk through forests to reach Dam Trau and Ong Dung beaches, which are virtually pristine. White sandy beaches in eastern Con Dao, meanwhile, are ideal for recuperation. Notably, a five-star resort developed by Thailand’s Six Senses Group has operated on Dat Doc Beach since December 2010, with a room rent of up to US$790 a day.
Visitors can also embark on a vicarious trip around Con Dao by asking tour guides for descriptions of famous scenic spots around the islands. For example, in addition to swimming, watching turtles lay eggs and diving to feast their eyes on coral reefs, tourists can visit a lighthouse constructed in 1884 on Bay Canh Islet or climb mountains and watch monkeys on Tai Islet. Trung Islet is home to a vast array of sea birds and thrives at dawn and in the sunset.
The room rents hover around VND350,000/day at such guesthouses as Phi Yen or Anh Dao and around US$45-120/day at hotels like Saigon-Con Dao, Sea Travel and Con Dao Resort. These amenities are in proximity to An Hoi Beach, which is about 3km long, runs toward the southern cliff and is endowed with white sand and crystal-clear seawater. Also abundant are opportunities to savor fresh seafood, including a type of snail unique to Con Dao.
At Lo Voi Beach, which is endowed with dreamlike scenery, visitors can go camping when the tide rises and marvel at coral reefs when the tide ebbs. Nhat Beach, opposite the Peak of Love on Ba Islet, enables tourists to revel in the azure seawater nearby and watch the sun disappear behind the horizon every evening. Visitors can rent a motorbike at VND120,000 a day or go on a boat tour, priced at VND2.5 million each, to get in touch with Nature at its most pristine.
A stroll around town, whether in the daytime or at night, offers a dose of serenity, not least because tourists will love Con Dao’s ample greenery and clean, spacious, beggar-free streets. Better still, locals are hospitable, down to earth and determined to phase out overcharging. It is recommended that tourists should purchase at least a jar of dried or sweetened bàng (Terminalia catappa) seeds, available at VND70,000 each, at Con Dao Market.
Interestingly, unlike many of its inland counterparts, a big gold shop in this market seems to have no security guard. The reason, according to a motorbike taxi rider nearby, is that crimes are rare on these peaceful islands.