180km (97 nautical miles) SE of Vung Tau
There's an old saying on Con Son: On days when the water surrounding this remote island's rocky cliffs is windless and still, locals say that, with the shimmering reflection in the deep blue-green water, it's as if the "birds swim in the sea and the fish fly in the clouds."
Con Son, part of the larger Con Dao Archipelago (and usually referred to as Con Dao) is the kind of out-of-the-way outcrop that inspires poetry. But the loudest voices from the island come from the memory of the hundreds of thousands who suffered in the island's notorious prisons (estimates begin at about 20,000 for the number who died here). A visit to the island is a unique glimpse into the story of the Vietnamese struggles during the colonial era and during the war with America, and also a chance to travel among Vietnamese tourists, who travel to the island to pay homage to the many who suffered here. I got caught up in a weekend of revolutionary fervor, with red-flag-waving dance performances and patriotic singing and marching in the evenings out in front of the Revolutionary Museum. It was almost like walking into Sen. Joseph McCarthy's worst nightmare around 1950.
The Portuguese first landed on Con Son, which means "Pearl Island," in 1516, the French arrived in 1686, and the British even made a pit stop with one of the East India Company ships in 1702, but the French laid claim (as in poked a flag in and claimed ownership) to the island chain from 1721. Calling it the Orleans Archipelago, the French used Con Son as a reconnoitering point for trade with the British for many years, until they finally occupied Con Son in 1861, calling the main island Poulo Condore and building their first prison to house insurgents and revolutionaries, names applied to anyone who didn't like being colonized. Prison riots and revolts were many; some even successfully took over the island at one period in 1862, and the French magistrate on the island was murdered in 1919. But the sounds of clanking shackles and suffering would ring out over the desert expanses of Con Son, under both the French and the Americans, until full liberation in 1975. The United States demolished the island's open-pit cells, called tiger cages, in 1970, but accommodations on the island were never plush.
Fourteen islands comprise this remote archipelago, the largest of which, Con Son, hosts a population of less than 5,000, mostly in the small port areas on the east and south ends of the island. The other 13 islands are uninhabited but for the national park observers who stand watch on rocky outcrops. Giant sea turtles come in large numbers to breed on the beach of nearby Hon Bay Canh, just a few clicks offshore from the main island of Con Son. The World Wildlife Foundation has pumped lots of grant money into the protection program for Con Dao's turtles, and efforts at conservation are paying off. Also due to WWF's largesse, the large national forest area and bird breeding grounds are well managed and maintained, and the island's park office hosts a helpful museum and trekking information center where visitors can get permits and information for one of the island's short jungle treks.
Just getting here by plane is an adventure: The open cockpit of a Russian Antonov 38 lets you look out the front window and the side portals over the blue sea and sweeping swirls where coastal estuaries spill into the briny sea on the delta. You fly low enough to see farmers in their field, and this short flight from Ho Chi Minh City brings you to a laid-back, remote island, almost like its own little banana republic. Con Son is one of those quirky remote destinations where you can get to know the whole expat community in a few handshakes, and where you'll be raising glasses with the very pilot who just flew you in that morning -- and the same guys who'll fly you out (hopefully after some sleep and a cup of coffee). The central port area is a long concrete sea wall -- none too picturesque -- but the waters of the bay are pleasing and the views are good from the island's small clutch of budget resorts. Con Son Island is also a great place to explore secluded beaches, jungle scenery in the large Con Dao National Park, or remote islands and dive sites by joining a 1-day diving and snorkeling trip.
There isn't much to the port town on Con Son, but the town's old colonial buildings, some with French street names still neatly carved in the stucco of antique cornices, lend to the general atmosphere of this little bleached beach outcrop. Houses in town are often made from old prison walls: lean-tos built against the aging bulwarks or occupying whole prison buildings or administration buildings. The tiny central market area is where you'll find what little action there is, and a stay on Con Dao is a good way to unwind from busy city life in Ho Chi Minh. There are also a number of quiet, secluded beaches, the likes of Bai Dat Doc near the airport. Don't miss the small temple dedicated to Gia Long's Royal Concubine, Lady Phi Yen, who was imprisoned on the island after exile and a sad lover's tale of deceit.
Cool sea winds make the island rather temperate year-round, but note that, because of wind conditions and poor visibility, diving is not possible in the winter months from November to January (the very opposite of Nha Trang, which is in high season for diving at that time).