Around Ho Chi Minh City

Cu Chi Tunnels - Tay Ninh - Nui Ba Den - One Pillar Pagoda - Can Gio - Buu Long Mountain -Tri An Falls - Vung Tau - Long Hai - Loc An Beach - Ho Tram Beach - Ho Coc Beach - Binh Chau Hot Springs - Cat Tien National Park - Con Dao Islands


IDD Code:(+84) 6
One of the stellar attractions in this region, the Con Dao Archipelago is slowly gaining attention for its startling natural beauty. Con Son. the largest of this chain of 15 islands and islets, is ringed with lovely beaches, coral reefs and scenic bays, and remains partially covered in thick forests. In addition to hiking, diving and exploring empty coastal roads and deserted beaches, there arc some excellent wildlife-watching opportunities. Con Son Island (with a total land area of 20 sq km) is also known by its Europeanised Malay name, iles Poulo Condore (Pulau Kun-dur), which means 'Island of the Squashes'. Although it seems something of an island paradise. Con Son was once hell on earth for the thousands of prisoners who languished in confinement during the French and American regimes. Roughly 80% of the land area in the island chain is part of Con Dao National Park, which protects Vietnam's most important sea turtle nesting grounds. For the last decade the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has been working with local park rangers on a long-term monitoring program. During nesting season (May to September) the park sets up ranger stations to rescue threatened nests and move them to the safe haven of hatcheries. Other interesting sea life around Con Dao includes the dugong, a rare and seldom-seen marine mammal in the same family as the manatee. Dugongs live as far north as Japan, and as far south as the subtropical coasts of Australia. Their numbers have been on a steady decline, and increasingly efforts are being made to protect these adorable creatures. Major threats include coastal road development, which causes the destruction of shallow-water beds of seagrass, the dugongs' staple diet. Con Dao is one of those rare places in Vietnam wnere there arc virtually no structures over two storeys, and where the traveller's experience is almost hassle-free. There's even no need to bargain at the local market! Owing to the relatively high cost and the inaccessibility of the islands, mass tourism has thankfully been kept to a minimum. These days most visitors to Con Son are package-tour groups of former VC soldiers who were imprisoned on the island. The Viet namese government generously subsidises these jaunts as a show of gratitude for their sacrifice. Foreign tourists are still few and far between, though their numbers are on the rise The driest time to visit Con Dao is from November to February, though the seas are calmest from March to July. The rainy season lasts from June to September, but there are also northeast and southwest monsoons m autumn that can bring heavy winds. In November 1997 typhoon Linda did a number here: 300 fishing boats were lost, reefs were wiped out and the forests flattened. September and October are the hottest months, though even then the cool island breezes make Con Dao relatively comfortable when compared with HCMC or Vung Tau.
Occupied at various times by the Khmer, Malays and Vietnamese, Con Son Island also served as an early base for European commercial ventures in the region. The first recorded European arrival was a ship of Portuguese mariners in 1560. The British East India Company maintained a fortified trading post here from 1702 to 1705 - an experiment that ended when the English on the island were massacred in a revolt by the Macassar soldiers they had recruited on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Con Son Island has a strong political and cultural history, and an all-star line-up of Vietnamese revolutionary heroes (many streets are named after them) were incarcerated here. Under the French, Con Son was used as a major prison for opponents of French colonialism, earning a reputation for the routine mistreatment and torture of prisoners. In 1954 the island was taken over by the South Vietnamese government, which continued to utilise its remoteness to hold opponents of the government (including students) in horrifying conditions. During the American War the South Vietnamese were joined here by US forces.
The national park headquarters ( 29 0 Vo Thi Sau; -11.30am & 1.30-5pm Mon-Fri, 7.30am-11am & 2-4.30pm Sat) is a good place to get information. Since the military controls access to parts of the national park, stop here first to have staff direct you to possible island excursions and hikes, this office also distributes a free useful handout on hikes around the island. Some hiking trails have interpretive signage in English and Vietnamese. The headquarters also has an exhibition hall with displays on the diversity of local forest and marine life. threats to the local environment, and local conservation activities. Several slow internet cafes are found in town, including one attached to the post office (cnr ĐTran Phu & Nguyen Thi Minh Khai; per hr 2400d; 8am-8pm)
Before flying out to Con Dao Island, be sure to get ample funds as there are no banks or ATMs on the island.
Sights & Activities
From March to November it's possible to do a beautiful and leisurely two-hour trek starling from near the airport runway, but you'll definitely need a local guide to do this (about US$6 for the outing). The walk leads through thick forest and mangroves, and past a hill top stream to Bamboo Lagoon (Dam Tre). This spot is stunning and there's good snorkelling in the bay. You could even consider arranging for a boat to come and pick you up. A hike that you can do yourself is a 1km walk (about 25 minutes each way) through rain forest to Ong Dung Bay. The trail begins a few kilometres north of town. On the road to the trailhead, you'll also pass the ruins of the Ma Thien Lanh Bridge, built by prisoners under the French occupation. The bay itself has only a rocky beach, though there's interesting coral 300m offshore. Rainbow Divers runs an office out of the Phi Yen Hotel, though they're scheduled to move to ATC sometime in 2007. They offer some excel lent dives among the coral reefs around the islands. During the dry season (November to May) visibility is good and dives are less likely to be cancelled. This is also a good source of island info (English spoken).
Con Son town is a sleepy seafront settlement that would make a perfect location for a period film. All three of the town's hotels are on Đ Ton Duc Thang, along a strip of forlorn single storey French villas (most are abandoned and in disrepair, but nonetheless photogenic). Nearby is the local market, which is busiest between 7am and 8am. The main sights on Con Son Island are a museum, several prisons and a cemetery. If you visit the museum first you can buy a ticket for 35,000d that will get you a guided tour of the museum and prisons - very good value. The Revolutionary Museum (Tell: 7-11am& 1.30-5pm Mon-Sat) is next to Saigon Con Dao Hotel and has exhibits on Vietnamese resistance to the French, communist opposition to the Republic of Vietnam, and the treatment of political prisoners (including some gruesome photos of torture). There is also a mock-up of the islands and some curiously embalmed animals -including a monkey smoking a pipe. Phu Hai Prison, a short walk from the museum, is the largest of the 11 prisons on the island. Built in 1862, the prison houses several enormous detention buildings, one with about 100 shackled and emaciated mannequins that are all too lifelike. Equally eerie are the empty solitary cells with ankle shackles (the decree on the walls in Vietnamese means 'no killing fleas' - prisoners were not allowed to dirty the walls). Nearby is the equally disturbing Phu Son Prison. The notorious Tiger Cages were built by the French in the 1940s. From 1957 to 1961 nearly 2000 political prisoners were confined in these tiny cells. Here there are 120 chambers with ceiling bars, where guards could watch down on the prisoners like tigers in a zoo, and an-other 60 solariums with no roof at all. Over the course of four decades of war, some 20,000 people were killed on Con Son and 1994 of their graves can be seen at Hang Duong Cemetery. Sadly, only 700 of these graves bear the name of the victims. Vietnam's most famous heroine, Vo Thi Sau (1933-1952). was the first woman executed (by a firing squad) on Con Son, on 23 January 1952. Today's pilgrims come to burn incense at her tomb, and make offerings of mirrors and combs (symbolic because she died so young). In the distance behind the cemetery you'll see a huge monument symbolising three giant sticks of incense. Phu Binh Camp is also part of the main tour, though it's outside of town. Built in 1971 by the Americans, this one has 384 chambers and was known as Camp 7 until 1973. when it closed following evidence of torture. After the Paris Agreements in 1973, the name was changed to Phu Binh Camp.
On Con Son there are several good beaches worth finding. Inquire at the hotels about snorkelling gear rental for about 50,000d per day. Bai Dat Doc is one nice beach with a long stretch of sand. Keep an eye out for dugongs frolicking in the water. Bai Nhat is small and very nice, though it's exposed only during low tide. Bai An Hai looks nice, but there are a good number of fishing boats moored nearby, and a few too many sandflies. Bai Loi Voi is OK as well, and shallow, but there can be a fair bit of rubbish and lots of sea shells. The best beaches of all are on the smaller islands, such as the beautiful white-sand beach on Tre Lon. Perhaps the best all-round island to visit is Bay Canh, which has lovely beaches, old-growth forest, mangroves, coral reefs (good snorkel-ling at low tide) and sea turtles (seasonal). There is a fantastic two-hour walk to a functioning French-built lighthouse.
Sleeping & Eating
Three of the island's five hotels are on the main road facing the bay in town.
Phi Yen Hotel(Tell: 830168; fax 830 428; 34 Đ Ton Duc Thang;s/d 170,000/222,000d;This basic, friendly minihotel has some rooms with partial sea views. All have air-con and hot water. ATC ( 8 ĐTon Duc Thang; bungalow from USS22. villa US$55-75) This friendly guesthouse offers accommodation in eight tidy, brick bungalows, with air-con, hot water and a terrace (several of which overlook the sea). There are also two spacious thatch-roof stilt houses relocated here from Hoa Binh.
Saigon Con Dao Hotel ( 180 Ton Duc Thang;s/d from US$40/50; Run by Saigon Tourist, this place is 400m south of ATC and offers clean, trim rooms, some with ocean views. It's overpriced for the money, though some visitors end up here on package tours. (Inquire at the Saigon Tourist office, p338, in HCMC if you're looking for a package deal.)
National Park Guesthouse ( 29 Đ Vo Thi Sau; r 150,000d) A pleasant budget option next to the park headquarters, this friendly place has clean, simple rooms, some with excellent views of the lush mountain. It's 2km north of town.
Con Dao Resort ( 8 Đ Nguyen £»uc Thuan; r US$30-35, villa US$40-70;Con Dao's finest lodging, this place lies about 600m south of town and overlooks a sandy beach rather than the road. Rooms are clean and comfortable and have either beach or mountain views. Buffet breakfast is included. You'll also find here the best restaurant in town (try the excellent prawn salad Con Dao style) with mains from 30,000d to 75.000d. All of the hotels have restaurants, though if you're looking for something more local in flavour, try Phuong Hanh (Tell:830180; 38C Đ Nguyen Hue; mains around 30,000d), a pleasant indoor-outdoor eatery in the centre of town.
Getting There & Around
With its newly upgraded airport. Con Son Island offers nights departing every other day from HCMC, operated by Vasco (Vietnam Air Services Company) for US$80 return. The tiny airport is about 15km from the town centre. All of the hotels provide free transport to and from the airport. Although it's advis- able to book your hotel ahead and arrange to he met at the airport, you can often show up and grab a seat on one of the hotel shuttle vans that meet the plane - though it would be bad form not to stay at least a night at whatever hotel gives you a free lift.
If you want to explore the islands by boat, hire one from the national park office. A 12-person boat costs around 1,200,000d per day.
Some of the main sites on Con Son, such as the Revolution Museum and Phu Hai Prison, are within walking distance of town, but to get further afield a motorbike is ideal. All of the ho-tels rent motorbikes for about US$7 to US$10 per day (bicycles cost around US$2 per day), There are good coastal cycling routes (such as from town to Bai Nhat and onto the tiny settle-ment of Ben Dam), some nice gradual ups and downs and, thankfully, little motor traffic.
Two decades ago the fate of the Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) in Con Dao seemed dire They were prized for their meat, and their shells had value as souvenirs. To make matters worse, the turtles' numbers were decimated by destructive fishing practices. And yet, today, following a decade of local and foreign initiatives, the turtles' has made a remarkabSe comeback. One of Vietnam's most important sea turtle nesting sites lies scattered around the shores of the Con Dao archipelago. The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has helped substantially, as have other international organisations, by setting up conservation stations on the islands of Bay Canh, Tre Lon, Tai and Cau. According to WWF, Since 1995 some 300,000 hatchlings have been released into the sea. In 2006, 85% of sea turtle eggs hatched successfully - the highest percentage in Vietnam. Later that year WWF also launched a satellite tracking program (the first of its kind in Vietnam) to give conservation workers a better understanding of migration patterns, as well a; key habitats used by the turtles for feeding and mating. Though the population is on the rise, many turtles still die after nesting - often from getting ensnared in fishing nets. Visitors wishing to see the turtles in their natural habitat can arrange a trip to Bay Canh island and spend the night at the conversation site. (Turtles only (ay their eggs at night, each one producing three to ten nests with an average of 70 eggs.) The best time to see them is during the nesting season, which is from May to September. For information on trips, inquire at Rainbow Divers or at the Con Dao National Park Headquarters. Tours prices vary from US$30 to US$75.