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Published: October 30th 2007
Well, despite numerous warnings about the place (formerly best known as prison camp hellhole) I arrived in Con Dao. The 50 minute flight whisked me over the Mekong Delta and into the heart of the South China Sea for a glorious week. I stayed in a comfortable but good value villa with great sea views at the Con Dao Resort
just west of the main town. This meant that I was able to enjoy the solitude of the UNESCO site in extremis. When I arrived I was surprised to be one of only two guests at the hotel. The staff were very friendly. At times though, it was funny to order food and find myself still talking to the waiter ten minutes later as he tried out his English on me. By the end of my stay I was being encouraged by one of the managers to come and set up a school there - there is money in them there hills.
Things are changing fast for the couple of thousand islanders. A new airport. Improved roads. Several resorts in various stages of construction. A large increase in tourist numbers is inevitable. But the reasons why tourists come
are many. Some come for nature (mountains, jungle, beaches, wildlife). Others make the trip for relaxation. Still others for the vibrant history. Whatever the reason Con Dao is a lovely place for a couple of days or a very relaxed couple of weeks.
Con Dao, and the main island of Con Son which forms part of a 20 island archipelago, is infamous as a prison island where over twenty thousand inmates are believed to have died under the most barbaric conditions. Political prisoners were held here first by the French, but later by the South Vietnamese/American regimes, in conditions that drew international demands for the closure of the prison under the Geneva Convention. For over a century the island bore witness to terrible human suffering, instances of great bravery and foolhardy escape attempts, revolts, disease and often the death of men and women from all over Vietnam. Eleven prisons still stand and it is still possible to see many of them around Con Son town. It is interesting to note the lovely architecture and gardens of the oldest prisons (Phu Hai for example) and the gradual industrialisation of imprisonment under the South Vietnamese/Americans. Today it is possible
to take a guided tour of several of the main prisons. This can be arranged through the Revolutionary Museum
for under a dollar and includes an informative guide. This is well worth-while as otherwise many of the main sights are under lock and key.
It is still possible to see the infamous 'tiger cages'
(where guards patrolled above the cells) and solariums (cells without roofs must have been awful in the summer heat of Con Dao). In the Vietnamese war museum fashion these well-maintained buildings come with demon-faced American and South Vietnamese guard/mannequins and frail, skeletal (even disemboweled) prisoners. It is well worth making a tour of the prisons to really understand the nature and cruelty of the prison system.
Further afield there are numerous monuments documenting escape attempts, famines, death and life on the prison colony. These appear to be new and would be particularly interesting for the many former prisoners who now visit as tourists with the support of the Vietnamese government. As I walked around the tiger cages with a couple of other Westerners a larger group of Vietnamese followed us in but they seemed almost giddy so close to the ghoulish scene. Elsewhere, of
particular interest is the serene Hang Duong Cemetery
with it's beautiful lotus filled ponds and haunting rows of grave markers (some with names, hundreds without).
The islands are mostly mountainous and mostly tree covered. It is possible to do several short unaccompanied jungle walks but longer walks need guides who rarely venture out once the sun gets too high (I don't blame them for this though). I did several of the shorter treks and saw lots of interesting wildlife and fauna. There are monkeys here but I usually gave them too much warning as I tramped through the undergrowth. I did see small black and larger brown squirrels, red forest crabs, lots of lizards, colourful toads and impressive spiders. There are also many beautiful butterflies and great bird life around every corner. I watched some fantastic kingfishers near the beach where the timid and extremely raredugong
(or sea-cow) is supposed to snack on sea-grass.
In the marine park there is decent coral. I experience this on a nice snorkeling day-trip to nearby Bay Canh island and around Bamboo Lagoon on Con Son island. There I saw many types of lovely fish and other sea animals although visibility
This gym had a rustic (and rusting) charm as evidenced by their equipment.
was only a few metres. Near our boat some others saw a giant clam near our mooring. Apparently the dry season was about to start when visibility improves greatly as the rains ease from November onwards. On Bay Canh Island I thought about overnighting to see baby hornbill turtles
hatch and make their way to the sea as this was the end of the hatching season for hornbill and green turtles. In the end we were dissuaded from the likely discomfort for us and for the hatchlings who have it hard enough without mankind sticking his big torch in your eyes. We did see a few babies at the hatchery before their release which was really. This island also interesting mangrove swamps
a stones throw from the hatchery. there is lots of information about these trips at the National Park Office just north of Con Son town.
Otherwise there are lots of lovely sandy and rocky beaches to take your breath away. I rented a small motorbike and toured the island and was reminded of the rocky ruggedness
of Ireland and Scotland which one does not often see in Vietnam. This was a welcome sight to the Saigon resident
not accustomed to the sight of land leaving in anything but horizontal form.
Night life on Con Dao means drinking coffee or bia, eating from the local restaurants with other hotel guests and waving at th elocals (although I'm not sure how entertaining the latter is for the anyone really). Eating copious quantities of hotpot and partaking of the occasional bit of nice seafood left plenty of time for the joys of reading, music and more reading. Sunrises. Sunsets. More sunrises and sunsets and trips on motorbikes or bicycles, and floating about in the sea. These provided a balm for my Ho Chi Minh addled brain.
As my plane left Con Son airport and our small twin-prop plane banked North I wondered would I ever see Con Dao again? The philosopher in me says that we can never step into the same river twice and the ever quickening pace of development on Con Dao mean that it will not stay remain the idyllic haven it currentl. On the other hand it is likely to be an off-the-beaten track sort of place for years to come and I just hope that UNESCO can do its job and keep
the worst of bad development at bay. Ciao Con Dao for now!
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