Vietnam re-visited October 2015: Con Dao Archipelago.

Having visited Vietnam in 2013, I was keen to go back and an Eid holiday early October 2015 seemed the perfect time.

Originally the idea was to base travel around the Hoi An area and discover the coastline and sights, but reading weather reports, it didn’t seem like a wonderful time to be travelling around on a motor-bike as it’s the rainy season during October and its pretty dismal being wet on a bike, so a re-think was required.

Con Dao archipelago and a re-visit to Phu Quoc island was the new itinary and duly booked. An overnight stop at a hotel in Ho Chi Minh for flight connections was conveniently close to be within walking distance from the airport.

Con Son Island, the only inhabited island in the Con Dao archipelago,  is a 45 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh. Not a huge choice of hotels on the island, ranging from the uber-stylish Six Senses, to various small hotels.

Con Dao camping was my choice (I wasn’t feeling uber enough financially for the luxury SixS’s). A short taxi ride on the island road to town was an introduction to the idyllic scenery of the archipelago. The road has been carved around the steep mountains for access to Con Son, the town and the fishing port at the far end of the island.

Con Son view...

Con Son view…

The island has only 30km of tarmac road and few tracks, the mountain terrain is completely inhospitable and the army have the only access to the other side of the island.

Con Son was home to the infamous penal system for Vietnamese nationalists imprisoned under the French colonial era and subsequently the Americans kept the prisons running during the Vietnam War.

Many Vietnamese make the visit to the island to pray and leave offerings at the shrine, we were told the majority of these visitors are from Hanoi area.

My plane was full of families with huge flower arrangements, at first I thought it may be a public holiday, but after arriving, I understood it was the normal tribute for respect of those who were lost in this lonely place, where families come to pray for those who were lost over a period of many years .. It is hard to understand the attrition of war, earlier and later, conditions here must have been dire, when it was only a penal colony under French rule and then the Americans took it over. I hate to think of the abuses, it was, at that time, a war we had little understanding of .

I didn’t want to examine the prison and the infamous “Tiger Cages”, how the West could have continued the atrocities, it’s beyond my scope of thinking, there must have been reasons, but to me,the suffering in Vietnam during the war years is beyond belief, the West shouldn’t have been there ..but they were and those who experienced Vietnam, must have memories they wouldn’t wish to share …

Appropriate sculpture for a penal island...

Appropriate sculpture for a penal island…

There are 16 islands in the archipelago and are now part of the Con Dao National park. Turtles species and dugong are amongst the endangered species protected within the park.

The scenery is spectacular, Con Son has a huge sweep of bay protected by outer islands, and there are some popular swimming spots off the promenade.

Con Dao Camping was the choice of resort and I wasn’t disappointed. Basic A-frame rooms opening onto the beach with a glorious view,it was all that was needed.

Con Dao Camping ... on the beach

Con Dao Camping … on the beach

Off out early on the first morning, a walk down the long beach was a must and I wasn’t disappointed.

Sand dollars, hundreds of them...

Sand dollars, hundreds of them…

Hundreds of tiny sand dollars lay exposed on the sand, as it was low tide and I found some lovely specimens of Malleus alba. Bi-valves were prevalent, with a few damaged gastropods . Time to get on the road and explore, looking for more varieties…

The trusty steed...

The trusty steed…

The best way was to travel was on a small motorbike, so we headed off to the fishing port at the end of the road, opposite hon Ba Island. The fishing port was languorous in the heat of the day, activity seemed to be at a slow pace, but as always, there were portside shops and drying fish spread out alongside the dock.

Further down the road was a huge area of dredged sand, so it was time to check out the shoreline. The area was full of Vexillum of different varieties and also the dreaded sand fly.

On arrival at the camping resort we were warned about sandflies all over the island,and duly stocked up with the Deet on sale, slathered it on, but my hunting had taken me into the sea, so my ankles were now Deet-less …and I paid for it! Looking down and wondering why my ankles seemed to be flecked with black dots, I realized and started to beat them off .. too late,the damage was done and continued, unbeknown to me … I’ve always been fairly immune to bites, so wasn’t too worried about it and casually we headed back to town with a good collection of beach finds.

A small rest on the pier gave us a glimpse of the life …

In Vietnam, the food is a huge draw, there aren’t too many places to eat in Con Son, but a row of restaurants behind the camping resort led us to choose Ot seafood restaurant.

OT dining.

OT dining.

Choosing from the large tanks of fish and shellfish, everything ordered was delicious and fresh! Basic décor, friendly staff, little English spoken, but adept at understanding my hand-signals,it made it the place to eat for the stay.

Crab for dinner...

Crab for dinner…

Mosquito coils lit, sprayed with every repellent I had brought, it was time to sleep…which didn’t happen, the sandfly bites, innocuous at first, suddenly turned into an itch, which got worse and worse. Once scratched, it’s a vicious cycle and finally I slept for a short while, with ankles wrapped in wet flannels.

As dawn broke I was back out on the beach (covered in Deet) to be greeted by local ladies taking their exercise before the heat and humidity of the day started.A loudspeaker was broadcasting over the town, a female voice, strident and clipped…was it an impending disaster being announced by civil defence ? Had I been spotted hoarding sand dollars? Was a tsunami approaching? .. very disconcerting,what was going on? but watching the local ladies continue undisturbed, striding down the beach, I could only assume all was well .

Early morning view at Con Dao camping, after a sleepless night...

Early morning view at Con Dao camping, after a sleepless night…

Unable to resist the lure of even more sand dollars , I did my morning workout by bending and collecting and watching the tranquil sunrise appear over the South China Sea , a glorious spectacle. Within 5 minutes dark clouds appeared over the mountains behind me, thunder and lightening and the heavens opened. Time to retreat…Finding refuge in the beach restaurant of the resort and requesting a coffee from the only person around, later discovered to be the resort maintenance man, I was served an interesting Vietnamese coffee .. thick grounds filtered down into an inch of ice cold water .. okay, well, when in Vietnam … it certainly woke me up ! Querying the exhorting broadcast later with the resort manager, she sheepishly explained that the daily early morning broadcast was the news. TV, Radio and Internet access is not common over the island, so each day a 6am government broadcast gave the locals a morning update on the news.

Storm coming in....

Storm coming in….

Later on the weather cleared and as always, a visit to the local fruit , vegetable and fish market was on the agenda. After experiencing Asia, one of my trip highlights is to seek out the local markets. The display of fruit and veg, the variety of different foods on sale, catches of the day and the colour of local life is a magnet for my camera.Pictures speak the words…

Con Son beaches are few, but visiting them all was a priority, so off we hurtled on the trusty bike. By the airport is a muddy track to one large beach, getting there was an achievement in staying on the bike. Plenty of potholes and remembering the dire warning I read somewhere, that in case injuries cannot be treated on Con Son, with its limited facilities, an airlift by helicopter is needed, which comes with a $5,000 advance payment, I will say here that much care was taken.

A beautiful beach, with food shacks and hammocks awaited us and as always, a long walk ahead beachcombing. Quite limited on the shell collecting side, I trawled through the tideline and came up with some wonderful Sea beans and tree fruit cast up on the shore … this part of my collection started in Borneo and Vietnam yielded a wonderful selection for the Bean jar.

It was hot and humid, so a plunge into the sea for a float, just taking in the beauty of it all was a welcome rest…. Time for a beer, maybe some food too, if we could understand what was on offer to make a choice.

Heading up to the closest food shack, there were tanks of live seafood, some interesting choices but it was too hot to eat, so a fresh coconut quenched the thirst and it was then onwards to the next stop.

Vietnam is the land of the hammock, everywhere you go, there are hammocks, there are stands in some areas for “take your own hammock” use, it isn’t unusual to see a motorbike stop by two trees, hammock unrolled and attached and instant sleep by the occupant, understandable in this humid climate.

Hammocks are useful....

Hammocks are useful….

On the opposite side of the peninsula there was no defined road to the beach so another scary bike-slither down a muddy road onto the most beautiful white sand beach. The Airport runway edges out into the sea, but the resourceful locals bike it at low tide to the opposite end. Several bikes came past with bags of shells and fish, heading to the market for sale, no-one else around on this white sand paradise.

Time to leave this little island and head across to re-visit Phu Quoc.

An early morning flight, taxi organized for the short airport journey, off we headed.

First sign of change was our Vietnamese taxi driver stopping talking on his mobile, and trying to explain something. Language barrier matched the airport barrier, hmm, obviously airport was closed, assuming a flight delay, we asked him to take us to the fabulous Six Senses resort , the closest stop, surely they would welcome us for breakfast, we didn’t look too scruffy……..

Offloaded at the entrance, the welcome was superb, escorted to the beachside dining room, a personalised tour of the breakfast fare on offer, wonderful. Homemade smoothies, Turkish poached eggs and a selection from the cold room, this was turning the day from bad to luxurious. Free wifi meant a check up on the flights and new connections with the advantage of guest watching, some falling into the “ very interesting” category, the spectacular sweep of the Six Senses bay, highlighted by the rising sun, all in all, the best decision made.

Our taxi driver returned, perfectly on time and off to Ho Chi Minh we went.

Seamlessly moved onto the next flight, tight for time at Ho Chi Minh, but playing on my metal hip limp and using the Government and crew immigration check to bypass the queues…always smile nicely, its such a polite society, it meant we had time for a coffee before the next flight for Phu Quoc, see my next post …


Flight Dubai-Ho Chi Minh-Dubai: 

Emirates fly daily from Dubai at 09.40 arriving 19.40 Tan Son Nhat international airport (SGN)

Return departure 23.55(SGN) arriving 04.50(DXB).

Alternative Emirates route with a connection in Singapore is also available.

Airlines that fly from Ho Chi Minh to Con Dao Islands:

Hahn Airlines

Vietnam airlines (operated by Vietjet) my choice.

Be aware that flights can be cancelled with little warning.


Con Dao Camping Hotel

I used

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