Apart from the mainland in the Con Dao Archipelago is Con Son Island, the capital and only inhabited area of the Con Dao Islands. A secluded destination, tourism in Con Son is growing as word spreads about its natural beauty.
Once called “Hell Island” because of the prisons built by the French, Con Son has become one of Southern Vietnam’s best places to go for a resort getaway. In addition to enjoying time in paradise, tourists can learn more about the island’s history and explore its unique ecosystem.
Island Capital in the Con Dao Archipelago
There are 16 islands in the Con Dao Archipelago and Con Son is the largest of them all. About 51.52 km2 (20 mi2 ), Con Son is also the only island in the archipelago that is inhabited. Living on the island, in and around the town, is a permanent population of about 8,400 people.
View of the coastline and cape on Côn Son Island, Vietnam. Photo by: Paul Arps
Additionally, Con Son is the only island that is open to the public. Many of the other islands in Con Dao are only accessible through local tours. Con Son and all the islands in the archipelago are a part of Vietnam’s Bà Ria-Vung Tàu Province. Vung Tàu City, on the mainland, is the closest urban area to Con Son Island and it is about 185 km (115 mi) away.
Ho Chi Minh City, once called Saigon, is 230 km (143 mi) away from Con Son Island. Tourists can fly or drive from HCMC to Vung Tàu. In Vung Tàu, boats and ferries will take tourists to the islands. The journey from Vung Tàu takes 3-4 hours. Another option to get to Con Son Island would be to fly directly from HCMC, which takes about 1 hour.
Con Son Island has existed in historical records for hundreds of years. Most notably, the island was first mentioned by the explorer, Marco Polo, during his voyage in 1292 that took him from China to India. Historians believe that he had named the island, “Sondur” or “Condur”.Even earlier, the Con Dao Islands were mentioned by Ptolemy and called the “Isles of the Satyrs”.
Cambodia also discovered the islands, which they called “Koh Tralach” (Wax Gourd Island). However, before the 1700s, the island was only inhabited by locals. In 1702, The East India Company built a settlement on the island and by 1705, everything had been destroyed. For the next 80 years, Con Son stayed under Vietnam’s rule.
However, all that changed with the Treaty of Versailles, in which Vietnam’s future emperor, Gia Long, promised the island to the French. Beginning in 1861, the French built the infamous Con Son Prison and for years, they used it to hold political prisoners. When French forces fell, Vietnam once again gained control of the island and continued to use the prison in the same manner.
Côn Dao Prison. Photo by: Tyler.
Perhaps the island’s most infamous period of history was during the Vietnam War when “tiger cages” were added to the prison and camps. A small concrete box covered in wire, the tiger cages gave the island its bad reputation as prisoners were tortured and abused in the prison. The horrifying conditions of Con Son Prison lasted until 1975 when it was closed after the Fall of Saigon.
Today, Con Son Island has become famous for its historical sites. No longer housing prisoners, places like Con Son Prison have been turned into museums where tourists can see the infamous tiger cages and learn more about how the prison operated throughout various periods of time. Additionally, visitors can explore the Hang Duong Cemetery and numerous smaller camps.
- The medieval Arabic name for Con Son Island was “Sundar Fulãt”.
- The original French name for Con Son Island was “Grande-Condore”.
- The island is 21 km (13 mi) long and 8 km (5 mi) wide.
While there are 16 islands in the archipelago, most of the area’s main activities are centered around Con Son Island. Uniquely, Con Son tends to be divided into two parts: Northern and Southern. The main town sits in the middle of the island, and because the area is so small, it only takes a few minutes to travel between attractions.
Dam Trau, the most popular beach on Côn Son Island. Photo by: David Meenagh.
Popular activities include taking historical tours, visiting Con Dao National Park, going to Dam Trau Beach, seeing Nuit Mot Temple, and summiting Thang Gia Peak.
Con Dao National Park
Covering the majority of the Con Dao Archipelago, the northern part of Con Son is dedicated to Con Dao National Park. The national park has a diverse ecosystem and stunning beaches, like Bai Bang and Ong Dung, which make it one of the island’s main attractions. Species that have been found in the waters just offshore include sea turtles, corals, dolphins, and even manatees.
Dam Trau Beach
About 20 minutes outside of the main town is Dam Trau Beach. Named the “most beautiful beach in Con Son”, Dam Trau is a popular place to visit because of the fun atmosphere. Bars and restaurants are lined up on the beachfront to cater to local and international guests and few areas permit overnight camping. Tents can be rented at Dam Trau Beach for one or multiple nights.
Graves at the prison cemetery, Hang Duong, on Côn Son Island, Vietnam. Photo by: Paul Arps.
One dark side to Con Son Island is the historical prisons and camps. Visitors can book a tour to see the infamous Con Son Prison. Converted into a museum, local guides are available on-site daily to teach guests more about the island’s history. The prison is located just outside of town near additional camps and a graveyard.
Nui Mot Temple
In the island’s southern region, visitors can head to the Nui Mot Temple for a spectacular view of the coast. Sometimes called Van Son, Nui Mot is open daily boasting oceanfront views and an amazing mountain backdrop. The temple has a unique architecture with curved roofs and stone steps.
Thanh Gia Peak
For a challenging hike and bird’s eye view of Con Son Island, tourists should navigate the trail on Thanh Gia Peak. Standing on the southwest part of the island, Thanh Gia gives you a 360-degree view of the island, its beaches, and the main town. Hiking to the summit of Thanh Gia is difficult because the trail has several steep inclines.
Hotels and lodging:
Con Son Island boasts an array of luxury resorts and hotels. Spread throughout the island, visitors can stay in town or head to one of the remote beaches for a relaxing getaway. Popular accommodations include the Six Senses Con Dao, Poulo Condor Boutique Resort and Spa, Con Son Island Hotel, and the Con Dao Sea Travel Resort.
Six Senses Con Dao Villa. Photo: Six Senses Con Dao
Six Senses Con Dao – The island’s highest-rated, premier accommodation is the Six Senses Con Dao. The luxurious Six Senses was designed to mimic a traditional Vietnamese fishing village. There are 50 private villas, each built eco-friendly and sustainably as well as two on-site restaurants and two bars. The property is beachfront and offers 27 experiences, including scuba diving and spa treatments.
Con Son Island Hotel – Con Son Island Hotel is near popular tourist sites like the Ben Dam Port and Con Dao Prison. Not directly on the beach, this hotel still ensures that guests have stunning views of the water and town. Guest rooms have a private bathroom, TV, and mini-fridge. Additionally, there is free parking and bicycle rentals as well as a 24-hour front desk.
Con Dao Sea Travel Resort – Less than 10 minutes from the ferry, the Con Dao Sea Travel Resort is a casual hotel with excellent prices. Highly rated by backpacking tourists, the hotel has its own outdoor pool and lounge areas. Rooms are clean and each has a private bathroom. The closest beach to the hotel is An Hai and the airport is just 17 minutes away.
Poulo Condor Boutique Resort and Spa – A little way outside of town, the Poulo Condor Boutique Resort and Spa has beach access and private gardens to entertain guests. At the property, there is an outdoor pool, an in-house restaurant, and a bar with superb cocktails. Guest rooms at the resort have sea or mountain views and each comes with AC, a TV, and a private bathroom.
The pool and view at Poulo Condor Boutique. Photo: Poulo Condor Boutique Resort & Spa
Throughout the town and at some of the resorts outside of Con Son, there are quality restaurants that serve a variety of local and international favorites. A few of the best places to eat out are the Villa Maison Con Dao Restaurant, Thu Ba, Infiniti Café and Lounge, and the Night Market.
Infiniti Café and Lounge – Artsy and hipster, the Infiniti Café and Lounge, which is within walking distance from many of the area’s boutique hotels, is a fun place to hang out in Con Son. Popular with foreigners, the café has a Western menu with favorites like pasta and pizza.
Night Market – For travelers on a budget, Con Son’s Night Market is late into the evening open daily, offering delicious and affordable meals. Located at the intersection of Ngyuen An Ninh and Tran Huy Lieu, the market has numerous vendors.
Thu Ba – A seafood restaurant, Thu Ba serves everything fresh to its patrons. The restaurant displays the catches of the day and guests can choose exactly what they want to eat. Popular dishes at Thu Ba include hotpots and noodles. A friendly English-speaking owner has made Thu Ba the place to go for international travelers.
Villa Maison Con Dao Restaurant – Elegantly set and with a relaxing atmosphere, the Villa Maison Con Dao Restaurant is fine dining at its best. The restaurant excels at producing tasty Asian cuisine and there is an extensive wine list to pair with your meal. Live music is sometimes offered at the restaurant for good entertainment.
In accordance with Vietnamese tradition, Con Son celebrates many festivals and holidays throughout the year. However, one festival that is specific to the island is called Phi Yen. Held to honor two women who were martyrs for Vietnam, Phi Yen occurs during the 10th lunar month on the 18th day. Celebrations of music, dance, and games are held at the An Son Temple every year.
Airplane at the Côn Son Airport. Photo by: Pat Scullion.
Previous visitors to Con Son will argue that the best way to get around is by motorbike. Even if you’re a beginner with driving in Vietnam or handling a motorbike, the uncrowded and small streets of Con Son are the perfect place to learn. Motorbikes can be rented for inexpensive daily rates from various places in town.
Most tourist destinations will be less than 30 minutes away. Travelers who don’t want to go by motorbike can hire a taxi. A few hotels in town also provide accommodation for their guests.
Being in Southern Vietnam, the best time to visit Con Son Island is during the dry season. Not only are ferries safer for guests to use without the tropical storms that occur during the wet season but also provide less of a chance of getting rained out of island activities. The dry season in Con Son starts in November and lasts until February.
The weather should be perfect with less heat and humidity, which makes exploring nature and walking around town a lot more enjoyable.
Con Son Bay. Photo: Paul Arps
Previously haunted by a bad reputation and tragic past, Con Son Island has evolved to become one of Vietnam’s premier resort destinations. A hybrid of remote and developed, the island is a world apart from the mainland. With spectacular views, sprawling beaches, and lush greenery, the word is spreading that Con Son is becoming one of the best places to visit in Vietnam.
Activities near Con Son Island
- Con Son Prison
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Keyword: Con Son Island, Vietnam