Vietnam's Prison Island Paradise


Tom Westbrook can't wait to tell the world how beautiful his visit to the islands of Con Dao was.

Visiting the largest island in the Con Dao archipelago – a group of 16 mostly uninhabited picturesque islands in the South China Sea – is like stepping back in time.

Despite being a short one hour turboprop flight from Ho Chi Minh City, the island paradise of Con Son is a world away from Vietnam’s well-beaten tourist trail. It is a throwback that has somehow flown under the radar. There are no touts, only peaceful empty beaches, and peak season means a dozen Westerners strolling around.


Lotus flowers in the morning market

For now, most of the visitors are domestic Vietnamese paying homage to the island’s dark past. Known as Southeast Asia's Devil's Island, Con Son was once a penal colony used to brutal and cruel effect first by French colonists and later during the Vietnam War. The main prison walls still dominate the town as a constant reminder, and the prion and cemeteries have become pilgrimage sites to the thousands of Vietnamese who suffered and died on the island between 1862 and 1975. But though the horrific memories hang heavy still, modern island life is languid and laid back. Con Son's steep green interior is fringed by warm turquoise water and coral reefs. Flame trees and bougainvillea give licks of color to the jungle, and frangipani and magnolia trees line the wide, quiet boulevards. A single main road wraps about halfway around the island; a motorbike ride along the shoreline takes in ponds filled with lotus flowers, spectacular reddish-orange cliffs and one empty white-sand beach after another. The sea is calm, clean and perfect for swimming year-round.

The bustling marketplace will be deserted at noon for naptime

The island's daily routine starts at the bustling marketplace, where squid, crabs, clams, rambutans, plantains, mangos, dragonfruit and lotus flowers are piled for sale outside. By 9 am, the food is sold out and by noon the market is deserted until afternoon. For two hours, the postmistress goes home, the market is empty, the island naps and the sun beats down on the blue sea. There is nothing to do but swim at one of several beautiful beaches: it doesn't matter where you go, you'll have it to yourself.

Blue paradise on the coast of Nhat Beach

If you want to see the archipelago from Con Dao, ask around in the evening and you'll be able to hitch a ride with a fisherman early the next day, who will likely take you towards the bays and reefs of the tiny outer islands. A snorkel and goggles will be enough to catch a glimpse of a turtle, and the diving is renowned as some of Vietnam's best.

As the heat of the day passes, many travellers choose to explore the island via motorbike.

At An Hai bay, 1km south of Con Son town, pearlers and fishermen moor their boats, keeping coracles – circular bamboo vessels, waterproofed with coconut-palm resin and propelled by paddle – on the shore as dinghies. For the next 6km, climb the road along the bay until it reaches the island's southmost tip, with views in every direction. The archipelago unfolds to the east; the harbour and Con Son town to the north; the island's rugged and rocky interior to the west.

Hugging the cliffs, the road winds past steep-walled crystal-clear bays and culminates at the island's jewel – the wide flats of Nhat Beach. Here mountains give way to an expanse of deserted white sand that runs hundreds of metres from shore at low tide, with the warm water waist-deep for hundred of metres more.

                                                 The heat of the day sets behind Nhat Beach

Come evening, Con Son town’s seaside promenade takes its turn as the islands social hub. The sky turns pink and barbecue carts roll up roasting corn, chicken skewers and pork. Swimmers arrive for a dusk dip. The waterfront swells with people.

Dusk falls on Con Son's seaside promenade

By night, a different market opens on Tran Huy Lieu, two blocks to the east. Half the street is taken over with chairs and metal foldout tables; beer flows as roadside stalls barbecue shellfish, calamari and the rest of the day's catch. It is a delicious way to end the day – with only the nagging thought that the return flight back to the mainland is all too soon.

Visit VoiaTour's Con Dao Survival Guide to know more about the islands.

The heat of the day sets behind Nhat Beach