The Traveler’s Guide To Côn Đảo,
A Gorgeous Vietnamese Island With a Dark Past
As many of you know, I love exploring relatively unknown destinations. This typically means small towns, but occasionally I come across an island that isn’t yet on the radar of most tourists and travelers. That was the case with one located off the southern coast of Vietnam known as Côn Đảo (or Côn Sơn). If you’ve been to Vietnam’s more famous destinations and are in need of a breath of fresh air, both literally and figuratively, Côn Đảo might be exactly what you’re looking for.
You’d be forgiven if you’ve never heard of the tiny island chain before. About 150 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City, Côn Đảo is anything but a bustling tourist destination. Its best features include beaches you won’t have to share with anyone else, colorful fishing boats, green mountainside cliffs, and delectable seafood.
In addition to its stunning landscapes, Côn Đảo was also home to a brutal prison for over 100 years, from the 1860s up until the 1970s. It was used both by French colonists for political dissidents as well as soldiers and citizens during the Vietnam War.
Conditions in the prison throughout its operation were heart-wrenching, and unimaginable human suffering occurred within its stone walls. The remains of the prison are open to visitors, and seeing it in person is an emotional experience. However, I think all visitors to the island should go if they can. As uncomfortable as it may be, the Côn Đảo Prison is an important relic of Vietnamese history and a reminder of the immense pain and trauma that the country has gone through to become what it is today.
Fortunately, the prison doesn’t need to overshadow a stay on Côn Đảo. The island is now sleepy and relaxing. Locals are friendly and welcoming. Read on to learn exactly why you should consider this beautifully unspoiled spot for your next Southeast Asian getaway!
The best part of Côn Đảo is its stunning natural beauty. In this section, I’ll give you a taste of what you can expect. If you’d like to skip ahead to sections featuring cuisine, the prison, where we stayed, how we got around, and how we got to the island from Saigon, click or tap the relevant link.
Despite not really having a very tropical vibe, the beaches on Côn Đảo were pristine. We almost always had them to ourselves, too. Here are some of my favorites.
Lò Vôi Beach
Bãi Lò Vôi
Located within walking distance of the main town, this wide beach will almost make you feel like you’re on a desert island. With dense trees and rocky mountains surrounding it, this was probably the most calm and relaxing beach we went to.
Đầm Trầu Beach
Bãi Đầm Trầu
Bãi tắm An Hải
Somewhat similar to Lò Vôi Beach, this one is also located within walking distance of the main town.
The beach offering the best view is Bãi Nhát. The dramatic mountain peak that can be seen from it is located on the nearby islet known as hòn Bà (I think).
A fishing port
This was perhaps my favorite spot on the island, located roughly here. It wasn’t designed for tourists, but the colorful boats and mountainous backdrop made it the perfect place to practice our photography skills.
The National Park
Vườn quốc gia Côn Đảo
If you’re interested in seeing a beach or two on the northern side of the island (which is mostly uninhabited), you can enter through Côn Đảo National Park here, then take a hike down to the water. Entrance costs 60,000 VND per person, but this was honestly an underwhelming beach compared to the others mentioned above.
An Hải Lake
Hồ An Hải
Last but not least, this massive lotus pond on the edge of town with a road running through its center is a sight to see. Here, you can watch locals fishing along the side of the road.
As you might expect, Côn Sơn is home to some really excellent, fresh seafood. Check out some of your options in the section below.
A restaurant on the beach
If you want a local seafood experience, you could eat at a restaurant on the beach. We saw two side by side at the entrance of Đầm Trầu Beach (Bãi Đầm Trầu), and decided to try the one on the right.
We were thoroughly impressed with the crab we tried there, which was served with a delicious slightly sweet glaze. The shellfish appetizer we tried was also good, and the shrimp fried noodles we had rounded out the meal. If you want an authentic seafood meal with an ocean view, this is a great place to head to.
A restaurant in town
A slightly more standard dining experience can be found in town, where a number of large and bustling seafood restaurants are clustered opposite the park on Nguyễn Đức Thuận Street. I think we went to the one called Nhà hàng Cánh Buồm.
We tried snail soup, a local variety of jumbo prawn, calamari, and fried rice. This is the kind of place where you’ll want to try multiple dishes and share. Other restaurants on this street looked similar, but we chose this one because it seemed to be the most busy at the time.
A resort restaurant
Your final option for food is to eat at one of the island’s resorts, even if you aren’t staying there. We tried the restaurant at the Poulo Condor Boutique Resort, and while it was good, I’d say the main thing I remember about the meal was how expensive it was. In terms of authenticity, I’d say the meal was lacking.
We were originally considering trying the restaurant at the even more fancy Six Senses Con Dao resort, but decided against it in the end. After seeing Vietnamese standards on their menu such as phở and bánh mì for astronomical prices, we opted to splurge on a more unique luxury dining experience in Saigon. I’m glad we did.
The Côn Đảo Prison
In order to visit the prison on Côn Sơn, you’ll need to buy tickets at this location. I highly recommend buying a ticket that includes both the museum and the prison. Read the following section to learn more.
Bảo Tàng Côn Đảo
Before actually visiting the prison itself, you’ll want to check out the museum next door. You’ll learn about the history of the island, which is largely entwined with its inception in the 1860s as a place of penal exile during the French colonial period.
It continues on with exhibits focusing on some of the people who were kept here and how it became a prison of war during the 1960s up until 1975 when it was finally closed. Depictions of incarceration in the Côn Đảo Prison can be tough to witness because of how inhumane the conditions were. Some artifacts are especially personal, such as annotated books and diaries that belonged to prisoners.
Nhà tù Côn Đảo
After you’ve seen the museum, you’re ready to go next door to see the prison itself. Like the museum, the prison might be difficult for some people to visit. They’ve put in some life-sized statues to really drive home the point that thousands of human beings were kept here in awful conditions.
I think what was so harrowing to me was how recently people were imprisoned here. Certain parts of the prison look like they haven’t been changed or cleaned up since it was closed. Human suffering was recent here, and you can almost feel it in the air.
As I mentioned earlier, I think visitors to the island should dedicate one day to see the prison if they can. It would be unfortunate to come away from Côn Đảo with no understanding of what happened here. I took time to reflect on it, then made a conscious effort to appreciate that the island is finally a place of peace.
Where We Stayed
They also had a nice, complimentary breakfast buffet with both western and Vietnamese dishes. We took advantage of it each morning before venturing out on our motorbikes.
While the rooms were nice and comfortable enough, the best part of Tân Sơn Nhất was its location right on the beach. We enjoyed the view right from our bungalow’s porch. The resort is also close enough to walk into the town center for dinner or drinks.
We decided to try their on-site restaurant for dinner one night. The seafood hot pot and other dishes we got were good, but most of the other restaurants mentioned above were a bit better.
Overall, the Tân Sơn Nhất Côn Đảo Resort was a comfortable and memorable place to stay. At 75 USD per night, it was expensive for Vietnam. Nonetheless, being directly on the beach was a luxury worth splurging on, so I recommend it if you’re looking for a place to stay.
Traveling Around the Island
Without a doubt, the most convenient and budget-friendly way to get around the island is to rent a motorbike. We paid 120,000 VND (approx. 5.20 USD) per bike per day, and our hotel receptionist directed us to a rental guy just down the road. We were not asked to put down a security deposit, but we had to pay for our own gas, which cost about 50,000 VND (approx. 2.15 USD) for a full tank.
While I’m sure taxis and other tour vehicles are readily available for hire, it was nice to be able to explore the island at our own pace with the motorbikes. Many of my favorite spots were found by just pulling off to the side of the road, parking, and exploring on foot. We probably wouldn’t have seen as much of Côn Sơn if we used taxis to get around.
Many hotels appeared to offer free shuttle pickup and dropoff to the island’s airport, and this was the case for the Tân Sơn Nhất Côn Đảo Resort where we stayed. This was very convenient and helpful, especially with luggage.
Getting to Côn Đảo
At the time of writing (December 2019), the only air carrier that flies to Côn Đảo is Vietnam Airlines. Since local budget airlines don’t operate there, airfare was much more expensive than most domestic flights: round-trip cost 155 USD (3.6 million VND) per person. In contrast, it’s normal to find round-trip flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Phú Quốc for as low as 40 USD.
We decided to fly to avoid the uncertainty, and it may have been a good thing that we did. When we arrived, the sea looked pretty rough. We also inquired at our hotel about boat tours, but were told that the wind and waves were so strong that the island’s port was closed. We assume that this probably meant the ferry wasn’t in service while we were there.
An Island Unlike Any Other
Côn Đảo was undoubtedly one of the most unique places I had the pleasure of visiting in Vietnam. Its beauty is simply unparalleled. Even if you’ve been to Phú Quốc or other islands in Vietnam or Cambodia, Côn Đảo is a different experience altogether. It’s less tropical, and (at least in 2019) isn’t dominated by resorts and vacationers.
Although the history of the island is bleak, part of the joy of visiting today is knowing that the century-plus of terrible suffering is finally over. Côn Đảo is once again a peaceful place. While seeing the museum and prison can have an emotional toll, you’ll come away from the island with a more complete perspective of Vietnamese history and be a more informed traveler for it.
Have you been to Côn Đảo before? Was your experience similar? Leave a comment and let me know! Thanks for checking out Caffeinated Excursions, and happy travels to anyone headed to this beautiful place!