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Con Dao Island


Tel: 064 pop 1,650

The Condao Archipelogo is a remarkable group of 15 islands and islets, 180km 97 nautical miles) south of VungTau in the South China Sea.

The largest island in the group, with a total land area of 20 aq km, is the partly forested Con Son Island, which is ringed with bays, bathing beaches and coral reefs. Con Son Island is also known bu its Europeanised Malay name. Iles Poulo Condore (Pulau Kun Dur), which means “ Island of the Squashes”. Local products included teak and pine wood, fruit, cashews, pearls, sea turtles, lobster and coral.

Occupied at various times by the khmer, Malays and Vietnamese, Con Son also seved as an early base for European Commercial ventures in the region. The first recorded European arrival was a ship of Portuguese mariners in 1960. The British East India Company maintained a fortified trading post here from 1702 – 1705 – an experiment that ended when the English on the island were massacred in a revolt by the Macassar soldiers they had recruited on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.

Con Son Island has a strong political and cultural history, and an all star line-up of Vietnamese revolutionary heroes were incarcerated here. Under the French, Con Son was used as a major prison for opponents of French colonialism, earning a fearsome reputation for the routine mistreatment and torture of prisoners. In 1954 the island was taken over by the South Vietnamese government. which continued to take advantage of its remoteness to hold opponents of the government in horrifying conditions.During the American War the south Vietnamese were joined here by US forces.

For the intrepid traveller, Con Dao offers a rich history, as well as ample pursuites for nature lovers and beach bums. Roughly 80% of the land area in the island chain is part of Con Dao National Park. and there are plenty of great hiking opportunities, as well as deserted beaches.

The park headquarters is a good place to get information, and the staff can direct you to the hikes. From March to November there’s a beautiful and leisurely twohour trek starting from the air-port runway. The walk leads through thick forest and mangroves, and past a hilltop stream to Bamboo lagoon. You’ss definitely need a local guide to find your way,but once there it’s stunning and there’s good snorkelling in the bay. You could even consider arranging for a boat to come and pick you up. Also at park headquarters, is an exhibition hall with well presented displays on the diversity of local forest and marine life, threats to the local environment, and local conservation activities.

Con Dao is Vietnam’s most important sea-turtle nesting ground and since 1995 the worldwide found for Nature (WWF) has been working with local park rangers on a long-term monitoring programme. During nesting season the park sets up six ranger stations to rescue threatened nests and move them to the safe haven of hatcheries.

Other interesting sealife aroun Con Dao includes the Dugong, a rare and seldom-seen marine mammal in the same family as the manatee. Dugons live as far north as Japan, and as far south as the subtripical coasts of Australia. Their numbers have been on a steady decline, and increasingly efforts are being made to protect these adorable creatures. Major threats include coastal road development that cause the destruction of shallow-water beds of seagrass, the gugongs’ staple diet.

Con Dao is one of those rare places in Vietnam where there are virtually no structures over two storeys and where the travellers’s experience is almost hassle-free. There’s even no need to bargain at the local market, Owing to the relative cost and inaccessibility mass tourism has thankfully been kept to a minimum.

These days most visitors to Con Son are package –tour groups of former VC soldiers, who were imprison ed on the island. The vietnamese government generously subsidiese these jaunts as a show of gratitude for their sacrifice. It’s safe to say that foreign tourists are few and far between, but as the infrastructure and access improves, this is bound to change, Those who make the effort to go now are not likely to regret it

Con Son town is a sleepy seafront spot that would make a perfect location for a period film. Allthree of the town’s hotels are along Ton Duc Thang str, along a strip of forlorn signle-storey French villas. Nearby is the local Market, which is busiest between 7am – 8am.

The best time ti visit Con Dao is from November to February. The rainy season lasts from june to September, but there are also northeast and southwest monsoons in autumn that can bring heavy winds. In november 1997 typhoon Linda did a number here; 300 fishing boats were lost, reefs were wiped out and the forests flattened. September and October are the hottest months, though even then the cool island breezes make Con Dao relatively comfortable when compared with HCMC or Vung

Things to See & Do

The main sights on Con Dao Island are a museum. a prison, prison cages and a cemetery. If you visit the museum first you can buy a ticket for 35,000d what will get you a guided tour of al four – very good value.

The Revolutionary Museum ( open 7am -11pm & 1h30pm to 5pm, Monday – Sat) is next to Saigon – ConDao Hotel and has exhibits on Vietnamese resistance to the French, Communist opposition to the republic of Vietnam. and the treatment of political prisoners. There are also some ‘nature’ displays with some awfully embalmed animals, the most bizarre is a monkey sitting with his legs crossed and smoking a cigarette

Phu Hai Prison, a short walk from the museum., is the largest of the 11 prisons on the island. Built in 1862, the prison houses several enormous detention buildings, one with about 100 shackled and emaciated mannequins that are all too lifelike. Equally eerie are the empty solitary cells with ankle shackles prisoners were not allowed to dirty the walls.

The notorious Tigerhe Cages were built by French in 1940s.

from 1957 to 1961 nearly 2000 poltcal prsonners were confirned in these tiny cells. Here there are 120 chambers wth celing bars, where guards could watch down on the prisoners like tigers n a zoo, and another 60 solariums wth no roof at all.

Over the course of four decades of war, some 20,000 people were killed on Con Son and 1994 of ther graves can be seen at Hang Duong Cemetery. Sadly, only 700 of these graves bear the name of the victims. Vietnam’s most famous heroine, Vo Thi Sau ( 1933- 1952)was the first woman executed ( by a firing squad) on Con Son, on 23 Janury 1952. Today’s pilgrims come to burn incense at her tomb, and make offerings of mirrors and combs ( symbolic because shedied so young). In the distance behind the cemetery you’ll see a huge monument symbolising three giantsticks of incense.

Phu Binh Camp is not part of the main tour,but is another prison camp that can be visited on Con Son, Built in 1971 by the Americans. this one has 384 chambers and was known as Camp 7 until 1973, when it closed following evidence of torture. After the apars Agreements in 1973, the name was changed to Phu Binh Camp


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