Con Dao, Vietnam
Isolated from the mainland, the Con Dao Islands are one of Vietnam's star attractions. Long the Devil’s Island of Indochina, the preserve of political prisoners and undesirables, it now turns heads thanks to its striking natural beauty. Con Son, the largest of this chain of 15 islands and islets, is ringed with lovely beaches, coral reefs and scenic bays, and remains partially covered in thick forests. In addition to hiking, diving and exploring deserted coastal roads and beaches, there are excellent wildlife-watching opportunities such as the black giant squirrel and endemic bow-fingered gecko.
Con Son is the largest of 15 islands in the Con Dao Archipelago, 80km from the mainland Mekong Delta region and 230km from Saigon. The island’s remoteness and former use as a penal colony have kept it in relatively pristine condition: 80% is still forested. The thick canopy provides habitat for all sorts of exotic sounding animals endemic to the archipelago: the Con Dao bow-fingered gecko and Con Dao black giant squirrel are just two. The islands are rugged and mountainous, the highest peak reaching 557m. The ocean is home to dugongs (sea cows) and sea turtles that lay their eggs on the beaches from March to August. The winter months on Con Son are dry, but rough seas and strong winds from the northeast make the island feel fantastically remote at this time of year. The summer months bring occasional monsoon rains, but the seas remain calm and clear; the bays beautiful and tranquil.
The prisons closed in 1975. Since then, Vietnamese come on sombre pilgrimages to remember national heroes or relatives who were imprisoned or died on the island. Perhaps the most famous of all the victims of the Con Son prisons is Vo Thi Sau. Involved in anti-colonial activities from the age of 14, she was eventually captured by the French and imprisoned on Con Son. In 1952, at the age of 19, she became the first woman to be executed on the island. Today her grave is the sight of a nightly vigil where Vietnamese come to pay their respects with offerings, including combs and mirrors which symbolize her youth. But, as Vietnam becomes more popular with foreign tourists and flights to Con Son more regular, it is the natural beauty of the island that most visitors come to see. For tourists, it’s impossible to ignore the island’s grim past, but for pilgrims too, it’s equally impossible to ignore the scenic surrounds of the former prison island. Vietnam today is a youthful country – over 50% of the population are under the age of 25 – and most of them are increasingly likely to think of Con Son Island as a place of relaxation and recreation, rather than one of sober reflection.