Island of Lasting Memories
After a quick 45-minute flight from HCMC and a 15-minute drive to Sai Gon – Con Dao resort, I was lost in a uniquely serene world. As strange as it sounds, there was something familiar calling to me in this place when I arrived. The slow, laid-back life in Con Dao, the administrative center of the island district, reminded me of Central Vietnam where I grew up.
In such a tranquil setting, nothing could be better than strolling down the small lanes shadowed by beach almond and crape-myrtle trees while occasionally observing the French-style colonial houses. This idyllic town is incredibly safe and secure, without any sign of theft. It is said that if you come home late at night and lose your way to the parking area, just leave your motorbike somewhere in front of your hotel and you will see it there the next morning, even with the key in the ignition!
Even the market in Con Dao didn’t supply the typical hectic commotion of a market. As the land is so peaceful and the locals are very honest, I did not have to bargain when buying souvenirs at the market. The town is so small that there are only a few street-food stalls for both locals and tourists. From the first moment I arrived at the resort, the welcoming staff informed me of the best places in town: “If you want to taste bun rieu, visit Hai Khiem. Com Tam Thuy is the best place to enjoy com tam. Only locals know these two restaurants. They sell until about 9 am,” and you needn’t remember more than that.
Trekking Across the Island’s Tropical Forest
Where we stayed was also the starting point of our exciting journey. Leaving from the resort next morning, we headed to Con Dao National Park. Our guide and storyteller that day was Mr. Nguyen Phung Hung, Head of Ecotourism and Environmental Education Division of Con Dao National Park, who has been attached to this park for nearly twenty years.
As we could not visit the entire park, with an area up to 19,990.7 ha, we decided to trek Chua Mountain near the Con Dao National Park office. At just over 3 km long, this paved trekking path was relatively comfortable for us. Exploring Chua Mountain was so intriguing as we walked through the forest listening to birdsong melodies.
Along the way, you can stop by the banyan tree. Starting life as a seed spread by birds and squirrels, the banyan tree quickly grew into a parasite on the surrounding trees. Its parasitic roots fell down, reaching into the soil, gradually strangling and killing the host trees, essentially transforming it into a giant, independent tree with dozens of square meters of roots and foliage. During your journey of exploration in the tropical forest of Chua Mountain, you will move from surprise to surprise as you encounter flora from all three regions of Vietnam. For example, Chickrassy, a precious timber species known to grow only in areas from North Central to Northern Vietnam. “Chickrassy is rarely found in the Southern Vietnam; however, they naturally grow in Con Dao. Some of them are up to 1.5 meters in diameter,” noted Mr. Hung.
The last stop on our Chua Mountain trek was the 401-year-old giant bishopwood tree, which is nearly 40 meters high. This tree has been recognized as a heritage tree by the Vietnam Association of Nature and Environment in 2018. Before visiting it, you should spend time at Duc Me Cave to see the fascinating forest vines the wrap around the cave. Inside the cave is a stone statue of Our Lady with the words “Ave Maria” engraved into it. Mr. Hung shared that these words were said to be engraved by the French who had visited this island more than 150 years before.
Scuba Diving and Coral Reefs
Adjacent to Chua Mountain is Ong Dung Beach – a pristine beach that imparts you with a sense of being on a deserted island. The route to the beach passes through a forest, and without warning, many people are startled by the greetings from naughty and fearless monkeys running out of the forest onto the path.
With crystal clear water and sandy beaches, Ong Dung Beach invites you to submerge into the cool water. Those who love exploring the beauty of the ocean can take a scuba diving tour to behold coral reefs. According to statistics, Con Dao has nearly 1,500 hectares of coral reefs, with about 360 species, including 4 species of soft corals. The shapes of corals vary widely from branching, table to plate coral... which are all extraordinary sights.
We had an unforgettable lunch at Ong Dung Beach. Seafood in Con Dao is renowned for its freshness and you can choose among a variety of dishes to enjoy. I tasted grilled bighead, mullet, squid, a steamed crab and savored sips of alcohol steeped with locally grown medicinal herbs. After enjoying lunch, you can take a nap on a hammock and listen to the gentle whispers of the sea.
Sai Gon – Con Dao Resort
We spent our 3-day-2-night stay at Sai Gon – Con Dao Resort, one of the first accommodations to meet tourist standards on this island paradise. There are two accommodation choices here: building or garden villa.
The resort enjoys amazing views on Con Son Bay with light sea breezes all year long. During your stay here, don’t miss the glorious moment when the sun rises from the immense sea. Strolling around the resort, wandering down small lanes shadowed by green beach almonds is also a wonderful experience.
This island also once welcomed the Hollywood couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, commemorating their unforgettable moments in late 2011. And if you are seeking the perfect relaxing beach destination in Vietnam, visit Con Dao to refresh your summer vibes.
Con Dao Tourist Information:
- The tourism season in Con Dao lasts from March to August. But the most ideal time to enjoy Con Dao is from March to May, when the sea is calm and the weather is cool and mild.
- Street food: there are some must-try affordable food stalls near the Sai Gon – Con Dao resort such as Hai Khiem selling bun rieu on Nguyen Hue Street (about 500 m from the resort, open from early morning to 9 am and from 2–8 pm) and Thuy Tien serving com tam on the internal road (1 km from the resort, open until 9 am). In the evening, you should go to Pham Van Dong Street, home to numerous seafood restaurants, and try signature dishes including mouthwatering snails. This area is about 1 km from the resort.
Some attractions in Con Dao:
- Hang Duong Cemetery: visit the tomb of “Miss Sau” (martyr Vo Thi Sau) at night.
- Con Dao Museum, the relic houses of the island’s lords
- Con Dao was once considered a “hell on earth” with its brutal prisons that can now be visited. The oldest and largest prison on Con Dao is Phu Hai Prison with 8 stunning ancient beach almond trees, which have been recognized as heritage trees.
Text by Duong Tran
Photos by Duong Tran & some provided by Saigontourist Group
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