Hey, you. You in the office. You seem stressed.
What do you want?
You want peace and quiet? You want dogs? You want the best diving in Vietnam and fresh seafood for every meal?
Beaches? I know a nice one. Endangered animals? Scads (well, maybe not scads… they are endangered, after all) Ghosts? If you believe some Vietnamese, this place is crazier than NYC at the end of Ghostbusters 2.
And history? Here’s a place that summarizes in one 200 year period all the struggles and trials that Vietnamese mainlanders have gone through over thousands of years – shorter, sure, but arguably bloodier, and events just as traumatic to the national psyche in their sheer brutality and lingering impact.
You want all these things, plus boat rides, hiking, bike rides, and island-wide radio hour twice a day?
Have I got the place for you!
The Côn Đảo islands are an archipelago of 16 islands off the southern tip of Vietnam (and, because it hasn’t been said in a while, what a strangely-shaped country), population ~5,000-6,000 people, roughly twice as many dogs, several hundred sea turtles, and 10 dugongs. The human portion of the islands is projected to grow to 30,000 by 2030.
My friend Trung first alerted me to the existence of this magical place, and I’m so glad I listened! It’s a whole planet away from anything I’d experienced in Vietnam so far. As I discovered firsthand this summer, anything you want in climate, Vietnam can provide. This was my first time on an island in SE Asia… life is good.
We’d been on and off the road for a week and a half at this point. It was our final outing. We wanted to get away from the sheer electrical crazy-current that unceasingly runs through Ho Chi Minh City. Somewhere quiet… somewhere with nature smells. It came down to either this or Phu Quoc island (where some of the best fish sauce comes from), and we decided on Côn Đảo because it sounded more remote and there were rumors of puppies.
|That in the distance is Con Dao Town. Longest Pier Evar!|
It turns out to be one of the most beautiful and unspoiled places in Vietnam. Predictably, perhaps, development is evident here, as in virtually every part of the country, but the nature (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the development is different. Owing in large part to its unique environmental qualities, most of the islands and surrounding ocean is the Côn Đảo National Park, and island management has been a strong force shaping sustainable ecotourism, including this enormous pier. I’m guessing it’s for docking cruise boats (there were diagrams and Vietnamese words and a little map… but who knows. Not me).
One of the strangest things about being in Côn Đảo Town was the abrupt change in the pace of life. This is island time, people. This is a magical place where rush hour is 10 bikes on the road in the entire town. A place where the most people I saw in one place was a Friday night pick-up soccer game on the beach. You can walk the whole town in 30 minutes, but wouldn’t you rather sit down and just chill out for a while? Yeah, you should do that instead. Island Time.
The government has instituted a socio-economic plan for this district that is, of course, audacious (is there any other kind of Vietnamese plan?). The main focus of the islands will continue to be tourism, specifically ecotourism. They hope to attract 64,000 tourist visits annually by 2015, and 150,000 annually by 2020. No word on where they’ve gotten with this goal since it was announced in 2011, but we visited during the off season. Whether this sleepy hamlet can keep its soul in the face of such intense development and change remains to be seen, but if there’s anything that Vietnamese are, it’s that they’re up for the challenge.
One amazing thing about our visit was the food. In addition to some really delicious prawns, we ate what my mom and I agreed was the best beef we’d ever had. I can’t really say enough about Thu Ba restaurant – Thuy, the hostess, was fantastic and friendly, ready with a smile and great English.
And the food. Wow. Whether it was fried…
…the BEST Shaky Beef ever, ever, from the relaxed and well-fed local steers…
|FYI Googling “what do ostriches think about” returns exactly nothing interesting.|
|Nuts to you, McGillicuddy!|
The strange animal sculpture in the green pond is Dugong, one of the endangered animals that calls this archipelago home. There are only 10 in this area, and they live in the seagrass meadow areas. As you can see from the sculpture below, it looks sort of like a manatee, but has a better name, and looks just as cute when you imagine it in a bowler hat.
These breeding grounds can be visited at any time, but the breeding times are only late June-August – they’ll go out of their way to promise you turtles at any time, but you will not see one unless you go during the summer. Other forms of sea life are visible all year. My friend Erin and her brother came here and highly recommend the scuba diving – word of mouth ranks it as the nicest diving in Vietnam. Since the thought of scuba diving just makes me want to breathe through my nose more, I’ll have to take her word for it.
The other attraction on the island is the house of Vo Thi Sau, a venerated ancestor and freedom fighter who died very young. It was my first view of a site solely dedicated to such a highly-respected individual.
In many ways, a persons death date in Vietnam is considerably more important than their birthday (although this custom is changing in the younger generation as they adopt the more Western style of birthday recognition). It was a tiny house close to the ocean, absolutely JAM PACKED with offerings. So many Hello Kitty items! So many clothes! So many blinking colored christmas lights!
I don’t exactly understand if this was really her house, or simply a shrine in a park on the island where she died. I suppose it doesn’t really matter.
One last curious thing: we began and ended each day listening to the sounds of the radio. Broadcast through loudspeakers throughout the island each morning at 5:45 and evening at 6, it contains a few tunes (traditional music, US oldies) and then MCs bringing the island inhabitants news from the islands and especially anything that’s news on the mainland. In the still and quiet of the hamlet, the radio brought a curious sense of community to our stay – we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of everyday life, and it was easy to fall into the slower rhythms of the island.
There’s also hiking, bikes and motorbikes for rent, and a great little foreign cafe (Infiniti Cafe), and cruises out onto the bay and around the islands. Could I live in a place like this? Hell, no. It’s wayyyy to small and sleepy for me. But I enjoyed my time on Côn Đảo immensely, and I hope I get a chance to return at least once more in the next two years!
Have you been to Côn Đảo? Do you have any recommendations for my next visit?