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?

Done.

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!


At the end of the my 31st year on this planet, my mom and I (hi mom!) wrapped up our Vietnamese vacation taking in the sights, sounds, and calm that is Côn Đảo Town.

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…

…Served on the shell…

…the BEST Shaky Beef ever, ever, from the relaxed and well-fed local steers…

…Local chicken – plump, juicy, chicken-y, free-range…

 

…Strange local lobster animal of some sort (wow, tasty!), same same but cheaper, in special sauce…

 

…Or the plumpest, juiciest prawns I had (until I went to Mui Ne the following weekend!) in Asia so far… it was all just incredible. I have eaten so well in the past month it is obscene.
As I mentioned, Côn Đảo has baggage. History baggage. We managed to find a bit of info in this oh-so-sleepy Revolution Museum, but not much – most of it was in French. The girls at the door actually looked surprised when we walked up – they must not get a lot of visitors this time of year. Or maybe ever.
The British and then the French really did a number on the inhabitants of Côn Đảo. During the French colonial era, the island became notorious for its jail operations. Con Son prison opened in 1861 and was used to quell political opponents. After 1954, the jails were turned over to the South Vietnamese government, which continued to use them to suppress political dissent.
Over 20,000 people died in Con Son prison while incarcerated for anti-French (and later anti-South Vietnamese) activities, and many of the future post-unification leaders spent time in the jails. They were eventually known for pictures of the “tiger pits,” inhumane cells where South Vietnamese, under the direction of Americans, tortured Communists, students, Buddhists, and writers. These photos, taken by a US Delegation diverting from the officially provided map on a tour, were famously published in a Life Magazine expose on July 17th, 1970. The survivors were either sent to other jails or mental hospitals. The only difference between this past atrocity and Abu Ghraib is that now we Americans don’t outsource our torture – it’s become firmly a do-it-yourself operation.
The prison, the many dead, and the assorted past atrocities are an ever-present blemish on the island and an important historical lesson for children growing up in an unprecedented era of national peace. There was a whole room of crayon drawings (a common practice in VN… propaganda is still propaganda) of aspects of island life. Inevitably, some of them featured the jail.
FYI Googling “what do ostriches think about” returns exactly nothing interesting.
Also, the museum grounds have two ostriches. #becausevietnamthatswhy No other animals. Just a couple ostriches. Hanging around. Doing ostrich things, studying for the bar exam, thinking about bugs, I don’t know. Whatever giant flightless birds do when they’re not laying tons of huge eggs. Weird.
Meanwhile, in island news that isn’t totally horrific, French, depressing, and possibly haunted, Côn Đảo almonds! Maybe!
Nuts to you, McGillicuddy!
These strange fruits/nuts/somethings were in various stages of drying all over town and into the country. We guess almonds. We have no proof, unless mom caught something I didn’t. Do you know?
There are a strange amount of sculptures in Côn Đảo Town. Mostly monolithic and vague, modern symbols of the unfettered power of the people. They are uniformly politically communist in scope and competent in their execution, with a lot of clean, classical lines and geometric formality (unsurprising), but seriously, nothing to write home about. I am not really sure why I took so many pictures of them, other than I was in vacation picture mode. Here are a few examples of the parks (island life does not place a priority on regular upkeep, clearly).

 

 

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.

 

And pretty cute wearing a Vietnamese hat! And look at that little tongue! CUTE. This guy isn’t the only beneficiary of the National Park, however. These islands are a breeding ground for sea turtles. They build 350 nests every year, successfully releasing up to 50,000 hatchlings into the sea annually. They are the most studied population of sea turtles in the world, and the first population to be the subject of a comprehensive conservation program, which includes satellite tracking and protection from fishing vessels.

 

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?