Comprised of 16 islands off of the Southern Coast of Vietnam, the Côn Dao Islands are one of the only conservation areas in the country that has been designated to protect both terrestrial and marine habitats. Of the 16 islands in Côn Dao, only Côn Son is inhabited and developed for tourism.
On Côn Son, there are beachside resorts and villages for tourists that want a quiet getaway. The 15 other islands make up Côn Dao National Park, which is becoming a tourist hotspot in South Vietnam.
Island Paradise in the Bà Ria-Vūng Tàu Province
The islands of Côn Dao are located off of the Southern Vietnamese coast in the South China Sea and almost all of them lack any permanent structures. Vūng Tàu, the largest city of the province is the closest port to the islands at 115 miles (185 kilometers) away. There is only one urban town in the Côn Dao Islands, and it is located on the largest island, Côn Son.
From Ho Chi Minh City, the islands are 143 miles (230 kilometers) away. Travelers have the option of flying to the Côn Dao Islands or going overland and taking a boat. Flights from Ho Chi Minh City to Côn Dao take less than an hour, landing at a small airport in Côn Son, which is about a 10-minute drive from the island’s resort area.
Tourists visiting Côn Dao also have the option of traveling by way of Vūng Tàu, which is about 2 hours south of HCMC. There are no trains from Ho Chi Minh City to Vūng Tàu, but there are private cars, public buses, and flights available. After reaching Vūng Tàu, travelers can take a speedboat or hydrofoil ferry to the islands, which takes 4-5 hours. Overnight journeys can also be arranged.
Visitors need to plan their trip accordingly because the ferries will only run if the weather conditions permit a voyage.
Before the 17th century, the Côn Dao Islands were part of Cambodia’s Khmer Empire, which ruled from the 9thto the 15th century. During the 17th century, the Vietnamese traveled to the islands and began to settle the main town on Côn Son, however, by the 18th century, ownership of the islands was juggled around as India and China both wanted to claim them as their own.
The Nguyen Prince ended up giving the islands to France in return for aid, but the deal fell through. The French only came to control the Côn Dao Islands in 1861, when they began the early colonization of Vietnam. It was during this time that Côn Son earned its infamous nicknames as the “Devil’s Island” or “Hell on Earth”.
The nicknames were given because of the French prisons, which were constructed on the island to hold political prisoners. One part of the prisons was the “tiger cages”, which were cramped areas where prisoners were held, tortured, and abused. Côn Dao’s prisons operated for decades with Americans taking control of the facilities during the Vietnam War.
It wasn’t until the end of the conflict that the prisons were finally emptied. Today, Côn Dao’s scars run deep and hidden beneath the island’s beauty. The prisons that were once the site of atrocious actions are now a place to learn about the past as many have been converted into historical sites and museums.
- The total area of all 16 islands when combined is 29.02 square miles (75 square kilometers)
- The local population is estimated to be about 8,400
- The original name of the Côn Dao Islands was Koh Tralach, which is Khmer for “Wax Gourd Island”
Since 15 of the islands within the Côn Dao Archipelago are a part of a national park when visitors travel to the islands, they are entering Côn Dao National Park. Due to this, guests should be aware of parks rules such as no polluting, not interacting with wildlife including feeding animals, refraining from collecting specimens, and not making fires on any of the islands.
Other than following the rules, park visitors are welcome to explore Côn Son or take a boat to any of the 15 other islands in the national park. Popular activities include touring Côn Son, venturing to the various beaches, cruising around the islands, and participating in water sports.
Côn Son Island is the only part of the national park that has been extensively developed for tourism. Once considered to be inhospitable and cruel, Côn Son is now a place that is filled with 5-star resorts and high-class restaurants. Acting as tourist central for the islands, Côn Son is the only place where visitors can stay overnight in the archipelago.
Highlights in Côn Son include visiting the prisons, touring the market, or exploring the beaches. Many tourists are interested in learning more about the island’s history and the infamous Côn Dao Prison. Visitations to many of the prisons are permitted and locals working as guides will tell visitors more about the island’s infamous history.
Furthermore, visitors may also visit the Hang Duong Cemetery and Memorial to pay their respects to the prisoners who lost their lives on the island.
A more upbeat activity for guests would be to take a walk through the local market. Famous for its fresh produce, the market is open from the early morning until the late evening. Visitors who need basic travel necessities may also find what they’re looking for in the mini-marts inside the market.
Côn Son’s other famous feature, and a much happier one, is its beautiful coastline. There is a mix of both public and private beaches throughout the island. Around town, all of the beaches are public and easy to access. Any private beach would be within the boundaries of the national park, which would require visitors to purchase an entrance ticket to access.
Visitors will find that the busiest beaches on the island are located around or just outside of the town Côn Son. For families, the shallow and gentle water of Lo Voi Beach is a good place to visit and escape the heat. Unfortunately, An Hoi Beach is very popular and often filled with trash, so visitors should skip it and look for another spot.
Dam Trau is frequently named as the island’s “best beach” because of its clean sand and turquoise water. It’s also one of the only beaches with bars and lounges on the sand. Camping is also permitted at Dam Trau with tent rentals available for affordable prices. Free chairs are also provided, or guests can pay to rent a sunbed for the day.
The best beaches to visit in Côn Dao National Park are Ong Dung, Bai Bang, and Dat Tham Beach. All three of these beaches are accessible by foot and because they require taking a hike, they tend to be less crowded than other sandy spots on the island. If you’re lucky, you may even get the beach all to yourself.
Tour the Islands
Visitors who have the time should look into visiting other islands in Côn Dao. Tour boats leave daily from Côn Son with itineraries for half and full days, many of which take guests to a few of the uninhabited islands. Activities on the tour include hiking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and swimming.
Close to shore, the water tends to be crystal clear, so it is easy for visitors to view the marine wildlife.
Island hopping is also the best way to reach the remote and empty beaches of Côn Dao. While there are a few located on the main island, Côn Son, there are many more hidden within the nooks and crannies of the archipelago. Local guides will know which beaches are best to visit, which is why visitors should join a group or private tour.
Read about the top things to do in Con Dao Islands.
Hotels and lodging:
- Read about the top 5-star hotels in Con Dao.
Even though the Côn Dao Islands have a small community, they are well-known for their amazing resorts and hotels. In fact, Côn Dao has become a premier resort area in Southern Vietnam with boutique establishments ready to cater to the tourist crowds. For the backpackers, small resorts and hostels are also found in Côn Son, so that everyone can enjoy the island according to their budget.
Six Senses Côn Dao – The Six Senses Côn Dao is the island’s premier and highest-rated resort. Oozing luxury, this beachside compound strives to ensure that every guest has a unique and special experience during their stay. Drawing inspiration from traditional Vietnamese fishing villages, there are 50 private villas throughout the resort that have been made using sustainable materials.
The beachfront location is to die for, and the hotel amenities are top-rated. Offering 27 experiences including fine dining, spa days, and snorkeling, the Six Senses Côn Dao guarantees that its guests get to live the life of royalty.
Hotel Huong Dào – For travelers who need a more affordable option, the Hotel Huong Dào is located right in town and it has some of the highest ratings for the area. Guests love the location, which is just 1.3 miles (2.2 kilometers) away from Dat Doc Beach.
Services provided by the hotel include a 24-hour front desk, shared kitchen, room service, and free Wi-Fi. Guests can also enjoy the small restaurant and sun terrace.
The Secret Côn Dao – Another beachfront resort option is the Secret Côn Dao. This 4-star hotel comes packed with features including an outdoor swimming pool, restaurant, fitness center, garden, and beach access. All rooms at the hotel are private with their own bathroom, TV, and desk.
A 24-hour front desk works hard to ensure that guests are happy, and employees can provide currency exchange, airport transportation, and room services. Centrally located, the hotel is also close to main attractions like Dat Doc Beach, and the Côn Dao Prison Museum.
Book a Guest House – Those who are on a limited budget, may feel that Côn Son is out of their price range, they’re wrong. The most affordable overnight options on the island and in town are guest houses. Common throughout Vietnam, guest houses often offer a room with a small bathroom for reasonable rates.
A few houses are set up like a hostel, so travelers would share a dorm room and bathroom with others. Some of the best guest houses in Côn Son are the Nhà Khách Côn Dao and Uy Vux House.
Going hand in hand with the luxurious resorts are Côn Son’s premier restaurants. Serviced by excellent staff and world-class chefs, cuisine in the Côn Dao Islands is superb. All the resorts on the island have their own restaurants, but visitors will find plenty of options in town too. With a dizzying array of choices, visitors can take their pick from local specialties to international delights.
Gia Minh – One of the newer restaurants is Gia Minh, which is located on the outskirts of Côn Son. At the helm is an accomplished chef whose specialty is handmade noodles, although they do sure a few western meals and fruit wines. The noodle dishes are served in a variety of ways with meat, vegetables, and broth.
Bar200 Côn Dao – Upbeat and outgoing, the Bar200 Côn Dao is the town’s most popular café. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, the café is busiest on the weekend. Favorite dishes on the menu include their hearty breakfast, burgers, sandwiches, and pizzas. During the night the café stays open to serve guests beer and cocktails.
Tri Ky – Known for its fresh seafood, people head to Tri Ky to taste local favorites like the grilled squid, crab, and grouper. The staff is friendly and there is an outdoor terrace so that guests can relax while enjoying the view.
Côn Dao Market Stalls – Côn Son’s most authentic flavors can be found at the local market. An excellent spot for meals throughout the day, the Côn Son Market has various food stalls that serve traditional Vietnamese dishes like noodles and pancakes. With affordable prices, travelers won’t have to spend much to fill their bellies.
Besides celebrating Vietnam’s national holidays, the Côn Dao Islands’ most famous festival is called Phi Yen. Held to honor Phi Yen and another woman named Ms. Vo Thi Sau, the festival allows the locals to show their respect to the women who were martyrs for their country.
The festival is held during the 10th lunar month on the 18th day at the An Son Temple. Celebrations include performances of music, dance, and games, which honor the two women’s lives.
Depending on where you want to go in the Côn Dao Islands, the main methods of transportation include walking, biking, driving, and boating. Travelers who are just adventuring around Côn Sôn Island can rely on their own two feet, bicycles, taxis, or motorbikes. The main town isn’t very big, and it is safe to walk around during the day or in groups at night.
Taxis, bicycles, and motorbikes are also common in town as a faster way to get around. All have affordable rates for rides or tourists can inquire about daily rentals. Traveling between the islands will require a boat and local tours often provide transportation for their guests, but if needed, tourists can also ask locals for a ride to other islands.
However, keep in mind that camping overnight without a tour is not permitted and some islands are off-limits to tourists. For this reason, it is best to either join a tour group or hire a local guide to take you to the best spots in Côn Dao.
Similar to most of Southern Vietnam, the best time to visit the Côn Dao Islands is during the dry season, which starts in November and runs until February. During these months, the monsoons have ended, and the temperatures aren’t too hot. The weather is perfect for all of the outdoor activities and it is also the safest time to travel across the sea as the waves will be calmer.
The off-season for tourism in Côn Dao runs from March to October. While a few travelers may still be around in the months before and after the dry season, the worst time of year to visit is during the rainy season. Monsoons start as early as June and last until September.
Heavy rain and high heat make visiting the island more difficult as ferries may have to cancel their trip because of unsafe weather conditions.
Described as “paradisiacal” and “breathtaking”, the word has gotten out about Vietnam’s Côn Dao Islands. A place that was once haunted by its past has blossomed to become a top-tier resort getaway for travelers in Vietnam. Both remote and developed, the Côn Dao Islands are one of only a few areas in the country where visitors can relax in luxury and explore untouched landscapes.
Rapidly expanding its stellar reputation, there has never been a better time to visit Vietnam’s Côn Dao Islands.
Activities near Con Dao Island