Encompassing 16 islands off of Vietnam’s Southern Coast, Côn Dao National Park is one of only a few conservation areas in the country that protects both forest and marine habitats. Of the Côn Dao’s 16 islands, Côn Son is the only inhabited island. As the main hub for tourists, Con Son is where most visitors stay as the island has both resorts and beachside villages.
A blend of remote and developed, Côn Dao National Park is rising in the ranks to become one of the most popular destinations for travelers visiting Southern Vietnam.
Côn Dao National Park is a natural reserve area off the coast of Southeast Vietnam. Not based on the mainland, the national park consists of 16 small islands that are about 50 miles off of the coast in the South China Sea. 15 of the national park’s 16 islands are uninhabited, with Côn Son, a large island in the Côn Dao Archipelago, having the only developed town that acts as a base camp for park visitors.
Originally, Côn Dao was established as a protected area in 1993. Two decades later in 2013, the government designated Côn Dao as a national park. Years before the area became a reserve and national park, Côn Dao was nicknamed “Hell on Earth” and called “Devil’s Island”. Hidden amongst paradise, Côn Son struggled through the war.
During the war, many Vietnamese leaders and fighters were locked in cells on the island where they lived in dire conditions. The French were the first people to build prisons on Côn Son during their colonial rule. In 1955, the Americans took over control of Côn Dao Prison and they built additional structures which became prison camps.
Those held captive at Côn Dao Prison were abused and tortured, often being kept in tiger cages for extended periods of time. Today, this once horrific site is open to visitors for tours. Furthermore, there are dozens of other historical sites located on the island ranging from additional prisons, like Phu Hai, to factories and cemeteries.
While not beautiful like the islands, Côn Dao’s historical sites are an important part of the park’s and country’s identity. Once ravaged by war, Côn Dao has become a holiday destination where the fear of oppression has faded.
What to Do
Côn Dao National Park is host to an array of tourist activities with indoor and outdoor options available. In Côn Son, tourists can learn about the island’s wartime past and explore the local lifestyle. On official tours of the national park, boats can transport guests to the uninhabited islands and secluded beaches.
Water-based excursions are also popular with snorkeling and scuba diving getting visitors up close to Côn Dao’s aquatic landscapes.
Base Camp at Côn Son Island
Though memories of the war remain, Côn Son Island is no longer an inhospitable place, rather, the development of the island has led to 5-star resorts and fine dining locations. Acting as a base camp for travelers to Côn Dao National Park, Côn Son Island can’t be missed.
While not as wild as the park’s other islands, the comfort of having quality accommodation and a hearty meal is a warm welcome for any visitors after a long day of exploring the Vietnamese jungle.
Boating to the Islands
With a large portion of Côn Dao National Park covering water, boats are the main method of transportation for park guests. While taxis exist on Côn Son Island, the wilder side of Côn Dao has been left untouched. In order for visitors to tour the national park, they will need to join a tour group or hire a local guide.
Boat trips leave from Côn Son daily, so visitors will have the chance to hike, swim, snorkel, and scuba dive on the uninhabited islands.
Paradise isn’t complete without beaches. Luckily, Côn Dao National Park has gained a reputation for having extraordinary stretches of sand. Whether you’re on Côn Son or touring one of the 15 other islands in the national park, visitors can always find a secluded beach to relax and enjoy the sunset.
However, guests should be cautious of which beaches they visit due to the local wildlife. Some beaches, like An Hai, give guests full access, while others are restricted at various times of the year because of the sea turtle nesting sites.
Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Beauty runs deep in Côn Dao National Park and visitors are encouraged to dive beneath the waves by booking a snorkeling or scuba diving adventure. Home to vibrant coral reefs and rare marine animals, all snorkeling and diving tours must be arranged through a tour company, as permission to access the dive sites must be granted by the park’s main office on Côn Son Island.
Plants and Wildlife
Côn Dao has a high diversity value as the park plays host to both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Several hundred aquatic species thrive in the park, which includes both marine plant and animal life forms.
There are 84 species of seaweed alone, which make up most of the park’s aquatic plants. Thriving in the seaweed forests are hundreds of species of coral, fish, and mollusks. Large aquatic species include sea turtles, whales, and the rare dugong, which are a relative of the manatee.
On land, and found on almost all the islands of the national park, are a few hundred species of plants and animals. The most commonly spotted creatures are tropical birds like the masked booby and rodents like the black giant squirrel.
Since Côn Dao National Park is located off of the mainland, driving is not an option. Visitors will have to drive to the coast and take a boat or fly from Ho Chi Minh City. Vung Tau City is located on the coast and it is about 62 miles (100 kilometers) away from Ho Chi Minh.
Travelers can drive to this city before boarding a boat or ferry for the ride to Côn Son Island. There are no domestic flights between Vung Tau and Ho Chi Minh. More conveniently, there are flights available from Ho Chi Minh to Côn Son Island. Vietnamese Airline, VASCO, offers regular flights to Côn Son with most tickets costing a few hundred dollars per adult.
When to Visit
When traveling by boat, many visitors choose to visit Côn Dao National Park during the dry season to avoid the rain. November to February are the driest months of the year before the rain picks up from April to October. While the park is gorgeous during the dry season, the green hues really pop during the rainy months.
Also, during the rainy season, starting in June and ending in September, sea turtles can be seen nesting on some of the islands.
Oceanside Bliss in Côn Dao
Situated off of the mainland, Côn Dao is one of only a handful of Vietnam’s national parks which is spread throughout a series of islands. Protecting marine life has become the park’s main concern and it has paid off. Aside from Côn Son Island, many visitors are drawn to the park’s turtle and dugong inhabitants.
With an activity for everyone, Côn Dao National Park is a breathtaking getaway that gives travelers a new perspective on Southern Vietnam.
Address: Con Dao, Ba Ria – Vung Tau, Vietnam
Phone: +84 254 3830 669