Con Dao Island
SAIGON DAY TRIPS
This obscure out the way cluster of little islands is packed with natural beauty and tragic history.
The tragic history of Con Dao stems from its use as an island prison over the years, first by the French, and then by the South Vietnamese and the Americans.
Each of whom built additional prison structures on the island to meet their needs.
Beach Front - Con Dao
Consequently today there are about seven different prison structures or more on the main island that span over one-hundred years of incarceration and abuse.
The first recorded foreign presence on Con Dao was in 1560 when a ship of Portuguese mariners arrived.
Later in 1702 the British East India Company founded a fortified trading post and factory on the main island.
According to Lieutenant John White, an officer in the United States Navy who visited the island in 1820, the fortified trading post was supposed to help facilitate English trade with China and the neighbouring coast of Cambodia.
However, the fortified trading post did not last long though, as the British were massacred in a revolt by the Macassar soldiers they had recruited on the Indonesian island of Sulawasi in 1705.
In 1787 Con Dao was ceded to the French by Nguyen Anh (the future Emperor Gia Long) in exchange for French military help in regaining his throne.
Because of its remoteness the French government thought it a good idea to establish a prison on the island in 1861 to house political prisoners.
When the French were defeated by the Viet Minh in 1954, the prison was handed over to the U.S. and the South Vietnamese government, who continued to use the island to house political prisoners.
The prisons were finally closed in 1975 when the North Vietnamese defeated the South Vietnamese government.
Prison Entrance - Con Dao
Because of this long grim history, when you walk or bike around the island and its sites, you will come across numerous stories about the people who were incarcerated here and what they went through.
At Phu Hai prison you can visit the spot where a nineteen year old Vo Thi Sao was executed on January 23rd 1952.
Born in 1933, as a Viet Minh revolutionary Vo Thi Sao had killed thirteen French soldiers with a grenade when she was fourteen years old.
She was eventually captured by the French and became the first Vietnamese women sentenced to death, although the French did not dear execute her until she was nineteen as they feared reprisals if they killed a fourteen year old girl.
At Phu Hai prison you can also learn about the female prisoner who in the midst of a hunger strike tore open her own stomach and ripped out her intestine and threw it at a guard as she lay dying on the floor.
At the jetty opposite Con Son town you can read about the 914 prisoners who were worked to death building the jetty.
These are just a few of the sad stories that you come across as you travel around the island.
The best way to get orientated when you first arrive though is to visit both the museum in the old French Governor's house opposite the jetty on the main beach, and the Con Dao National Park headquarters.
Old French Governor's House - Con Dao
The museum in the old French Governor's house is where you can learn more about the grim history of the island and arrange for a tour around the various prison structures on the island.
And even though the guides' English is often a little limited, a guide is quite a good idea as some of the prisons are difficult to find and can be locked.
The National Park headquarters, which are about 20 minute from the front beach at 29 Vo Thi Sau street, are where you can learn more about possible excursions and hikes.
It is here that you can buy passes for the various walks through the various parks and arrange for a guide.
And again a guide is recommended as some of the walks are quite long and are not well marked.
As an exmaple, I didn't higher a guide for my first walk and spent the next two hours lost and ended up walking around the entire township looking for the start of the walk... a lesson learned the hard way I guess.
Con Dao island was awarded protected status in 1984 and made a national park.
Part of the reason for this is that Con Dao is home to some rather rare aquatic life.
Firstly, it is home to something called a dugong, and if you don't know what a dugong is, don't ask me as I don't either, but according to the internet it is a large and very rare marine mammal that belongs to the same family as the manatee if that helps.
Beach Front and Jetty- Con Dao
Secondly; Con Dao is Vietnam's most important sea turtle nesting ground.
The best time to view the nesting grounds is from June until September, you can organize to go on a tour to the nesting grounds through the National Park office.
I didn't get round to seeing the turtles, but if you are really keen you can also arrange to stay overnight on the islands where the turtles nest.
The thing that really makes Con Dao stand out though is that there are so few tourists.
In fact on all my walks around the prisons and through the national park, I never once met another foreign; in fact I hardly met anyone at the prisons or in the national park.
In fact, when I first arrived on Con Dao I went for a noon walk on the front beach opposite the hotel where I was staying, and I was literally the only person in site.
The beach, the road, and the surrounding buildings were all empty of people; I really had found peaceful solitude in Vietnam.
I only hope that it stays that way.
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