Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Con Dao Island: A Quiet Escape From The City

I have just returned from Con Dao. While initially I had planned to go diving there, I ended up sightseeing and snorkeling instead.  It was a wonderful experience and was one of the most beautiful places I have been in Vietnam (actually one of the best I've seen in the world).  The secluded island had clean air, beautiful clear turquoise water, lush green vegetation, and scenic vistas.  I would definitely return and hopefully for longer than 3 days next time. 

I flew from Saigon to Con Son (the larges island of the Con Dao island group).  There are 2 flights per day from Saigon and the cost is around 100usd round-trip.  The flight was 40-45 minutes long and is by far the easiest way to get to the island.  The other option is by boat from Vung Tau.  The boat leaves only on certain days and takes between 11 and 13 hours to arrive.  Add to that the 2 hour travel time to Vung Tau from Saigon and you have quite a long trip.  The Con Dao airport is extremely small and accommodates only one aircraft at a time and has a rather scary runway due to its short lenght (the plane slowed to a stop less than 50 meters from the end and the runway ends in the ocean!).  There are no restaurants or even snack stands in the airport.  However, the airport is surrounded by beautiful scenery.

Con Dao Island airport is small but beautiful.

The temperature was 29 degrees when I arrived (84 Fahrenheit) and shortly after arrival 2 or 3 buses came to take different tour groups to their hotels.  I saw very few western people at the airport.  There were no taxis (but motorcycle taxis may be available sometimes) and the only way for me to get to the hotels was with a guy who offered me a free drive if he could show me his hotel.  On the way to the hotel he told me that there were 16 islands that made up Con Dao and he pointed out to me a new town home development from an American backer with prices starting at 2 million usd. 

I arrived at the hotel and liked the beach and the rooms.  There are very few sleeping options in Con Dao and thus they would not move off their price of 55usd per room (add 17 usd if you want a second bed, non negotiable. Note second bed is inflatable).  The hotel was newly built with beautiful wooden rooms and very nice restrooms for Vietnamese hotels.  A scant breakfast was included.  I decided to stay there as the views and the rooms were very nice.  The hotel had 12 rooms and was at 65% occupancy.  The hotel was 1km from the main town and there was a karaoke bar next to us that had traditional Vietnamese music.  I saw a few black squirrels during the day and at night I saw a couple of brightly lit boats night fishing, several bats and a million stars (the population of Con Dao is five to six thousand so light pollution is not a problem).  While the hotel and the surroundings were wonderful, the service was terriable.  I had to ask the front desk 6 times to clean up plates and food garbage they had brought to my room, they did not fix the phone, fix the television or bring extra towels after repeated requests.  The service at the restaurant was sub-par with the waiters and waitresses literally ignoring requests for service and standing at the restaurant bar picking their teeth.  The manager was ineffective and inattentive.  All in all - room: 3.5/5, location: 5/5, food: 2/5, service: 1/5.  However, the room and the location more than compensate for the poor food and service; I would return to the same hotel without a doubt.

Con Dao resort is the perfect place to relax.

Swimming at the hotel was relaxing and was how I spent my first day at the island.  There were no jellyfish, very calm water, and visibility of over 20 feet.  In the morning, fresh fish can be purchased from the fishermen when they come in at the beach shore.  The beach was very quiet and only two or three people are on it at a time.  There are many crabs living in the sand of the beach that dart around when you walk on the shore and the mountains surrounding the beach often had clouds draped over their peaks.   In the morning we enjoyed watching the rain roll in from the distance and found the hour-long storm to be very plesent.  However, there were an astounding number of aggressive sandflies during the day and mosquitoes at night, almost no wind, and very few fish in the water.   While picturesque, the beach of the hotel was not really ideal for prolonged outdoor enjoyment; other locations in Con Dao were much better suited.  

con dao resort has a beautiful and secluded beach.

What I really enjoyed was renting a motorbike and driving around (most of) the main island.  There was almost no one else on the road (a nice change from Saigon!) and the views everywhere were breathtaking. Some of the mountains on Con Son are more than 300m tall so some of the roads can be difficult for a 110cc motorbike to manage.  There is only one gas station on Con Son and it is only open in the evening.  If gas is needed at other times it can be acquired at various local people's houses for around 20,000vnd/L.  It is best to get a map of the island showing all of the various attractions to make getting around easier.  There is a large military presence on the island which means certain areas are restricted.  It also means that the island is very safe.

Scenic panorama showing lakes and mountains of con dao islands

Having a motorbike is great because it gives easy access to all of the attractions of the island.  One must be careful, though, while driving around for sleeping dogs in the road, humpbacked cows randomly crossing the street, and butterfly swarms pelting you in the face.  The list of sights to see on the island is large.  You can make a stop at Cho Con Dao (Con Dao market) for all of your fruit, veggie, meat and miscellaneous goods needs, head over to the Con Dao National Park, see the old prison where over 10,000 people lost their lives,  hike one of the numerous trails around the island, look around the farms, and join the locals on saturday night on the seawall.

part of con dao prison

I took a day trip near the airport for some hiking and snorkeling.  I had heard that there were some easily accessible places to see some nice coral and possibly a natural hot spring.  I arrived and found the place for snorkeling and it was amazing.  The clarity was over 20 feet and the coral was abundant and very colorful.  There were many different fish of various sizes and the currents were almost non-existent. After snorkeling I talked to a local for a while.  He told me that the best snorkeling spots are on the islands that surround Con Son island.  He also told me that the island gets their water from wells and that the electricity (which is subsidized for the residents) never gets blacked out.  I asked him about the springs that I had heard about and he told me how to get there.  I had to go on a short walk through the forest with a few steep climbs.  Upon arrival, I was disappointed to find out that the hot springs were not hot springs, they were just regular springs.  However, the springs were near a beautiful secluded beach and I had a nice snack there without seeing other visitors.

beautiful place for snorkeling and diving in con dao

While I had planned on diving I was turned off from it because of the high cost on Con Dao.  However, ecotourism is supposed to be excellent in Con Dao as there are dolphins, sea cows, sea turtles, coral, many varieties of fish, forests, and various conservation centers around the various islands.  All things considered, Con Dao is an wonderful place to have a vacation and luckily for us Saigonese it is less than an hour away!

I arrived back in Saigon yesterday and was a little sad that the trip was so short.  The plane that I took both to and from Con Dao was made by the Italian-French company Aerei da Trasporto Regionale, model ATR 72 which is a twin turboprop with typical cruising speeds of 300mph or 480kph.  The plane, as configured by Vietnam Airlines, seats 60+ passengers.  Water and moist towels were provided along with incomprehensible English courtesy of the flight attendant. On the brief flight there were several rainbows of great brightness and size.  When we were descending, we flew over my home and then landed in 2 minutes.  That was significantly faster than the hour that it takes to get to the airport by car; traveling by airplane is definitely the way to travel around Saigon!

view of Saigon from the airplane

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