Con Dao, or Con Son if referring to the main island in this 16-island archipelago, is possibly the best kept secret in Viet Nam. Currently virtually undiscovered - except by the ex-prisoners of the South VietNamese regime who return to visit their places of incarceration prior to 1975 – Con Dao offers stunning virgin forest, deserted tropical beaches, unique sea life, forgotten prisons being consumed by the jungle, and the possibility to experience a castaway lifestyle without any of the pains normally associated with life 180 kilometers from land. The Con Dao archipelago is an ideal place for nature lovers and an opportunity to visit unspoiled tropical islands before they become developed.
On Con Son there are several good beaches worth seeking out. Bai Dat Doc is a beautiful beach with a long stretch of sand, although most of this is now part of the new Six Senses Con Dao. Keep an eye out for dugongs frolicking in the water off the nearby cape.
Bai Nhat is small and very nice, though it’s exposed only during low tide. Bai An Hai looks appealing, but there are a good number of fishing boats moored nearby, and a few too many sandflies. Bai Loi Voi is another option, but there can be a fair bit of rubbish and lots of sea shells. Bai Dam Trau is arguably the best all-rounder, a secluded cove on the southern end of the island.
Some of the more pristine beaches are on the smaller islands, such as the beautiful white-sand beach on Tre Lon, to the west of Con Son Island. Perhaps the best all-round island to visit is Bay Canh, to the east, which has lovely beaches, old-growth forest, mangroves, coral reefs and sea turtles (seasonal). There is a fantastic two-hour walk to a functioning French-era lighthouse on Bay Canh’s eastern tip, although it involves a steep climb of 325m. Once at the summit, the panoramic views are breathtaking.
The main sights on Con Son Island include a museum, several French and American-era prisons and a sombre cemetery. The only place that advertises entrance tickets is Phu Hai Prison but this should cover all other sights according to the theory.
Revolutionary Museum is next to Saigon Con Dao Hotel and has exhibits on VietNamese resistance to the French, communist opposition to the Republic of Vietnam, and the treatment of political prisoners (including some gruesome photos of torture). There is also a mock-up of the islands and some curiously embalmed animals, including a monkey smoking a pipe. An impressive-looking new Con Dao Museum is located at the eastern end of Ð Nguyen Hue and exhibits from the Revolutionary Museum will be moved here once it opens its doors.
Phu Hai Museum, a short walk from the museum, is the largest of the 11 prisons on the island. Built in 1862, the prison houses several enormous detention buildings, one with about 100 shackled and emaciated mannequins that are all too lifelike. Equally eerie are the empty solitary cells with ankle shackles (the decree on the walls in Vietnamese means 'no killing fleas', as prisoners were not allowed to dirty the walls). Nearby is the equally disturbing Phu Son Prison.
The notorious Tiger Cages were built by the French in the 1940s. From 1957 to 1961 nearly 2000 political prisoners were confined in these tiny cells. Here there are 120 chambers with ceiling bars, where guards could watch down on the prisoners like tigers in a zoo, and another 60 solariums with no roof at all.
Over the course of four decades of war, some 20,000 people were killed on Con Son and 1994 of their graves can be seen at the peaceful Hang Duong Cemetery , located at the eastern edge of town. Sadly, only 700 of these graves bear the name of the victims. Vietnam's most famous heroine, Vo Thi Sau (1933–52), was the first woman executed by a firing squad on Con Son, on 23 January 1952. Today's pilgrims come to burn incense at her tomb, and make offerings of mirrors and combs, symbolic because she died so young. In the distance behind the cemetery you'll see a huge monument symbolising three giant sticks of incense.