ISLANDS

IN SOUTH OF VIETNAM

Adventurous island-hopping off-grid in the South Chinese Sea

 

> 3 weeks on Phu Quoc Island and around the Con Dao Archipelago in Vietnam <

Among Southeast Asia’s countries with long coastlines, Vietnam actually has very few islands and island groups. This is not much given that Vietnam has more than 3,000 km of coastline! Indonesia tops the list with some 17.000 and Philippines has 7.000 islands. We wanted to keep it as a secret, but have to mention here that Myanmar has more than 700! Next, Malaysia and Thailand each have +100. Down the list, Vietnam only offers around 20 islands or island groups. Some of these are, however, among SEA's most untouched and amazing island getaways.

 

Vietnam is synonymous with the War in the ‘60ies, French colonialism, superb cuisine, super-friendly locals, densely populated cities with a high pulse, and stunning natural sights. In terms of island destinations, most visitors mention UNESCO-listed Ha Long Bay and its many lime stone islets. Sure, Ha Long is a scenic place, but it's also a bit polluted and crowded. So, instead we opted for the islands that are located off Vietnam's southern seaboard, and packed our snorkeling gear, started to salivate our taste buds, and jumped on the flight to Ho Chi Minh City.

 

Phu Quoc Island, closer to the Cambodian coastline, was a sleepy island just a decade ago. However, it has recently developed from infancy to adolescence and is poised to become the Koh Samui or Phuket of Vietnam. There is still a long way to go for this jungle-clad and authentic island. We found the atmosphere to be blissfully tranquil compared to mainland Vietnam. Phu Quoc's pure-white to brown-colored great beaches called for serious hammock time. We had laid the route around the islands off the Mekong Delta in the south and moved on to the more remotely located Con Dao Islands.

 

And wow, we’ve seen nothing quite like these anywhere else. The combination of historical isolation, wild landscapes, lack of tourism, unhurried ambience, and island-culture made Con Dao truly unique. The stunning 16-island archipelago has a spooky and deadly past as it was home to the most notorious penal colony in Indochina. There are jails and relics from the past hidden many places in the jungle. Con Dao was a perfect destination for island-nerds such as ourselves, nature-lovers wanting to get off the grid for a while, and back-to-bascis-backpackers seeking simplistic beauty, serenity and a natural paradise to relax in. We rented a French-era villa with a private pool for a week (it was very reasonable priced) and took exciting but slow-moving day tours around the main islands. We rented Honda mopeds to get around the main island, Con Son, on its one-only, small and winding road, which took us through dense rain forests, over wind-swept mountains, along wild coastlines and U-shaped bays, from one crazy beach to the next. For island-hops, we rented local fishing boats and visited secluded islets and coves. The nature was thriving with rare birds, dugongs, dolphins and turtles. To end by pinpointing what made Con Dao special besides the overwhelming natural beauty: Everywhere we went we utterly had the whole scenery to ourselves!

If you are also keen on island hopping in the SEA region see also our island pages on the islands of Thailand, Malaysia, Palawan, Visayas, Mindanao, Sulawesi, and Bali & Lombok.

Selected pics:

Island locations
Island locations

Con Dao Archipelago is located 80 kilometers off the coast of Southern Vietnam. Phu Qouc Island is closer to Cambodia than Vietnam, off the western seaboard

Vietnam war remains
Vietnam war remains

We had several stopovers in Ho Chi Minh City during this trip. The "War Crimes" museum in HCMC is highly recommendable

Road of solitude, Con Dao
Road of solitude, Con Dao

There's only a single road in Con Son island, the main island in the Con Dao Archipelago. It's a small winding road along the rugged coast line, through steaming jungle, and over high mountain passes. We rented motorbikes to explore the islands along this great "little" road

Nhat Beach, Con Dao
Nhat Beach, Con Dao

One morning we went to the eastern part of Con Son Island and this great beach with a back drop of a steep rocky mountain greeted us

Con Son market, Con Dao
Con Son market, Con Dao

The small island had a lively market where we could supply ourselves with lunch as well as snacks for the day tours around the archipelago

Sunrise, Con Dao Islands
Sunrise, Con Dao Islands

The main bay has a strong tidal landscape which allows for good walks along the sand bottoms at low tide. View towards Hon Bay Canh island, which is a great island-hopping destination from the central island

Fisherman, Con Dao
Fisherman, Con Dao

He offered freshly cathed fish which we could take for dinner. At early morning walks over the mud flats we met many fishermen who wanted to show us their boats and skills.

Street snack booth, Con Dao
Street snack booth, Con Dao

At sunset several street stalls were arranged along the coastline in main village of Con Son. Great for evening snack, and evening a Vietnamese sun downer

Emptyness, main road Con Dao
Emptyness, main road Con Dao

Aia, Jakob's oldest girl, walking along the coastal boulevard of Con Son village, build with French colonial architectural design. At most times it was completely empty of trafic. A weird but somehow calming and nice sight. The street was misplaced but became part of the Con Dao island illusion in our minds

Circular basket boat, Con Dao sunset
Circular basket boat, Con Dao sunset

The circular bamboo basket boat is an ubiquitous sight along the beaches of Vietnam

Bai Dat Doc beach, Con Dao
Bai Dat Doc beach, Con Dao

The archipelago is blessed with wild pristine beaches sourrounded by jungle-clad mountains, With very few visitors is it no surprise that Con Dao has been listed among the 10 best secret islands on earth by magazines such as 'Lonely Planet', 'Travel and Leisure', and 'The New Yorks Times' which dubbed the islands "a secret Tahiti"

Ba Island, Con Dao
Ba Island, Con Dao

There are no real tourist tours our boat arrangements offering easy visits to the different islands off the main island. We therefore rented a fishing boat directly at the harbour in Ben Dam village to take us to Ba island and around the magnificant bay of Ben Dam. Highly recommendable! The island is virtually uninhabited but has many small secluded bays and beaches

Fishing station, Con Dao
Fishing station, Con Dao

It was also a home to a friendly fisherman's family, which wanted to cook lunch for us and show us their fishing techniques

Baby shark as bait, Con Dao
Baby shark as bait, Con Dao

Small stuff is used to cath the big stuff

Ben Dam bay, Con Dao
Ben Dam bay, Con Dao

Ben Dam is the second-only settlement on Con Dao. All in the village are involved with fishing

Ben Dam bay, Con Dao
Ben Dam bay, Con Dao

The scenery around the Ben Dam lagoon is particularly stunning with towering and spiky granite cliffs and mountains. Reminded us somewhat of the granite stone peaks of the harbor at Rio de Janeiro

Motorbiking around Con Dao
Motorbiking around Con Dao

One simply had to make a lot of stops to rest and relax at the many view points over the archipelago and the vast South Chinese Sea

Sea horse for lunch, Con Dao
Sea horse for lunch, Con Dao

At Ben Dam village we met some friendly girls who were preparing sea horses

View from the harbour front
View from the harbour front

The school was facing the coast line and kids were snaking cold drinks after school time. They too were happy with the easy island life

Vinh Con Son Beach, Con Dao
Vinh Con Son Beach, Con Dao

Sunrise view over the low tidal seascape towards the green mountains on Con Son Island. The highest mountains are around 600 meters and covered by dense jungle. Small dirt roads allows one to explore the mountain areas

Bai Hang Doi beach, Con Dao
Bai Hang Doi beach, Con Dao

The wild and remote beach was only accessible at very low tide, as one had to cross the tidal mud flats and round a rocky corner to get to it. One could stay for a few hours but then had to get back or stay there (8-10 hours!) until the next low tide, before the waters started to rise to high

Con Son market, Con Dao
Con Son market, Con Dao

The island's main market is located away from the seafront, in amongst the small, sleepy streets of Con Son town. Dozens of food vendors pack themselves into the shade of the market. There's all kinds of foods and beverages – noodle soups, rice pancakes, rice porridge, iced coffees, fruit juices, and Vietnamese street foods. Great place to have lunch

Old prison, Con Dao Islands
Old prison, Con Dao Islands

The archipelago has a spooky past. It was once hell on earth for many people as it was used a penal colony during the French era and the Vietnam war. Tens of thousands of political prisoners were held on Con Son Island between 1862 and 1975 and many died. The prisons have been turned into macarbre museums. The island’s remoteness and former use as a penal colony have kept it in relatively pristine conditions and almost 100% is still forested and thus completely undeveloped.

Beach road, Con Dao
Beach road, Con Dao

At some parts of the Con Dao islands the only way to move from one place to the other is along the beach

Vinh Dam Tre Beach, Con Dao
Vinh Dam Tre Beach, Con Dao

We trekked around the jungle-clad beaches on the Northern shores of Con Dao with the kids. There were dugongs in the water and macaque monkeys in the jungle. The entire archipelago falls under the oversight of the Con Dao National Park and more than 80% is primary jungle

Dam Trau Beach, Con Dao
Dam Trau Beach, Con Dao

One morning we headed to the Northern shores of Con Dao, and went several kilometres down a small dirt track through dense jungle. This great beach was what we saw at the end of the track: Beautiful Dam Trau! Completely empty and great for swimming and relaxing with the kids.

Dam Trau Beach, Con Dao
Dam Trau Beach, Con Dao

There were no buildings, settlements or any other disturbances. Pure nature

Wedding ceremony, Hoi An
Wedding ceremony, Hoi An

At a small detour to the Cham Islands we went through historical Hoi An and stumpled upon a Vietnamese wedding (Hollywood style)

Dinh Cau Night Market, Phu Quoc
Dinh Cau Night Market, Phu Quoc

We headed to Phu Quoc island for a week. Very different than Con Dao islands, but with it's own character and charm. It is more developed but with that also comes, perhaps, better food options and more commercialized tourist activities into diving, jungle tours, etc. The night market, a 300 meter long chain of food vendors and restaurants, has superior and affordable sea food

Big shrimps for dinner, Phu Quoc
Big shrimps for dinner, Phu Quoc