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!
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
We had several stopovers in Ho Chi Minh City during this trip. The "War Crimes" museum in HCMC is highly recommendable
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
The circular bamboo basket boat is an ubiquitous sight along the beaches of Vietnam
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"
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
It was also a home to a friendly fisherman's family, which wanted to cook lunch for us and show us their fishing techniques
Small stuff is used to cath the big stuff
Ben Dam is the second-only settlement on Con Dao. All in the village are involved with fishing
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
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
At Ben Dam village we met some friendly girls who were preparing sea horses
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
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
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
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
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.
At some parts of the Con Dao islands the only way to move from one place to the other is along the beach
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
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.
There were no buildings, settlements or any other disturbances. Pure nature
At a small detour to the Cham Islands we went through historical Hoi An and stumpled upon a Vietnamese wedding (Hollywood style)
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