Côn Đảo Part 3: The Serene Dichotomy of Côn Sơn Island
By Dave Fox
Côn Sơn Island (Côn Đảo Archipelago), Vietnam
This article is part three in a series about Côn Sơn Island, in southern Vietnam’s Côn Đảo Archipelago. (The island is most commonly referred to as Côn Sơn, and the archipelago is called Côn Đảo. Côn Sơn is the largest of 16 islands in the archipelago, and is also sometimes referred to as Côn Đảo Island.)
Part one explored the island’s ghastly jails, where political prisoners were tortured for more than a century. In part two, we visited Hàng Dương Cemetery at midnight to observe a nightly vigil honoring the estimated 20,000 people who died in the island’s prisons.
While the island has a horrific past, today it does have a happy side – which is the topic of today’s final article in this series. I also worked with filmmaker Jeff Nesmith, who produced a short video about Côn Đảo.
We have seen the jails, where for more than a century, political prisoners were tortured. We have visited the cemetery at midnight, where a nightly vigil honors the estimated 20,000 people who died in those prisons over the course of a century.
My friend, Jeff Nesmith, a Saigon-based filmmaker, and I, have come to Côn Sơn because we knew we would find stories here, but the stomach-churning enormity of the island’s history has taken us both by surprise. And yet, there is another part to this story, one we have both wrestled with: The happy side to Côn Sơn Island.
Would it be insensitive to report on the island’s pristine beaches, which are so much quieter and cleaner than the more touristed Phú Quốc Island? At first, we thought, maybe it would be. But then we explored.
We met people who live there. We felt rattled by the island’s past, yet we left wanting to return, and to savor the happier facets of Côn Sơn.
What struck me most was that this island, an easy, 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City, has not been trampled by tourism. It has hotels, guesthouses, and a few resorts – enough of an infrastructure to support its trickle of tourism. But it is not a party island. There is plenty of room to breathe, to recharge, and to feel the solitude.
The solitude is something I noticed the second I stepped off of our flight, onto the tarmac at Côn Sơn’s little airport. Once the engines of our propeller plane were switched off, there was a palpable stillness.
On the day we explored the island by motorbike with Trương Ái Vân, a local tour guide, she took us not only to the prisons, but also to the island’s bustling port, to a houseboat restaurant, and along a rugged coastline that gazes out over sandy shores and turquoise waters.
We visited a mountaintop Buddhist temple, and gazed out at a sweeping view of the distant archipelago. We stopped by the roadside at An Hải Lake, and watched farmers wading, shoulder-deep, harvesting lotus roots.
One morning, Jeff went scuba diving in an area many say has Vietnam’s best underwater scenery.
One evening, as we wandered along the waterfront, a group of young residents, employees at the island’s only five-star resort, invited us to sit on the ground with them and chat. They shared their beers with us as they strummed guitars and sang Vietnamese pop songs.
They were not from Côn Sơn. We asked them what it was like to live on the island. They said they love the solitude. They understood the history, but they are not dwelling on it.
This is a very Vietnamese attitude. The war here ended in 1975, and of course, people remember it, but they don’t let it consume them. Vietnam is a culture living in the present and looking toward the future. People here don’t tend to dwell on the past.
And sure, the new friends we met along the waterfront that night might have been biased; they work in the tourism industry, after all. But they told me they want people to come visit, to experience the solitude that pervades the island, to savor the unspoiled nature, which is so rare these days in places this accessible.
Should You Visit Côn Đảo?
When I first came to Côn Sơn, I assumed the lack of mainstream tourism was intentional – a desire to maintain an air of solemnity in memory of those who suffered and died here. But Larry Bernier, a native New Yorker who has lived on Côn Sơn for five years, who runs Dive! Dive! Dive! – one of the island’s two dive shops – said that’s not the case.
“There’s no issue with having foreigners here,” Larry told me. “They’re more than welcome.”
The reason so few foreigners visit Côn Sơn Island, he said, is due to a plane ticket racket. Many of the available seats are not visible on online booking websites. The only way to get tickets on many flights is to go to a Vietnamese travel agent, and many foreign tourists, booking holidays months in advance, don’t think to do that.
“They’re under the impression that all seats are booked up, so they never come here,” Larry said.
Many agents charge a mark-up of around 10 US dollars for these hidden seats – a thin slice of corruption, but a small price to pay for the greater experience of visiting Côn Sơn.
If you’re having trouble finding flights to Côn Sơn, Larry’s website has information on how to deal with this situation and get on an airplane to the island even if it looks like flights are sold out. You’ll find more info (as well as answers to other frequently asked questions about the island) at dive-condao.com.
On our first two days, Jeff and I were consumed with the obvious story – the chilling history of the prisons and the stirring, nightly cemetery vigils. But once we took time to breathe, to step back from the horrors of the past, we found a place that today is captivating, that borders on lethargic in the mid-day swelter, whose people radiate a quiet contentment with their swatch of rock in the South China Sea.
If you visit Côn Sơn, go see the prisons and the cemetery. They are important pieces of history that deserve recognition. But also visit the colorful port. Hike the island’s trails. Splash at the blissfully empty beaches. And soak in the profound sense of peace that exists in the present.
Unlike so many other islands in Southeast Asia, Côn Sơn is not a party island. That is what makes it special today. Tread lightly if you go. Be at peace with a tourism infrastructure that is very basic. And savor the fact that there aren’t a lot of islands left in the world so easy to reach from a major city, yet so unscarred by tourism.
For four days, I was so wrapped up in covering the many facets of Côn Sơn that hours before my flight home to Ho Chi Minh City, I had not yet had any beach time. The island’s best beach is quite far from town. It is, however, just a 20-minute walk from the airport.
And so, on my way to the airport, I checked out of my hotel early and caught a shuttle van north. I hiked down a bumpy dirt path off of the main road, found a shady lounger at a beachfront restaurant, and waited for my flight there. For a couple of hours, I had a vast expanse of sand and sea virtually to myself.
I’ve been through a lot of airports and visited my share of airport lounges. Nothing compares to this. I will be back.
Watch the Video
I traveled to Côn Sơn Island with my friend, Jeff Nesmith, a Saigon-based filmmaker. We discovered a bigger story than we had time to cover in the three days we were there together; however before he left (I stayed for a fourth day), Jeff shot a short interview with me on an historic pier and has produced a video that explores the dichotomy between the island’s troubled past and its present-day tranquility.
Getting to Côn Đảo / Côn Sơn
Island Tours: Trương Ái Vân offers private, English-language tours of Côn Sơn at very reasonable prices. She also runs Côn Đảo Travel and can assist with accommodations and other arrangements. You can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +84 – 919 55 10 99.
Diving, Snorkling, and Boat Trips: Larry Bernier is a super-friendly, super-helpful New Yorker who runs the Dive! Dive! Dive! and has lived on Côn Sơn since 2011. He offers eco-friendly diving excursions. He’s full of stories, and my pal, Jeff Nesmith, says his scuba trips are great. You can contact him via his website, dive-condao.com, or phone +84 – 64 383 0701.
Boats to Côn Đảo: You can get to the island by boat from the town of Vũng Tàu. The crossing takes around 12 hours, however. Seas can be rough, and accommodations for the overnight trip are quite spartan. If you’re feeling adventurous and make the journey this way, please let me know! (But be forewarned: Most people say the flight is worth paying for.)