It’s taken all my strength to write this post as we are currently chilling in Paradise, otherwise known as Con Dao island on the Southern coast of Vietnam. We’ve been here for five glorious nights and tomorrow set sail for our next destination – Sihanoukville in Cambodia. Fair to say we are pretty reluctant to leave.
I’m still coming to terms with how a tropical island so rich in natural beauty and just an hour’s flight from a city of nine million can be so uninhabited both by locals (only around 6,000 people live here) and tourists alike. As I write this I’m looking at the stretch of beach our little chalet peeks out at and not a soul is out there, even though the sun is shining and the warm water is glistening so invitingly…must. finish. writing…
That’s another amazing thing- our accommodation. We have paid $30 a night for a ‘seaview’ bungalow with all the mod cons (most important of the cons being air con) and it actually has a seaview! Con Dao Camping is the name of the place and I just have to say, don’t believe some of the less than favourable reviews online – this one’s a winner. Miss Dung is an ex Saigonite who moved here seven years ago and has done everything possible to make sure that we have a comfortable stay. Most of the staff don’t speak very good English but they are all eager to help as much as they can.
After a shaky start where the bus at the airport never came to pick us up we were put at ease with a quick phone call to Dung. She got in touch with a taxi driver who drove us home for the same rate as the bus (turns out that Dung paid the difference for us). We were also a bit picky about our room and she happily moved us to the one that looks directly out to the white sandy beach of which you mostly have to yourself aside from the odd fishing boat.
Unfortunately there isn’t a restaurant here as the setting is so lovely it would be a great place to eat but they do offer breakfast (at an extra charge). There’s also mini bars in each of the rooms and a bar at reception with all the essentials (beer). During the day the loungers out front are the best spot to chill on as they are covered by beautiful pine trees- perfect for a pasty pair such as Tom and I.
“Town” is just a stone’s throw away and by town I mean sleeeeepy wee village. The term ghost town is perhaps more accurate and given the island’s history as a holding pen for prisoners during the American war this is thought by some locals to be quite literally true. I have to admit that walking past the old prisons at night is a freaky experience.
When Tom and I first arrived we realised that we really weren’t in Kansas anymore. Coming from Saigon where there’s about five coffee ladies and banh mi stalls to every person it was quite the shock to find literally no restaurants open. Note – there is a strictly enforced siesta time from 11am till 2pm everyday so lunch options are limited. Strangely there were often staff in the restaurants but they seemed to be there just so they could rush to the door as we approached and tell us that they were closed. When we enquired at one place they informed us that they “maybe open tomorrow, maybe next day”. It’s this carefree attitude that (albeit quite frustrating when you’re hungry) gives the island its charm. Here is a place where you will never be hassled for anything…a luxury coming from the big smoke.
Your best bet for lunch and breakfast on the island is to rise early (remember you can sleep later) and grab a sandwich from the morning market. This is the best value for money food on the island and probably some of the tastiest too. Because most things have to be imported from Vung Tau, some of the prices are quite inflated but at the market you can easily find a tasty noodle soup, rice meal or sandwich for around $1. I can also vouch for the coffee and fresh fruit- particularly the mangos! Get there between 7 and 8.30am or you’ll potentially miss out on the meals.
The brown stuff is called blood cake by the locals… not my favourite but a tasty broth.
Sugar high anyone?
Outside the ‘food court’.
I just loved hanging out there in the morning as it’s pretty much the most happening time and place around here – with the backdrop of the jungle covered hills it really is spectacular to wake up to.
Oh and for your boutique fix… there’s this place across the street.
If you’re craving some Western food then there is one café to cater to your needs (just the one mind you). Don’t fret though as they are truly awesome. Café Infiniti is the name and they do excellent brunch and delicious burgers in a tres cool setting.
Seafood is the specialty of Con Dao and the best place we’ve found for it is Tri Ky. We stumbled in here on our first night as they’re just across the road from CDC and it’s awesome. I can recommend the five spice grilled squid and the seafood noodles. It’s great people watching too – there was a party of around twenty men chugging beer last night that was great entertainment (and quite the sight considering that it’s rare to be dining alongside anyone else in this place!).
Enough about food…even though you could be quite content simply eating and spending time at the beach, there are some more adventurous activities available on the island. On our second day here, Tom and I went diving with Dive!Dive!Dive! This place is run by a friendly American dude called Larry and the staff there all speak great English. They also offer really handy tourist information about the island. Their daily tours are a great option if you want to explore what lies beneath. We went out around 9am and did a try dive at the first location- about an hour’s boat ride from the harbour. A beautiful purpose built boat takes you out there and they give you seasickness pills – TAKE THEM- a few Chinese tourists we went with didn’t and lets just say there were some sights onboard.
For those who don’t know (as we didn’t), a try dive is where you don’t need to be qualified and the instructors simply hold onto you while you’re down there. After a nervous start I found it incredibly relaxing and an amazing experience to be breathing underwater. It’s a little restrictive given that someone is guiding you but you won’t be disappointed with the sights – it was so incredible being up close to tropical fish in their natural environment as opposed to in a tank. The guys at DDD have a real concern for the environment too which is refreshing in Vietnam. At least two other staff members will go for what they call a clean up dive (they take bags and collect rubbish) while the guests dive or snorkel. Unfortuantely there is always a big haul at the end as a lot of (illegal) fishing boats inhabit the harbours and toss their rubbish overboard.
Following the try dive we stopped for lunch on the boat (fresh fruit and sandwiches) before travelling to a second spot where we snorkelled for an hour before coming back mid afternoon. It’s $40 for snorkelling at both spots or $95 for a try dive plus a snorkel sesh. That includes everything so we thought it was a pretty good deal.
After chatting to the guys at the Dive shop we got some more tips on where to head for great swimming so the next day we hired a motorbike from Con Dao Camping and headed to Dam Trau – a beach that is so beautiful you have to pinch yourself to remind you it’s real! This is maybe the one place on the island that caters for tourists as the moment we arrived we were escorted to two loungers about a metre or two from the water’s edge. We then ordered fresh coconuts and delicious seafood which was delivered to us and then spent hours swimming and admiring the view. There was also the odd thrill of a plane landing (the runway is just behind the beach). Somehow we were one of merely three other couples on the beach.
Getting back from the beach proved a bit of a mission as we discovered a puncture wound on the bike.
After another phone call to Dung we were sorted with a new bike in no time and the guys even siphoned out the gas we’d put in! That’s service.
Again, I’m a firm believer that this island is so idyllic you could be quite happy doing nothing but another ‘thing to do’ is to check out the sunset. There is a spot which everyone knows about. We somehow couldn’t quite find it as there is no ‘lookout’ or signage of any kind but managed to find this place (about a 20 minute drive left out of CDC) and it more than sufficed.
Our last adventurous activity before it all became too much and we had to go back to eating, swimming and siesta-ing was a trek in the jungle. There’s a national park office here and you can buy a ticket (20,000 Dong or $1) to go on a number of treks around the island. Some you need a guide for but the one we chose was easy enough to navigate ourselves. The route we took was to the So Ray plantation – an area specifically cultivated to provide home to some of the wildlife on the island, in particular, monkeys.
The walk is just 1.3km but it’s all up hill and the path is mainly boulders (some of which are loose) so wear walking shoes. Also for the love of god, bring bananas. I have a strange relationship with monkeys. I find them adorable but also a bit frightening so when a rather flushed European couple met us on their way down from the plantation telling us of how they had been ambushed for sunglasses and any loose items on their person, I kind of freaked. Thankfully we had bananas and they proved to be enough of a distraction for the little critters.
Apparently there’s a look out somewhere but again, no signposts and we were all out of bananas so decided to get the hell out of dodge before they tried eating something else on us. We were followed by a few cheeky ones but eventually evaded the persistent wee things. It was quite the experience and again such a thrill to see animals like that in their natural habitat but the walk kind of sucks. It’s really rocky as I said and you WILL need a sweat rag as gross as that sounds. After that, I felt totally entitled to more of what this island is best for- doing absolutely nothing.
Hopefully there are some handy tips if you’re thinking of going to Con Dao but to be honest I think the best tip I could give you is to go now. Get in there before development takes its course and this sleepy sanctuary turns into another Phu Quoc. Already there are signs of what’s to come. I fear the worst for Con Dao Camping as there is a pier in construction right next to the place. As I’m writing there’s a crane pumping black smoke into the air and it’s not uncommon to find yourself swimming amongst the odd bit of litter from the nearby fishing boats. Still, it’s clean enough (as a New Zealander my beach cleanliness standards are high) and for the price, can’t be beaten.
So quit what you’re doing and book a ticket NOW…perhaps one way as you could happily while away the days here for a month or so I reckon.