Marco Polo visited Con Dao in the 13th Century, on his way from China to Europe, and later the East Indian Company established a small trading village on the main island. With a surface area of 70 km 2 and a population of only 5,000, island life is as tranquil as the surrounding waters. Swaths of white sand form breeding grounds for turtles, and further inland the landscape is alive with a multitude of birdsong and the chatter of monkeys.
The Con Dao Islands (also known as Poulo Condore) are an archipelago of 15 islands situated in the Western Sea, around 250 kilometres, or a 45-minute flight, from Ho Chi Minh City.
The island is famed for its grizzly past: due its remoteness, the French used the main island of Con Son (the largest island in the group) to keep anti-colonial protestors prisoner. The South Vietnamese continued the tradition, sending political dissenters and activists to the 11 prisons which were also used in the American War. One third of the current 6,000 population are Vietnamese soldiers based in barracks dotted around the island.
Con Son is largely mountainous and covered in forest, with ample opportunity for hiking through the jungle and looking for wildlife. The island is also home to a coastline of steep, rocky hills and long sweeping coves, boasting some excellent spots for swimming and snorkelling.
The best source of information is the National Park Headquarters, located about five minutes' drive from Con Son town on Vo Thi Sau Rd. From here you can organise trips to other islands in the archipelago, hire a guide for trekking (required) and get permits to enter certain parts of the forest. Three tourist hotels are available on Con Son, all on Ton Duc Thang Rd which follows the beach and the harbour around Con Son town
One of only two terrestrial and maritime National Parks, the Con Dao archipelago became a national park in 1993 and five years later the park was expanded significantly into the surrounding waters. Because of this protective status, the waters escaped some of the destructive fishing practices that have marred many other marine areas in Vietnam.
Partly as a result of this protected state, the island is very popular with divers with over 1,000 hectares of coral reefs and over 1,300 marine species so far identified. Diving tour can be arranged on the island.
Despite these considerable assets and its proximity to the mainland, the islands are still largely untouched by mass tourism. Saigon Con Dao though is transforming its resort on the island into a four-star, 90-room complex which is expected to open in 2007 while the government plans to turn Con Dao into a 'high quality and economic tourist area by 2020' - so now may be the time to experience this destination in its still undiscovered state.