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Con Dao from “hell on earth” to “tourist paradise”

Con Dao has been voted one of the best “secret” and most “appealing” islands on earth by Australian Lonely Planet and US Travel and Leisure magazines. Once a “hell on earth” for thousands of political prisoners before 1975, Con Dao has now turned into “tourist heaven” home to deserted white sand beaches with crystal clear waters and a natural reserve boasting rich marine ecosystems.
A protected ecosystem

In June while the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, Vietnam’s initial success in containing the disease prompted many people to plan their summer vacations. Con Dao, regarded as “paradise in the East Sea” was among the top choices for domestic travelers.

The sea surrounding  Bay Canh island is strictly protected for research, conservation and development of marine biodiversity, including diverse coral reefs and other marine species such as clams, snails, fish, turtles, sea grass and seaweed.
After a four-hour trip aboard an express boat to Con Dao, we took a motor boat to Bay Canh, a small island west of Con Dao district. Our companion was Thai Khac Tinh, a staff of Con Dao National Park. Bay Canh island stunned us because of its amazing marine ecosystem which is a perfect combination of tropical rainforests on high mountain, mangrove forests, seagrass beds and coral reefs at Con Dao National Park.

Con Dao National Park is the first and the most successful place to protect sea turtles. Tinh said that the park management board started its sea turtle conservation in 1994, setting up five ranger stations on islands where sea turtles often lay eggs. These stations function to study the ecological features of sea turtles using satellite tags attached to the reptiles, protect their nesting areas and move the nests to safe places as needed.

Con Dao National Park is the first and the most successful place that protects sea turtles. Photo: Tat Son 

Sea turtle eggs have an incubation period of about two months. Photo: Tat Son 

Over 150,000 young turtles are released into the sea at Con Dao National Park each year. Photo: Tat Son 

Checking the size and health status of a mother turtle. Photo: Tat Son 

Rangers from Bay Canh ranger station patrol the mangrove forest. Photo: Thong Hai 

Con Dao National Park has a rich forest and marine ecosystem with rare and precious animals. Photo: Files  

Con Dao is known for its beautiful maritime ecosystem and coral reefs. Photo: Files

In 2014, Con Dao National Park was recognized as one of 2,203 wetlands of international importance by the Ramsar Convention Secretariat. Con Dao is Vietnam’s first marine Ramsar site and the sixth Ramsar site in the country.
We reached Bay Canh ranger station at sunset when the rangers were hurriedly finishing their dinner before starting their work. At night, Bay Canh island was  very dark because all lights were turned off to encourage the turtles to come ashore. We joined the Bay Canh rangers to wait for the turtles for hours, until finally at midnight we  saw the big turtles slowly crawling ashore, digging nests in the sand and laying eggs. That was when the rangers’ job began. They counted the nests and the numbers of eggs and recorded the sizes, health status and eggs of mother turtles each of which was attached with a satellite tag. That night alone, the turtles laid nearly 2,000 eggs in 17 nests which were all moved to safe places. The rangers finished their work at sunrise. Their next job was releasing the young turtles hatched in ponds to sea. 

Every year from June to October, more than 400 turtles crawl up on the sands in Con Dao National Park to lay eggs. During peak season, every night between 10 and 20 turtles lay eggs ashore on Hon Bay island, 87% of which are hatched successfully. Over 150,000 young turtles have been rescued and released into the sea.

A striking tourist destination

To reach Con Dao, visitors can take a four-hour trip by express boat from Cat Lo port in Vung Tau, or a 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat international airport.
“Protecting sea turtles is part of Con Dao’s marine ecosystem conservation efforts, which concurrently aims to promote tourism in the island district,” said Nguyen Dinh Ly, head of Bay Canh ranger station. The beautiful and diverse marine ecosystems of Con Dao are among the attractions of the islands.

For those wishing to enjoy untouched nature while exploring history and culture, Con Dao is an ideal destination. The islands are not only home to gorgeous natural scenery but also cultural and historical sites. Recognized as a special national historical site, Con Dao was once a “hell on earth” where around 20,000 Vietnamese were imprisoned from 1862 when the French set up Con Dao prison, to 1975 when the resistance war against America ended.

The runway at Con Dao airport is one of the most special runways in the world because its two sides border the sea. Photo: Thanh Hoa

Motor boats take visitors to explore the small islands in Con Dao. Photo: Bao Uyen

The villas of Six Senses Con Dao Resort sit up along the sandy beaches. Photo: Le Minh 

Tourists watch how turtles are released into the sea on Bay Canh island. Photo: Thanh Hoa 

Tourists explore the mangrove system in Con Dao. Photo: Tat Son 

The beautiful roads running along the coast and mountains in Con Dao. Photo: Bao Uyen

Phu Hai prison, the oldest prison in Con Dao, is now a tourist attraction. Photo: Thanh Hoa 

Tourists visit Con Dao museum. Photo: Thong Hai 

Tourists visit the “tiger cages” in Con Dao. Photo: Tat Son 

A model depicting a supervisor in Phu Binh prison torturing prisoners in “tiger cages”. Photo: Tat Son

Tourists burn incense sticks in Hang Duong cemetery at night to pay their respects to the late soldiers. Photo: Bao Uyen

- Locals and tourists come to worship at Vo Thi Sau’s grave in Hang Duong cemetery. Photo: Bao Uyen

Hang Duong cemetery, a resting place of tens of thousands of revolutionary soldiers imprisoned at Con Dao prison. Photo: Thanh Hoa

For Vietnamese, Con Dao is the most sacred tourist destination in the country.
Con Dao has developed tourism sustainably to conserve the nature and biodiversity of the islands.  Visiting Con Dao National Park, one can take a tour to see how turtles lay eggs or a diving tour to explore coral reefs. Visitors can also take a walk in the forest and discover the original plants and animals there.

With stunning scenery and cultural and historical values, Con Dao hosts millions of local and foreign tourists every year. It has emerged as an attractive destination where one cannot help hoping to come back.

Story: Son Hai - Photos: Bao Uyen, Thanh Hoa,
Tat Son, Le Minh, Thong Hai & Files

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