The history, the old buildings plus the rich biodiversity of the main island of Con Dao archipelago a fascinating place to visit. Con Son is an old garrison town. Half the island population of 5,000 is still military personnel and there is a distinct orderliness to the quiet, tree lined streets. The pavement edges are painted bright white,gardens are well tended and there is hardly any litter. This is a tranquil tropical settlement.
Ever since Marco Polo visited Con Dao in 1292 (approx.) these island have been of strategic importance to nations like Portugal, Holland, France and England because they lie on the busy trade route from China to India.
The first Nguyen Lord, Nguyen Anh, ceded these islands and the port of Da Nang to the French in return for their support in the fight against one of his rival factions. He succeeded but his deal with the French has been seen, by many, as the first step towards their colonisation of nearly 100 yrs. His first wife retreated to Con Dao to escape the struggles and never left. She is revered as a faithful wife and there are popular shrines to her memory and that of her infant son who died here.
During the French occupation, the island provided the perfect remote location for political prisoners and this beautiful archipelago has a grizzly reputation for the ‘living hell’ that was created to torture and punish political prisoners until 1975. Interestingly, many who survived went on to be members of government. Those who died are remembered as national heroes.
There was a clear, full moon on the last night of my visit and I joined dozens of Vietnamese visitors at the shrine of Vo Thi Sau. Every night between 11 and 12pm people gather to remember this young girl who was arrested at 14 and executed at 19 and who has become a poignant symbol of the struggle for reunification.
Con Dao museum is fascinating and covers the islands history from prehistory to the times it served as a prison island under two different regimes. Therein you will find a building dedicated to the memory of Vo This Sau who was arrested at the age of 14 and executed at 19. The exhibit is furnished with display cases and wardrobes filled with gifts from the kind hearted who have provided her with dozens of ao dai, handbags, make up and the jewellery that any young woman would delight in.
From the town take a short ride to the start of a beautiful hike up to So Ray, the hillside site of the old French plantation and a lookout post which gives and unrivalled view over the town, the sparkling bay and the islands beyond. The climb up there is steep in places but, at the right time of day, the local monkeys will escort you up to the lookout post.