Five quiet days in Con Dao
“You go alone?” the clerk asked, sizing me up as she looked over the desk.
“Yes,” I said pulling my duffle bag up over my shoulder, “I’m going alone.”
She had a look in her eye that I had seen a thousand times over in Vietnam. Quiet understanding with a bit of reservation. I’m sure she wanted to say something — “Why?” “Are you sure?” “You know Con Dao is haunted, right?”
She slid the boarding pass across the desk, “Enjoy your flight, mista’ Böhling.”
An hour south of Saigon, Con Dao materialized out of the monsoon mists like the back of a breaching whale in the empty ocean. The churning black sea gave way to a new gradient of deep greens and tropical blues that washed apathetically over the sleepy shoreline.
The prop plane circled the island once and landed on the narrow strip of runway no larger than a football field. Dust swirled up in sepia toned clouds that clung to my skin. The salty air was a welcomed change from the smoggy yellows of Saigon.
Turning down offers for expensive cabs (“Dat qua!” I would say kindly but firmly) I followed the locals to the bus that would take me in to Con Son, the largest village in Con Dao, for a couple of dollars. I would be staying there for five days at a small homestay by the beach on the leeward side of the island.
Lonely Con Dao
Historically Con Dao is one of the loneliest places in Asia.
Used by the French, the Americans, and the North Vietnamese for political internment, Con Dao Prison became notorious for its savage mental and physical torture practices. A particularly brutal part of the inner prison knows as the Tiger Cages (small cells packed tightly with barred ceilings like a tiger’s cage) were photographed for TIME magazine in the 60s and put the island on the map, albeit in a macabre way.
The the few locals that live on Con Dao today (many of whom are children of the old prison wardens) believe that the island is haunted. There is a subtle anxiety that hangs around the empty streets; possibly a looming fear of karmic redemption for the crimes of the past? The village of Con Son is filled of twinkling shrines and memorials for the dead. The air is often cloudy with smoke and incense — a spiritual practice that is supposed to calm the restless dead.
Because of its gruesome history Con Dao has been overlooked for more sparkly island destinations like Phu Quoc or Cat Ba. There is little in the way of development on Con Dao as almost eighty percent of the island and the surrounding reefs are protected by the Con Dao Islands National Park. Recently there has been a movement to modernize the Vietnamese islands, though with a lot of push back from the local Con Dao government the island has remained generally untouched (save for the Five Senses Resort of Jolie/Pitt fame).
Leeward and Windward
My days on the leeward side of Con Dao were spent as one would imagine.
I would wake up with the sun that only seemed to shine in the early morning. With a ca phe sua da I would watch the neighbors go about their morning routines in the courtyard below my bedroom window. I spent the afternoons under an umbrella on the beach, watching the fishing boats bob offshore like lazy bits of driftwood. Shielded from the harsh elements and the outside world, life goes on generally undisturbed in Con Son. My evenings were spent eating seafood, writing, painting, and returning home after sunset to watch old movies dubbed in Vietnamese.
On the few days that the weather would cooperate the owner of my homestay would let me a bike to explore the island. Beyond the shielded village lies a verdant stretch of pot-holey, unkempt road that connects Con Son with her wild sister village Ben Dam.
Situated on the windward side of the island, Ben Dam is weathered and gritty. Mountains of naked rock slide vertically into the sea where waves crash against the stone in a volatile display of foam and fury. A few brave bits of vegetation hold on defiantly against the unforgiving winds that whistle and howl. Shepherds watch over their flocks from boulders cropped high above the flood planes.
Ben Dam proper nestles itself into a natural harbor beneath a solitary canopy of jungle. Fishing vessels float in and out of the port dropping off their daily catches. Women work the busy pier as their children play in the streets. If lazy Con Son is the Yin then Ben Dam is its Yang.
Slow, simple and tinged with salt
Wild and raw and exactly what I was hoping for, Con Dao was by far one of my favorite trips of 2016. Beyond the macabre past and the superstition, Con Dao is a peaceful place where life is not too complicated.
One of my favorite things about traveling — about coming into an new environ as an outsider — is bearing witness to routine. Hanging your clothes out to dry, having a coffee in the morning, smoking your pipe as you watch the heard — these are the bits of fabric that make up the tapestry of our lives. As a traveler I appreciate seeing these glimpses of routine because they are completely honest in their simplicity. There is no pomp or pageantry in Con Dao. Life is slow, simple, and tinged with salt.
On my last day in Con Dao I stood in front of the banh mi stand near my homestay for a quick lunch before my flight. A group of fishermen sat at an adjacent table watching me curiously.
“Hey,” they called towards me waving.
I looked over to see one man pouring some homemade liquor into a small shot glass. One of the fishermen lifted the glass in his hand and motioned for me to come over.
I took a seat on the small red stool next to them and they handed me a glass.
“Mot, hai, ba, yo!”
Con Dao quick guide
I planned my trip to Con Dao at the last minute and still got a pretty good deal. Prices don't fluctuate much, so planning ahead isn't too necessary unless you have a lot of special requests or a large party. I booked my round trip flight to and from Saigon for $125 USD. This was by far the most expensive part of my trip to Con Dao. At the airport there were several taxis offering a $20 ride into town, but I hung around for a few more minutes and caught the bus into Con Son for only $4.
I found the Con Son Island Hotel for $19/night on booking.com two nights before I checked in. The hotel was clean with a comfortable bed and spacious bathroom. The only negative was that they lost some of my laundry when I sent it out to be washed, though in exchange the owner discounted my stay and let me the bicycle for free.
As far as nourishment was concerned I found that seafood and fruit are the freshest options in Con Dao. Each morning I would have a coffee and fruit that I bought at the market. For lunch I would go around the corner from the Con Son Hotel and have a banh mi sandwich for $1. I sampled the local restaurants in the evenings — red chair kind of joints — where I could get a smorgasbord of seafood selections and beer all for about $5. All of the restaurants are serving the same things — your guess would be as good as mine to which restaurant is the best in Con Son. There are two upscale options that cater to the Five Senses crowd, but they’re much more expensive.
During the day I made my own fun, riding the bicycle, writing and drawing. I visited Con Dao prison and the Tiger Cages one afternoon for $1 (and I got a free pin!). I made an effort to seek out some sort of diving or snorkeling day trip but everything was closed due to the weather. ‘Dry season’ ranges from November to March in Con Dao.
Overall I spent about $35/day including all meals and lodging. The island is very quiet with no bars or nightlife. Lights were usually out by 21:00 (9 PM).
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