The Con Dao islands have an utterly unhurried ambience, says Iain Stewart in The Telegraph. This cluster of islets in the South China Sea, 155 miles from Ho Chi Minh City, were “once hell on earth to thousands of prisoners incarcerated by French colonists and the American military,” but today are “blissfully tranquil” with “ravishing sandy bays, rainforests and healthy coral reefs.”
You’re likely to experience “two sides” to the islands, writes Vietnam Coracle -- “one day spent swimming in the clear sea, walking upon white sand beaches, driving along deserted coast roads, and drinking cocktails on the seafront promenade; another spent visiting the prisons, learning about former inmates -- many of whom are celebrated national heroes -- and witnessing remnants of their forced labour, which caused hundreds of prisoners to die … the former is the future of the Con Dao Islands as a tropical paradise … the latter is its past as a penal colony, set up by the French colonial administration.” Known as Southeast Asia's Devil's Island, it’s where the French “worked 914 men to death building the island’s jetty, while Vietnam War prisoners were kept in infamous ‘tiger cages’, where captives -- actual or suspected Communists -- were shackled to the floor of deep concrete pits with steel bars for a roof,” explains Tom Westbrook at the BBC.
“Prepare to be dazzled,” advise Travelfish. “The isolated archipelago is comprised of 16 islands and islets: rugged mountainous masses of rock covered in dense forest, fringed by coral reef and drowning in sublimely turquoise-azure sea.” Con Dao’s beaches are “some of the most spectacular and unspoilt in the region,” observes Claire Slobodian at Time Out. Bai An Hai, the easiest public beach to reach, “feels wild and untamed,” and even it doesn’t have “postcard-worthy immaculate white sands” you’ll probably have “the rugged strip of coast to yourself most of the time and are more likely to pass trawlermen heading out to sea than fellow tourists.” After an hour's snorkelling, “exploring the kaleidoscopic coral teeming with macro life and spending five minutes swimming eye-to-eye with a hawksbill turtle, I retreated to the plastic chairs in the bay's seafood shack, picked a victim from the live fish tank and gorged on crab with tamarind and chilli,” complains Iain Stewart in The Telegraph.