Monday, 28 January 2013

Con Dao Islands - A Taste of Unspoilt Paradise

View from our bungalows
When you know the history of the Con Dao Islands,an archipelago just off the south east of Vietnam, that it was a brutal prison for 114 years, it is hard to reconcile that history with the unspoilt island paradise you are confronted with when you arrive.  The main island of Con Son is a collection of small villages scattered through a jungle alive with wildlife, skirted by miles of sandy golden beaches and coral reef, surrounded by sparkling turquoise seas.  It really is a beautiful place.

Sadly we had to fly to the Con Dao.  Going by boat simply wasn’t an option.  The boat takes 14 hours (when it runs, which it frequently doesn’t), conditions on board are apparently awful, and the crossing at this time of year when there are high winds is supposed to be a bit treacherous.

So after spending an uneventful 3 days in Saigon we headed to the airport where we boarded a twin propeller plane for the 45 minute flight and I mused how travelling in this old plane could possibly be any less treacherous than taking a leaky old boat!

Our little triangular bungalows
It was weird surrendering our rucksacks for the first time on our travels at the check-in counter.  It was even weirder having to worry about all the security measures you have to go through because we are all assumed to have the knowledge and skill (not to mention desire ) to concoct an explosive device from a half empty bottle of mineral water and a chopstick.  Trains are much more straightforward and civilised.  You are even allowed to take proper cutlery on a train.

There were only about 20 people on the flight, the majority of whom seemed destined for the Six Senses Resort that, at £600 plus a night, was just a tad more expensive than our budget could stretch to.  It was a source of amusement to us that these people would ordinarily have splashed out on Business Class, had that option being been available to them (it wasn’t).  Even funnier was the fact that once we were on all board they insisted on moving from their designated seats to seats at the very front of the plane so that presumably they could at least pretend they were in Business Class.  It did make us giggle but it must be apparent by now that we are easily amused.

The plane landing near the aptly named Airport Beach
Despite my trepidations about the aircraft the flight was uneventful although a bit scary for my liking.  As you’re not going far, you don’t get very high, and our pilot (a Peter “Richard De Vere” Bowles lookalike) seemed to think that the airspace was his alone to show off his piloting skills and complete fancy left hand and right hand turns meaning that one minute you were looking straight out at the sky, the next all you could see was sea.  I’m sure he was just doing this for the fun of it and it’s just not the sort of larking about that I particularly like in a plane.   You wouldn’t get that on a train!

And as for the landing, well one minute we’re over the sea and the next minute we look like we’re about to land on a sandy beach,  albeit a very beautiful stretch of sandy beach, but a surface unsuitable for landing a plane nevertheless.  Just as the end of the runway came into sight below us the plane landed with a violent thud and the pilot slammed on the anchors giving everyone a touch of whiplash which was slightly preferably to careering off the other end of the runway over another beautiful sandy beach and landing in the sea beyond.

One of our garden lizards
All credit to Peter Bowles we arrived shaken but a little stirred.

Our bags were first on the carousel within minutes which must have annoyed the posh lot even more.  It is one thing expecting them to share an aircraft with the lower classes (i.e. us), but it’s another thing entirely to stand back and watch as the lower classes (again, us) seemed to get preferential treatment and retrieve our bags as soon as we walked in off the tarmac.  Within 5 minutes we were out of the airport, and in our taxi on our way to our resort before any other luggage had hit the carousel.

We had booked Con Dao Camping for the duration of our stay.  They provide cute little triangular bungalows on the main An Hai Beach just on the western edge of the main town on Con Son Island.  The café attached to the little resort was a bit basic so we usually went to a local café but our little house was lovely, air conditioned and set right on the beach in lovely gardens and, so for our purposes, just perfect.
Con Son Island is only one of the islands in the Con Dao archipelago but the only one open for tourism.  Tourists began visiting regularly just 3 years ago when regular flights started leaving from Saigon and therefore all the resorts and hotels are very new, and at the moment there are not many of them but evidence of huge Russian built resorts are evident.  

One of the beautiful sunsets
Otherwise, at the moment, the islands are quite untouched and we felt lucky we were able to visit this stunningly beautiful place before it becomes too commercial which it undoubtedly will.

Life passes at a very slow pace in the Con Dao.  English is not widely spoken, and in order to deal with the searing midday heat a very long nap is the order of the day at lunchtime.  The whole island promptly falls asleep at noon for at least 3 hours and during this time local people can be seen all over the place snoozing away in their hammocks.  Even the dogs have a kip.

Being an island, it is quite expensive for Vietnam.   And, of course, being relatively undeveloped the downside to this is that there are limited options for eating and activities are also limited.

We ate out twice at two local restaurants (both had English menus).  Thu Ba is a seafood restaurant near the market in the centre of town.  It was relatively expensive (for Vietnam) but the food was absolutely delicious and they had a very cute pet kitten.  The other place was across the road from the resort, slightly cheaper and the dishes here were pretty good too.

Snorkel Trip

Most of the Con Dao Islands and the seas surrounding the archipelago are national park and we had read the diving and snorkeling were supposed to be fantastic so we bit the bullet and booked up an expensive day’s snorkeling with the dive shop (with the catchy name of Dive Dive Dive).  

Paul's windswept look
As the dive shop is a western run outfit it was very well organised and all equipment, including mask, snorkel, wetsuit and flippers, was provided as well as coffee, tea, water and the boat was equipped with life jackets and a first aid kit that wouldn’t have been out of place in a war zone.  It was worth paying a little extra for a decent day out, safe in the knowledge that this Vietnamese boat (unlike all other Vietnamese boats we have had the misfortune to board) was unlikely to sink.

We set off at 9 o’clock in the morning and sailed for about an hour until we stopped at some coral reef around the south western side of the island where it was more sheltered from the wind and therefore visibility would be much better.  We all donned our gear (apparently I looked like an eel) and plopped into the water for a spot of snorkeling.   Two of our party of 9 were scuba divers and they returned to regale us with stories of 4’ fish which started Paul thinking that he might like to have a go.

Paul's Jacques Cousteau look
In the meantime us snorkelers headed off from where the boat was anchored towards the beach and the coral reef.  I had never been snorkeling before (well, not as an adult), and never worn a wetsuit or flippers.  I am usually a strong and confident swimmer but swimming with flippers in coral reef, where the tide is quite strong, and the depth of the water is deceiving was a little disconcerting for me to begin with.  I managed to bob around for about 20 minutes before heading back to the boat, the theme tune to “Jaws” echoing in my head (that film has a lot to answer for!).  But what I saw had been amazing and I was looking forward to the next stop, when I was determined to put sharks out of my head.

Paul on the other hand stayed out for over an hour exploring along the reef and reported seeing schools of brightly coloured fish, big and small, and lots of amazing coral.

Once we were all back on board again, the boat headed off to another site where the boat anchored again and we all jumped in for a second time.  I was able to stay in a little longer this time and was rewarded by seeing lots of amazing, colourful fish, all different shapes and sizes, some fluorescent, some stripy, some thin, and some so flat they disappeared when they changed direction.  My personal favourite were the brilliant turquoise coloured fish about 2 inches long which formed a massive school over a wide area.  You couldn’t miss them.  There were hundreds of them and their colour was just electric.

Stunning scenery from the boat
The coral seemed more colourful in this area too.  The sun was shining through the water highlighting green, pink, and purple coral, as well as the dozens of coral clams varying in colour from deep purple to navy blue.
It really was like swimming through a huge aquarium, floating about above the reef, watching the fish darting about everywhere.  Rather childishly I was a bit disappointed I didn’t see a clown fish (aka Nemo) but I’m convinced I saw a good few of his friends from the film.

It was a fantastic day in perfect weather.  The visibility was great and it certainly gave me a taste for further underwater exploration and Paul now has a desire to go one step further and try scuba diving.

Fishing Trip

We had another day trip, this time arranged by the resort.  Paul desperately wanted to do some fishing so they arranged a boat trip for us.  The language barrier meant that we weren’t sure what we were getting but we decided to go anyway.

A coracle not dissimilar to the one we squeezed into
Our boat arrived early in the morning and we headed over to the harbour to board.  We did stepping stones with boats clambering from one to the other, until we reached the end of the line and realised we were expected to climb into a tiny coracle (one of the little round boats) to reach our boat.

The boat’s skipper beckoned to us to climb aboard.   I should point out that these things are no more than about 4’ across and about 18” off the ground and they are definitely not built for a 6’6” 20 stone Wooky and his not quite so tall and not quite so heavy missus.  But get in we did.  And despite our doubts we made it to the main boat without sinking but it was more than a little unstable. 

And so began another tour organised by the Vietnamese.  This time, our two companions spoke no English and we had no idea what this trip would entail.  Communication was confined to pointing and other useful hand gestures.

Turtle beach, as viewed from the boat
First we headed out for about an hour.  The wind was quite strong and the choppy waves bounced us about and splashed us quite a bit before we stopped in between 2 islands for a spot of line fishing.   The water was quite deep and there were lots of fish about.  I had a lot of nibbles which meant I was pulling my hook up minus the bait but no fish, quite a lot.  It really is a battle of wills and fish are not as stupid as you are led to believe.  They know a hook when they see one even if it is disguised by a tasty piece of squid and they will, more often than not, just nibble away at the squid without getting hooked (most of the time in my case anyway) until you have no bait left .

Paul did however catch 3 fish and I did eventually catch one.  My first ever fish.  I certainly enjoyed the experience although I gather it is frowned upon to talk too much when you fish and that it is one of those pastimes you undertake in companionable silence, if you’re a bloke anyway.

Just hanging
We then headed off around one of the islands and headed towards a beach.  When we were about 30 yards from shore  the coracle was once again placed in the water and we were motioned to get in it.  Again.  We managed to cram into the tiny boat and without capsizing and one of the guys paddled us out to shore. 
I managed to step out of the coracle rather elegantly (for me) but Paul unfortunately timed his escape with the incoming surf and as he stood up, the boat was swept forward from under him and he fell backwards out of the boat and actually did a backwards somersault into the water.  He was absolutely drenched from head to toe (although he managed to save the cigarettes!).  Our man and myself found this whole spectacle rather hilarious once we established there were no broken bones (just a bit of a bruised ego). 

Our little scooters
Once we were turfed out onto the beach (in Paul’s case, quite literally) we followed our man from the boat as he headed down the beach to a shack next door to which were a couple of turtles in an enclosure (which we rightly assumed were rescue turtles).  We weren’t entirely sure what we were doing there.  We watched the turtles for a while, or more to the point, watched them watching us.  They were incredibly curious, following us wherever we went, climbing over each other and generally being very nosy. 

After a bit of turtle watching we then proceeded to stand about like lemons.   After a bit if this we decided to wander off on our own and explore down the beach.

Stopping to admire the view on the coast road
We had no idea what we were doing there.  Our bag (with all our valuables, money and ID) was on the boat with a Vietnamese fisherman we knew nothing about and we really had no idea whether he would see this as an opportunity to supplement his undoubtedly meagre income.  Still, it was a fantastic beach, with fine golden sand, and fringed with coconut palms overlooking an azure sea.  We agreed, that at times like these, you just have to go with it and we put any idea of thieving fishermen out of our minds.

As we wandered back down the beach (Paul was starting to dry off by now) our man joined us and motioned us over to some tracks on the beach which he explained, using sign language that a large turtle (about 3’ wide going by the tracks) had come up from the sea to the beach, made its way to a hollow near the edge of the beach and then returned to the sea using a slightly different route.  You could clearly see the marks in the sand which looked like huge tractor tyre marks.  Unfortunately we were 3 months too early for the turtle egg laying season which starts around May but we got to see the rescue turtles and evidence of this huge one which is better than nothing.

Trying not to get blown away in the gale
We reached the conclusion that a trip to the beach is part of the boat trip, due to its association with Con Dao’s famous turtles.

After another hair raising little jaunt in the coracle we made it back to our fishing boat where we found all our valuables intact.  We then sailed around the headland where we anchored again and Paul went out for a spot of snorkeling, this time without wetsuit and flippers.  The sea was a bit choppy for me so I just watched from the back of the boat but as the waters were crystal clear I could see the coral reef easily from the boat.
Paul clambered back on board after a while, disappointed he hadn’t seen as many fish as we had before but happy with the coral reef and the excellent visibility (and even more of a desire to try scuba diving).  We then headed back to the harbour, the journey home not quite as choppy as the sail out.

One of the beautiful bays from the coast road
All in all, we had a good day.  There was only the two of us and it was lovely being out on the open sea feeling miles away from anywhere and the boat didn't sink which was a serious concern at one point as bounced along the waves.

We hired motorbikes for the last couple of days.   You have to remember that both us hold motorbike licences.  Paul started riding 30 years ago and I passed my direct access on a 500cc bike 7 years ago.  Paul loves getting back on a bike and it was like he was never off one.  Me, on the other hand, I spent the whole time wondering how on earth I had managed to pass my motorbike test in the first place and that it was a terrifying prospect that I am actually legally allowed to ride any motorbike whatsoever.

A monitor lizard
We rode all around Con Son Island on our little 110cc bikes, as far as we could anyway.  The west coast road travels south from the main town and takes you around the south side of the island but the headwinds along this road are fiercely strong.  The views along this road, and the road which travels north towards the airport, are spectacular.   You pass by bay after bay or sparkling blue seas, the ocean just stretching ahead as far as the eye can see.  The air is so clear, the views seem so much more sharply defined.  Riding along these roads at our leisure was breathtaking albeit a touch invigorating in the wind.

We went north to the airport beach where we sat and ate salt and chili fried squid and prawns on the beach – you haven’t seen so much seafood on a plate and it was delicious.

The tiger cages at the prison
We also rode through a couple of smaller villages where we saw various dogs, cats, cows, goats, chickens, pigs and a monitor lizard.  The lizard was quite a distance ahead of us when we stopped to watch it cross the road.  It was over a foot long and it moved like a proper dinosaur, it was amazing to see but as we got closer it disappeared up a coconut palm.  Damn wildlife just doesn’t wait for you to get your camera out (although I got a long distance shot).

Finally, before we left the Con Dao we had to visit the museum and one of the prisons on the island.  We went on our last day and wandered around the museum first.  There was limited information in English but enough for us to get an idea of the history of the islands and their primary function for over a century as a brutal place of incarceration.

Inside the museum
It was first built by the French and mainly housed political prisoners.  By far the most notorious part of its history was the practice of keeping prisoners locked up in the infamous tiger cages.  These were 5’ x 9’ windowless cells open at the top with bars along the top.  Prison guards would walk around walkways along the top, dropping caustic lime onto the prisoners as punishment.  Up to 8 prisoners were kept here in one cell and the conditions were simply appalling and inhumane.  20,000 prisoners died and were buried (mostly in unmarked graves) behind the prison building which houses the tiger cages.

The prison was built in the late 1890s but the tiger cages were not built until 1940.  They were built for purpose just over 70 years ago. 

One more lizard
Many people were incarcerated for their political beliefs during both the time of French rule and then during the Vietnam War.  Some people who went on to become leaders and people of influence spent many years in Con Son Prison.  Many were communists but there were also many who were Buddhists, student protesters or writers.  Many women were incarcerated here and it was reported that twice as many women were incarcerated in the tiger cages than men.

They were kept in appalling conditions where disease was rife, they were barely fed and routinely cruelly punished arbitrarily.

The prison was closed in 1975 at the end of the war although according to Wikipedia it was used to house boat people in the 1980s for a brief period but this is not referred to in the museum.

Paul, contemplating the view
Today, it is recognised that the Con Dao Islands are home to many rare flora and fauna both on land and at sea and much of it is national park.  We felt truly fortunate to visit before it is really discovered as a tourist destination.  We spent a lot of time watching the little lizards in the resort garden, the sand crabs darting about on the beach, and Paul saw a few coconut squirrels (I’ve yet to see one which is irking me somewhat!).

The only downside was the sand fleas.  There are mainly to be found on the beach where we were staying and they are vicious little buggers.  One of the other guests at the resort had dozens of bites which became infected and Paul was also rather unfortunate.  They favoured the right leg which prompted a French lady to label them fascist insects. 

Other than that our visit to the Con Dao felt like a holiday from travelling.  At the end of our 8 days we packed up again and headed to the airport where we were transported back by magic flying train to Saigon.  The return flight was a similar experience to the flight out with the added excitement of skidding on the tarmac and fish tailing as we landed as the pilot seemed to brake rather sharply as an afterthought.  Not something I’d experienced before and you certainly wouldn’t get that on a train!

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