Vietnam is book-ended to the south by the admirably unspoilt Con Dao Archipelago, a confetti-like spray of sixteen emerald-green islands, cast adrift in the South China Sea some 185km south of Vung Tau. The sleepy nature of the archipelago belies some tumultuous history – under French occupation, Con Dao was home to the most feared prison in the country, and haunting remnants of that time are still visible. However, more come here to get away from such negative thoughts, and since regular flights began early this century, the archipelago has taken its first steps to welcoming tourists.
Con Son island, the largest in the group, is a laidback get-away with some striking colonial buildings, alluring beaches and challenging treks in the rugged hills of the national park. Trekking in the national park, diving off the surrounding islands, watching sea turtles laying eggs and lounging on the uncrowded beaches are some of the alternative activities.
The British East India Company established a fortified outpost on Con Son in 1703. Had this flourished, the island may by now have been a more diminutive Hong Kong or Singapore, given its strategic position on the route to China. But within three years, the Bugis mercenaries (from Sulawesi) drafted in to construct and garrison the base had murdered their British commanders, putting paid to this early experiment in colonization. Known then as Poulo Condore, Con Son was still treading water when the American sailor John White spied its “lofty summits” a little over a century later, in 1819. White deemed it a decent natural harbour, though blighted by “noxious reptiles, and affording no good fresh water”.
The island finally found its calling when decades later the French chose it as the site of a penal colony for anti-colonial activists. Con Son’s savage regime soon earned it the nickname “Devil’s Island”. Prisoners languished in squalid pits called “tiger cages”, which featured metal grilles instead of roofs, from which guards sprinkled powdered lime and dirty water on the inmates. As the twentieth century progressed the colony developed into a sort of unofficial “revolutionary university”. Older hands instructed their greener cell-mates in the finer points of Marxist-Leninist theory, while the dire conditions they endured helped reinforce the lessons.