The Côn Ðảo Island Archipelago, Southern Vietnam

Côn Ðảo is a Vietnamese island group in the South China Sea (Biển Đông) in Vietnam. There are 16 islands including various islets in the Côn Ðảo Archipelago of which the largest island is known as Côn Sơn. The island can be reached by boat or plane and is located 234km south of Ho Chi Minh International Airport. A flight from Ho Chi Minh City to Côn Sơn takes approximately one hour. Most permanent inhabitants of the islands are either fishermen or farmers.

Côn Sơn is the location of a former prison complex constructed in the late 1800s by the French colonisers who used it as a brutal labour camp and political prison. The island was subsequently used by the US-backed Saigon government during the 1960s until the end of the Vietnam-American war. The prisons include the infamous “Tiger Cages” where some of Vietnam's current leaders were held captive until the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. A national cemetery situated near the various old prison camps include grave sites of 2,000 former prisoners.

Côn Sơn town centre has a small historical district close to the old French prison complex. Amongst the remaining buildings include the former headquarters and residence of the French governors. Constructed in 1873 the building has remained unchanged for 137 years and is the oldest surviving building on the island. It now houses the Côn Ðảo Museum. There are a number of other culturally significant sites close by, including Pier 914 - the name refers to the number of prisoners who died while construction the pier. Various prison buildings remain on the island and can be visited by guided tours or on one's own accord. Today, none of the prisons are in use and most of Côn Sơn, its surrounding marine area, islands and islets have been declared a national nature reserve. Additionally, the Vietnamese authorities have recently applied for the location to be recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Pier 914 at the town centre of Côn Sơn Island was named after the number of prisoners who died during its construction.

Côn Sơn is considered a top travel destination amongst Vietnamese honeymoon couples, scuba divers and nature lovers alike, including a growing number of international holidaymakers. The marine park is reputed for its rich ecological biodiversity, including endangered green sea turtles and dugongs as well as the highest collection of giant clams in the world. The island's forests are equally noteworthy, including nearly 300 types of trees, of which 44 are found nowhere else in Vietnam.

Traditional Vietnamese fishing trawlers
The Côn Ðảo islands have remain relatively undisturbed until recently, mainly due to the historical use of the main island as a prison location, the distance from the Vietnamese mainland, and their mountainous interiors with impenetrable thick forests. Researchers have discovered a diverse range of mammals throughout the archipelago, including deer mice, the rare black squirrel, macaque monkeys, the giant water monitor lizard, butterfly and parrot fish. Seasonal migrations of dolphins and “black whales” (Prodelphinus malayensis) have also been observed in coastal waters. Still today, the islands remain far from a mass tourism destination. Perhaps most visitors are Vietnamese war veterans who arrive in groups and receive a warm reception by the local authorities for their past achievements.

Dong Bac Bay on Côn Sơn Island / photo by Thao Le

In 2008 a Vietnamese investment group, Indochina Capital, began constructing luxury residential villas and a resort along the beach stretch at Dong Bac Bay on the main island with the aim to attract property buyers and 5-star tourism to Côn Ðảo. The resort is managed by Six Senses and is due to open in December 2010.

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