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The coast is clear

14/03/2014
An Hai Beach, Con Son Island. © Provided by The Age An Hai Beach, Con Son Island.

Tranquility now reigns on islands that were once hell on earth for thousands of prisoners, writes Iain Stewart.

With most of its 90 million people living along a narrow coastal strip, it is all too easy to experience a densely populated country such as Vietnam through a blur of exhaust fumes, struggling along Highway 1 and stopping at the most popular towns and cities along the way.

There is a lot to take in, so you would do well to spend time away from the mainland, on one of the country's beautiful islands that are fast attracting visitors.

Off the central coast, the Cham Islands are a great day trip from historic Hoi An, while in the deep south, Phu Quoc is developing, but has a lush interior and unspoilt beaches. For the ultimate escape, however, my pick would be remote Con Dao, with a fascinating history and empty beaches.

CON DAO

The Con Dao Islands have an utterly unhurried ambience.

"There are two traffic lights, but no work," the bike rental guy said apologetically as he gave me the island rundown. "One gas station, but closed for lunch. Only one road, so you no get lost. Right to airport or left to prisons and port."

Moped key in hand, I was relishing the chance to get out and explore some empty roads in search of a perfect beach for the day. I had spent the previous week embracing Vietnamese city culture and its furious energy and commerce, but was now in need of some serious hammock time.

A cluster of 16 islets in the South China Sea, the Con Dao Islands are 250 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City. Only the main island, Con Son, is inhabited (its population is just 6000), although the other islands can be visited.

Once hell on earth for thousands of prisoners incarcerated by the French colonists and American military, today the Con Daos are blissfully tranquil. With their ravishing sandy bays, rainforests and healthy coral reefs, their tropical appeal is easy to grasp.

Flight connections used to be atrocious, but Vietnam Airlines now offers three daily flights from Ho Chi Minh City.

The rental guy had lied about the one road. Easily sidetracked, I chanced upon a rough track close to the airport, and was rewarded royally in the form of Dam Trau Beach, a sublime crescent moon of pale sand, bookended by forest-topped rocky promontories.

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. The only other diners were a group from Hanoi, employees of a state-owned bank.

Vietnam is a country steeped in revolutionary rhetoric, and Vo Thi Sau, a teenage resistance fighter executed in Con Dao during the French occupation, fits the bill. She killed a captain in a grenade attack at the age of 14, and was not captured until years later.

The bank staff were here to pay their respects to her and to the thousands of others who lost their lives in Con Dao's 11 prisons.

Ghosts are everywhere in Con Dao, nowhere more so than at Phu Hai jail. Built in 1862, it once housed 20,000 prisoners - political and criminal inmates chained together naked in rows.

The really troublesome individuals were kept in "tiger cages", with six to 10 men crammed into a tiny open-roofed enclosure, beaten with sticks from above and dusted with lime and water, which burns the skin.

Unbeknown to the world, the Americans continued operating these tiger cages until 1970, when a Life magazine report broke news of their existence, provoking an international outcry.

It had been a chastening day, the brutality of the prison contrasting acutely with the beauty of my surroundings. As I strolled along the seafront promenade in Con Son town, it was easy to marvel at the gentility of this pocket-sized island capital, its litter-free streets, French-era villas, well-kept municipal buildings and air of calm and prosperity.

Con Son town has a dozen or so hotels and guesthouses, but the Six Senses resort, a short ride away to the north, is in a class of its own. Occupying the island's best beach, it comprises 50 or so ocean-front timber-clad beach villas.

The next day, I dropped by the National Park offices just outside Con Son town. The islands' ecosystems are unique, with 11 trees found nowhere else. It is thought that a dozen or so dugong, or sea cows, remain in the waters around Con Dao, although they are very elusive.

You have a much better chance of seeing sea turtles, as the islands are Vietnam's most important nesting ground. The World Wide Fund for Nature has supported conservation efforts to protect the green turtle, and national park rangers run night-time boat trips to neighbouring Bay Canh Island. The main turtle-nesting season is from May to November.

I had already been lucky enough to snorkel with a turtle, so I chose a hike with a ranger instead. Following a slippery but well-marked trail, we entered the ever-dripping island rainforest, inching up a mountainside past giant creepers, roots and shoots, picking our way over colossal hardwood buttresses up to the long-abandoned So Ray Plantation, established by the French but now occupied by a sociable troop of long-tailed macaques, thriving amid the fruit trees planted decades earlier.

On my last day, I hired a Honda again for a ride south. Bicycles are also available for rent from hotels and taxis can be booked, although they are quite pricey. I hugged the coastline, buzzing past coves and beaches, the lonely road lined with wild bougainvillea and the curious aerial-rooted pandan tree.

Towering granite cliffs cascaded down to a turquoise sea as I rounded Ca Map point, before rolling into Ben Dam, a port preoccupied with the gritty business of Vietnamese life.

Here, sailors sell giant durian fruit from boats and their decks are crisscrossed with clotheslines pegged with drying seaweed, fluttering in the ocean breeze.

I ordered a treacle-thick Vietnamese coffee from a cafe to fix me up for the return leg and paused to watch ruddy-cheeked, beer-happy men paddle from the shore in bizarre, coracle-like contraptions back to their fishing boats moored in the bay.

My final stop was Hang Duong Cemetery. In the windy season, bones lie exposed in the sun when the sandy topsoil is blown away, but today there was just a gentle breeze, on which drifted the smell of incense.

Following the scent through the flowering scrubs and trees, I was guided to a specific grave, one of thousands. There, I found the group of bank workers again, heads bowed, at the tomb of Vo Thi Sau as prayers were offered and thanks given to a national heroine.

I found myself contemplating the nature of the modern Vietnamese nation: the long struggle for independence and years of suffering, today's breakneck pace of development, the economic successes and the inevitable growing pains. Here, in Con Dao, I enjoyed the silence.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Vietnam Airlines has a fare to Con Dao airport for about $1009 low season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including taxes. Fly to Ho Chi Minh City (about 9 hours) and then to Con Dao (1 hour); see vietnamairlines.com, phone 1300 888 028. A night in Ho Chi Minh en route to Con Dao is at your own expense. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 30 days.

STAYING THERE

Villas at Six Senses, starts at $US670 ($740) a night. Sixsenses.com.

MORE INFORMATION

vietnamtourism.com.

Vietnam island

Vietnam island
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