Once a prison for Vietnamese patriots during French domination, Con Dao National Park is now a top tourist destination.
When most Vietnamese think of Con Dao Island, they think of prison. And for some 100 years that is what it was, but now people are beginning to recognise island as something very different: a hot-spot for eco-tourism.
Formerly known as Con Son or Con Lon, the National Assembly renamed the island Con Dao in 1977. It is the largest of 16 islands in the archipelago in Southern Viet Nam, and spans 51.52sq.km with 6,000 residents, rich forests, mountains and beaches. 19,990ha of the island are forest and include virgin and sea forests, favourite areas for eco-tourists.
The journey to the island is no simple matter and takes 12 hours by ship from Vung Tau City in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, which is 97 nautical miles south-east. Only Co Ong Airport flies to the island, using a 70-passenger ATR-72 and adjusts flight schedules based on demand and climate.
The island resembles a bear turning its back on the mainland and has thus far made most of its revenue through tourism. Of over VND75 billion (US$4.7million) in revenue, VND14 billion come ($870,000) from tourism.
“The island received full support from the Government’s project on eco-tourism and historical relics last year. The Ben Dam Port, which is 11m deep, makes it ideal for becoming a major fishing centre along the southern coast,” said District People’s Committee vice chairman Bui Van Binh.
“We expect to expand the airport by lengthening the runway to the sea, thereby allowing bigger air planes in. But the project still requires large investments and time,” he added.
Specifically, eco-tourism services like trekking through the primitive forest, scuba diving and staying overnight on the rescue and release turtle centre have been drawing visitors.
Con Dao National Park is one of the country’s six areas with concentrated bio-diversity in both sea and land, possessing thousands of types of flora and fauna. Black and brown squirrels, birds and endangered, endemic animals such as sea cows (Dugong), green turtles and hawk’s bill turtles abound.
This unspoiled environment and the well-protected forests helped the park attract around 3,000 visitors over the last year, a third of whom were foreign.
“We are proud of the environment and security on Con Dao over the years. The islands are the first site in Viet Nam involved in rescuing and releasing turtles. We release around 60,000 turtles every year during the reproduction period,” explained vice director of Con Dao National Park Tran Dinh Hue.
“Turtles appearing and reproducing on the islands is a signal of a well-protected environment because the animal is highly sensitive the water where it lives and breeds,” Hue added.
During night stays on Bay Canh Islet once can watch green turtles give birth and release their young into the sea. A hatchery centre also exits where turtles are then released by the park staff and mother turtles are tagged.
National park researchers are presently watching between eight and 12 sea cows living among the islands. Hue explained that sea grass growing abundantly around the islands is the main food of the endangered animals.
During the French colonial in the 18th century, this now eco-tourist site was known as the great prison for Vietnamese patriots.
French and Americans built Con Dao with 127 detention rooms, 42 cells and 504 tiger cages, spanning 151,334sq.m.
The former prison has been restored as an historical site for visitors interested in tracing the history of Vietnamese revolutionaries. Last year, over 17,000 people came to the area, and over 18,000 more are expected this year.
Combined with the areas natural wonders, many investors have also begun recognising the area as ideal for tourism.
“Twenty investors came to the islands to survey them as tourist sites during 2006-07 alone. However, transport is still a handicap for them,” said the district’s Deputy Head of the Tourism Board Nguyen Xuan Dung.
“The island has accommodations of around 147 rooms and the figure will increase in the next few years. A four-star hotel with an investment of VND80 billion ($5 million) will be built by Sai Gon Tourist, and another international $23 million resort Dat Doc is under construction by Con Dao Resort Limited Company.”
Currently, the island is trying to overcome transport difficulties with two vessels carrying 500 passengers from Vung Tau City three times a week.
Although ATR-72 air planes arrive once weekly, flights are sometimes cancelled due to weather between September and April or seats remain empty during this off season.
But some are avoiding the problem of transport all together. Tran Thi My Tam, a woman born in Vung Tau City, has settled on the island and has been living there for the past two years.
The 27-year-old now works at the national park and said she liked living there very much.
“I graduated from a college in HCM City and volunteered to work on the island. I think Con Dao has great potential in the future given its peaceful environment,” Tam said.
“I have an easy time here and have devoted my life to the island,” she says.