When you think of a South East Asian island getaway your mind most likely transports you to limestone cast mountains in turquoise waters in Thailand, or infinity pools in Indonesia or colour-rich underwater life in the Phillippines. But what if I was to tell you that Vietnam also brings white sandy beaches and turquoise water delights jam packed with an extraordinary history and ‘ngon ngon’ (tasty) seafood dishes. Let me introduce you to two stunning Vietnam islands that you are yet to explore – Phu Quoc and Con Dao.
Phu Quoc Island – Vietnam’s pearl of the Southern Sea
Phu Quoc was to be our party pilgrimage for New Year ringing in a bright and breezy 2016.
Located in the Gulf of Thailand and south of Cambodia’s Koh Rong, Phu Quoc is a sizeable island with lots to offer. With 70% of the island protected by the National Park authority, there are fantastic untouched beaches and forest walks, waterfalls, streams and history to enjoy.
Top things to do on Phu Quoc Island
What you mean aside from purchasing a beer tower from a local BBQ joint and filling it up with your own version of sangria for NYE?
There are loads of places to explore on Phu Quoc island and at about half the size of New York City (and lack of yellow cabs), we found the best way to get around is on a trusty scooter.
Phu Quoc is already in development mode and while we were there we found ourselves hooning around a road that was on the way to being built. Red, dusty, but super fun, the road workers didn’t seem to mind that we were off exploring how far this road could take us. This was truly island exploring ‘off-the-beaten-track’.
As far as attractions you can immerse yourself in learning about the economic staples of the island (pearl-farming, fish sauce and seafood), take up one of the many boat and diving tours, get lost in the forest, visit historically significant sites, or sip coconuts on one of the numerous beaches dotted around the island. Here’s Tripmasher’s top list of things to do:
- Go snorkelling or diving with one of the many tour operators.
- Take a sunset squid fishing tour.
- Enjoy the scenic walks around Phu Quoc National Park.
- Hop on a scooter and explore the lesser travelled northern part of the island beaches like Vung Bau and Dai.
- Get your bling on shopping for pearls at a number of pearl farms south of the city centre.
- Meet the locals at Ham Ninh fishing village.
- Get a boat to the less-developed An Thoi 15-island archipelago including Coconut Island, Echo Island, Yellow Tortoise and Short Gun Island.
- Peg your nose and check out the fish sauce process at Nuoc Mam Hung Thanh distillery.
- Explore the sneezy pepper gardens in the centre of the island.
- Visit Coconut Tree Prison for an overview of the former penal colony.
- Put the pedal to the metal and cut loose on the old abandoned airport runway in the centre of the island. Of course, use your common sense and take normal safety precautions when riding.
Phu Quoc Weather
The best time to go is during Vietnam’s autumn and winter seasons from November to March where the temperatures are a happy 25 – 28°C (77 – 83°F) with blue, sunny skies. This will also be the high season and expect a lot of holiday makers from Europe and Oceania. Best to avoid the monsoon season from July to September.
How to get to Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc has sprung for a new international airport, so it is easy to fly into the island. Vietnam Airlines usually have reasonably priced fares from HCMC. You can also get a land and sea transfer combo from a number of Vietnam hubs including Hanoi (approx US$60), Saigon (approx US$25) or from the Mekong Delta like Can Tho (approx US$22).
To and from Cambodia: There are a few services running to Kep (5.5hrs), Kampot (6hrs), Sihanoukville (8.5hrs) and Phnom Penh (8.5hrs) all priced between $15 – $25 US.
Con Dao Island – A prison-turned-paradise island
Con Dao is described as a “prison-turned-paradise” according to Lonely Planet who also listed Con Dao as one of the world’s best secret islands. Increasingly becoming a top attraction for Vietnam, the former prison settlement is slowly becoming recognised for it’s natural beauty, home to turtle breeding and untouched landscapes from bays to forests.
Mysterious no more, as we take you with us during our 3-day stay on Con Dao during January.
I should point out that the name Con Dao refers to the entire island chain and the largest island is formally known as Con Son, but most write ups use the commonly known name for the island – Con Dao.
The islands are well protected by the Con Dao National Park, with over 80% of the archipelago under this authority. However, more attention needs to be brought to this island to protect funding for rangers trying to tackle the turtle egg poaching industry and further funding for decent waste management systems to keep the island and waterways pristine.
Top things to do on Con Dao Island
While Con Dao is increasing in popularity with western tourists, to date, most visitors are former Viet Cong soldiers who were imprisoned on the island; returning to what I can only imagine is a way of dealing with the horrific experiences they had to endure. During our three days, we took advantage of the scooter rental at Red Hotel and the handy map and info provided by Bar 200. It’s a small island, but you can see loads of things that suit all budgets:
Con Dao backpacking tips
No bucket drink deals here – If you are looking for a party vibe, then Con Dao is not for you. It’s a sleepy town with a few bars and zero nightlife. It really is a place to enjoy what nature has to offer minus the neon flashing lights. You can, of course, buy beers and sit on promenade stone walls looking out over the sea. We enjoyed the bar on Dam Trau beach and cocktails at Infiniti.
Get ready to do some of your best charades – There is very little English spoken on Con Dao. We got by fine and places like Thu Tham restaurant, Bar 200 and Infiniti can all give you ideas of where to go and what to do, whilst also serving great food.
Nom Nom – There isn’t a lot of variety when it comes to food. Expect street food, seafood and a couple of western food options. In saying that every meal was really tasty with their own island flare. The best bet is to go to the market open early and grab a breakfast roll or soup. Lunch at one of the promenade restaurants or on Tran Huy Lieu (street-food street). And take it easy in the evening at one of the above-mentioned haunts with English-speaking hosts.
Get your dong out – We have not used any $US while in Vietnam. Dong (VND) is happily accepted on Con Dao and there are a couple of ATMs in town. Note that things are a little more expensive than on the mainland. Beers for 20,000VND instead of 15,000. Banh Mi and Pork rolls 30,000 instead of 15,000 – 20,000. Accommodation in a double room at Red Hotel US$22. Scooters for 120,000. A decent seafood meal with the works will set you back about 400,000VND per person or a pizza for about 180,000.
Con Dao Weather – The best time to go to enjoy the underwater world is when the seas are calm from March to July. Whilst we were there during the dry season (November to February) the winds can pick up and make your day out on the boat quite choppy. In any case, the sun is shiny and the breeze makes for a nice change when exploring forest or beach trails.
Getting around – You can easily walk around the main town to visit the market, prison, museum and get to the nearest beach. In order to explore further afield, you really would want to ride a scooter or expect a few hills on a bicycle, but doable.
How to get to Con Dao Island
Con Dao has a small airport where you can board a small 40-50 seater plane and fly direct from HCMC. If you book in advance through Vietnam Airlines a return fare should set you back around US$120. There is an infamous boat with a pretty unpredictable timetable, but the 10-12 hour ride can induce all sorts of sea sickness. It is definitely one to explore if you are adventurous and on a budget costing about US$10. Just check the timetables and season to ensure you are not stranded. We chose not to go by boat for both reasons of time, but also sea-sickness. You can check out our post on Honduras which explains all.
Travel to these Vietnam Islands soon
As Vietnam eases its visa requirements – opening the doors to more short-term tourism for Western and Asian travellers – Phu Quoc and Con Dao are firmly set to be a part of a typical route for holiday-makers and backpackers. Its southern location close to Saigon makes it ideal to split up your Northern Vietnam mountain trekking with lazy beach days. More so now as Nha Trang and Mui Ne (unfortunately) become far too frequented by travellers, over developed and littered.
Welcome to two southern Vietnam Islands that now you know loads about. Hope the above gives you a good sense of where to explore next when you find yourself in the hot, humid hotpot of life that is Vietnam.
Like Invol<3r by Sascha brings together DJ excellence and perfect sounds, hope Phu Quoc and Con Dao complete your Vietnam adventure.
Where are some of your favourite beach getaways?