And the time has come to say goodbye to Con Dao…But I will be back!
In the meanwhile, here are the latest photos from this beautiful island.
Lan Anh is 10 years old and her bicycle is too big for her.
Lan Anh has big brown eyes and a very cute smile. In her blue school uniform, she shouted “Hello!” to me as I rode my mountain bike past her. I smiled and asked her “What’s your name?”. She looked confused. “Me: Chiara. You?” I attempted. “Lan Anh!” she replied enthusiastically. “How are you?” I asked. “I am 10” she told me. Mmmm this is going to be a difficult conversation, I thought.
But Lan Anh wanted to talk and appeared very determined to try and use her limited English with me. It wasn’t easy for her, the effort was visible on her face. She would look at me and then away, frowning, every muscle tensed while she was concentrating. I could feel how hard she was trying.
I asked her if she was going home to eat – sign and body language at hand this time – and she nodded. We kept cycling next to each other for a few minutes along the main road in Con Son town, then I turned to her and said “Bye Lan Anh, I am off”, and sped up. She pushed faster trying to catch up with me, while seemingly looking for something in her bag.
When she reached me, she handed me something: a little heart made of motherpearl shell! My heart melted.
“Thank you Lan Anh”. “You are welcome”. And then she left.
There was only one road exiting Con Son town and I kept cycling a couple of hundred metres behind her, until she stopped again. When I caught up she had her English textbook open and was quickly flicking through the pages. Then she paused, looked at some pictures and asked me “Is you housewife?”. I giggled then tried to find a picture that could describe my job – the only options were pupil, teacher, housewife and policeman. No good. So I told her that I am a tourist, I am on holiday. She looked puzzled again.
In my pocket I had a small colourful bracelet that I had got in Saigon, so I pulled it out and gave it to her. She said thank you with the most beautiful smile!
We cycled next to each other for another few minutes then when the road split she turned left, looked at me once more and shouted “See you again!”.
Yes, see you again, my lovely Lan Anh.
“Pass me that torch, quick, there is something here!”.
It’s pitch black around, apart from our head torches flashing in the darkness. It’s 7pm and I am walking in the Con Dao National Park forest with a group of Vietnamese school kids, their teacher, a couple of parents, and the guys from Senses Diving Con Dao, a local diving school.
How did I get here?!
A few days ago I was chatting to Max, one of the owners of Senses Diving Con Dao, as I wanted to learn more about the island, and he told me about Biodiversity PEEK.
The Biodiversity PEEK (Photography Educating & Empowering Kids) educational program is run by the Biodiversity Group and it teaches children about their own environment. In Con Dao the program runs over two months at a time and it involves around six children from a local school per group. Weekly activities – usually run on a Sunday – range from trekking, to snorkeling, diving, clean up days, and are all aimed at teaching the kids about the wildlife on their own doorstep and what impact (good or bad) we have on the environment.
There was no need to ask me if I wanted to get involved in the night trek with the kids: I was already putting my hand up for that!
And so we went.
The trek led us into the forest and up the hill, and it was great to see the enthusiasm from the kids! No leaves were left unturned (in the real sense) and every finding was reported to the group with loud cheers. We mainly saw lizards, geckos, and spiders, and heard noises from bats and monkeys in the bush.
Kids had also been given digital cameras to document and report back what they had found.
The day after the trek they gathered at the bar run by Senses Diving for the second part of the activity: uploading the photos to a website that will assist them with identification of the species found.
This is all part of increasing the kids’ awareness about their environment, which is of crucial importance. Even more so on an island like Con Dao, which is deemed as globally significant because of its marine life, terrestrial habitat and location. Read more about Con Dao biodiversity here.
I feel very privileged to have taken part in one of the Biodiversity PEEK activities in Con Dao! All tourists are welcome to join in, so please pop by if you are in town and ask the guys at Senses Diving Con Dao how you can get involved!
For an active person like me, beach life doesn’t always cut it. So this morning I rented a mountain bike and headed off to Ben Dam fishing port, a 12 Km ride from Con Son Town, up and down a hill.
The scenery was absolutely fantastic: white sand beaches, blue sea, mountains in the background! Ben Dam fishing port appeared very active (it was 9:15am when I got there), with lots of boats coming and going.
The ride back was a killer, first gear most of the time and the scorching tropical sun above my head. But it was definitely a ride worth all the sweat and effort!
This is going to be a sad post.
If you want a happy and cheerful one, you will not find it here.
If you want to learn more about the brutal and inhumane past of Con Dao, keep on reading,
During 113 years (1862-1975) Con Dao became the biggest and most brutal prison with the longest time of existence in Indochina. The most barbaric torture and custody took place here, especially in the so called “Tiger Cages”. Many kinds of savage torture and punishment were used, comparable to what happened in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Thousands of Vietnamese died here.
A visit to the Tiger Cages (there are French and American ones) is a spine chilling experience. Even more so when you are the only tourist in the entire complex. Dark prison cells, cages bars instead of ceilings, lifelike models that show how inhumanely prisoners were treated, eerie silence around you except for creaky metallic doors.
The new Con Dao museum, just before the French Tiger Cages, is a must visit for those who want to learn more about the island’s past (not much is recorded on the usual travel guidebooks, and online information is quite fragmented). Well arranged displays and detailed descriptions in English cover the history of Con Dao from its first discovery to the liberation in 1975, and now, with a main focus on the brutality of what happened in prisons and cages.
Remembrance is quite strong and you will always find Vietnamese people paying tribute to those who died in Con Dao. The revolutionary heroine Vu Thi Sau is still celebrated every night at the local cemetery.
As a note at the museum states: “This is the place for generations of
Vietnamese to follow, to learn, to imitate, to care and to preserve” [sic].
So if you visit Con Dao, don’t forget to look beyond the natural beauty of this island and learn about its past!
Pier 914 in Con Son Town, Con Dao, takes its name from the estimated number of prisoners who died during its construction. Another reminder of the sad history of this island.
This is where my friendship with Jo and Gez started. All thanks to a freshly caught mackerel and a Vietnamese phrasebook.
We somehow managed to have the mackerel delivered to a local restaurant, where it was then cooked in three different ways. The evening also involved riding a motorbike in three, in true Vietnamese style.
“Meet me at the pier after sunset” has become the refrain at the end of our evenings.
At the pier we sit with a couple of drinks and listen to the sound of the waves breaking against the rocks. There is no one else there. Only a fisherman or two when it gets crowded. Darkness surrounds us. It is very quiet.
Tonight Jo and Gez did not meet me at the pier. I waited and waited but they never arrived.
Maybe they were tired, maybe they wanted time to themselves.
I will go back to Pier 914 tomorrow after sunset.
Maybe I will see my friends again.
“Cabin crew, prepare for landing”.
What?! We’ve only just taken off! Not long before reaching its cruising altitude, the 68-seater ATR42 starts its descent towards Con Dao airport. As we land, I notice that the runway is by an amazing beach. Not a bad start, I think.
The Con Dao archipelago, still unspoilt and made of sixteen islands, can be reached by a 14-hour boat ride from Vung Tau or a 45-minute flight from Saigon. What would be your travel choice?
Con Son, the main island, is the only inhabited one and used to be a penal colony during the French occupation. Nowadays it is a very quiet place with amazing scenery, lush tropical forests, and beautiful beaches. Tourist facilities are still limited but this adds to the island’s appeal. Very little English is spoken here, making it challenging at times, yet people are very friendly and always willing to help.
I am about to discover more about Con Dao, so stay tuned!