First published June 2023 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Tom Divers is the founder and creator of Vietnam Coracle. He’s lived, travelled and worked in Vietnam since 2005. Born in London, he travelled from an early age, visiting over 40 countries (he first visited Vietnam in 1999). Now, whenever he has the opportunity to make a trip, he rarely looks beyond Vietnam’s borders and his trusty motorbike, Stavros. Read more about Tom on the About Page, Vietnam Times and ASE Podcast.
There are 16 islands in the Côn Đảo Archipelago, yet most travellers only visit the main island of Côn Sơn. But the outlying islands are now easier to reach than ever before. Speedboats can be hired from the Côn Đảo National Park office to take visitors to many of the smaller islands, including sights and activities, such as hikes, snorkeling, shrines, remote beaches and swimming. Although relatively expensive, boat trips to the outlying islands are good value for money as they are all-inclusive half-day excursions and the cost is spread between a small group. If you are visiting the Côn Đảo Islands, especially as a family or group of friends, it’s well worth considering taking a boat trip for half a day around some of the smaller islands in this wonderful archipelago.
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CON DAO: OUTLYING ISLANDS
Visiting the Smaller Islands in the Archipelago
This is intended to be a general overview of taking boat trips to the outlying islands in the Côn Đảo Archipelago, rather than a detailed, in-depth guide. The information on this page should provide travellers with enough guidance to start planning and organizing their boat trips once they arrive on the Côn Đảo Islands:
Côn Đảo Archipelago
ORGANIZING BOATS & TICKETS:
Speed boats to the outlying islands cluster on the beach along the seafront of Côn Sơn town, almost directly opposite the National Park Office. Although people might approach you from the boats on the beach, it’s best to go straight to the National Park Office to get information. The latter, which can be easily identified by its green signage and blue walls in the shade of a tree, is where you can make inquiries and organize your boat trip. It is usually open between 8am until 6pm, but often closes for lunch. Inside the office, there are displays of the outlying islands, including maps, information boards, photographs and a long price list. Unfortunately, the presentations, including the dull folding map of the archipelago, are rather uninspiring and in desperate need of an update: a tourist map of the Côn Đảo Islands like the one that is produced for Phú Quốc Island would be fantastic, and it surely won’t be long before one is available. Staff are generally helpful and enough English is spoken for foreign travellers to get the information they are looking for.
Spend a while in the National Park Office discussing prices, itineraries and times with the staff in order to familiarize yourself with what’s available before committing to a boat trip. Remember that prices are per boat, not per passenger. Boat trips are intended for groups – small or large – and the cost is spread between everyone. If you’re a solo traveller, you can ask to join a group and pay your share, or try to rustle up a few companions to join you. For families or groups of friends, you don’t need to join another group: you can have the boat all to yourselves. As an example, I took a half-day boat trip with my family – just three of us – and the total cost was 3 million VND ($130). In other words, 1 million VND per person. After the trip, we all agreed that this was good value for money. (Note that all passengers need to show their passports when booking a boat trip.)
ISLANDS & ITINERARIES:
Apart from the main island of Côn Sơn, there are 15 other islands in the Côn Đảo Archipelago, of which at least half a dozen can be visited on boat trips. However, most itineraries focus on two of the biggest islands, Bảy Cạnh and Hòn Cau, both of which are due east of the main island. In general, a trip to both these islands takes a few hours, including stops and activities. Most Vietnamese tourists leave in the morning and return at lunchtime. But it depends on the tide. In our case, we left at noon and returned at 5pm, because that coincided with high tide which was better for snorkeling and accessing the beaches on the islands. During the high-season (April-August), the morning boat trips are very popular, so if you prefer not to be arriving on remote beaches at the same time as dozens of other boats, it might be worth choosing a noon departure instead. Unless, of course, weather, sea conditions and tides aren’t favourable.
After arranging and booking your boat trip through the National Park Office, arrive at the Sea Boundary Gate (Khu Vực Biên Giới Biển) to meet your guide and boat driver at the agreed time of departure. The speedboats gather on the beach and are boarded from the rear by short metal ladders. Soft seats are beneath a sun canopy and life jackets are compulsory while at sea. The boats are powered by big Yamaha outboard motors and they go very fast indeed. If the sea is even remotely rough, make sure you hang on to something and keep your valuables safe, otherwise they might blow away.
It only takes 15-20 minutes to reach Bảy Cạnh and Hòn Cau islands. Because they are quite big islands, there are several options for stopping and activities. We chose to moor at a pebble beach on the eastern shore of Bảy Cạnh and hike up to the old French colonial-era lighthouse. The hike takes around 30 minutes on a very steep, paved pathway through the jungle. The lighthouse itself isn’t very impressive, but the views are good and the hike is satisfying. This part of the island has a remote and rugged feel. Later in the day, we sailed back to a sheltered inlet on Bảy Cạnh’s northern shore where there’s a reef with some good coral. The boat stopped and we jumped off to swim and snorkel (snorkeling equipment is provided for passengers.)
Hòn Cau is further east from Bảy Cạnh and much smaller. Interestingly, apart from Côn Sơn, this is the only other island in the archipelago to have a natural source of fresh water. Hòn Cau has a good, broad, white-coral beach on its southern shore. Here, the speedboats anchor and passengers can spend time swimming, snorkeling, eating and drinking in the cafes and swinging in hammocks. When we visited it looked as though there would be overnight accommodation available in small chalets near the beach very soon. Hòn Cau is a good place to have a picnic and relax for an hour or so, before heading back to Côn Sơn Island. (There are showers available on the beach for a small fee.)
FOOD & DRINK:
It’s a good idea to take a picnic with you on the boat trip. (Plenty of drinking water is provided for free on the boats, so you don’t need your own supply.) For picnic food you could buy some bánh mì (baguettes) in Côn Sơn town or some snacks in Côn Sơn fresh market (Chợ Côn Đảo), or something from the regular shops and Takai Supermarket in town. However, there is also some food and drink available on the outlying islands themselves. On the small island of Hòn Cau, for example, there’s an attractive beachside cafe and restaurant where you can get decent coffee, juices, food and even homemade coconut liquor.
*Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free and independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I enjoy boat trips to Con Dao’s outlying islands and I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page