Last updated February 2016 | Words, photos and film by Vietnam Coracle
The Con Dao Archipelago is one of the most beautiful and least developed destinations in Vietnam. There are beaches, forests, mountains, history, mythology, and a quiet town with crumbling French colonial villas on the seafront. And, it’s only a 45 minute flight from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I can’t understand why more foreign travellers don’t visit, especially the younger, more adventurous ‘backpackers’. I assume it’s the extra airfare and lack of cheap beachfront accommodation that keeps budget travellers away. However, it is possible to enjoy these islands on a shoestring. See below for my advice on visiting Con Dao on a budget, or click here to read my full guide to the Con Dao Islands, or watch my video of the islands here.
• 10 Images of the Con Dao Islands:
With the following advice you should be able to stay within a budget of 450-650,000vnđ ($20-$30) a day, per person, including all costs.
Stay at a local guesthouse in the backstreets of Con Son town. These are far cheaper and often better value for money than the seafront resorts, which charge a premium for their location. Con Son is a small town and you’re never far from the sea anyway. I’ve listed some of the best ‘cheapies’ below, but you can also look out for the three ‘magic words’ in Vietnamese for budget beds: nhà nghỉ, nhà trọ, nhà khách. All these words mean ‘guesthouse’ and, because some of the cheapest places to stay don’t have English signage, they are the key to finding inexpensive rooms, not just on the Con Dao Islands, but anywhere in Vietnam. (For more about nhà nghỉ read this)
Don’t travel alone. Some guesthouses have up to 5 beds in a room, and can sleep up to 7 people. These are as close to ‘dormitories’ as you’ll find, so spread the cost of accommodation by traveling in a small group. If you have 3 or more people you could find a room for around 100,000vnđ ($5) or less per person.
The same goes for food. Eat meals ‘family-style’ rather than ordering and eating your own separate dish. Dinner is the most expensive meal because, unlike mainland Vietnam, there isn’t much in the way of street food here. Try the new night market for reasonably priced dining, or wander the backstreets until you find a local eatery – one that doesn’t have an English menu. Failing that, if you’re in a group, you can have a great meal at a restaurant like Thanh Huyền, and still keep the price down to around 100,00vnđ ($5) per person. Con Dao Market is a great place for cheap breakfasts, and, while you’re there, you can stock up on supplies for a picnic to take with you for lunch while exploring the island.
One ‘extra’ expense which, in my opinion, is absolutely necessary is bike rental. Some of the best beaches are out of town, so you’ll need transport to get there. To save money you can rent a bicycle instead of a motorbike. However – although the distances aren’t great – I would recommend renting a motorbike because you’ll be able to see more of the island. You can still keep the cost down by using a manual motorbike instead of an automatic, and by renting from one of the local guesthouses or Dive, Dive, Dive! instead of the resorts. To further reduce the cost, have two people to each motorbike – one driver, one pillion. Also, if you’re going to use the bike for more than one day, try to negotiate a slightly cheaper rate for ‘long term’ rental.
Avoid weekends, if you can, and travel during the week instead. Prices in general on the Con Dao Islands are higher than mainland Vietnam, but on weekends – when domestic tourists arrive from Saigon – they are even higher.
The biggest expense of a trip to Con Dao is, of course, the flight from Saigon. $100-$150 for a return ticket makes quite a hole in your budget, and prices are unlikely to come down as there’s no competition between airlines on this route (yet!). However, you can dramatically reduce the cost of getting to the islands if you take the boat. A small vessel leaves Vung Tau (100km southeast of Saigon) several times each week for the 11 hour overnight voyage. Tickets are around $10 one way, but seas can be rough. Perhaps the best option is to take the boat one way and fly the other – this will almost halve the cost of getting there.
DAILY EXPENSES BREAKDOWN:
Here’s a price breakdown of what I’d expect to pay on an average day on a budget on the Con Dao Islands (all prices are per person):
- Night in a shared room: 100-350,000vnđ ($5-$15)
- Shared motorbike rental: 50-60,000vnđ ($3)
- Breakfast at the market: 20-50,000vnđ ($1-$2)
- Picnic lunch (bought from the market): 30-50,000vnđ ($2)
- Shared dinner at a local eatery: 100-200,000vnđ ($4-$8)
- Extras and ‘luxuries’ such as admissions, gas, alcoholic drinks: 50-100,000vnđ ($3-$5)
Total daily cost: around 450-650,000vnđ ($20-$30)
Note: for more information on any of the accommodations and places to eat listed below, see my full Guide to the Con Dao Islands.
This is a list of some of the cheaper places to stay. All but two are in Con Son town. The first few are on the seafront; the others are a couple of blocks back. There are also a couple of camping options. Most places offer motorbike rental for around 120,000vnđ ($5) a day. For a full list of accommodation on Con Dao Islands click here.
Con Dao Camping – 700-800,000vnđ ($35); 2 Nguyen Duc Thuan; Check Rates & Availability: [MAP] – Despite the name, this place does not offer camping. Hovering between budget and mid-range, the A-frame bungalows here are good value for double occupancy. This is the only reasonably priced accommodation that’s literally on the beach. Rooms are a bit cramped, but you can’t beat the location. Note: the immediate surroundings might appear a little messy until the construction of the new Con Son pier is completed (scheduled to finish sometime in 2016).
Thien Tan Hotel – 400-700,000vnđ ($20-$35); 8 Nguyen Duc Thuan Street; Check Rates & Availability: [MAP] – This budget hotel is very close to the beach. Rooms are a little musty and old, but still represent pretty good value for double occupancy (considering the hotel’s prime location). There’s a range of rooms (and prices) so have a look at a few before deciding. Next door is the similarly named Thien Tan Star Hotel, which offers better rooms (some with sea views) for $10-$20 more.
Phi Yen Hotel – 500-700,000vnđ ($25-$35); 34 Ton Duc Thang Street; Check Rates & Availability: [MAP] – This guesthouse was recently renovated, and, as a result, prices are slightly higher than they used to be. But, the clean and comfortable double rooms for 500,000vnđ ($25) are still good value for two people, especially considering its location right on the seafront promenade.
Thanh Xuan Guesthouse – 300-500,000vnđ ($15-$25); 44 Ton Duc Thang Street; Check Rates & Availability: [MAP] – Just a couple of doors down from Phi Yen Hotel, this guesthouse is a clean, no frills budget place to stay on the seafront promenade. With triple occupancy rooms for 500,000vnđ ($25) and discount rates for long stays, it’s well-suited to small groups. However, rooms appeared to be fully booked months in advance on my last visit. There are also a couple more good, cheap, clean, local guesthouses (nhà nghỉ) next door, including Con Son Island Hotel.
Hai Nga Mini Hotel – 300-700,000vnđ ($15-$35); 7 Tran Phu Street; Tel: 064 363 0308: [MAP] – This is as close as Con Son gets to dorm accommodation. Rooms here are basic but clean. The larger rooms sleep up to 7 people, so they are good value for a group of budget travellers. Staff are very friendly, and the owner speaks four languages, thanks to time spent in Eastern Europe. Prices work like this: 300-350,000vnđ for single/double occupancy, and 80,000vnđ for each extra bed or person after that.
Red Hotel – 350-700,000vnđ ($20-$30); 17 Nguyen An Ninh Street; Check Rates & Availability: [MAP] – Of the handful of mini hotels on this street, this is my pick. Red Hotel has spacious, clean, and colourful rooms. The cheapest (350-450,000vnđ) are great value for double occupancy. The location is right next to the night market and just a couple of blocks from the seafront promenade. Next door are a couple of other good mini hotels, including Hoang Ngoc Hotel.
Trung Hau Hotel – 500,000vnđ ($25); Khu 7 Nguyen Van Linh; Tel: 0918 826 039: Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] –
Excellent new mini hotel in the quiet, shady backstreets. Very calm, clean and relaxed. They rent motorbikes too.
Anh Dao Hotel – 400-700,000vnđ (20-$30); 22 Tran Phu: Tel: 064 363 0170; Check current Rates & Availability: [MAP] – Next door to Hai Nga Mini Hotel, this place is a very clean, very well-run guesthouse with the kind of spotless rooms you get in these types of places all over Vietnam (albeit for $10, not $30!). Its location is back from the ocean in the quiet, shady streets, not far from Con Dao Market. If it doesn’t look like it’s very busy, you should be able to negotiate the price down.
Nhà Nghỉ Sở Rẩy (So Ray Guesthouse) – 350,000vnđ ($17); Huynh Thuc Khang Street; Tel: 0913 829 373 [MAP] – It’s way out of Con Son town, so you’ll need your own wheels, but the rural location of this guesthouse – in amongst fruit trees and hills – makes it a very different option for a night or two. The guesthouse is in the shadow of the So Ray fruit plantation that was started by the French. The construction of the Ma Thien Lanh Bridge through the jungle to the plantation caused hundreds of prisoners to die. It’s possible to trek up to the plantation from the guesthouse. Rooms are decent but a little musty. The guesthouse is on Huynh Thuc Khang Street – it’s on the right hand side about a kilometre after the intersection of Nguyen Van Linh and Hoang Phi Yen streets. This is thoroughly off the beaten path, and no English is spoken.
Other cheap options: on the outer backstreets, behind Con Dao Market, you’ll find more ‘cheapies’. On Le Duan Street [MAP] there’s Quỳnh Anh Hotel and right next door is Tân An Hotel. Also, on Ho Thanh Tong Street [MAP], you’ll find Hai An Hotel and Đăng Khoa Hotel (the latter is run by a lovely older couple who offer free laundry!).
National Park Headquarters; www.condaopark.com [MAP] – If you have a tent you should be allowed to pitch it in the gardens here for a small fee. Camping is also now available on Dam Trau Beach [MAP], in the north of the island, near the airport. Làng Đầm Trầu is just to the right as you enter the beach from the dirt road. This new set up is a budget backpacker paradise, with great seafood, comfy sofas and hammocks, and good two-man tents for around 350,000vnd ($6) a night, or pitch your own tent on the sand for around 100,000vnđ ($4).
EATING & DRINKING:
These are some of the cheaper places for a meal. At the restaurants, remember that the more people sharing the meal, the cheaper it will be – most Vietnamese dishes are intended for ‘family-style’ eating anyway. Another great boon for budget travellers are the new water taps dotted around Con Son town, where you can fill your empty plastic bottles with clean drinking water for free. For a full list of places to eat on the Con Dao Islands click here.
Con Dao Market – 20-40,000vnđ ($1-$2); corner of Vo Thi Sau and Pham Van Dong streets [MAP] – This recently repainted market hides all sorts of delicious breakfast foods. It’s a great place to fill up in the mornings, especially if you’re on a budget. The earlier you get here the better. The market is also a good place to buy ingredients for a picnic to keep you going during the day while exploring the island.
Night Market – 30-100,000vnđ ($2-$5); Intersection of Tran Huy Lieu and Nguyen An Ninh streets [MAP] – Opened just a couple years ago, at the moment there are around a dozen stalls selling food and souvenirs, but perhaps this night market might one day become as popular and lively as the one on Phu Quoc Island. You can find reasonably priced shellfish and beer here, or try one the hotpots (lẩu) which is great value for a group of people. There’s more of a buzz on weekends, but this night market still has a way to go. Watch this space!
Quán Ăn Thanh Huyền – 100-200,000vnđ ($5-$10); Khu 3, Hoang Phi Yen Street [MAP] – My favourite place to eat on the island for food and atmosphere, this place is 5 minutes out of town by motorbike, on the left hand side after crossing the lotus lake. Food here is more expensive than most budget places, but with a small group eating ‘family-style’ you should be able to keep the cost down to 100,000vnđ ($5) per person, and it’s great, authentic local fare.
Nguyet Hy Restaurant – 50-150,000vnđ ($3-$8); 1 Vo Thi Sau Street [MAP] – This place used to be a superb Saigon-style shellfish restaurant, however it has now changed into a BBQ eatery, specializing in Sichuan-style grills – famous for their spiciness. It was empty each time I passed on my last visit, and I didn’t get a chance to try it, but it might be worth a go, especially if you see other diners there.
Infiniti Café – 40-150,000vnđ ($2-$7); corner of Pham Van Dong and Nguyen Van Troi streets [MAP] – This popular cafe (by far the ‘trendiest’ place on the island) serves fruit juices, smoothies, coffee, cocktails and ice cream. It also bakes its own bread (and home-made pizzas!) and offers excellent western-style set breakfasts. Prices are very good value but not budget – the strong cocktails are a great value ‘luxury item’ at 75,000vnđ ($3). This café is also a good place to meet other travellers, especially during the evening.
The intersection of Tran Phu and Pham Hung streets has several street stalls selling noodle soups throughout the day which are decent enough and very cheap (see map). And there is also a new soup and hotpot street eatery on Pham Hung Street, just up from the Phi Yen Hotel, near the seafront promenade. Food is good and it brings in a local crowd: serves breakfasts and dinner (see map).
Con Son Café – 30-100,000vnđ ($2-5) per drink; Ton Duc Thang Street [MAP] – Well, it’s not exactly budget, but it would be a shame to miss out on this fabulously located cafe. In the middle of the seafront promenade, Con Son Café remains the only place (apart from the resorts) for a sundown cocktail in town by the sea. A few tables are set under big trees in front of the old French customs house, but you can also take your drink over the road and sit on the seafront wall. It’s a superb setting and the cocktails are surprisingly strong. However, as Con Dao has grown in popularity, Con Son Café has started playing loud pop music to entertain its (increasingly young and hip) customers from the bright lights of Saigon. However, on my last visit they had at least closed the 3D mini cinema on the premises – the volume of which was so loud that it drowned out the lapping of the waves and the peace of the promenade. Barring the loud music (mostly on weekends), the cafe is still a stunning place to be. Note that this cafe is sometimes closed for long periods during the winter months when strong winds blow in from the sea (November to February).
The Con Dao Islands
The Con Dao Islands
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