First published June 2022 | Words and photos by Patrick Scott
Patrick Scott is a contributing writer for Vietnam Coracle. He’s a travel writer & former New York Times editor. Before venturing to Southeast Asia in 2018, he was based for two years each in New York, London & Cairo. His travel stories have appeared in publications including The New York Times, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, ESPN & Outdoor Swimmer. As well as writing, he is a teacher & a swimmer….read more about Patrick
Rimmed by forested hills and dramatic cliffs, Đầm Tre Bay is one of Vietnam’s most pristine, remote and utterly magical swimming holes. The cerulean bay is part of the national park on the northeast corner of Côn Sơn Island, the centerpiece of the Côn Đảo Archipelago, about 100 miles off the southeast edge of Vietnam. The island has no shortage of fantastic sandy and rocky coves for launching into the sea for a swim, but Đầm Tre Bay is special. It has an abundance and diversity of coral that is extraordinary for Vietnam, and swimming while the high and low tides are filling and draining the bay is like hopping on an amusement ride. The bay offers snorkeling and stand-up paddle boards, too. The journey to the bay – a hike over boulders skirting the shore and up a grassy cape with spectacular coastal views – is marvellous.
GUIDE: DAM TRE BAY
Hiking & Swimming at the Northeast Tip of Côn Sơn Island
The ideal time to visit is April to September. The rest of the year can bring strong winds and volatile seas and suspend ferry service for weeks. Đầm Tre Bay is one of the more rugged and difficult to access parts of Côn Sơn Island. But the rewards for making the effort to get there are well worth it. Click from the contents below to read more about Đầm Tre Bay:
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Đầm Tre Bay: Côn Sơn Island | Côn Đảo Archipelago
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At the remote, wind-swept and wave-lashed northern tip of Côn Sơn Island, a slab of rugged land arches east into the sea, creating a protected circular lagoon of turquoise water where coral and fish flourish and visitors rarely venture. Đầm Tre Bay is perhaps the Côn Đảo Archipelago’s best-kept secret. It has remained undeveloped and in its glorious natural state precisely because it’s hard to get to. Travellers can get here by boat, but the most rewarding way is a 90-minute to 2-hour hike across the vast Bãi Biển Đông beach to a trailhead that takes you on a winding climb through dense forest to a spartan ranger station and this aquatic wonderland (see The Hike for details).
Côn Đảo is one of my favorite destinations in Vietnam, an exceptionally beautiful and haunting island where two of the biggest attractions are a cemetery and prisons. The French and then the Americans ran the island as a penal colony, and now several of the prisons are museums, and Hàng Dương Cemetery is a national monument to thousands of martyred revolutionaries. Most visitors come on pilgrimages to the gravesites and temples. But more are arriving as holidaymakers, drawn to the aquamarine water, lush mountains, French colonial architecture and rapidly-multiplying homestays, hotels and seafood restaurants. Extensive tourism development is underway, with large tracts being carved out across this once-overlooked island. It’s only a matter of time before a resort looms over Đầm Tre Bay. All that’s there now, however, is a shabby ranger station and a couple bamboo shacks on a hillside. Take advantage of the unspoiled landscape and seascape while you can, because change is inevitable.
*Swimming Safety: Although swimming in Đầm Tre Bay is wonderful, please be careful. The tide can be extremely fast and the current strong. If you choose to swim, do so with care, diligence and respect for the risks involved. Do not swim here unless you are a strong swimmer. There is no lifeguard, so you swim at your own risk. I’d advise bringing water shoes and don’t try to swim across the bay when the tide is coming in.
My first visit to Đầm Tre Bay was in January, when it was sunny but still windy and the water was around 20°C. I arrived near low tide at noon, which had allowed me to walk for about a half hour along Bãi Biển Đông beach to the trailhead to the bay, before the incoming sea covered the sand. During low tide at the bay, it’s tricky to get into the water. There is no sandy beach near the ranger station; the shore around that side of the bay is blanketed by rocks that range in size from sea cows to watermelons to marbles. So I hiked about a half hour counterclockwise from the station to a spit of sand in a little cove and stepped on gravelly sand into the clear shallow water. That section of the bay was only a few feet deep, and the sea was pouring back in fast. As I swam freestyle toward the middle of the bay, I was barely skimming over fields of bleached branch coral, and definitely heading into a powerful current. The force of the sea was sweeping me toward the back of the bay. I had to pull hard to make it back to where I put in, by which time I was already plotting a high-tide swim. However, I had to leave the bay long before high tide in order to have enough time to hustle through the forest and back to the beach before it was inundated.
I returned a few days later to spend the night at the ranger station and catch high tide in the morning. When the tide is in, you can enter the water by stepping carefully through a cropping of small boulders next to the derelict, L-shaped concrete pier. Swim out about 70 meters to astonishing giant scalloped clams, their lip-like folds pointing up to the surface. Swimming toward the back of the bay and the mangrove trees at the water’s edge, you hit a field of incredible table coral – beige and brown and overlapping like a strewn pile of poker chips. Then the seascape shifts to scattered, large coral shaped like cisterns and tractor tires. Rounding the northeast rim at the back of the bay are tracts of branch coral in the shallows, then the bottom of the reef vanishes and all you see is blue.
From the shore, the bay is a spectrum of turquoise and sapphire and cobalt. The most brilliant blues are where the water is deepest. The deep channel at the back eventually gives way to a sandy bottom. And as you make your way up the opposite side of the bay, you come to a cropping of craggy rocks and boulders, and then to a sandy beach with an Instagram-ready swing in the shallows. At the front of the bay, flanked by cliffs on each side, the reef is covered with more big table coral and speckled with nodules that look like big brains and grapefruit, with flecks of pink and blue. Finishing the swim from the mouth of the open sea back to the ranger station after high tide, as the water was being sucked back out of the mostly-filled bay, was like riding a rocking horse – repeatedly propelled forward, then pulled back, until closer to the pier. Swimming in the bay costs 120,000vnđ for admission to the park and 30,000vnđ for a shower. You can also rent for a pittance snorkeling equipment, lifejackets or SUPs (stand-up paddle boards).
One of the coolest on-foot experiences on the island is hiking over the rocks around the little coves to the left of the ranger station. On one of my visits, after a swim off the only sandy beach on that section of the bay, the incoming tide had submerged the rocky, sandy shore, so I had to climb up and through a jagged forest of rock spires and then got to hop from boulder to boulder along wide stretches of the smooth round rocks. You get into a groove, concentrating on where in the zigzagging course the next footstep has to fall. For some perspective, walk from the ranger station toward the open sea and take one of the dirt footpaths snaking way up the bluff, covered in thick grass and streaked with serrated rows of rocks. The vistas of the bay and the expanse of the East Sea are astounding. With enough light by moon or torch, you can negotiate the trail at night for some in-nature contemplation and sensational stargazing.
Other footpaths below lead down into the broken cliffside, bamboo rails and strung ropes guiding you down treacherous natural pathways and uneven man-made steps. One leads to the water, which is like a washing machine from September to February but can be flat as glass from March to August. Another takes you to two bamboo huts used by the rangers in the park’s bird nest enterprise. Swiftlets in a nearby cave build wax-like nests from their saliva. The nests take four months to make and are harvested by the rangers in April and September and sold as delicacies with healing properties and used for making soup and tea. The cave yields 40 to 50 nests a year, and they are sold on the National Park’s website. The park also advertises ecotourism tours and sea turtle watching, depending on availability, time of year and number of persons.
You can get to the Côn Đảo Islands by plane year-round or by ferry when the sea isn’t too rough. Once there, I’ve never seen it offered, but park rangers say you can get a speedboat to Đầm Tre Bay from the boat pier in Côn Sơn town. However, the best adventure is to travel to the bay independently by taking a motorbike and then hiking to Đầm Tre; but it’s a little complicated. You can rent a motorbike from most accommodations in town for about 150,000vnđ per day. Head east and north along the smooth and undulating coastal road with breathtaking views of the rocky capes and glimmering sea around every bend. You’ll find a cut in the forest about 1km north of Poulo Condor Resort and a rough little road that leads east into sandy flats dotted with bushes and trees. [View Map] It takes some effort to get across the sand on a bike, but just follow the tire tracks for about 10 minutes to a path through the brush that leads to the beach. The site of this massive bay with a beach that stretches at least a hundred meters to the water during low tide is marred by a mountain of detritus that has washed up onto the dunes. Some of it is fishing trash, like a rope as thick as a fire hose and curving like a snake locked in the sand. After a few minutes, though, the trash dump is in your wake and you’re walking on an enormous boulevard of sand. Poulo Condor is the only resort on this cove, with its private beach at the south end, so you’ll likely have the walk all to yourself, save for some fishermen scraping lines in the sand with poles to stir up little crabs.
After about 20 minutes of brisk walking, near the northern end of the bay on the left you’ll see an opening into the forest and a wide stone path with a sign about the park. [View Map] Walk the winding path and climb the intermittent series of steps through dense woods studded with big boulders. Twisting, curving branches like serpents intrude on the path at points during the 3km hike to the ranger station. If you arrived to the island by air, you’ll already know that planes practically land on the beach next to the airport. The runway is bookended by Bãi Đầm Trầu, where the flights come in for a landing, and Bãi Suối Ớt, where they take off. The latter is at the end of the beach walk to the trailhead for Đầm Tre Bay. That means there is a good chance that the peaceful soundtrack of rolling surf toward the end of your half-hour walk on the beach will be punctured by the roar of jet engines or the buzz of props as an airplane shoots off the runway and climbs into the sky. Check the flight schedules on Baolau.com – it’s likely the closest you’ll ever be to a soaring jet.
Sleeping & Eating:
If you stay overnight, you’ll be blissfully roughing it at the ranger station. It has a few cement buildings, one with hard wooden beds for 200,000vnđ per person a night. But if you’re up for sleeping under the stars, take your rattan mat onto the flat roof of the dorm and spend the night, lulled to sleep by the waves and the wind. You can also rent a tent, but camping is permitted only behind the ranger station, for 150,000vnđ per person. A communal dinner of traditional Vietnamese sea fare – fried squid, sour fish soup, fried fish with tomato sauce, fried vegetables, steamed rice and fruit – costs 300,000vnđ per person. All in all, this is a memorable night.
Otherwise, you can stay a couple hours away in town at a multitude of homestays and hotels that range from $15 to $125 a night: browse and book any of them on this page. I prefer the ocean-front bungalows at Tan Son Nhat Con Dao Resort or Hotel de Condor at the north end of town. If you want to splurge, on the seafront closer to the bay, shell out at least $700 a night at Six Senses Con Dao or around $200 and up at Poulo Condor Boutique Resort & Spa. Before setting off on the ride and hike to Đầm Tre Bay, it’s a good idea to stock up on water and snacks from the shops in Côn Sơn town, because there’s not much in the way of food once you start the hike.
*Disclosure: All content on Vietnam Coracle is free to read and independently produced. Patrick has written this guide because he likes Đầm Tre Bay and wants readers to know about it. For more details, see the Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and About Page