Last updated February 2016 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
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Con Dao and Phu Quoc islands are the two most alluring beach destinations in Vietnam. Both islands are just a short flight from Saigon, and both offer superb beaches and jungle-covered interiors. But these two southern islands are very different in character, and therefore appeal to different types of travellers. As most visitors or expats only have time to go to one, which island should you choose? In this article, I compare Con Dao and Phu Quoc islands, based on criteria that will help you decide which is more suitable. (For much more about both these islands see Related Content)
CON DAO OR PHU QUOC?
Here are 11 things to consider when choosing between Con Dao and Phu Quoc islands.
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- Transport to/from and on the Island
- Expenses & Value for Money
- Development & Tourism
- Night Life
- Wow Factor
1. TRANSPORT TO/FROM AND ON THE ISLANDS:
Both Phu Quoc and Con Dao can be reached by air or sea. Flying to either island from Saigon takes less than 45 minutes. Flights from Saigon to Phu Quoc run almost hourly, and there are also flights from Hanoi. With three airlines operating on this route (Vietnam Airlines, Jetstar, Vietjet) competition keeps prices fairly low. Early birds can expect to pay less than $100 for a return ticket, whereas late comers or those travelling at peak times (weekends and holidays) will pay over $100. Phu Quoc’s new international airport was built to accommodate large aircraft with the expectation that visitor numbers are going to rise significantly in the coming years. Indeed, there are already charter flights from Russia, and it won’t be long before Phu Quoc is linked directly to regional hubs, such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and beyond.
Con Dao, on the other hand, has a small airport whose runway is limited by the island’s rugged topography, and can only accommodate small propeller aircraft. Only Vietnam Airlines flies to Con Dao; from Saigon and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta. There are four or five flights a day from Saigon, and four flights weekly from Can Tho: average return prices are $100-$150.
Phu Quoc is linked to the mainland by ferries from two Mekong Delta ports: Rach Gia and Ha Tien. The latter is particularly convenient for travellers coming from or going to the Cambodian beaches to the west. There are usually two sailings a day from Rach Gia and Ha Tien: the voyage takes 2.5 hours and 1.5 hours respectively. One way ticket prices are around $15. (For full ferry details, schedules and prices see THIS)
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To Con Dao there are about four sailings each week from the port at Vung Tau (2 hours east of Saigon). It’s a 10 hour voyage in fairly cramped conditions on a small vessel. Tickets are only $10 but very few travellers choose this option.
Taxis are inexpensive and easily arranged on both Con Dao and Phu Quoc. Motorbike rental is $7-$10 per day and a great way to see and get around either island. (For much more detailed information about transport see Related Content).
2. EXPENSES & VALUE FOR MONEY:
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Like all islands, prices on Con Dao and Phu Quoc are a little higher than on the mainland. In particular, you’ll find that prices on Con Dao are significantly higher than elsewhere in Vietnam. This is partly because the island is so small and mountainous that very little can be produced there: almost everything is shipped in from the mainland. But it is also partly because Con Dao is yet to see big development, so the lack of competition keeps prices high. Hotels, resorts, food and drink, transport and excursions to outlying islands are all pricier than Phu Quoc. And what you get for your money often pales in comparison to what the same money would buy you on Phu Quoc. However, this is all relative: Vietnam is still a very cheap place to travel, so even if you’re paying $5-$10 more for food and accommodation, you’re still not going to burn a hole in your pocket.
Because of the spike in development on Phu Quoc over the last few years, competition – especially along Long Beach – keeps prices at an acceptable level. In particular, accommodation, food, and boat trips are good value for money. Having said that, during the peak season – from December to April – all businesses that cater to tourists raise their prices by as much as 50%. Likewise, in the off season – when rain storms often hit the island – you’ll find prices are very low. In general, if you’re trying to stay within a tight budget, then it’s easier to do this on Phu Quoc. However, it is still possible to enjoy Con Dao on a shoestring: see Related Content for more details.
3. DEVELOPMENT & TOURISM:
The pace of change and number of visitors to these two islands could hardly be more different. Phu Quoc has been undergoing major transformations to its tourist infrastructure in recent years: a new international airport opened in 2012; old single-track roads have been widened and repaved; new roads have been laid along the coast and through the interior; new ports have opened; massive, high-end resorts now sprawl along some of the previously isolated beaches. And there’s more – much more – planned for the future. Phu Quoc’s star is rising: the government would like it to become the next Phuket. Personally, this sends shivers down my spine. But, things are still in the early stages, and Phu Quoc remains incredibly undeveloped when compared to Thai or Malaysian islands. It’s still easy to find your own stretch of deserted beach, and even the sands of Long Beach – the most developed on the island – could hardly be called crowded. However, all this changes on weekends and especially during the Tet Lunar New Year holidays (January or February), when accommodation can be fully booked, and Sao Beach in particular can get horribly crowded and suffers from trash. Phu Quoc is much bigger than Con Dao, so it can absorb more development, but if you like your tropical islands to be serene, laid-back, and beautiful, now is the time to visit Phu Quoc; before it becomes Phuket.
Then you have Con Dao, where development is so slow you hardly notice it. And this is a good thing, because Con Dao is a small, fragile little place with a very rugged coastline, which limits potential development to just a few areas. The number of foreign visitors is still extremely low: most of the time you will have the beaches, roads, museums, restaurants all to yourself. The government wants Con Dao to be a high-end destination: a kind of 5 star island in the East Sea. But it is also wary of turning Con Dao into a place of luxury and leisure because of its past as a prison island, where thousands of Vietnamese revolutionaries were incarcerated or executed. In 2010, the discreet but luxurious and pricey Six Senses Hideaway opened. There are more such resorts planned, but progress is (reassuringly) slow. For now, the majority of visitors to Con Dao are Vietnamese pilgrims, come to pay their respects to former prisoners: sun, sea and sand couldn’t be further from their minds.
Phu Quoc offers a great range of accommodation for all budgets, whereas Con Dao’s accommodation is limited to a dozen hotels and one international standard luxury resort. The greatest concentration of places to stay on Phu Quoc is in and around the town of Duong Dong, and along Long Beach. From high-end resorts to backpacker dorms, there’s plenty of choice here and value for money is good. In particular, the mid-range resorts on Long Beach are excellent: my favourite is Thanh Kieu Resort. The rest of the island is peppered with accommodation; there’s an especially appealing cluster of atmospheric resorts on Ong Lang Beach, including the rustic-romantic plantation bungalows of Mango Bay. On a remote, gorgeous beach in the north of the island, the comfortable and classy Peppercorn Beach Resort is superb. Budget travellers will find nhà nghỉ (local guest houses) in Duong Dong.
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Almost all accommodation on Con Dao is in the small town of Con Son. In the quiet backstreets, nhà nghỉ (local guest houses) offer $10-$20 rooms, whereas the handful of resorts on the seafront promenade charge a premium for their location: expect to pay around $100 a night. The most affordable seafront accommodation is Con Dao Camping, but for the best location (and sublime sea views) get a room at Con Dao Resort. The island’s first luxury accommodation, Six Senses Hideaway, opened a few years ago. On its own beach, northeast of Con Son Town, Six Senses is secluded and private. It received global press attention in 2011, when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie spent a family holiday there. (For much more about accommodation on both islands see my guides in Related Content).
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Unsurprisingly, seafood is famous on both Con Dao and Phu Quoc. However, really good seafood is still not that easy to find on either island, as much of each day’s catch is sent to restaurants and markets in Saigon. On Phu Quoc, the most popular place to eat is the Night Market in Duong Dong Town. Seafood is fresh and there’s a lively atmosphere, but it’s a bit of a tourist trap these days. The resorts on Long Beach all have decent restaurants, and recently many international restaurants – including Indian, Italian, Spanish – have opened along the Long Beach road. For a more local meal, head up 30/4 Street in Duong Dong Town, and step into one of the Quán Cơm or Quán Ốc eateries. Phu Quoc has its very own noodle soup: bún kèn is an island speciality, which even most mainland Vietnamese have never heard of. Outside of the Duong Dong/Long Beach area, the best dining I’ve experienced is at Peppercorn Resort.
When it comes to food, Con Dao is an anomaly: it is the only place in Vietnam where there is not a thriving street food scene. In short, there are very few places to eat on the island. The larger hotels and resorts have decent restaurants, the best of which is ATC Resort. In Con Son Town, several informal places to eat have opened around the market, offering hotpots and tabletop BBQs. A night market has recently opened, but it’s got a long way to go before it acquires the same energy and bustle as the one on Phu Quoc. Food at Six Senses Resort is exceptionally good. (For much more on eating and drinking on the islands see my guides in Related Content)
6. NIGHT LIFE:
For an island in the Gulf of Thailand, Phu Quoc’s night life is pretty tame. But there are bars all along Long Beach, including Rory’s Beach Bar, where nights out can easily run into the small hours. Other than that, enjoying cocktails at any of the seafront resorts, watching the sunset over the Gulf, is good enough for most people. Night life – like everything else on Phu Quoc – is bound to take off in the coming years. Con Dao has no night life: a relief for some; a disappointment for others. The limited options include: a breezy drink on the seafront promenade at Con Son Café, in the old French customs house, or cocktails and cake in the warm and cosy ambience of Infiniti Bar, located near the park in town.
Weather on Phu Quoc is fairly simple: November to May is mostly dry, sunny and hot; June to October is rainy and humid. The best time of year is December to February, when skies are clear, seas are calm, and nights are cool. Weather on Con Dao is more complicated. September to December can be very windy, with gales whipping up waves that crash against the rugged coastline. Summer months bring a mixture of heat, humidity, rainfall, and blue skies. The best time to visit is February to May, when temperatures are (relatively) mild, skies are clear, and the sea in Con Son Bay can be as flat as glass.
Whereas most of Phu Quoc Island is ringed with sandy beaches, Con Dao’s rugged coastline, while more dramatic than Phu Quoc’s, offers far fewer stretches of sand. Phu Quoc’s western seaboard is essentially one long, beautiful beach. The imaginatively named Long Beach is roughly in the centre, but the sand continues north and south of here to both ‘poles’ of the island. The northwestern beaches, Vung Bau and Dai, are especially peaceful and inviting. The eastern side of Phu Quoc is less enticing: the main ferry ports occupy two large bays, and trash and jellyfish make swimming nearly impossible. The northeast coast is pretty and isolated, but few travellers explore the area because the coastal road has yet to be upgraded from a bumpy dirt track. However, the eastern seaboard does boast one excellent beach: Sao Beach is a crescent of white sand with sapphire-coloured water in the southeast of the island. For many people, this is their favourite beach on Phu Quoc. In recent years, due to crowds of day-trippers, Sao has lost some of its rustic charm, and litter is starting to ruin its appeal.
You can count the number of beaches on Con Dao on one hand. But the few beaches there are, are exceptionally beautiful. The main town of Con Son lies just north of a hard-packed white sand beach, lined with palms and casuarina trees, abutted by an imposing wall of jungle-clad mountains to the south. At the bottom of the island, low-tide reveals Nhat Beach: a spectacular ribbon of white sand and sky-blue water. The coast here is windswept and barren – there’s no shade to escape the sun – but the mountainous backdrop is straight out of Jurassic Park. Dam Trau Beach, in the northwest, is a picturesque semi-circle of golden sand with plenty of shade, reached via a dirt road. (For much more about Phu Quoc and Con Dao’s beaches see Related Content)
Both Con Dao and Phu Quoc were used as prison islands during French colonial times, and later by the Americans, during the ‘Vietnam War’. And both islands are linked – whether through history or legend – to a French missionary, Pigneau de Behaine, and a southern Vietnamese prince, Nguyen Anh, who, with the help of Behaine, became Emperor Gia Long, the first monarch of Vietnam’s last imperial dynasty. These events took place toward the end of the 18th century, and would influence the next 100 years of Vietnam’s foreign and domestic policies, eventually leading to French domination of the country. On Phu Quoc there is an interesting, if unexpected, museum displaying all sorts of artifacts found on the island. A few kilometres south of Duong Dong Town, Coi Nguon Museum is well-worth a visit: www.coinguonphuquoc.com Most Vietnamese visitors to Con Dao come to pay their respects to the thousands of political prisoners who were incarcerated, executed, or lost their lives to disease and starvation, while imprisoned on the island. The prison ‘sights’ are sobering and sad, but they are informative and well-maintained, including a large new museum. Legend and folklore also play their part on Con Dao, and much of the island’s older history is difficult to separate from myth. One story tells how Prince Nguyen Anh’s wife, Phi Yen, killed herself after the prince ordered their son thrown into the sea. Today, her ghost is said to haunt the archipelago, and she is worshiped at a shrine. (For more in-depth history see my Guide to Con Dao)
Both Con Dao and Phu Quoc are part of small archipelagoes, consisting of dozens of tiny outlying islands. These can be visited by chartered boats booked through tour companies, along with snorkeling and diving equipment. Most of the smaller islands are uninhabited and very beautiful. Diving on Con Dao is by far the best in Vietnam: check Dive, Dive, Dive! for details: www.dive-condao.com Nothing quite beats hiring a motorbike on either island, and riding along the coastal roads, stopping to swim at empty beaches. The road network on Phu Quoc is now pretty extensive, whereas Con Dao has only a couple of roads, but they are in good condition, empty of traffic, and very scenic indeed. The interiors of both islands are covered in thick jungle. The majority of Phu Quoc and Con Dao islands are part of national parks. The park headquarters can arrange treks through the forests to streams, waterfalls, and secluded bays. Con Dao has some particularly beautiful walks, and you will almost certainly see (and hear) some wildlife.
11. WOW FACTOR:
I love both islands. But, for me, Con Dao has the edge over Phu Quoc. The moment you land on the tiny airstrip – stepping onto the asphalt in the dawn light, with the mountains looming behind – you know you’re somewhere special; somewhere unique. The drive along the coast road from the airport into Con Son Town only confirms this: it’s spine-tinglingly good. Phu Quoc is the more convenient of the two, but Con Dao has the wow factor.
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