Hidden gems: discovering the Côn Đảo archipelago

A tour of the history and the stunning beaches of the most remote islands of Vietnam.

Duration: three days in total.

Itinerary: around fifty kilometres, and no danger of getting lost on the one and only main road.

Equipment: high protection sunscreen, tropical insect repelle.

Some people may think that Vietnam is essentially a peninsula, flanked by a single island, Phu Quoc. They couldn't be more wrong. When you look carefully, with a true traveller's spirit, it's easy to see that there is in fact also a small hidden archipelago. And yes, like anything of value, it is worth the effort to explore it. The archipelago in question is called Côn Đảo and has a troubled and fascinating history; its main island, Côn Sơn, is the ideal place for riding around here and there on our Vespa, between a well-equipped beach and a few more secluded corners.

This tropical little paradise has not, however, always been synonymous with relaxation and holidays: Côn Sơn, full of old colonial buildings with a decadent charm, was a brutal prison for political prisoners in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Today the cells can be visited, and still show signs of the conditions in which the prisoners lived. But let’s start at the beginning.

To get to Côn Sơn, which as we’ve already mentioned is the largest of the 15 islands in the archipelago, we take a quick 45-minute flight from Saigon. It's like taking a journey back in time: the distance from the mainland has kept the entire area in almost uncontaminated conditions. 80% of the island is still untouched and woody, the perfect habitat for a large number of animals; and it's the same in the sea, where we can swim with dugongs and turtles.

To see the whole area at a relaxed pace, with a few well-deserved breaks for resting and eating, we need three or four days, and that way we can also enjoy the most remote and difficult-to-reach beaches. On the first day, we start our exploration by leaving the central town, the capital of the island. But not before having a breakfast of a generous bowl of phở: this traditional, typically Vietnamese rice noodle soup is most often served with beef or chicken, and has a base of coriander, lime and soya beans which we add ourselves, to our liking. We choose one of the many local places that offer this speciality before taking a cultural stroll through the centre. And then a moment of relaxation on the town's beaches.

In the middle of the seafront is the old French customs house, flanked by two splendid centuries-old almond trees, there, unchanging, almost stopped in time. The building opens as a café in the morning, and a cocktail bar in the evening, and is a decidedly intriguing place for a delicious break. It all looks directly onto the jetty known as Wharf 914: this is the number of prisoners that died during its construction. The area also offers an interesting market and plenty of restaurants, where you can taste the best Vietnamese specialities cooked there and then, and obviously lots of seafood products: at Binh Nguyen Shellfish Eatery for example, you can indulge in the most varied selection of oyster dishes and other shellfish. There’s no actual menu, but the owner will make suggestions based on the day's catch.

After lunch we take our Vespa and head to the beach nearest the town, the vibrant Lo Voi Beach, a long strip of white sand that you'll arrive at after passing breathtaking scenery. The only inconvenience? The effects of the tides are really noticeable here: in the morning, we can see beached boats that are going at full sail by the afternoon.  Not far away we also find An Hai Beach, also known as Con Son Beach, which is overlooked by the most beautiful resorts on the island: this is where the former happy family of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie enjoyed a holiday that brought the resort under the global spotlight.

This super-white beach is definitely the easiest to reach, and it is this one that offers the most appealing Caribbean-esque view: the sea, palm trees, and green mountains. Just between us, it’s also the best place to stop and watch the sunset, while surfers go out to conquer the waves. We enjoy a cocktail in one of the little places that look out onto the sea while the sun sets in the distance, and prepare to go back into the town for the evening. Dinner is a generous fish and seafood salad at Thu Ba Seafood Restaurant, accompanied by one of the establishment's special hot pots.

On the second day we go to explore some of the remotest corners of Côn Sơn: with a healthy dose of adventure in the tank of the Vespa, and a packed lunch in the sunshine to recharge, we head for the Western coast of the island, towards the National Park. Barely out of the town, just one kilometre away, we find the ruins of Ma Thien Lanh Bridge, one of the most moving areas of the island’s history. In 1930, the French colonialists forced the prisoners to carry rocks and boulders to build this bridge on the Núi Chúa mountain, and 356 prisoners lost their lives due to lack of food, the climate and the mistreatment they suffered. Only the foundations of this work were completed, and to this day only the stumps of the bridge remain: the project was in fact left deliberately unfinished after the Revolution.

After this historic stop, we leave the Vespa in the shade and go on foot to the three beaches of Ong Dung, Bang and Dat Tham: it feels like we’ve been catapulted into an episode of Lost. In the evening, after a day filled with sun and beach life, we get back to the town just in time for an aperitif in the lively Bar 200, where they serve excellent cocktails and yes, some “Western” food too, hamburgers and pizzas for example. Ideal for a little culinary parenthesis between the various specialities of the region.

For our third and last day, we choose the adventure option, to go and discover the second largest island in the archipelago: Hòn Bảy Cạnh. Mostly covered by rainforests, it is home to rare species of animals and is a little gem for those who love turtles. On this little island there are 14 turtle breeding grounds, and between April and September, you can see them laying their eggs. Obviously, you can only reach it by boat, and it's better with the daily tour that takes us around the most beautiful bays and other small islands that surround Côn Sơn. Once we get back to base, we take the Vespa and go back to the built-up centre of Côn Sơn once more: for our last dinner on the island we choose Quan An Gia Minh, a restaurant that specialises in handmade noodles. There are multiple noodle dishes to choose from, including a vegetarian option.