Ordinarily I’d say it was important to read up on a destination before going there. Not in the case of Con Dao. The more I learnt of this 16-isle archipelago, 230km or an hour’s flight south from Ho Chi Minh City (the official name for what the Vietnamese still call Saigon), the more I wondered whether this was a place that ought to be courting tourists at all, even high-spending ones.
Sometimes referred to as the Devil’s Island of south-east Asia, Con Dao was, until 1975, a penal colony of the utmost brutality. More than 20,000 of those interned on its only properly inhabited island died in custody – a figure made more shocking by the fact that its present population is not much more than 5,000, at least one-third of whom are soldiers and probably not here by choice.
Bar the occasional backpacker, tourism to the island has mostly been the preserve of government-sponsored groups of the Vietcong who survived imprisonment and return to remember their colleagues interred in the mass graves that fill the immaculately maintained, beguilingly serene 50-acre Hang Duong cemetery.
It’s an unlikely location, then, to find a luxury beach resort. But last December, the Bangkok-based operator Six Senses opened a 50-villa development 6km north of the tiny capital, Con Son town, and its prison complexes, at a stroke dramatically raising the level of accommodation on offer on the island.
Even by Six Senses’ standards, this is an exceptionally beautiful hotel and, to my eye, a new benchmark for the brand. Designed by Reda Amalou of the Paris practice AW2, it is contrived around a little “street” of traditional Vietnamese shops, exquisite wooden buildings faced in antique carved doors, 1,200 of which were sourced from across the country. Most were still empty when I was there late last month: there was one selling Vietnamese crafts from bamboo rice bowls to pretty silk ao dai, the split-to-the-waist cheongsam-like tunics Vietnamese women wear over trousers; and a delicatessen for occupants of the larger, kitchen-equipped villas who want to cater for themselves. In time, there will also be a gallery, a meeting room and a library chosen by Philip Blackwell (of the bookselling family) but, at the time of my visit, the ministry of culture was still vetting his selection.
At the end of the “street”, there’s a little square, with a cinema screen for open-air film shows (the French Vietnam-set Catherine Deneuve epic, Indochine, was the option during my stay), a bar and a very good Vietnamese restaurant run by a local woman, Len, serving what is essentially street food – spring rolls, noodle soups, turmeric-yellow rice-flour pancakes – cooked over charcoal in an open kitchen.
Steps from the bar lead down to a boomerang-shaped swimming pool backed by mahogany trees, and on to a wide beach, a mile-long arc of golden sand lapped by the South China Sea, along which are strung 50 immensely spacious modern teak bungalows, each with its own six-metre pool and sea-facing veranda.
Their contemporary yet still faintly rustic interior will be familiar to aficionados of the Six Senses brand – lots of waxed wood and coarse cotton upholstery in shades of orange and lime – as will their huge bathrooms and gigantic bathtubs (whose capacity sits oddly with the enjoinders to conserve water, for environmental responsibility is something Six Senses mostly pays more than lip service to) and adjoining gardens with outdoor showers.
The rooms are comfortable and well-equipped with technology, with effective complimentary WiFi, huge televisions, Bose sound systems (too bad the docking stations are iPhone-incompatible) and fancy espresso machines (Illy, disappointingly, given the deliciousness of Vietnamese coffee, which is perhaps the most popular legacy of the French colonial period).
Overall I found little to fault. The food is terrific, especially the fish: local cobia, coral trout, horse mackerel and squid. The spa is first rate. And the 200 or so predominantly Vietnamese staff, more than one-quarter of whom come from the island, are without exception kind and attentive, though not all have much English. Despite the island’s terrible history, “it was not as hard to recruit as I’d feared it might be,” the hotel’s delightful Australian general manager, Susan Noonan, told me. The recruitment drive was eased by a succession of visits by Buddhist monks to purify the spirit of the place. As one staffer, Ninh, put it, the island seemed a cleaner, calmer place to bring up children than the city, so she, her husband and baby had seized the opportunity to come here.
Leave the property, however, and there are chilling reminders of the barbarity of Con Dao’s history wherever you go. On the main jetty at Con Son town, there is a plaque in memory of the 914 prisoners worked to death in its construction. A further 350 died building the Cau Ma Thien Lanh bridge near the So Ray plantation – a steep hike through dense rainforest to an area “cleared for cultivation purposes and grinding down prisoners”, reads the sign, where I watched, enchanted, as silvery rhesus macaques cavorted among the trees.
And then there are the 11 prison complexes (the oldest established by the French in 1862), four of which have been preserved as museums, harrowing testaments to what went on here. I shan’t spoil your day by describing the tiger cages at Chuong Cop, but anyone who remembers The Deer Hunter will have a sense of what this exquisitely cruel form of incarceration, or slow form of execution, involved. “Nothing prepares you for the sight of them,” said a young German backpacker I met. “And I grew up near Dachau.”
Back in town, the second room of the governor’s residence also contains an exhibition on the prisons, entitled Hell on Earth. For once the phrase is not hyperbole. Happily, though, the atmosphere in its bosky grounds the day I visited was joyous. A new military detachment was arriving that weekend, and the whole place was en fête, with lanterns hung from the trees, bunting, colourful banners and the distorted blare of cheering, cheesy Vietnamese pop. I thought of stopping for coffee at its garden café but opted instead for the veranda at the harbour-facing colonnaded Café Con Son, which serves delicious super-strength coffee, iced and sweetened with condensed milk, and bears a plaque commemorating visits by the composer Camille Saint-Saëns, who stayed here a month in 1895 while working on his largely forgotten opera Frédégonde.
It’s certainly worth a trip into this fastidiously ordered and tidy town to look at the elegant if dilapidated 19th-century colonial bungalows, oddly juxtaposed with huge propaganda posters celebrating the armed forces. But I suspect most Six Senses guests who leave the property in search of activity will be drawn to nature instead. For the fact that these islands have been largely neglected since the prisons closed means the wildlife has thrived. The mountainous jungle-clad interior is home to monkeys and indigenous black squirrels, and the surrounding sea – designated a marine park in 1993 – teems with 1,300 species, not just reef fish but a thriving population of hawksbill and green turtles. Dugongs, a rare Asian relative of the manatee, have occasionally been spotted at high tide from the promontory that marks the southernmost edge of the Six Senses beach. And the diving is held to be the best in Vietnam, hence the opening, also last December, of the island’s first dive school.
But though monks may have cleansed Con Dao of malign spirits, it remains a disquieting place. I learned things here that I wish I did not know. And it was a relief to get back to the bustle of Saigon.
Six Senses Con Dao (www.sixsenses.com; doubles from $790) is an hour’s flight on Vietnam Airlines from Ho Chi Minh City (accessible via most hubs in Asia). Seven nights there (plus two in the air) with Cazenove & Loyd (www.cazloyd.com) start at £2,788, including economy flights from London via Bangkok
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