Even before we set out, I knew this trip to Con Dao was going to be a deeper experience than usual, literally.
But there was no mystery to it.
Among other things, I was going scuba diving for the first time.
I had heard a lot about the island, its beaches, its crystal clear waters, its history and so on, but its pristine beauty still caught me by surprise.
We were being put up at a very special place, the Six Sense Con Dao Resort, which by itself is an eye-opening experience in luxury living. But more of that later.
We departed early in the morning from the resort to catch the best weather and water conditions at the central Pier around 7am. A 30-minute boat ride and we were at the diving site.
Our dive master introduced us to the crew and explained the particulars of the boat, after which my personal diving guide ran through my dive plan.
Again, I had heard about the joys of diving and snorkeling in turquoise waters, watching marine life up close and marvelling at the incredible coral reefs.
It was all that and more. There was an initial fear as I went under, but curiosity and wonder soon took over. It was like being in a dreamland conjured up by amazing magical forces.
For me, there was also something magical about my fear dissolving into an understanding that I cannot quite describe, as well a feeling of awe as nature’s immensity and complexity was revealed in a new way.
The reefs of different colours, the different kinds of fish and other marine life that went about their daily lives oblivious to their own magnificence – I began to understand what the phrase “communing with nature” meant.
I learnt that the entire marine area is rich in biodiversity with over 1,300 species of sea creatures identified so far. And it was not surprising to hear that the Con Dao ecosystem was a favourable habitat for rare species.
My guide told me that Con Dao boasts the most diverse range of dive sites in Viet Nam and the only diveable wreck in the country.
The dives which cost VND5,300,000 (US$250) per person for two ocean dives, includes a 90 minute session in the pool.
The spectacular underwater scenes are matched by the archipelago’s overland landscape, with 80 per cent of land covered by forests, not to mention a 140sq.km marine protected area.
After the dives, we – a group of media personnel being taken on a conducted tour – were back at the mainland for lunch at the resort.
The resort mingles easily with the surrounding landscape. Set on the spectacularly beautiful Bai Dat Doc, this designer castaway is an unforgettable place, with its pool villas finished in natural materials.
Its beachfront villas have a private pool facing the sea, bathrooms with a plunge tub and an al fresco rain shower, master bedrooms with a private wine cellar, and a Bose sound system fully loaded with world music. Might as well spend the whole day on the day bed in the balcony staring at the mountains, I thought.
The superb dining options at the resort are worth mentioning as well. The Market restaurant offers guests the chance to try local Vietnamese flavours, while Delicious serves up superb cuts and cheeses. The “signature restaurant” is Dining by the Beach which offers a “virtuoso menu” of international flavours from Wagyu beef to locally-sourced shellfish.
I have to admit that breakfast was a particular treat for me, with Bircher Muesli (rolled oats, sultanas, natural yoghurt, grated apple, roasted almonds and honey) hitting all the right spots during summer time.
Over the next two days, we tried our hands at a range of water sports include kayaking and sailing, and reveled in picnics on secluded beaches and hiking through green forested hills, hoping to find some hidden coves.
Amongst all these memorable experiences, one stood out in particular – camping on the beach, waiting for the night when turtles come in to make their holes in the sand and lay their eggs.
Watching the turtles nesting on the beach at Hon Bay Canh and the baby tortoises hatch and return to the sea was a very rare, sacred experience.
The important place that the island has in Viet Nam’s history was emphasised during visits to local museums, the infamous tiger cages and the Hang Duong cemetery.
Watching the day break over the Hon Bay Canh and the sun set over the “Love” Mountain – these incredible sights are worth a trip by themselves.
Yet another discovery
A sightseeing trip to the Con Dao Market led to the discovery of a unique local specialty – mut hat bang (malabar almond).
Despite its name it is not a jam that the locals sell here. It is a nut that tastes a bit like walnut. Traders sell the nuts in jars along the waterfront in the evenings – salted or sweet. The promenades of Con Dao are lined with Malabar almond trees that go into season in July or August.
To make mut hat bang, ripe Malabar almond fruits are collected after they have been eaten by birds and fall to the ground. The fruits are dried for four or five days and then peeled to remove the seeds, which are then fried with salt or sugar.
The small nuts, crisp and buttery to eat, are somewhat expensive because a lot of labour goes into preparing them.
Mut hat bang is sold for VND45,000 per 200 grams for the sweet version and VND55,000 per 200 grams for the salted ones.
On the last day of my three-day trip, I gave in further to the holiday experience, cruising aimlessly the winding cliff-side roads on a hired motorbike (VND150,000 a day).
Going back to regular life from Con Dao was not going to be easy, but I was comforted by the fact that it is a place I could always escape to. — VNS by Quynh Hoa
Water world: A view of the beach from a restaurant at the Six Senses Con Dao Resort.
Shrouded in mystery: An aerial view of the island. — VNA/VNS Photo Ngoc Ha
Al fresco dining: The Market Restaurant offers delicious Vietnamese dishes. — VNS Photos Nguyen Quoc Ngu