Con Dao Islands
Concierge.com's insider take:
Once an Asian version of Alcatraz, this infamous former French penal colony 150 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City is now considered the nation's most pristine island ecosystem. For more than a century, the remote, off-limits archipelago resisted development; today, 80 percent of its mountainous, 29-square-mile landmass is protected by the well-managed Con Dao National Park (84-6-483-0150; www.condaopark.com.vn). More than 1,000 plant species have been recorded on the chain's 16 islands, while the surrounding waters of the South China Sea hold the nation's richest sea life, including 270 different coral species, giant clams, green and hawksbill sea turtles, and even dugong, a endangered relative of the manatee. A single dive operator, PADI-certified Rainbow Divers, runs trips during the relatively short MarchSeptember dive season; two-tankers consider Con Dao's underwater experience the best in Vietnam (84-8-920-7753; www.divevietnam.com). Topside, the well-preserved colonial-era buildings of the old prison complex are now a historical monument; Communist leaders such as late prime minister Pham Van Dong did hard time here, while 20,000 other inmates died in this paradisiacal prison.
Vietnam Air Services Co. (VASCO), a subsidiary of Vietnam Airlines, makes the 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City six days a week. The best in-town accommodation is government-owned Saigon Con Dao Hotel which is adding an 85-room block and swimming pool to its current 33 rooms (84-6-483-0336; www.saigoncondao.com). Located a half-mile west of town center, Con Dao Resort commands a fine white-sand beach (84-6-483-0939; www.condaoresort.vn). In the spring of 2009, Six Senses will raise the bar on eco-lodging when it debuts an exclusive 51-villa Evason Hideaway property on half-mile-long Dat Doc Beach, the islands' best strand (www.sixsenses.com).