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.
1. Transport to/from 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. 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 accommo-date small propeller aircraft. Only Vietnam Airlines flies to Con Dao; from Saigon and Can Tho in the Mekong Delta.
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.
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.
Taxis are inexpensive and easily arranged on both Con Dao and Phu Quoc.
2. Expensive and value for money:
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.
3. Development and 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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