On the 45-minute flight to the Con Dao Islands, 150 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City, I mused that the mere fact that I was traveling to what had long been a fearsome penal colony was a happy ending to several sorrowful chapters of Vietnamese history.
Soon, the lush mountain ridges and wave-scalloped beaches of Con Son — the largest speck in the 16-island archipelago — came into view. There, the French colonial authorities had built the notorious Poulo Condor prison as a brig for their political opponents. Although the French left Vietnam in 1954, Poulo Condor was used during the Vietnam War and wasn’t finally closed until 1975. Today, two-thirds of the Con Dao archipelago is a national park, and tourism is getting under way.
The Six Senses Con Dao opened on Con Son in December 2010. The main public buildings of the property were designed by Paris-based Reda Amalou, and their architecture employs the idioms of a Vietnamese fishing village, with a “market square” and chophouses of salt-stained gray wood with recycled carved doors and windows. Perched on one of the suspended swing chairs for a welcome cocktail, I caught a glimpse of one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen in Asia. Framed by green mountains, dense forests and glades of bamboo, this endless strand of fine white sand, washed by the aquamarine waves of the South China Sea, made the journey seem eminently worthwhile.
Six Senses Con Dao comprises 50 villas with private plunge pools. Our Ocean Front Villa was compact but charming, with big picture windows facing the sea. Amenities included a wine fridge and a Bose sound system. The bath area was nearly as large as the bedroom/living room, with a large terrazzo soaking tub, two sinks and a daybed. A small, enclosed courtyard garden provided an outdoor shower. Since environmental awareness is central to the Six Senses identity, amenities came in small ceramic flasks, or wrapped in recycled paper.
Besides their environmental efforts, the other distinctive feature of Six Senses properties is butler-based service. Our butler checked in with us at breakfast and again at dinner to see what we might require in terms of spa appointments, excursions — there is great scuba diving off of Con Son — or special dining requests. When this system works, it is brilliant. At Con Dao, however, the friendly young staff have yet to be trained to provide the level of service found at some other Six Senses resorts.
That said, the amiable Dutch guest relations manager was one of the best we’ve ever met. On the third day of our stay, the pipes in our bath became blocked and he personally arranged a seamless move to a spectacular three-bedroom villa. (The resort’s three- and four-bedroom villas come with lap pools as well as plunge pools, and would make superb venues for family holidays.)
As with all Six Senses properties, Con Dao has a magnificent spa. But what really distinguishes this resort — aside from its stupendous beach — is the quality of its food. An outstanding breakfast buffet is complemented by addictive Vietnamese dishes such as pho (herb- brightened rice noodle soup with beef or chicken). Lunch is served beside the large freshwater pool, or better, at the outstanding open-air Vietnamese restaurant. There, we feasted on irresistible nem (fried spring rolls), soups, sautées and, my favorite, crispy Saigon omelets filled with bean sprouts, shrimp and fresh herbs. Dinners were outstanding, too, with a splendid variety of Vietnamese and mostly Mediterranean-style dishes.
A comfortable room, a glorious beach, a fine spa and superb food all left us disinclined to venture out. In fact, the only off-site activity we undertook was a fascinating if melancholy trip to the old prison in the town of Con Son. Though the service needs refining, Six Sense Con Dao is an outstanding beach resort that is not only an ideal place to unwind at the end of an Asian trip, but a worthy long-haul destination in itself.
Six Senses Con Dao 94 Ocean Front Villa, $770. Dat Doc Beach, Con Dao District, Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province, Vietnam. Tel. (84) 64-3831-222. sixsenses.com
Free of advertising since its inception in June 1979, Hideaway Report is a private monthly publication for sophisticated travelers. The selection of hotels, resorts and restaurants for inclusion in this publication is made on a completely independent basis, with Andrew Harper, LLC paying full rate for all meals, lodging and related travel expenses. Andrew Harper and his editors travel incognito to write candid and unbiased travel reviews for a subscription service, which provides personalized travel-planning assistance, bespoke tours and valuable travel privileges to its subscribers. For questions regarding this article please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.