For most Vietnamese citizens, the name Con Dao evokes images of torture as well as the infamous tiger cages used by French colonialists and American imperialists to break the back of the resistance movement.
A view of the Con Dao Archipelago, which is located about 180km south of the southern beach town of Vung Tau and contains perhaps Vietnam's most beautiful coral reefs and pristine beaches. Efforts are being made by local authorities and international organizations to prevent the archipelago from becoming another boomtown.
The prison cells that existed for about 113 years since the French colonists established the system in 1862 are now historic relics, monuments to the heroic struggles waged for independence.
The 16-island archipelago of Con Dao, located about 180km south of the southern beach town of Vung Tau, contains perhaps Vietnam's most beautiful coral reefs and pristine beaches, not to mention rare marine species like the green turtle.
With such abundant beauty, the islands seek to exploit its tourism potential to good effect. The number of visitors to the island has been growing every year, but the current annual figures of 35,000 to 40,000 are modest compared to Phu Quoc Island or Nha Trang.
A government decision in 2005 identified tourism as a key development sector for the island, and plans were made to increase its population to 50,000 and the number of tourists to between 500,000 and 700,000 annually by the year 2020.
"The island is like a beautiful girl whom so many men are after," said Bui Van Binh, deputy chairman of the Con Dao District People's Committee, referring to the number of interested investors.
"We don't want it to follow the same path of development as Phu Quoc Island," he added, referring to the loss of distinct local cultural and even ecological characteristics to a homogenous growth that makes it difficult to tell one tourist destination from another.
To steer free of the usual tourism pitfalls, a US$1.8 million three-year project funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility (GEF) began implementation in 2006. The project aimed at conserving the islands' biodiversity and promoting sustainable use of its marine resources.
About 14,000 hectares of marine and 6,000 hectares of forest are now under the protection of Con Dao National Park, which is 83 percent of the archipelago's total area. Local residents are settled outside the park's territories.
The UNDP-GEF funded project worked to increase locals and the authorities' awareness of environmental protection through training and direct involvement in conservation activities.
In April 2009, 20 fishermen were selected to assist the project in replanting an area of 40 hectares of coral reef. Project officials said the replanted coral has developed well, adding that their participation was a way to increase fishermen's interest in coral conservation and discourage them from engaging in destructive fishing practices
Le Xuan Ai, director of the Con Dao National Park, explains the islands' path toward sustainable development.
Le Xuan Ai, director of the park, said Con Dao's marine ecosystems have been suffering from adverse effects of natural disasters in recent years, such as the Linda storm in 1997 and rising sea temperatures that have killed a significant portion of the coral reef.
Increased fishing activities were also a threat to the local ecosystem, he said. About three percent of the islands' 6,700 population depends on fishing for their livelihood, and fishing folks from nearby provinces also make a living off the islands'coast.
Working with Con Dao National Park, the project helped establish a marine protected area, defining and demarcating three functional areas in which fishing activities are prohibited for biodiversity conservation and ecological recovery purposes.
"We know it would not work out or even make sense to prohibit fishing activities in all areas of the archipelago," Ai said. "The fishermen need to find a way to support their families."
'One tael of gold a day'
In 1983, 20-year-old Bui Van Van of Long An Province came to Con Dao along with his army unit, fell in love with the islands and stayed on.
A decade ago, Van said, life was much easier because the fish were abundant. "We could make as much as one tael of gold a day. Now the fish population has gone down 70 percent. We barely make enough to feed our families."
Nguyen Van Thanh, another fisherman in the area, said most of the fishing households here understand that the marine resources are depleting fast, but they have been struggling to generate additional income from other sources.
Thanh, whose father was once a political prisoner in Con Dao, brought his entire family here in 1982. He cannot afford to upgrade his current boat to go fishing further offshore, or for transporting tourists to other islets.
"We know we have to protect the resources in Con Dao for the next generation to come but we need assistance in doing that," he said.
Dao Xuan Lai, head of UNDP Sustainable Development Cluster, said the project piloted a tourism transport model in 2009 that assisted three fishing households to provide tourism transport.
With the project's help, 56-yearold Nguyen Van Liep was able to earn additional income from transporting tourists. Liep said he hopes to establish a tourism transport team.
"This month there are enough visitors for me to go on at least three trips per week," he said. "Our family has been able to enjoy a more stable income."
However, because of limited time and funding, the project could not reach more households. UNDP and local authorities plan to use the VND1 billion Conservation Trust Fund, established at the end of the UNDP/GEF funded project, to provide low-interest loans to at least another five fishing households who need assistance in upgrading and registering their boats.
Ai of the Con Dao National Park said the islands have great potential to develop eco-tourism and generate additional income for local residents, but it could impact the flora and fauna of the main island as well as surrounding isles.
For the moment, only a handful of tourism companies are offering tours to Con Dao and even places to stay are limited at times. This could change when a US$38-million luxury resort opens in December.
Other tour companies are also looking at offering more diving and trekking services on the archipelago.
"The park has recently made an effort to regulate tourism activities in small islets because we know that accommodating even a hundred visitors a day could disturb the nature and species [ecological balance] there," Ai said.
According to Binh, the Con Dao District deputy chairman, Con Dao is awaiting government approval for a new socio-economic development master plan, and until then, no investor is permitted to construct or carry out tourism projects.
All investment projects must follow sustainable development principles of having minimal impacts on the environment and natural resources of the archipelago, he said.
That might explain why visitors these days still can enjoy the peace and quiet of the islands.
A large number of domestic visitors come to pay tribute at the Hang Duong cemetery, where thousands of fallen comrades lie, including the heroine Vo Thi Sau and former Party Chief Le Hong Phong.
"This is the altar of the nation," Ai said. "I believe that following the path of sustainable development would help Con Dao become a truly amazing getaway destination in Vietnam."