A cluster of 16 islands, Con Dao may be remote but, with its remarkable forests, wildlife, and beaches, it is one of the most astound ing destinations in Vietnam. Declared a nature preserve in 1993, Con Dao National Park covers a massive portion of the archipelago, stretching across 154 sq miles (400 sq km). About twothirds of it is on land, while the rest, including the beautiful coral reefs, is water. These seas are home to more than 1,300 aquatic species, such as sea turtles, dolphins, and dugongs, a manateelike mammal (see p194). Visits to the nesting sites of the endangered green turtle can also be arranged. On land are 135 species of fauna and 882 types of flora, including orchids unique to the island. The only home of the pied imperial pigeon, this park is a bird- watcher’s dream. The largest and only permanently inhabited island in the group is Con Son, often referred to as “Bear Island” because of its shape. About 6 miles (10 km) in length, and with wellmarked trails, the entire island can be walked in a day. These idyllic surroundings, however, hold the remnants of a sad past. Con Son became a devil’s island of sorts after the French built the Phu Hai Prison here in 1862. Political dissidents and revolutionaries were imprisoned under cruel condi- tions, often kept shackled to the floor. A recreation of this is displayed in one of the cell blocks. In 1954, Phu Hai was handed over to the South Vietnamese, who carried on the tradition. The most inhumane cells were “tiger cages”. These were tiny holes in the ground with steel bars for roofs. Vietcong operatives were routinely brought here. The Revolutionary Museum offers a tour of the complex, and also has displays on the treatment of political prisoners by the French and the South Vietnamese government. For more cheerful outings, the islands boast many spectacular beaches. Diving is also possible offshore. Dat Doc on Con Son is the most popular beach, and dugong sightings have been reported here in recent years. Also on Con Dao is the isolated Nho Beach. To see the brown booby, a rare bird, visit Hon Trung, an hour’s boat ride from Con Son. The beach on Tre Nho Island is a great picnic spot. The best time to visit Con Dao is between March and June; diving season runs June–September.