A Surprise Typhoon on Con Dao

A typhoon usually doesn’t just sneak up on you. But that’s exactly what happened to me last Christmas Eve, when my husband and I unwittingly traveled to the Vietnamese island of Con Dao the day before a roaring typhoon was scheduled to hit. Here’s a story about taking cover in the eye of tomorrow’s unknown.

Dam Trau Beach, the best beach on Con Dao.

Traveling to Con Dao

Just off the southeastern coast of Vietnam lies a small, rocky island archipelago called Con Dao. The former island penal colony gets few visitors, apart from a few independent travelers and the likes of Angelina Jolie et al. who stay at an ultra-exclusive resort called Six Senses, where a standard room starts at $1500/night and comes with a personal butler. (We didn’t stay there, and I’ve written before about my feelings on hotels where a room costs more per night than the average annual salary of a local worker.)

Con Dao’s got some beaches, scuba diving in neighboring reefs, and about three restaurants in town. There’s not much on the island, and that’s kind of the point.

After arriving in Vietnam and spending a few harrowing days in the chaos of Ho Chi Minh – a city of 11 million people and 7 million scooters, but it feels like the other way around – I was ready to be in the middle of nowhere.

On our way to the airport to catch our flight to Con Dao, we left plenty of time for Ho Chi Minh’s never-ending traffic. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time. The guy who checked us in gave us emergency exit seats. The long lines for security moved surprisingly quickly. Everything was going smoothly. It was Christmas Eve, and it felt like our luck was beginning to tick up.

The flight to Con Dao was in one of those small turboprop planes, and it was over in under 30 minutes. Viewed from the window, the rocky, thickly forested island looked solitary and resolute, there in the middle of the frothy sea.

The airport at Con Dao must be one of the smallest in the world. The plane touched down and taxied over across a tiny tarmac to a two-story building smaller than a grocery store in the West. Nevertheless, there was, oddly enough, a bus to shuttle the 30-odd passengers the 30 feet across the tarmac from the plane to the airport.

Dominik and I took a cab into town (the only town to speak of on the island, and the only road). Staring out the window, searching for those first impressions of the place, I couldn’t help but notice that everyone who lived on this island seemed to be out cleaning their yards.

Now, this wasn’t Germany, where some villages have a set day each month to yardwork and home repairs. In Germany, this isn’t just a custom, but an obligation. Anywhere else in the world, though, it’s something out of the ordinary.

Then we spotted the soldiers hauling shovels and sandbags.

Soldiers preparing for the typhoon on Con Dao, Christmas Eve 2017.

Either Con Dao was bracing for a foreign invasion, or there was a big storm churning somewhere not too far beyond the horizon.

As soon as we got to the hotel, we saw the staff putting tape on the windows and knew for sure what was happening. They confirmed it at check-in: a typhoon was forecast to hit sometime tomorrow, on Christmas Day.

There was no way we could’ve known about it. No one at the airport or hotel in Ho Chi Minh had said anything. The airline hadn’t cancelled the flight.

My husband and I just looked at each other. The past year had thrown a lot at us, professionally and personally. And now, all of a sudden, here we were. Bracing for a typhoon in paradise.

I know about tropical storms, and where I’m from, they’re called hurricanes. When they hit in Florida, where my family has a vacation home, you can just drive to over to the other side and come back a few days later, with the hope that the house is still standing when you return. So far, it always has been, but it’s a crapshoot. Your home may be untouched while the neighbor across the street loses the roof.

We checked in and since the information from the hotel was vague, we immediately logged onto the guesthouse’s Wifi to read about the storm. Turns out that it had been making international news – we’d just been pretty disconnected and the story hadn’t found it’s way into our particular social media environ. The typhoon was coming from the Philippines, where heavy rains and winds had caused mudslides that had killed some 90 people. It was moving slowly, which was bad, as the warm ocean waters of the South China Sea were giving it time to regain strength after having made landfall. The eye was forecasted to move directly over Con Dao.

So it looked pretty bad.

And there we were, stuck on this island, completely unprepared.

The destruction wrought by hurricanes Irma and Harvey just a few months earlier in the Caribbean and southern US weren’t far from my mind. We’d watched with the rest of the world as entire islands got leveled with Irma and major cities flooded out with Harvey. The 24-hour news media covered every aspect, urging people for days to evacuate before the storm(s) of the century would hit.

With Hurricane Irma, we watched with horror as the projections for the Category 5 hurricane eye shifted from Miami westward to Naples. We watched on Periscope as people in Naples live-broadcasted the storm from balconies and the back of pickup trucks. Even in the sheets of rain, I recognized the streets leading to my home, a place where I spent so many happy times with my family. I was terrified the storm, or the storm surge, would blow it all away. (In the end it didn’t, but just as well could have).

I started to feel panicked, my mind whirring with catastrophe. Dominik, meanwhile, quietly had a look around the modest guesthouse and declared it structurally sound. We were on the second floor and had a dank, windowless bathroom that would offer shelter if the windows in the bedroom broke out, he said. What about flooding, I asked? We were about a half a mile from the beach in front of town, but there was a seawall that seemed high enough to protect against a storm surge.

There would be nothing to do, he said simply, but wait out it. The truth was that there was no way off this island until the storm passed.

We were just going to have to make do.

And until the typhoon hit, it was still Christmas Eve. Putting aside my disappointment and disorientation, we decided that we’d see what we could on Con Dao, while we still could.

Our first stop was the long beach framing Con Dao town, where we watched fisherman bringing in their catch. I couldn’t help but read the remains of a beached fishing boat as an ominous sign.

A wrecked fishing boat on a beach on the island of Con Dao.

We hopped back on a scooter and zipped around town, watching as the locals made their preparations, shoring up fishing boats, hauling up sandbags onto roofs, cutting palm trees down, and clearing sidewalks and stoops of anything that might get blown away.

The local soccer field was filled with boats in preparation of the typhoon.
Securing building with sandbags, catching a moment to chat on the scaffolding of Con Dao town.
Two men surveying the work of securing their roof in Con Dao town.

From the country road behind town, we could see the last blotches of sun through the clouds to the east, towards the sunny mainland we’d just come from. To the west, low-hanging, dark clouds bringing the typhoon had already blanketed the sky, casting the island in a brooding, apocalyptic grey.

The calm before the storm, Con Dao.

The wind was beginning to kick up, bringing a sure chill to the tropical air. I held on tighter to Dominik, who was driving the scooter. Soon it would be dark.

As I looked out at the darkening mountains, I wanted to be mad, but there wasn’t anyone to be mad at. What were we in for? Why was I so quick to panic?

During our honeymoon in Panama, one of the stormiest places on earth, we were weathered a bad storm in a thatched-roof hut on an island smaller than a football field. Were were in the Caribbean archipelago of the San Blas Islands, an autonomous indigenous region. That morning, when ominous storm clouds were gathering over the mainland, I asked an indigenous man about when the storm would arrive. He just shook his head and replied, “Only the gods know.”

That phrase became part of our shared language, our idioverse, and we say it whenever we have no idea what’s going to happen. Though admittedly, I don’t often believe it. In the west, we operate with such conviction that we can bend circumstance to our favor.

The staff at the hotel had also just kind of shrugged when we asked them if it would be a bad storm. They didn’t seem all that worried.

After I had worked this out, I could actually see that no one here was panicking. There were no frantic preparations like those shown on American TV before a hurricane (clogged highways, mile-long lines at the gas station, empty shelves at the supermarket).

The people of Con Dao were just going about their business, diligently getting their homes ready for the storm that was going to come. Groups of village men were huddled around the task at hand, each pointing out to the other what should be done. Their wives chatting nearby, babies on hip. Their older children playing, waving at us on the scooter and calling out “hello” at us foreigners as we passed by. People buying enough groceries and water to get through the next day.

This was just how it was going to be.

As the sun was getting ready to set, we looped back towards town and got a glimpse of a tempestuous sunset behind the mountainside Buddhist temple as the sun made its last stand.

Sunset behind the Buddhist temple on Con Dao.

As I went to sleep that night, I had no idea what tomorrow would be. But part of me thought, well, if it’s really bad, I’ll at least get a good story out of it.

The typhoon arrived in full force early on Christmas Day. That morning was dark as dusk. The staff at the hotel told us that the military had instituted a curfew, so no one could leave their homes, though we saw from our window a few soaked scooter drivers ferrying provisions. Rain fell in jagged sheets, cutting down palms, screeching into corrugated roofs. The wind blew in haphazard gusts.

We kept waiting for the storm to get worse, but it didn’t. It persisted, with the lulls and gusts any storm brings. So we went on with our day. We ate instant noodles made with hot water from the tea cooker. The electricity went out, but only for about 20 minutes. We chatted with other guests on the porch. We read, watched a movie. Mostly, we were just bored, and we went to bed early.

The next morning, the sun was shining in our room. After having been cooped up all day, we set out early to survey the destruction. As we turned the corner and headed into town, everything looked the same as it had before the typhoon. Turns out: the damage had been negligible.

And everyone in town was just starting another day: the markets were already full, kids in uniforms were walking to school, the shopkeepers were sweeping and setting up, getting ready to make up for the lost business of the day before.

I have to admit, I felt a bit let-down by it all. All of the ingredients for a good story had been there, building upon each other from the moment we landed on the island towards some inevitable conclusion. Putting together these narrative steps is the way I make sense of myself, and the world around me. Based on the lead-up, I had been imagining watching the floodwaters rise, evacuating to higher ground, forming fast friendships with other evacuees, the kind of connection that happens when people come together under extraordinary circumstances.

But this time, the set-up to a great story didn’t pan out. There was no climax to be had.

The ending was just another day. A sunny day even.

The beach at Con Dao, after the storm.

But, I thought, maybe there was still something to salvage from the time the typhoon just passed through. Today was a beautiful, sunny day, and it’s not often that I get to seize on that. Most days I have to go to work.

Urged out the door by imperative, we set out to see everything we could. We mucked through the ruins of French colonial villas, walked through the museum of Con Dao’s infamous prisons that used to hold thousands of political prisoners in wretched cells called tiger cages, drove through the mountains, chatted over Vietnamese coffee on a beautiful veranda, spent the afternoon on an empty beach, and drank fancy cocktails that evening. We packed it all in. It was a perfect day.

And it was good we had. The next day, it rained all day.

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