(No.4, Vol.3, May 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
Con Dao, April 2011.
Photo: Hoang The Nhiem
The Con Dao Archipelago, in Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, in southwest Vietnam, has 16 islands and islets, with a total area of 76 square kilometres. It was listed as one of the worldâ€™s top ten romantic destinations in the world for 2011 by UKâ€™s Lonely Planet magazine.
The pristine beauty of Con Dao was once a hell on earth, full of notorious prisons, where many medieval punishments and tortures were carried out, causing the deaths of about 20,000 prisoners.
After three hours on a bus from Saigon, I arrived at Cat Lo Port in Vung Tau City to buy a ticket for VND200,000, and then embarked on a ship full of people and goods. The ship departed at 5 p.m., and after about one nautical mile, hundreds of people got seasick, though the sea was quite calm with gentle waves.
At 5:30 the next morning, the ship docked at Ben Dam Port on Con Lon Island, the biggest of Con Daoâ€™s islands. Hundreds of fishing boats were moored alongside the pier.
On the shore, many drivers of taxis, bikes and mini-buses were inviting visitors to the center of Con Dao Town, which was 13 kilometres away. I chose a motorbike driver at VND50,000.
A room at an ordinary motel on Con Lon Island had a price ranging from VND350,000 to VND400,000 per night. The electricity fee on the island was also very high; about seven times more than on the mainland.
I rented a room at VND1,790,000 per night at the three-star ATC Con Dao Resort, which was close to the beach and just 200 metres from the oldest prison. The resort had many isolated houses located on the campus of a large garden, with an area of over 1.2 ha. It had the most trees among about 40 resorts, mini-hotels and motels in Con Dao.
It seemed that all accommodations in Con Dao had motorbikes for rent, and the prices ranged from VND100,000 to VND250,000 per day. There was only one gasoline station on the islands.
Except the labor camps scattered over the mountains on Con Dao, the other relics related to the prisons were all located in a four square kilometre area at the center of the town. All of the monuments in Con Dao have free entrance.
The Governorâ€™s Residence, built in the late nineteenth century, was still intact in the middle of a large garden shaded by big old trees. â€˜The total area of the residence is 18,600 square metres. There have been 53 governors living in this house,â€™ said a tour guide. Inside the quaint house, many photos were displayed; prisoners tortured by the guards, prisonersâ€™ daily activities, and prisonersâ€™ escapes and strikes. In addition, there were hundreds of poetry books, story books and memoirs written by the prisoners and about 200 inmate artifacts and torture tools used by the guards.
At Phu Hai Prison, I saw that the gate, fences and all the structures inside were undamaged, but covered with moss. A woman speaker said: â€˜Under the French era, Phu Hai prison was originally called Bagne (Prison) 1, which was built in 1863. It was the largest and oldest prison, including 10 collective rooms, 20 cells, one chapel and a house for torture.â€™
Phu Hai Prison
About one kilometre from Phu Hai Prison was the area of tiger cages built in 1940. Most of the prisoners incarcerated in these tiger cages were senior communists or agitators of uprisings or strikes for basic needs, such as water and food in the prisons. The tiger cages were built by the French to apply the most barbaric torture methods in secret; they were so well-hidden that it was 30 years before a US congressional delegation investigated the prison complex and published the photos in the media.
A â€˜tiger cageâ€™ on Con Dao.
The tiger cages have two lines of cellblocks, which are about 30 metres long; each cage is 1.5-metre by 2.5-metres, and held from four to five inmates. The roofs were made of solid iron poles, so that the guards could both supervise and torture the captives from the top down.
The isolated detention zone of Chuong Bo (Cow Barn), about 1.5 kilometers from the tiger cages, was built by the French in 1930 with nine cells, 24 pig barns, two cow barns and an excrement cellar. Currently, only cells and the excrement cellar were relatively unspoiled. â€˜It was called Chuong Bo because badly wounded prisoners were often dropped down into the excrement cellar by the guards,â€™ said the speaker.
During the period of 1967 to 1969, when the Vietnam War escalated, the number of prisoners reached a peak of 10,000 inmates. Many among them were future leaders of Vietnam.
Hang Duong Cemetery on Con Dao
Photos: Le Thang My
Currently, five ex-prisoners are still living in Con Dao. Former prisoner Phan Hoang Oanh, 68, had been sentenced to 10 years in the penal colony and is well-known for making a livelihood by running a cafÃ© inside the Governorâ€™s Residence. He told me many brutal tortures that he had endured and witnessed. He also said that there were now tens of ex-guards living in Con Dao. They seem to have repented and live a peaceful and hard-working life, but they avoid the press. While talking to me, he massaged his limbs and explained: â€œWhen the weather changes like this, the wounds recur and my whole body hurts.â€ Then, he pulled his pants and shirt up to show me the traces of torture.
This section, covering Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, is sponsored by Ba Ria-Vung Tau Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
According to â€˜A Sketch about Con Dao Relic Complex and its Legendsâ€™ published by the Relic Management Board of Con Dao in 2012, said â€˜The French colonials started the construction of Con Dao prisons in 1862. In March, 1862, fifty prisoners were exiled to Con Dao. Then, the French forced prisoners to break rocks and calcinate limestone to build detention centers. In September 1954, the French withdrew from Vietnam; the US-backed South Vietnamese government took over the prisons and built new incarceration camps. By April, 1975 when the Vietnam War ended, Con Dao had a total of 127 prisons, 44 cells, 504 â€œtiger cagesâ€ (special solid cells for dangerous prisoners, with an area of only about three to four square meters, holding four to five prisoners) and 18 brutal labor camps featuring punishments such as smashing stones, dragging trees, baking bricks, calcinating limestone and making salt.â€™
Getting there: Vietnam Airlines has three departures daily from Tan Son Nhat airport in Saigon to Con Dao. A ship departs daily at 5 p.m. at Cat Lo Port in Vung Tau city to Con Dao Islands; the ticket fee ranges from VND85,000 to VND200,000/ ticket. Peak tourist season is March to September, so a two-week advance booking is recommended.