Con Dao is an isolated cluster of tiny islands in the South China Sea. Having escaped the aerial bombing, chemical warfare and over-development that has besieged so much of Vietnam, it is home to some of the best preserved old growth forests, and probably the most pristine coastline and reefs in the whole country. It is a tranquil and picturesque paradise, visited by a scant few Westerners needing to escape the congested, mercantile madness of Ho Chin Minh city. But, this tiny island has a horrific history. For 113 years, it was home to an incredibly brutal penal system, renowned for the harshness of its prisons, earning itself names such as the Devil’s Island and Hell’s own Hell.
Con Dao was originally flagged as a penal settlement by the French in 1862. It was used by them to systematically suppress the grumbling opposition to the French colonial rule using the tools of imprisonment, hard labour, torture and death. The island was reclaimed by the South Vietnamese in 1954 after the French were expelled. Backed by the US, there followed a massive expansion of the prison system. For the next twenty years, it held common criminals, Communists, Viet Cong, Buddhists, as well as any free-thinking individuals that represented a threat to the South Vietnamese government. The tiny island became an enormous prison machine. By the time of it’s closure in 1975, the island was littered with of 127 prisons, 44 holding cells, 504 tiger cages and 18 hard labour camps.
Most of old buildings on Con Dao are open for visiting, although they survive in varying states of renovation or disrepair. The are arranged into 12 or 15 similar camps, the main units of which are the hulking concrete barns where the bulk of the prison population were concentrated. Each of these held up to 200 inmates, shackled by the ankles to a common steel rail along a raised concrete plinth, naked, filthy and the dark. In the dank half-light and with footsteps echoing off the thick walls, it really does feel a desperate, foreboding place. The hundreds of mannequins arranged in various postures of pain and anguish, certainly enhances the drama of the experience and adds the ambient hopelessness.
As bleak as they are, conditions in these barns were relatively comfortable compared to the deeper recesses of the prison camps. Less fortunate, or more threatening inmates were transferred inwardly, to smaller more congested barns, holding cells or solitary confinement. At each step in this process the conditions of confinement became harsher – denser overstocking, increasingly brutal beatings, harder labour, and poorer nutrition and sanitation. The system was designed to break the spirit, and if necessary the body, of even the most stoic individuals.
If Con Dao was Hell on Earth, then surely the infamous tiger cages were the cruelest, darkest heart of it. Initially built by the French colonials, the cages are named for their similarity to the ghastly concrete bunkers used to house great cats in Victorian era zoos. They were reserved for the most physically or intellectually dangerous, and to serve as a disincentive to the greater prison population. Each of the tiny, overpopulated cells was roofed with an iron grating, allowing guards to supervise from above, stabbing at inmates with sharpened bamboo poles and beating them with rattan cudgels. Wooden buckets of limed water were emptied into the cells of refractory individuals, causing horrific chemical burns to skin and eyes, the fumes searing their lungs. Many of the inmates kept in these cages were irreparably crippled from this confinement, their bodies mutilated from permanent shackles, beatings, torture, wounds and malnutrition. Half starved and barely able to walk, the lucky few would pick grass and trap insects on their occasional excursions into the exercise yards, sharing their catch with fellow detainees.
The conditions at Con Dao were understatedly grim. The work details included rock breaking, felling and dragging trees, calcinating limestone, making salt, and the dreaded rice husking mill. The capital works that were built on the island are impressive in their scale, but it is sobering to realise that many are locally known by the numbers of lives lost on the project – pier 914 being an example. The policy of hard labour was designed such that an ideal prisoner would die first of exhaustion rather than beatings. The rations were barely enough to sustain life – unsalted rice and untreated water – and diseases related to malnutrition and poor sanitation such as beri-beri, dysentery, leprosy and tuberculosis were rife. For those that refused to denounce their political views, the severity of confinement, torture, sanitation and starvation could be increased without limit on the whim of the guards. For any that still refused to yield, there was always the firing squad. It’s not surprising that the inmates died in their thousands. It is estimated that 20,000 bodies were buried in unmarked pits adjacent the town’s beautiful, sweeping beach. Recently, most of these have exhumed to be reinterred in anonymous plots at the peaceful, shady parklands of Hang Duong cemetery.
I was the sole Westerner on my flight to Con Dao, amongst a plane full of Vietnamese bearing wreaths of flowers. Most of the local visitors come to pay homage to lost family or to lay tribute at the grave of Vo Ti Sau. She was the only female inmate under the French regime and was executed by firing squad at the age of 19 after two years in the tiger cages. Almost 70 years later, she is idolised as a martyr and heroine, and revered by many as a guardian angel of modern Vietnam.
Wandering amongst the silent, crumbling colonial relics, it is difficult to rationalise the peace and beauty of the island with cruelty and brutality of its past. Especially since these days, Con Dao is seen in a brighter light. A side effect of identifying and confining intellectuals is that many of the prominent leaders of the reunification of Vietnam served time here. In effect, the island’s prisons acted as the cradle of the country’s modern political system, fostering within its dark corners the very revolutionary thought that it was intending to suppress. It is a special place for the Vietnamese people – a symbol of perseverance, sacrifice and freedom. From all angles, it is a powerful place.