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Hell in Paradise - What Western tourists should go and see but don't

Con Dao beach
The beautiful, empty beach in Con Dao is a facade to a brutal, despicable past.

My Vietnamese friend had been messaging me to come visit him for his birthday. The original plan was to meet him in Dubai where he’s based but he decided that going to Con Dao would be much better. I’d lived in Vietnam for the better part of 3 years and had never heard of this place so I had to Google what he was talking about. My initial reaction was “Oh nice, a beautiful, untouched, tropical archipelago 200km off the coast of the mainland. Brilliant!” This left me with the question of “Why do western tourists not go to this place?” Only at the end of my friends birthday did the gravity of this place really hit home and the answer to this question was quite clear.

Hmm, don't eat the black part... It's nearly all black!

After three flights from Melbourne I made it to my resort on Con Dao with my friend, Binh, greeting me at the reception. A quick freshen up was desperately needed by me before we headed into town to check out the local cuisine. As we were on a little island with a thriving fishing industry it would be rude not to have a seafood dinner. There was no English on the menu so after much consultation with the waiters by Binh, dinner was ordered. A short time later the dishes started coming out. Morning glory, clams, soup….. err, what’s that??? I’d seen this thing before, but never on a plate or at a restaurant but I couldn’t remember it’s name. I was just given instruction to not eat the black part. I thought “OK, I can handle that”. It was only after I’m halfway through did I remember it’s name….. Sea urchin. There was a sudden realisation that I’m pretty sure they’re poisonous too. I was definitely a bit more careful eating the second half. Apparently, not all are poisonous though....

Day 2 in Con Dao was Binh’s birthday. We decided to explore the island and try to hang out with as many locals as possible. We borrowed a motorbike from the hotel and were off for one hell of a long day. The road to town is about 12 kilometres and is a motorcyclists dream. Smooth, sealed, windy roads that follow one of the most breath taking coastlines imaginable, all to yourself. The total population of the island is about 10,000 so there are more dogs on the road than people. Seriously, there are dogs everywhere! First stop, at the edge of town, was at a very interesting looking building. There were no signs up to say what it was used for and the building across the street had the well-faded original label above the door that said “dining room”. The roof had been removed and there was a forest of moss and ferns growing inside but from what I could see, this was no ordinary dining room.

SỞ LÒ VÔI - Nha An.... The overgrown prisoner "dining room" from the lime kiln

The island had been used as a prison since the mid-1800s by the French Colonialist to store what the West would dub as “anti-French terrorists”, but are in fact hailed as “freedom fighters” by the Vietnamese today. The French used the prisoners as slave labour and after a lot of Googling when we got home I found out that the “interesting looking building” was in fact a giant lime kiln.

The prisoners were forced to go out to the reefs and bring back coral to be put in the kiln to create materials to make buildings. Most, if not all, of them couldn’t swim so walking around in the ocean easily and quickly turned deadly. Harvesting the coral could only be done at low tide so 50% of the time would be done at night with only moonlight and candles to light the way. Broken legs, ankles and feet were a nightly occurrence. With very few medical facilities available to prisoners, death from infection was high. The “dining room” was more of a storage facility to house the workers. Lovely place for stop one and then we continued.

Stop 2 was at a nice, relaxing Buddhist pagoda on top of a mountain. I wondered why it looked so new compared to some of the other important buildings in town. Turns out it was only built in the 1960s by the U.S. as a place for the prison staff, soldiers and their families to pray. It also served as a punishment for the most important prisoners because they had to build it by hand. They carted the rocks and other materials from the foothills to the top, in the heat of the tropical sun. Reports also say that they weren’t showered or fed well during this time. From what I’m told, people today, from all over the world, send their relatives cremated remains here to live on for eternity. Not sure I’d like to be there forever. Half an hour was long enough for me.

We then did the unimaginable. We got lost. The island has about three roads. Not sure how this happened. But in every crisis there’s opportunity. We had to ask for directions which ended up with us spending half an hour at an older couples house and learned all about their history. It’s always interesting hearing the life stories of older people in this part of the world. These two were no exception.

Stop 4 was at “Human Skulls Ground”. When the French first opened the prison in 1862 a bunch of prisoners escaped. But being on an island they had nowhere to go. Over a period of 2 weeks they were hunted down. 100 were killed in the pursuit and 20 were captured alive. The surviving ones were forced to dig graves for the deceased then were thrown in with them and buried alive.

Stop 5 was lunch at the local market. I made friends with the ladies at the dried seafood section. While Binh was buying all his supplies, they kept shoveling dried squid, prawns and other unknown seafood into my mouth. They weren’t going to take “no” for an answer so my mouth was in a constant cycle of open-chew-swallow-repeat. It was like being a child again except with 5 different mothers.

Not sure what she wanted me to do with this...

After lunch we made our way to the prisons. Disabled people don’t have to pay to get in – score! A vast majority of the tourists that go to Con Dao are Vietnamese. Big groups come down from the North and get guided tours around the place. We luckily got there as one group just started. I didn’t understand what she was saying so Binh followed them, listened in, then translated to me what was said. Sneaky, sneaky 😊 The first prison was built in 1862 by the French. I counted in one cell there was room for about 80 people which had 1 long-drop-squat-toilet to be shared by all of them. Not sure how you get there though when your ankle is shackled to the floor. This prison was acceptable according to the human rights people as it had a dining area for the prisoners. Considering the age of the dining area it looks in quite good shape. It’s like the prisoners didn’t even eat there…

After the French left the Americans took over. During the American occupation, these disgusting conditions were for the well behaved or unimportant political prisoners. The high-ranking prisoners were kept separate in the French-built “Tiger Cages”. This was the next stop.

Nicknamed after the cages tigers were held in Victorian zoos, the French Tiger cages are something that need to be seen to be believed.

They’re set up so guards can poke the prisoners with sticks and throw quicklime on them, which causes the skin to burn and blindness, from above. This prison was built away from the main prison so the humanitarian people wouldn’t know about it and shut it down. In 1970, an aide to a US congressman named Tom Harkin (probably related) was tipped off about the place by a former inmate and as a result went to investigate.

The pictures he took ended up in “Life” magazine in 1970 and consequently got the prison shut down for human rights violations and rightfully so. As I walked around the place alone I ended up in the non-restored section, where tour groups aren’t meant to go. The old dilapidated rooms with barbed wire roofs that are half fallen down is one of the most eerie places I’ve ever been. Sitting by myself in cells where people only a generation ago were beaten and tortured to death is a very unsettling and humbling experience. If the walls could talk, I really wouldn’t want to know what these ones would say.

When the French Tiger Cages were shut, the Americans needed somewhere to put their prisoners, so they built a new prison where there would be no torture or violence towards the inmates.

I’ve read on the internet (so it must be true) that the company that was contracted to build this prison is the same as the one that build the prison in Guantanamo, Cuba. The American Tiger Cages were our next stop. Once again, Binh followed the tour guide to report back to me at the end which left me to guide myself around. We met at the end and before Binh could say anything I stopped him.

I didn’t want to know the details. I could see enough for myself. The cells were smaller than in the French cages. There were no beds, only a flat concrete floor with no toilet. If you needed to go, you went on the floor where you ate and slept. It is true that this prison didn’t use torture or violence on it’s inmates, they were just locked up and left to rot in their own feces. We left here needing a shower and a brain reset before we headed out for dinner. As you can imagine, it was an emotionally exhausting day. We both felt sick in our stomachs just thinking about our day. Yet it was only 5PM.

Dinner was a long drawn out affair which took us to around 11:30pm. Earlier in the day we had tried to get into the cemetery to see Vo Thi Sau’s grave but were unable to as Binh was under-dressed. First time ever I’ve been the one that is dressed appropriately. He had dressed up for dinner, so we tried again. We walked the 500 metres from the restaurant to the cemetery and every 10-20 metres there’d be a dog just walking around barking at us. We thought this was a little strange but continued on. I was expecting a ghost town when we got there but my how I was wrong. The place was packed.

Vo Thi Sau is what I would describe as the inverse Joan of Arc. Both were young girls fighting for what they believed in. Both died at age 19. Both are regarded as saints by their followers now. Only difference being that Joan of Arc fought for the French to end the English occupation of France, Vo Thi Sau fought against the French occupation of Vietnam. I have never felt more awkward and out of place in my life standing in front of her grave. The eyes of a thousand Vietnamese people seemed to be burning into me and saying “what the hell is this white guy doing here?”. All of the people there were paying homage to a girl fighting off a powerful white country, as was I, but I just couldn’t help myself in getting a photo. There was definitely no smiling by me in this photo. Not the time nor the place for smiles. It was a moving and inspiring place but we still got out of there fairly quickly. On the way home we asked the taxi driver why there were so many dogs on the island. His translated response is something I will always remember. “Our dogs are free to roam as they please on this island. We will not lock them up…. We know how that feels.”

Con Dao Island is not a place that is on the western tourist radar... yet. It isn’t a place that crazy young backpackers want to go to get drunk and has only just had the facilities put in for more mature travelers. I wish every person could go and see it and reflect upon humanity and what we are capable of. At the end of the day, the prisoners, the Communists, the Pro-Vietnamese fighters that were seen as the enemy, the bad guys, the terrorists are the ones who are now in charge of a peaceful, harmonious country. Every story has two sides and both are manipulated to make the speaker sound good. We all need to learn to listen to both sides in depth and see that neither side is bad, just different.

Happy birthday Binh...

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