Margaret Turton discovers the dark history of a peaceful island rated among the world’s best-kept secrets.
I’ve always been a sucker for meeting the locals, or at least finding out what makes them tick. The trouble is, Con Dao – which occupies eighth position among Lonely Planet’s “world’s best secret islands” – has few locals to speak of. It has few visitors, too, although that will change.
Access from the mainland has improved with increased direct flights from Ho Chi Minh City from where, in just an hour, I walk through the doors of the new Six Senses resort on Con Son, which is the largest of the 16 islands of the Con Dao archipelago.
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In striking contrast with the fast-paced city formerly known as Saigon, the resort exudes blissful calm. Spacious, private teak villas, each with an infinity pool, face a perfect scallop of sandy beach.
The views are expansive – from the pool, the sea-facing verandah or the bed festooned with nets looped around a bamboo frame.
In crystal-clear water, excellent for diving, there are huge whip coral, brain coral, sea fans, turtles, morays, blue spot rays, eagle rays and large stingrays. Eighty per cent of Con Dao is marine and national park, which is a big drawcard for the small number of Westerners who have already made it here. Yet there’s more to Con Dao than pristine nature.
The island of Con Son was once called the “Devil’s Island of south-east Asia” for its role as a political prison under French colonists, who ruled Indochina from 1862 until 1954.
The term was borrowed from their other penal colony, the Devil’s Island of French Guiana, infamous in Henri Charriere’s novel, Papillon, and its movie adaptation starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
American advisers took over Con Son’s prisons from 1955 until its inmates were liberated at the end of the Vietnam War. As a penal institution for more than a century, the archipelago avoided development. It wasn’t napalmed, which accounts for the extent of the old-growth forests and unspoilt coral reefs.
The prison’s presence is the reason most visits to date have been brief ones by government-sponsored groups of former inmates returning to remember Vietcong colleagues in the cemetery.
So, with a handful of Westerners, I set off from the resort on the Con Dao historical tour. With us is fellow guest Arlie Schardt, the press secretary to former US vice-president Al Gore. I’m guessing the day won’t be dull.
Con Son town is five kilometres from the resort along the coastal road; mountainous forest-clad interiors on one side, lush, green slopes falling to the South China Sea on the other. Crumbling buildings dating to the French occupation are scattered about.
Once in Con Son town we file through the market, a neat concrete building where household goods, sea shells and Ho Chi Minh souvenirs aimed at the fledgling tourist industry are sold. A lively fresh food and fish market spills onto the streets at the back.
This is a diminutive town with a museum that is housed within the former governor’s residence, a yellow-painted, blue-shuttered, pleasantly down-at-heel relic of France’s fallen empire.
Our guide, Mrs Ngoc, attempts to gather us together but we’re drawn to displays of objects made by prisoners: combs shaped from pieces of aircraft; fans, jewellery, embroidery; exquisite island scenes painted on wood. We wander off and stare at rows of photos of respectable-looking civilians – leaders and thinkers held prisoner here, Mrs Ngoc says.
There’s a list of governors and directors, including Lieutenant Andouard, said to be the cruellest. He was killed here by a prisoner, who was later executed. And there are the photographs of American advisers: visiting the governor’s residence; with hard labour prisoners; inspecting the prisons; planning their expansion. There are weapons and instruments of torture, too. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a small museum illustrate local history with such powerful clarity.
By the look of Mrs Ngoc, she’s not used to undisciplined groups. Such is our level of interest in this museum we’re already behind schedule.
Minutes later she has us at Phu Hai Prison, built in 1862. It held intellectuals opposed to the French, as well as anti-American soldiers and leaders such as the co-founder of the Indochinese Communist Party, Le Duc Tho, later known for negotiating the ceasefire agreement of 1973 and declining the Nobel peace prize that year.
With its tree-lined courtyard dominated by a American-built chapel, Phu Hai Prison doesn’t look like a prison. Once in the cells, though, there’s no doubting what went on. To underscore the point, shackled plaster models demonstrate the prisoners’ conditions.
Next stop are the infamous “tiger cages” of Phu Tuong Prison, built by the French in 1940 and
so-called because they resemble the concrete pits used to cage wild tigers, though here they were used for human prisoners. They were discovered in full operation by a delegation of US congressmen in 1970 and revealed to the world in a Life magazine expose soon afterwards.
News of the windowless cells with bars on the ceiling – through which guards taunted prisoners with sticks and dropped showers of caustic lime – sparked international condemnation until its male and female inmates were moved to other prisons.
We’ve entered the tiger cages at the heels of a small group of former Vietcong servicemen. They melt into the distance, leaving swirling plumes of smoke from cigarettes and incense sticks left in remembrance of their colleagues.
Again, plaster models give an extra edge to the scene. Schardt is visibly shaken. We’re all very quiet, though sometimes there’s a gasp or some sighing.
On it goes, all the way to the adjacent Phu Binh Camp, an American prison built in 1971 with even smaller cells for prisoners.
American journalist Don Luce, who accompanied the 1970 congressional delegation, claims there is a connection between the US-built Phu Binh Camp prison and the isolation cells at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. He says the US construction consortium Brown and Root, which built the cells at Phu Binh Camp, became a subsidiary of Halliburton, the controversial conglomerate that built Gitmo’s isolation cells for terrorist suspects.
So, what now for the Devil’s Island of south-east Asia?
When peace came in 1975, some former inmates chose to stay. They formed the core of a tiny permanent population that still clusters around Con Son town’s small harbour and radiates along leafy streets flanked by colonial bungalows. Their lives now move at a slower, gentler pace.
Previously, a twist of fate saved Con Dao from development. Now Six Senses is here with the company’s “slow life” philosophy on sustainable tourism, its fussiness about treading lightly and its mandatory environment-awareness training for staff, which includes a viewing of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.
It could be goodbye devil and hello to a clear blue sea.
Margaret Turton travelled courtesy of Travel Indochina.
Travel Indochina has a low-season return airfare and accommodation package fare with Vietnam Airlines from Sydney and Melbourne to Con Son for $2320 a person, twin share, including taxes, airport transfers, one night at the InterContinental Asiana Saigon and five nights with breakfast at Six Senses Con Dao. This entails a flight to Ho Chi Minh City (about 9hr) and the overnight stay to connect with a flight to Con Son (45min). Phone Travel Indochina on 1300 367 666; see travelindochina.com.au.
Australians require a visa ($90) for stays of up to 30 days.
InterContinental Asiana Saigon has rooms from $91 a person a night, twin share.
Six Senses Con Dao has an ocean-view deluxe villa for $295 a person a night, twin share, booked through Travel Indochina; see travelindochina.com.au and sixsenses.com/sixsensescondao.
The Six Senses Con Dao guided historical tour costs 750,000 dong ($35) a person. Also recommended is the self-guided (free) bicycle tour from the resort. Museum entrance of 20,000 dong covers prison entrance. Opening hours are erratic.
Source: The Age