Côn Đảo Part 2 – Midnight in the Cemetery: A Vigil for Võ Thị Sáu
By Dave Fox
Côn Sơn Island (Côn Đảo), Vietnam
This article is part two in a three-part series about Côn Sơn Island, in southern Vietnam’s Côn Đảo Archipelago. Part one explored the island’s ghastly jails, where political prisoners were tortured for more than a century.
It’s midnight in Hàng Dương Cemetery. The air is choked with black, acrid smoke, rising up from small bonfires all around me.
Around 300 people have gathered in the cemetery at this late hour. They bow to monuments and tombstones, whispering quiet prayers as military music spills from nearby speakers.
With both hands clasped together, the spirit worshipers wave fistfuls of incense. For the dead, they leave offerings of food, rice wine, and white flowers. They burn symbolic, fake money and fake cardboard clothes, believing the smoke will lift their offerings into the spirit world. The burning of plastic wrapping and laminate coating on the cardboard items adds an eerie, stifling stench to the air.
This graveyard vigil happens every night at this hour, according to my tour guide, Trương Ái Vân.
“People believe at night, the dead people hear their wishes,” she explains. “They think the good time is 12 o’clock.”
Crowds often linger until two or three a.m., she adds.
They have come by the busload, many on organized tours, to pay their respects to the estimated 20,000 political prisoners who died in Côn Đảo’s notorious jails. In particular, they are here to honor Võ Thị Sáu, a teenage guerrilla fighter who fought against the French governors of Vietnam.
A schoolgirl from a poor family, Võ Thị Sáu joined a resistance movement in 1948. At age 14, she lobbed a grenade at a group of French soldiers, killing a captain and wounding 12 other men. Two years later, she was captured by the French after another grenade, which she had thrown at a pro-France Vietnamese man, failed to explode.
In 1952, at age 19, Võ Thị Sáu became the first female to be executed on Côn Sơn. Killed by gunshot on a nearby beach, she became a national martyr.
While the Côn Đảo Archipelago lies south of the Vietnamese mainland, a majority of visitors here are from northern Vietnam, Vân tells me. There are two reasons for this.
Belief in ghosts, she says, is stronger in the north. In addition, the prisons, administered by the French until 1954, and by the South Vietnamese Army under American supervision after that time, were used to incarcerate Việt Minh and Việt Cộng fighters who were aligned with the Communist North.
At Võ Thị Sáu’s tomb, people pray to her spirit. They ask her to grant them wishes. At a nearby monolith, they pray for peace. They leave offerings too at hundreds of other graves, many of which contain prisoners of unknown identity.
In all of my travels, I’ve never seen anything like this.
From what I can tell, my friend Jeff Nesmith, a Saigon-based videographer, and I are the only foreigners in the cemetery. We are both American. It feels awkward being surrounded by people who are honoring, so passionately, soldiers who fought against the United States. But nobody appears to pay us any attention.
As I wrote earlier this week, Côn Đảo sees few foreign tourists in spite of its stunning beaches. The crowds that do come are Vietnamese. Most are not here to splash in the East Sea, as Vietnam calls the South China Sea.
Many, according to Vân, come for one night, solely to take part in this midnight vigil. Some of them fly. Many more come on a rough but inexpensive, 12-hour sea crossing from the port town of Vũng Tàu. They pay their respects. Then they leave.
While Côn Sơn is marred by a horrific past, today it is also a rare gem, an idyllic speck of land with pristine beaches, unscarred by tourism, in spite of the fact that the island an easy, 45-minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City.
Many people believe Côn Sơn is haunted by the ghosts of those who perished here. Once you see the prisons, whether you believe in ghosts or not, it’s hard to ignore a tormented energy that hangs in the air.
Yet spite of that, Côn Sơn today also has an optimistic side – a nature-fueled bliss and an uncrowded calm, which make the island well worth visiting for reasons other than to witness its troubled history.
The cemeteries are places Jeff and I could not ignore. But on other days, we dove into the happier facets of Côn Đảo. Next week, in part three of this series, I’ll share what we found – and I’ll explain how to get to the island, even if it seems all flights are sold out.