Côn Đảo Part 1: The Prisons of Côn Sơn Island
This Vietnamese island is a tropical paradise with a tortured past
By Dave Fox
Côn Sơn Island (Côn Đảo Archipelago), Vietnam
At first glance, Côn Sơn Island looks like the kind of place that only exists in Photoshopped tourism brochures. Palm trees rustle in the breeze. Turquoise waters lap up on white, sandy beaches, which are virtually void of people. On this particular afternoon, as I sit at a table near the sand and look out at the other rugged, nearby islands in the Côn Đảo Archipelago, I have the entire beach to myself.
There’s an unsettling reason, however, why this island in the South China Sea, or the East Sea as Vietnam calls it, feels so quiet. Many people believe Côn Sơn is haunted – by tormented ghosts from a horrific past.
I came to Côn Sơn Island (sometimes referred to as Côn Đảo Island) with my friend, Jeff Nesmith, a videographer who lives down the street from me in Ho Chi Minh City. We had read before we arrived about how Côn Sơn served as a “prison island” for more than a century. Once we got here, we discovered the island’s secretive compounds were more than just jails. They were torture chambers.
A Tour of Torture
We flew to the Côn Đảo Islands Sunday morning on a 6 a.m. flight from Ho Chi Minh City, and spent our first day getting our bearings. On Monday, we hired Trương Ái Vân, an English-speaking guide, for a motorbike tour of Côn Sơn. Vân took us to three of the island’s eleven prisons and told us about their history.
French governors had the first prison built in 1861 as a place to detain and demoralize Vietnamese citizens rebelling against colonial rule. When the French ended their occupation in 1954, they turned that prison and several others over to the South Vietnamese Army, who, under the supervision of American advisors, used them to house captured Viet Cong fighters and sympathizers.
At Phú Tương Prison, we saw the so-called “tiger cages,” installed by the French in the 1940s to contain what Vân called the “most dangerous” prisoners. The prison contained 120 such cages.
Viet Cong were held here, five or six people per single, cramped cell. They were stripped naked and shackled at the ankles with thick iron bars. For a toilet, they shared a bucket.
Instead of ceilings, the tiger cages had criss-crossed bars on top. From a second floor, Vân explained, prison guards could prod and beat the prisoners below with long rods. They would throw a mixture of water and lyme on the prisoners, causing severe skin burns.
Malnourishment was rampant. Prisoners were fed little more than rice. On occasions when they were given a bit of meat or fish, Vân said, the food would first be left to sit in the scorching heat for days until it grew tainted with dysentary-causing bacteria. The stench of excrement was ghastly.
Another holding area was known as the “solarium.” The solarium had no roof, forcing naked prisoners to sit in direct, scorching sunlight for days on end.
At another prison, the roof was made of corrugated metal, which grew hot in the tropical sun and heated the room to unbearable levels. A common torture method, according to Vân, was to repeatedly slam the cells’ steel doors.
I didn’t get how that could be torturous until she opened and slammed a door for me once. For prisoners, the repeated smashing of metal on metal echoed unbearably as they lay there, dehydrated, starving, beaten, and suffering from a long list of other physical ailments, until finally, they lost their sanity.
“They wanted to kill their minds, not only their bodies,” Vân said.
A Ghastly Discovery
The reason the torture continued as long as it did is that it remained hidden. Few people knew how brutal conditions were inside the prisons, or even that the tiger cages existed.
In the 1960s, prisoners who were released after being tortured came forward and reported what had happened to them. In 1970, a US delegation consisting of US Congressional Representatives Augustus Hawkins and William Anderson, Congressional Aid Tom Harkin (who would later become a senator), USAID Office of Public Safety Director Frank Walton, and Don Luce, a translator employed in Vietnam at the time by the World Council of Churches, went to investigate the claims.
In an article he wrote for Historians Against the War, Luce describes what happened when they arrived, and the cover-up that they uncovered:
“On the way out [to the island] Frank Walton, the U.S. prison advisor, described Côn Sơn as being like ‘a Boy Scout Recreational Camp.’ It was, he said, ‘the largest prison in the Free World.’
“We saw a very different scene when we got to the prison. Using maps drawn by a former Tiger Cage prisoner, we diverted from the planned tour and hurried down an alleyway between two prison buildings. We found the tiny door that led to the cages between the prison walls. A guard inside heard the commotion outside and opened the door. We walked in.
“The faces of the prisoners in the cages below are still etched indelibly in my mind: the man with three fingers cut off; the man (soon to die) from Quảng Trị province whose skull was split open; and the Buddhist monk from Huế who spoke intensely about the repression of the Buddhists. I remember clearly the terrible stench from diarrhea and the open sores where shackles cut into the prisoners’ ankles. ‘Donnez-moi de l’eau’ (Give me water), they begged. They sent us scurrying between cells to check on other prisoners’ health and continued to ask for water….
Harkin photographed the prisoners and conditions in which they lived. He published his photos in Life magazine on July 17, 1970. As a result, that area of the prison was closed and many prisoners were released.
Between 1861 and 1975, it is estimated around 20,000 people died in the prisons of Côn Đảo. Some were executed. Others were beaten to death, worked to death, or starved to death. The prisons were closed for good when the war ended in 1975.
The first woman to be executed on the island was Võ Thị Sáu. Born in 1933, she became a guerilla fighter against the French at age 14. She was arrested by French authorities in late 1949, and shot to death in January, 1952 at the age of 19. She is buried in the Côn Đảo cemetery.
A vigil is held for her every night at midnight. On the night Jeff and I went to witness the vigil, around 300 people had shown up to pay their respects and burn symbolic offerings.
In part two in this series, I’ll have the full story of our midnight trip to the graveyard on an island many people believe is haunted.
In part three, coming next week, we’ll explore the happier side to Côn Sơn, as the island today looks to the future. I’ll also explain how to book elusive plane tickets when it looks like all of the flights to the island are sold out.
Island Tours: Trương Ái Vân offers private, English-language tours of Côn Sơn at very reasonable prices. She also runs Côn Đảo Travel and can assist with accommodations and other arrangements. You can e-mail her at email@example.com, or phone +84 – 919 55 10 99.