Con Son, also known as Indochina’s Devil’s Island, is the main isle of the remote archipelago of Con Dao, lurking quietly, far out in the turquoise South China Sea, just off the coast of southern Vietnam. Today, it is mainly visited by northern Vietnamese war veterans, who had once been incarcerated here during the infamous American campaign last century. They come to pay respects to their fallen colleagues and, I imagine, in an attempt to reconcile themselves with the brutality they were forced to endure here.
It was The French who built most of the prisons in this beautiful place, during their colonisation of the country. The lock-ups were used to keep those natives who had the audacity to rebel against France’s colonial ambitions. Almost twenty years after The French were kicked out, the United States put the jails to bad use once more, when they transferred Viet Cong fighters here to be imprisoned in the infamous ‘Tiger Cages’.
This is a ‘Tiger Cage’ !
A pit with a barred grill as a ceiling, so that the guards, like demented circus trainers, could stab at the inmates below with thick bamboo poles. These torturers also threw lime onto their captives to blind them and scorch their skin.
For those ‘lucky’ enough to avoid these hellish holes, an altogether different abode awaited. Known as solariums, these were stone cells, completely open to the fierce sunlight. Made to share these compounds with hundreds of others, naked and without room to even lay down, these men and women literally baked alive under the punishing, equatorial sun.
The Americans denied the existence of these killing rooms, much like the waterboading which took place at Guantanamo Bay. But, in 1970, they were forced to admit their cruelty. A journalist, on a controlled congressional visit to the gaol, had in his posession a secret map, drawn by an ex-con, and detailing the whereabouts of the rumoured ‘Tiger Cages’. He managed to break off from the main group, and following a path leading behind a vegetable plot, used as camouflage, he discovered these brutal cells. ‘Life’ magazine then published his photos for the world to see.
America was shamed and forced to apologise. Just another example that none of the participants in that fatal conflict conducted themselves with anything near flying colours. The Geneva Convention was torn up and fed to the big cats.
It was a very eerie visit. To walk through a gate, leaving paradise feet behind, and to be confronted by a genuine house of horror. The atmosphere was a heavy as the iron manacles which still lay on the hard stone floors. It was difficult to remember we were in an exotic heaven when surrounded by such barbaric history. The imaginative evil to which Man is able to stoop during war is beyond imagination.
We were pleased to leave !
Not before giving one of the guards a disrespectful hand to lighten our mood. A shameful act for a shameful place!
Thankfully, the rest of the island is a delight. Cobalt blue waters, emerald mountains, abundant wildlife, and best of all, no Starbucks in sight ! It would be very interesting to return in ten years time, to see if Ronald Macdonald has kept his grubby hands of the place. Perhaps the heavy red glove of the communist government will hold back any of his commercial clowning. Although, having just spent six days in Saigon, I very much doubt it. Change maybe at a glacial pace here, but at some point the floodwaters of commerce will surely overrun the islet’s innocent defences. Paradise, after all, never endures !
We took a motorbike to see the rest of the island. It was glorious, the ride, however, was not. I hadn’t ridden for several years, and saddled with a hungover hunk, by the name of Andrew Kennedy, riding pillion, we must have looked like ‘George And Mildred’ as we wobbled precariously along the precipitous roads.
We stopped for lunch at a local village, or rather, the only other village! Our hosts were so polite and engaging, that we thought it churlish to refuse their fishy offering. The ‘head chef’ sat with us and prepared the frightful feast. He seemed to take a shine to me, and I was therefore offered all the best bits of this marine meal. First, he fed me a fish eye, which glared at me angrily before he chopsticked it into my gob. Then, I sampled some gill and something quite unrecognisable that came from the fish’s midrift. Finally, with a flourish, I was presented with a type of organ, which flapped between the sticks before it slithered down my gullet. It was most unappealing.
Andrew looked on, with barely suppressed hilarity, as he escaped most of this fishy torture. He was, however, offered the head of the creature to munch on, as a digestif. Our cook was taking no prisoners when it came to his selection of menu!
A day later, and I can still taste the overdose of iron in my mouth. It is like I have had a flagon of fish liver force fed. A faceful ! I doubt I shall ever be able to contemplate a plate of cod and chips again !
In the evening, still with bass breath, we joined the local game of Bingo. A manic affair, run by two terribly stern looking drag queens, resembling camp guards from the tv show ‘Tenko’!
The numbers were sung, at lightning speed, by a flat singer in sequins. Without the help of the charming ‘Miss Hassan’ lookalike, we would have been lost. She kindly handed Andrew a white piece of chalk with which to cross off his numbers. He misunderstood, and much to everyones amusement, he put the chalk into his mouth and began to chew, thinking it was a sweet. He spat it out once he eventually realised his inedible error, but at least it had got rid of the flavour of fish bonce that was still lingering on his palate.
Needless to say, we didn’t win!
I think something fishy may have been going on here too, as the same man won three cases of Tiger beer in a row.
We had to buy ours!
It was a fun night, and the bottled Tiger and the Bingo cage, helped to erase the memory of our visit to the other ‘Tiger Cages’ the previous day, which was most definitely the pits !
Tomorrow we head for the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
But we shall not forget Con Dao, with it’s beauty and bestiality. It is a place where nature still roars at her most magnificent.