Xin Chào from Côn Đảo,
We are on Côn Đảo, a group of islands due south from Hồ Chí Minh City. The 16 islands look like they all formed the volcano and we are staying on the rim. The beachfront is within the massive crater, now filled by encroached seawater.
It’s a warm day so the beach looks like the first priority after arriving. The water is not just tropical warm but very warm. So warm that Linda opines that she would ordinarily run a bath at this temperature. And you need to swim out quite a distance before feeling pockets of coolth.
This morning we hired a scooter to explore the southern coastline. At one headland, the scene in front was arresting enough to elicit several “oohs” and “aaars” from the pillion passenger, followed by quite a few “wows”. We had found the place to stop.
The unpopulated beach in front of us, known as Bãi Nhát, was a beautiful sandy expanse with shallow turquoise water. The difference between air temperature and water temperature was fairly negligible but we were happy lolling about there for the balance of the morning, on a flawless sunny day. Linda’s supply of superlatives ran out pretty quickly. “This is the best beach in Asia,” she exclaimed at one stage (and many dear readers will be aware that Linda is not prone to rash hyperbole! Not much, anyway).
“not contrary to Vietnamese custom and practice”
Perhaps the best feature was the complete absence of other people (most of the time). I’m pleased to report that we did observe the requirements of the sign at the access point, which inveigled us to “behave in a way which is not contrary to Việtnamese custom and practice”. This is yet another beautiful natural site in this beautiful country.
“a sad place”
Despite resembling a tropical paradise, to many Việtnamese people who live on the mainland, Côn Đảo is a sad place ( “buon”, said Huong wistfully). This is because on the main island, Cõn Sơn, there is an old prison. This is Phú Hải Prison, just up the road from where we have been gallivanting in the warm water. Phú Hải is in fact the biggest of eleven gaols built by the French on this island.
After visiting this defining monument this afternoon, it’s easy to see why many contemporary Việtnamese are horrified by the history. The large cells housed hundreds seated on concrete blocks, shackled to the floor. The food rations were appallingly deficient and many of these political prisoners – there because they opposed the régime – were shockingly emaciated. Many photographs from the American War show inmates with rib cages protruding, such were their enforced privations. In groups being shown around the gaol by local guides today, several people had wet faces.
barbarism and brutality
It’s estimated that 20 000 died in these prisons during both the French and American wars. Being here evokes a profound emotion: much, much more than the trite ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ homily. This is war where one side brutalises, isolates and demoralises their opposition, only to find the balance of the populace becoming even angrier, even more resolute. This is war, where one side forgets the history and ignores the psychology. Here on Côn Đảo, the French and the Americans sealed their own fates with barbarism and brutality.
Tôn Đưc Thãng survived 15 years in Phú Hải Prison here on Côn Dáo. He later served as President of a united Việt Nam, and was described in a museum here as a ‘resilient and exemplary revolutionist’ and ‘an intimate warrior of Hồ Chí Minh’. That resolution Uncle Tôn personified came directly from the inhumanity of the French here on Côn Đáo.
Võ Thị Sáu
Côn Đáo is also famous for a nineteen-year-old girl called Võ Thị Sáu, a celebrated Việtnamese hero. Even uneducated Việtnamese know this woman’s name and her fate here on Côn Đáo. She was executed by the French at age 19 after courageously throwing grenades into enemy fortifications. She defiantly and famously sang independence ditties on her way to the gallows.
This is a beautiful place with a sordid past. With the passage of time, more visitors will see the former and not the latter. This is one of the most beautiful places in Việt Nam – and that’s saying something because this country has so much beauty – but the tourist also has a duty to know the darker side, too. Frolicking in the tropical paradise needs a temporal context, too. Fair enough.
hẹn gặp lại from Côn Đáo