Xin Chào from Côn Đảo,
When the French colonised Việt Nam in the mid-19th century, they enforced their will on a proud people with brutality and strength. One little-known site here on Côn Đảo exemplifies this as well as any. In 1862 Colonel Roussex ordered 20 prisoners to dig the graves for dozens of murdered dissidents. The French colonel then buried the 20 alive in a mass grave. Today, the understated commemoration has the title “Human Skulls Field”.
It’s not difficult to see why the undercurrent of anti-French rage existed throughout Indochina. Hồ Chí Minh, himself a fluent speaker of French, travelled to France in the early part of the twentieth century, helping to found the French Communist Party there. He wrote that one of the surprises he found there was that most French people were actually ideologically opposed to the colonisation in Indochina, too.
Later, when imprisoned by the Chinese in 1942, Hồ Chí Minh wrote poetry.
Death rather than servitude! Everywhere is my country
The flags of insurrection again proudly flutter.
Oh, how sad at such a time to be a prisoner!
To rush into battle, I wish I could be free!Hồ Chí Minh
Võ Thị Sáu
Into this ongoing battle for freedom was born – in 1933 – Võ Thị Sáu. When she was 14 years, she threw a grenade into a group of French soldiers near a market, killing one and injuring a dozen. She escaped by melting into the crowd. Later that year she joined the Việt Minh and became a guerrilla contact. When she threw a grenade into another group it failed to go off and she was caught. She was the first woman to be executed at Côn Đảo. Legend has it that she loudly sang resistance songs as she was led off to the execution. She was 19 years old.
She is a posthumous national hero today, especially for Việtnamese women. Her grave in Côn Đảo is permanently adorned with flowers, jewellery, food, incense and other offerings. Every night at midnight you will find local people paying homage to their slain hero.
If Việt Nam is a patriarchal society on the change, it’s women like Võ Thį Sáu who bravely led the way. She would have been proud to have played a small part in such positive national change. She wanted a free and independent Việt Nam but she also wanted women to play an equal role.
Women here are indebted to her example and most of them know the story as though it happened today. When I mentioned on four separate occasions – as a piece of light conversation – that I was travelling to Côn Đảo, all of the Vietnamese women independently linked the island to the story of Võ Thį Sáu. On each occasion, their introduction of the hero’s name was unsolicited.
Võ Thį Sáu is revered by Việtnamese women as a model: feminine but forthright; dainty but daring; gentle but defiant. In a ghastly premature death, she has established an enduring legacy. Out of the tragedy, there is a nation who are thankful.
Hẹn gặp lại from Côn Đảo