Con Dao may be a present day paradise, but its recent history is the stuff of nightmares. The best place to understand more about what this beautiful island had gone through.
From 1862 to 1975, Con Son Island was a brutal prison used first by the French, then the American-backed government. Horrific doesn’t begin to describe the treatment and torture the prisoners suffered. A visit to the free Con Dao Museum is an essential primer for this dark chapter and it should be your first stop before exploring the island’s prisons and other historic sites.
Opened in 2013, the purpose built Con Dao Museum (Bao Tang Con Dao) starts with some prehistory before quickly diving into the island’s harrowing past. The English sign translations in the museum can be a bit wonky but otherwise, it’s definitely worth spending an hour in. From the entrance, move clockwise.
For 113 years, Con Dao was a hell on earth. During French colonial times, approximately 2,000 people were jailed here. During American involvement, there were 4,000 in 1960, 8,000 from 1967 to 1969, 10,000 from 1970 to 1972. When the people were finally liberated, there were 7,448 in the prison, of which 4234 political convicts and 3214 were civilian and military offenders. Over the years the captives were political dissidents, communists and Viet Cong, but also any other citizens that the government wanted to break and make disappear: writers, student protestors, Buddhists, people who refused to salute the flag. The museum explains the hard labor and methods of torture used. The black and white photos are chilling and not for the faint of heart.
One important section is the information about the “tiger cages” which you can later see at Trai Phu Truong Prison. People were held like animals in these cells and you’ll learn how they were discovered, along with some of Tom Harkin’s photos published in Life Magazine that exposed this crime again humanity to the world. If you have time you can also read a report written by five students who were incarcerated and survived.
Any historical tour of Con Dao and its prisons should start at the museum. It provided you with the historical chronology of the island which brings the other sites to life.