Con Dao islands, Vietnam: War, peace, and Baby Turtles

The Côn Đao islands in southern Vietnam are a tourist paradise that is still not used to tourists


An old prison in Côn Đao. Photographs: Bishan Samaddar
An old prison in Côn Đao. Photographs: Bishan Samaddar

One thing was as crystal clear as the water lapping at the pristine beach. The sea turtle is no Bengali mother. My mother would not let me go to school without a carefully packed tiffin box, sharpened pencils and a clean folded handkerchief. The sea turtle mother’s job is done once she lays her eggs, the size of ping-pong balls, on the beach in the dead of night and covers her tracks. Two months later, the squirming baby turtles hatch and find their way to the sea on their own.

“They just know which way the sea is,” says our guide, Ai Van Truong from Con Dao Travel. They certainly do, as they scramble and scuttle across the wet sand, trampling over each other in their rush, their little flippers pedalling fiercely, riding the rolling high tide into their great (and dangerous) adventure. Oh, baby, baby, it’s a wild world.

About 90% will not make it, Truong says ruefully. I don’t want to think about that as I watch the gallant little flotilla vanish into the blue waters. We are on Bay Canh island, in the Côn Đao archipelago to the south of the Vietnamese mainland, about an hour’s turboprop flight from the raucous bustle of Ho Chi Minh City. When the last turtle disappears, our little group of four seems to be the only living creatures on the white beach. But as the tide recedes, new life pops up in the tidal pools of the coral reef—electric blue clams gulp, tiny fish flit, squishy sea cucumbers bask placidly between the rocks.

The Côn Đao islands were not supposed to be for the likes of us. One of us could not bike. The other could not swim. That left us singularly ill-equipped for an island famous for scuba-diving, snorkelling and bike rides to far-flung beaches.

The Tiger Cages.
The Tiger Cages.

But these islands can entrance even the most inept of adventure tourists. There’s the cuteness factor of endangered baby turtles and the knowledge that somewhere in these waters the rarely seen dugongs are grazing on sea grasses. The empty beaches are unspoilt and the white coral crunches underfoot. In the lush rainforest covering the hillsides, imperial pigeons flutter and jet-black squirrels, only found here, scamper up and down the trees.

There’s more to Côn Đao, however, than that picture-postcard tropical paradise beauty unsullied by giant resorts and massage parlours. Most of the other passengers on our flight to Côn Son, the main island, were Vietnamese families clutching enormous bouquets of white lilies and orchids. Over 20,000 Vietnamese died on these islands in prisons built by the French and the Americans for political dissidents. Like the Andamans, these were faraway islands whose remoteness made them ideal as settings for prisons. The Côn Đao prisons, 11 in all, were the longest running prisons in all of Indochina, lasting from 1862-1975. Ten thousand Vietnamese were imprisoned here between 1970-72 during the American war (the Second Indochina War). Their families still come to pay tribute, often at midnight (which they regard as a particularly auspicious time), at the sprawling Hàng Duong Cemetery. For them, this is about a pilgrimage, not snorkelling.

A rancher extracting baby turtles.
A rancher extracting baby turtles.

Võ Thį Sáu is buried here. She was a schoolgirl, barely 14 when she was arrested in 1949 for throwing grenades at French soldiers and a Vietnamese sympathizer. She was the first woman executed at the prison in 1952. Many leave flowers, incense, and as a memento to her truncated girlhood, mirrors and combs, on her grave. But only some 700 graves bear the names of the dead. The rest just have vases of plastic water lilies next to unmarked plaques.

Baby turtles ready to be released into the sea.
Baby turtles ready to be released into the sea.

The notorious “Tiger Cages”, where prisoners were tortured, are deceptively innocuous, the cells as orderly as classrooms in a school building. Then you see the life-size mannequins of bare-bodied, demonic guards, pouring quicklime through the bars of the open-roofed pens on to emaciated, shackled prisoners huddled in the little cells. When the prisons were finally shut down, many of those who survived were so disabled by atrophied muscles that they could never walk again. They shuffled around pushing little wooden stools. One of those stools is displayed at the Côn Đao museum, more heartbreaking than many of the more obvious implements of torture—iron pliers, bamboo sticks, rattan rods, and bludgeons. The prisons feel strangely peaceful now, picturesquely sandwiched between hills and sea. The only sound is the occasional scooter whizzing past on the empty streets, the lowing brown cows grazing outside, and the buzz of huge dragonflies heralding rain.

The prisons are carefully preserved, almost antiseptic in their neatness, but the ghosts of Côn Đao suffuse the town with a quiet melancholy that is ineffable and, thus, somehow far more poignant than the blunt propaganda of a war museum. This is the stillness in the heart of darkness. The streets are wide but empty, the sidewalks scattered with fallen almonds from the grand old trees that line the boulevards. The prison, like everything else, shuts at 11 every morning for lunch for an hour and a half. The food stalls at the Côn Son market, which probably open as early as 6am when the fishing boats come in, empty out by 10am. Many of the creamy yellow French colonial villas with red-tiled roofs are mouldering into ruin, their colours faded. Only the green moss on their walls is brightly alive. At the Côn Son Café, once the old French customs house, service is desultory but the view of the sea is breathtaking. Camille Saint-Saëns sat here once and composed the Brunhilde opera. Now, Vietnamese pop burbles out of the loudspeakers. But you can tune that out as you sit outside and watch the darkness settle over the fishing boats moored at the jetty. The jetty is called Wharf 914. It is said 914 prisoners died building it. The dark inseam of its history runs through everything in Côn Đao.

It does not, however, weigh down Côn Son town, which is cheerfully laid-back. Every now and then government loudspeakers crackle to life, spewing propaganda into the quiet languor, but the warm and hip Infiniti Café & Lounge still keeps playing Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You. At the rain-washed cemetery, one of the incense-carrying Vietnamese mourners wears a Star Wars T-shirt, obviously without any sense of irony. At the little night market laden with sea snails and squid and crabs, boisterous groups, sitting on the street drinking cheap beer and loudly singing karaoke, beckon us to join them. We order via pantomime since no one speaks English. Late at night, when everything else is quiet, and we walk on the moonlit beach, we can still hear the strains of faraway karaoke, tuneless in the sea-hushed night.

We are curiosities on this island, visited mostly by Vietnamese war survivors and European scuba-divers. “Where are you from?” asks the friendly ticket collector at the Phú Tho prison. “India,” we reply. He looks puzzled. We sometimes feel as if we are the first Indians to land on Côn Đao. When we show India on a map, a bulb goes off in his head. He mimics a bindi on his forehead. Everyone knows the bindi because the biggest Indian export to Vietnam is the TV show Balika Vadhu. Waitresses tell us their mothers and grandmothers are addicted to it. Even here in Côn Son, home to only about 5,000-7,000 people, every evening as we walk down the street, we can look into living rooms and see a huddle of women watching Balika Vadhu dubbed in Vietnamese.

I have never watched the soap but it’s a small point of connection in a world that feels truly far away. As our plane takes off from the tiny Côn Son airport, I peer out of the window at the crescent of white beach and the dark green forested slopes of the hills. Rain clouds are gathering over the hilltop. I realize that for the first time in our travels through South-East Asia, no one has tried to sell us anything—no marijuana, no cyclo rides, no tacky seashell souvenirs. It’s a tourist paradise that’s still not used to tourists.

I think of Côn Đao often, not with the sort of dreamy nostalgia one has for breathtakingly beautiful places, but with a tenderness that’s reserved for those few that have no idea how beautiful they are. I do not know if I will ever return to those islands, but those turtles we released, if they survive, will come back one day to lay their eggs on the same beach where they were once born. I hope the beach will still be as empty, as pristine, as welcoming.

I’ll be rooting for them.

Trip planner

Go

Fly to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) via Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Vasco Airlines offers connections to Côn Đao from HCMC.

Stay

If you have the money, there is the luxurious Six Senses resort where Brangelina frolicked in happier times.

Eat

Thu Ba for Vietnamese food, Infiniti Café & Lounge for Western food, OT for freshly prepared seafood, Côn Son market for breakfast.

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