We spent four days of luxury on a remote island in the South China Sea (or, as it’s called in Vietnam – where they’re not big fans of everything Chinese – the East Sea). Today Con Dao is an island paradise with beautiful beaches, coral reefs, incredible water, with the tourist industry just starting to take off. It hasn’t always been so idyllic, however, and it’s history had as much appeal for us as the natural beauty.
The first westerner to note the island was Marco Polo, but the French put it on the map in the 19th century when they created a penal colony for Vietnamese nationalists, then known as Paolo Condore. By the mid-20th century the prison and it’s notorious “tiger cages” had become something of a graduate school for those who would eventually throw off both the French and Americans. When the French left, the South Vietnamese government took control and used it against the Viet Cong and other opponents of the regime.
To make it more personal for us, the brutal conditions and torture there were brought to light by Tom Harkin, then a young congressional staffer. He was with a small group sent to investigate conditions on the island. The tiger cages were certainly not on the official route but, having been given a map by a former prisoner of where the torture took place, Harkin gained access and took a number of pictures. He refused to give the film to either the prison officials or the members of Congress on the tour, instead getting them published in Life magazine.
I remember the controversy, but strangely when we found the Life pictures online they seemed, well, modest. That is, they didn’t show guards actually beating prisoners or anything like that. Still, there is no doubting the impact they had at the time; along with discovery of the My Lai massacre, the testimony from former prisoners of being held in cages in the brutal heat with no water and the beatings they endured became an important turning point in bringing Americans to realize the evil they were perpetrating in Vietnam.
Having refused to turn over the film to the head of the Congressional delegation, Harkin lost his job. Ultimately, things worked out for him over the long run.
Knowing that history, the natural beauty of the island is even more stunning. We splurged at a gorgeous resort with a private mile-long beach of perfect sand and gentle water. I did a 30-mile bike ride out around part of the island and felt as though I could have been in the most perfect parts of the Mediterranean. And the food, both at our resort and in the small town of perhaps 5,000 that makes up the bulk of the island’s population, was wonderful.
Here it is in all its glory.