Con Dao Island, off the coast of southern Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, was once named “hell on earth”, with painful memories of French colonialists and the Americans turning the island into a prison to hold Vietnamese revolutionary soldiers during wartime. Today, Con Dao has become an attractive tourist island for both domestic and foreign visitors.
Dam Trau Beach
From the beginning of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th century, Con Dao was continuously occupied by French colonialists and the US imperialists, serving as the largest prison system in Indochina with the most draconian rule in history.
From 1861 to 1975, French colonialists and American imperialists built 127 detention rooms, 44 cells, and 504 isolated 'Tiger Cages’ at Con Dao Prison which were used to jail and torture Vietnamese revolutionary soldiers. In 2012, the Con Dao historical complex, which comprises 17 sites including the Bac Ai, Cong Hoa, and Nhan Vi prisons, Ma Thien Lanh Bridge, and Hang Duong Cemetery, was recognised as a special national relic.
Visitors to the Con Dao historical site can witness the reproduction of the scene of prisoners being detained in the French-styled ‘Tiger Cage’ area. The area consists of 120 solitary confinement rooms and 60 “sunbathing” rooms, which were used by the colonialists and imperialists to torture 2,000 prisoners using the most gruesome methods and techniques, such as drying in the sun, pouring lime into the body, and splashing water.
There are also many other places in the island which contribute to its name as “hell on earth”, including the Pier 914, where 914 prisoners lost their lives due to hard labour to construct the 130m-long and 4.8m-wide pier; Island Lord Palace, which was the residence and working place of 53 rulers of the island; and Hang Duong Cemetery, which is the resting place of thousands of revolutionary soldiers and patriotic prisoners.
A model depicting a supervisor torturing prisoners in “tiger cages” in Phu Binh prison (Photo: Vietnam Pictorial)
According to the Con Dao relic management board, Con Dao Prison accommodated more than 20,000 prisoners over its 113 years. Statistics have shown that about 20,000 revolutionary soldiers died on this island, including patriot Nguyen An Ninh, late Party General Secretary Le Hong Phong, and heroes of the people’s armed forces Vo Thi Sau and Ho Van Nam.
Con Dao has achieved a spectacular makeover over the past 20 years. In the past, tourists might have been afraid of the quiet and deserted atmosphere on the island, but now they are provided with diverse travel experiences. The infrastructure on Con Dao has significantly improved and the island’s tourism has increased linkage with other localities to meet the increasing demands of holidaymakers.
Rising from its dark history, in recent years, Con Dao has become an attractive destination on Vietnam’s tourism map. The island has won the praise of prestigious foreign travel magazines, with descriptions such as “a paradise of nature” and “one of the most beautiful islands on the planet”.
Tourists explore the mangrove system in Con Dao. (Photo: Vietnam Pictorial)
As one of travel businesses providing tours to Con Dao tours for many years, Doan Ngoc Tung, General Director of MTV Vietnam International Tourism Joint Stock Company, said that Con Dao has been a ‘hot-search’ destination in recent years and his company’s tours to the islands are always fully booked soon after being launched.
He attributed the island’s attractiveness to the charming natural scenery and meaningful historical sites, which allow travellers to relax in a peaceful and nostalgic space.
Tran Dinh Khoa, a tourist from Hanoi, shared that during his family’s trip to Con Dao this July, he joined his children to visit historical sites on the island so that the children could learn more about the heroic fighting tradition and great sacrifices of those who have fallen for the nation’s construction and defence, thus raising their awareness of the value of peace and independence.
To help Con Dao tourism take off, the provincial authorities of Ba Ria – Vung Tau are working on a master plan for Con Dao development with a vision to 2030. Accordingly, the province has paid priorities to developing eco-tourism and luxury resorts, boosting cultural, historical and spiritual tourism, while protecting and promoting the historical value and ecosystem of the island.