Vietnam's prison-island paradise

Tom Westbrook
PHOTO: BBC Travel

At 5 am and 6 pm, government loudspeakers crackle to life all over Vietnam. Relics of an era before homes had televisions and radios, these public address systems - broadcasting news, propaganda and weather reports - are usually barely audible above the din of this modern nation: a mix of motorcycle engines, truck horns and construction.

But on Con Son, the news carries loud and clear over the tiny township of just 5,000 residents, two sets of traffic lights and one seaside promenade. Visiting the largest island in the Con Dao archipelago - a group of 16 mostly uninhabited picturesque islands in the South China Sea - is like stepping back in time.

Despite being a short 45-minute turboprop flight from Ho Chi Minh City, the island paradise of Con Son is a world away from Vietnam's well-beaten tourist trail. It is a throwback that has somehow flown under the radar, escaping the overdevelopment of mainland resort towns like Nha Trang and the party beaches of Phu Quoc. There are no touts, only peaceful empty beaches, and peak season means being just one of a dozen Westerners.

It won't stay this way forever, though. The island's first resort, the ultra-luxe Six Senses Con Dao, opened at Dat Doc Bay on the island's east coast in 2010, and a megaresort is currently under construction in the south. There is also talk of an Italian-backed spiritual retreat, as well as rumours about extending the airport's runway so that bigger planes can land.

But for now, most of the visitors are domestic Vietnamese paying homage to the island's dark past. Known as Southeast Asia's Devil's Island, Con Son was once a penal colony used to brutal and cruel effect first by French colonists and later during the Vietnam War.

The French worked 914 men to death building the island's jetty, while Vietnam War prisoners were kept in infamous "tiger cages", where captives - actual or suspected Communists - were shackled to the floor of deep concrete pits with steel bars for a roof.

The main prison walls still dominate the town as a constant reminder, and the gaols and cemeteries have become pilgrimage sites to the thousands of Vietnamese who suffered and died on the island between 1862 and 1975.

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