The Ghost of a Girl

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
This piece describes a visit to Con Dao, the infamous Pulo Condore French Prison camp off the east coast of South Vietnam but more pointedly, the grave of the child martyr Vo Thi Sau who was executed by the French in 1952 and is now a figure of veneration through out Vietnam.

One "compliments" the other, if that is the correct word. Seen together, the prison, the graveyard and the story of Vo Thi Sau are stark reminders of the sort of travail that Vietnam has had to endure to remain an independent country. It is perhaps more visited by Vietnamese than foreign tourists, a pilgrimage to their ancestors who fought so long and hard to give their descendants their freedom.

Submitted: April 20, 2019

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Submitted: April 20, 2019



The heady scent of incense rises in the midnight air in plumes of aromatic white smoke. A reverential crowd of supplicants slowly migrate, bearing gifts and prayers to this sandy cemetery. The overhead lights cast a shadow over the rocky cairns populated with the remains of thousands who lost their lives to French and American imprisonment.

I am at Hang Duong Cemetery on the former prison island of Con Son in the small archipelago of Con Dao, a hundred or so kilometres off the east coast of South Vietnam. In my travels through this aggressively rising nation, the way has been littered with the graves of the Liet Sy – the martyrs of the various conflicts and wars that have raged across this land for millennium. Every village, stream, river, road, bridge or field seems to have its own story of heroism and depravity, victory and loss.

Mostly the cemeteries and memorials are for the dead from what they call the American war here. Not only because it was the most recent but also for its particularly savage nature. Guestimates put the number of Vietnamese dead at well over a million and the identical small concrete graves are everywhere. So much so that in the end they start to become invisible, their ubiquitousness numbing one to the scale of the horror and sadness.

Con Dao, like its sister island of Phu Quoc further south, is a variation of the theme. Like the Devil’s Island of Cayenne and the more recent example of Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, Con Dao and Phu Quoc were prisons for political dissidents. Stretching back in history for more than a century, the bleak stone walls were the final destination for generations of captives who mostly died from torture, deprivation, starvation and corporal punishment. Peaceful old age was not an option at Con Dao.

The prisoners here were mostly of a political nature, from outright violent reactionaries to important revolutionaries to those who simply refused to salute the flag of the invaders. Unlike the small concrete crypts of the mainland, the graves of the Liet Sy here are full length and built from the very bed rock of the soaring granite mountains of the island. At the foot of each is a meter high obelisk of the same material, topped with a shining red star that is the symbol of modern Vietnam.

Many of the remains here at Hang Duong have been disinterred from various mass graves around the island. Placed here in reverence, many are anonymous as the dead here go back more than a century and mass graves could not be the easiest to identify individuals. However, there is one grave that is very well known and has become a pilgrimage for supplicants from all across Vietnam.

Vo Thi Sau was a young girl, born and raised in the nearby mainland of what is now known as Ba Ria- Vung Tau province. At age thirteen, no doubt influenced heavily by family and friends who were active in the anti-colonial Viet Minh movement, she became a revolutionary. A year later, aged 14, she put words into actions and threw a grenade into a group of French soldiers at the Do Dat Markets in Ba Ria, killing one soldier and injuring 12 others.

She escaped in the confusion and evaded capture for a further 2 years until she elected to try the trick again, this time for a local chief who was collaborating with the French and sending many local youths to their deaths.  However, that grenade failed to explode and she was caught red handed by the French Authorities. Sentenced to death, she languished for three years in several mainland jails until she reached 19, the legal age for execution in colonial France.

Taken to Con Dao for fear of a local protest at her death, Vo Thi Sau spent the night at the main watch house before her execution by firing squad on the morning of January 23, 1952. She famously refused the customary blindfold and it is said she survived the first volley of shots, all the while singing of her love for her homeland, her belief in the struggle for independence and staring without fear at her executioners. The second volley achieved what the first did not and Vo Thi Sau died in a lonely corner of a colonial French prison in a hail of bullets.

Since then she has risen to what amounts to national sainthood, a symbol of the indomitable quest for Vietnamese independence. Every major town in modern Vietnam has a Vo Thi Sau  street, there are dozens if not hundreds of books written about her and her import to the Independence struggle, plus countless songs and poems that celebrate her short life. My Vietnamese is almost non-existent so I am reliant on translations and hearsay and the facts can be vague.

However, there is no doubt that she is a venerated and loved figure and rare is the Vietnamese who has not heard of her. She transcended the French rebellion to also become a symbol of independence during the time of the American struggle. A waif of a pubescent girl who took on the might of the French Colonialists and died in the attempt inspired countless stories of how her spirit lived on, how she cursed those who tampered with her grave, who even now is seen as a granter of fortune to penitents.

Here at midnight, at the foot of a large black marble tomb in the smoky haze surrounded by stalwart trees, it is the witching hour. Her final resting place has been remade several times and the two previous gravestones are kept in place. This newest mausoleum is almost hidden under a profusion of offerings and the crush of hundreds of reverently praying pilgrims. A full moon glints warmly off the stark silver white plaque of her face, a replica of that famous grainy black and white motif of her prison photo.  

I too have a fist full of incense I had bought at the entry gate. I feel reluctant to approach Vo Thi Sau’s grave itself; the occasion seems too sombre, too imbued with meaning for accidental tourists so I take my cue from others and wander around planting my lighted sticks into the less hallowed graves. Nobody seems disturbed or angry at my intrusion although I do get some curious glances.

I remember back to when I first arrived on the island, several days previously, and had visited the prison complex itself.  Well, one of them as half the town seems to have remnants of the French and American presence, with ruins, reconstructions, memorial, plaques and altars scattered across the island commemorating this atrocity, that grave site, some other martyr’s history.

Con Dao is being developed as an elite tourist resort and with its stunning white sand beaches, untouched reefs and pristine wild mountains it is likely to succeed. But for now most of the trade seems to be local tourism as busloads of mainland Vietnamese descend on the remote island to learn about their history and give thanks to those poor souls who perished in the struggle for Vietnamese freedom.

The infamous “Tiger Cages” of the French are a huge drawcard in this nationalistic pilgrimage.  Although they were largely dismantled by a disgusted Vietnamese government when they took control of the island in 1975, they were lovingly rebuilt at a later date as a tribute to man’s inhumanity to man and a reminder of the tortured past of this most contentious of nations.

The “tiger cages” were named as such for the iron bars and walkways placed at the roof of the cramped, crowded stone cells. Here prison guards could walk and view their captives at any time, pouring lime powder, burning embers or whatever else was at hand on to the prisoners below. Plaster models of both the prisoners and some guards now occupy one of the long prison blocks, to add realism to the already harrowing story that was Con Dao

Vietnamese are generally not a vindictive people and have chosen to forgive the past, if not quite forgetting the lessons learned. However, I had arrived just as a tour bus had disgorged scores of Vietnamese pilgrims and as the guide described the cruel and unnatural punishments inflicted on their countrymen, I quickly became aware that I was the lone Caucasian in the group. As the horrors were revealed and their faces grew hard in anger and shock, I retreated. Theirs was a grief I could not share, whatever my sympathies or private laments might be.

I had come to Hang Duong earlier in the day, as many do. I had met an entertainment entrepreneur from Saigon here with his wife and several family members. They come every year.  His wife presented me with a joss stick to place on Vo Thi Sau’s alter. Another was a businessman from Hanoi who came down with his family and business associates every few years, when time permitted.

In my readings and research, it seems to be a common theme that many come to pray at the foot of the child warrior’s tomb, giving sorrow and thanks to the surrounding dead but also to ask for dispensation and perhaps good fortune from the spirit of Vo Thi Sau. Vietnam has a mishmash of accepted religions, from Buddha to Baptist, Confucianism to Catholicism. Indeed, there is the famous home grown religion of Caodaism which combines all these and throws in Victor Hugo as a saint to boot!

But ancestor worship is common across most of Vietnam and often coexists with other beliefs. So a person might declare themselves Christian but still maintain a small ancestor shrine in their home. The idea is “when you eat a fruit, think of the man who planted the tree“. The tree that Vo Thi Sau tended was a large one and many have eaten of the fruit, so it is not so illogical that she is venerated and an object of ancestral prayer.

However, it is also part of the contradictions of Vietnam that an avowed revolutionary agitator turned child warrior can be deified by a Communist state and then worshiped as a dispenser of good fortune and improved finances.  For many of the supplicants have arrived precisely for that reason; to ask for good luck, for success or for improved health from the ghost of a girl who died over 70 years ago fighting for the Communist Viet Minh.

When I tell friends back in Saigon that I will be attending the midnight vigil –and midnight seems to be the best time for such supplications – I am asked what I will wish for. One friend asked to say a prayer for their wealth creation over the next year.  In the end, I tell them I am not a very good Vietnamese as I prayed for peace and that the sort of horror and despair that Vo Thi Sau must have experienced would never be repeated.

They laugh and agree, I am not a very good Vietnamese at all.

© Copyright 2019 Paul R. All rights reserved.

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