The Ghosts of Con Dao

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: IndoChina

This piece describes a visit to Con Dao, the infamous Pulo Condore French Prison camp off the east coast of South Vietnam which included a visit to the grave of the child martyr Vo Thi Sau, executed by the French in 1952 and 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. Con Dao 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.

note: edited and updated June 2020

The heady scent of incense rises in the midnight air as plumes of aromatic white smoke snake their way skyward. A reverential crowd of supplicants shuffle reverently, bearing their gifts and prayers to the sand encrusted grove. The overhead lights cast a poignant shadow over the rocky graves populated with the remains of the thousands who lost their lives in this captive enclave of the French and American wars.

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, not just in this century but for millennium. Every village, stream, river, road, bridge or field seems to have its own story of heroism and depravity, victory and loss that stretches back a bare few decades ago to prehistoric times.

These days most of the visible cemeteries and memorials are for the casualties of what we call the Vietnam war but what is known here as the American war. The profusion of graves is partially because of the recent nature of the conflict but also due to the sheer numbers of dead.

Guestimates put the number of Vietnamese casualties at well over a million but with so much desolation and the prolonged nature of the war, exact numbers are less forthcoming.  The remains that were found are entombed in amost identical small concrete graves hidden inside walled compounds throughout the length and breadth of the country.

Many of the dead remain unidentified. Indeed, there is now an whole industry where clairvoyants and diviners will, for a fee, locate the remains of a loved one. The cemetarys were built to honor the dead and to remind the living of the great sacrifices of the past,but their very ubiquitousness is numbing. After a few short weeks of travel, these stark reminders of war start to become monotonous and inevitable, signposts to a distant time of horror and sadness.

Con Dao and its sister island of Phu Quoc further south are vivid variations on the theme. Like the Devil’s Island of French Cayenne and the more recent example of the US Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, both Con Dao and Phu Quoc were prisons for political dissidents.

With histories stretching back for more than a century, these idyllic tropical islands with their bleak stone prisons were the final destination for generations of Vietnamese rebels and activists. Most of those imprisoned died from torture, deprivation, starvation, corporal punishment or a combination of all this and more. Peaceful old age was not an option at Con Dao.

The prisons here, like Phu Quoc, were reserved for those convicted of crimes political, from violent reactionaries and influential revolutionaries to those who simply refused to salute the flag of the invaders. Such infractions were not tolerated and ther perpetrators exiled to these remote fortresses lest the dissent spread.

Unlike the shortened concrete crypts of the mainland, the graves of the Liet Sy on Con Dao are full length and built from the bed rock of the scattered granite mountains on the island. Recently constructed, at the foot of each is a meter high obelisk of that same material, topped with the red star emblem 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. The French and then the Americans were as cavalier with the dead as they had been with the living, disposing of corpses in shallow unmarked graves or in large open pits.

Dug up and reinterred by an Independent Vietnamese government, many still remain anonymous. However, there is one grave that is very well known and has become an object of pilgrimage from supplicants all over modern Vietnam.

Vo Thi Sau was a young, barely pubescent girl born and raised in the nearby mainland district of what is now known as the Ba Ria- Vung Tau province. At age thirteen, no doubt heavily influenced by family and friends who were active in the anti-colonial Viet Minh movement, she decided to become 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 she was focussed on a local chief who was reportedly collaborating with the French and sending many local youths to their deaths.  However, this time her 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.

Transfered to Con Dao for fear of a local protest at her death, Vo Thi Sau spent only one night at the main watch house before being dispatched by firing squad on the morning of January 23, 1952. She famously refused the customary blindfold and it is the stuff of legends that she survived the first volley of shots while singing of her love for her homeland.

The legend says  she remained singing and staring without fear at her executioners until the second volley achieved what the first did not. And so it was, the wisp of a girl known as Vo Thi Sau died proudly but ingloriously in a hail of bullets in a lonely corner of a French colonial prison.

Over the ensuing half century and more, the  legend of her indominable spirit grew. These days she has risen to what amounts to a national saint, a cherished 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 there are countless songs and poems that celebrate her short life and brutal death.

While facts are often over shadowed by legend, there is little doubt Vo Thi Sau is a venerated and much loved figure of the revolution. By her death, she transcended the French rebellion to become a symbol of Vietnamese independence during the American war.

This slip of a girl who took on the might of the French Colonialists and died in the attempt continues to inspire veneration. I have heard some of the stories, how her spirit lives on at Con Dao, how she cursed those who tampered with her grave and how these days her ghost bestows luck and good fortune to those who make the pilgrimage to her tomb.

Here at midnight, at the foot of a large black marble tomb in the smoky haze of a darkened leafy wood, it is the witching hour. Her final resting place was rebuilt several times as her legend grew but the two previous scarred and inscribed stone gravestones are at the foot of this newest of crypts, kept in place as a reminder of less prosperous times.

The grave itself is almost hidden under a profusion of offerings brought by the crush of hundreds of reverently praying pilgrims. A full moon glints eerily off the stark silver white plaque of her face, a replica of the famous grainy black and white relief of her prison photo.  

Standing in the dark, I have a fist full of incense bought from an opportunist vendor at the entry gate. I feel reluctant to approach the 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 into this very nationalistic ritual 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, memorials, 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. Mainland Vietnamese descend on the remote island by plane, ferry and the busload, to learn about their tortured 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 macabre drawcard in this most nationalistic of pilgrimages.  Although the cages were largely dismantled by a disgusted Vietnamese government when they took control of the island in 1975, they were painstakingly rebuilt at a later date as a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and of the inequities and tortured past of this most contentious of nations. And, one suspects, a gripping tourist attraction.

The “tiger cages” were named for the iron bars and walkways placed at the top of the cramped, crowded stone cells. From there prison guards could walk over and view their captives at any time, pouring lime powder, burning embers or whatever else was at hand when their desire suited. Stark, life size wire and plaster models of both the prisoners and guards are scattered throughout one of the long prison blocks; adding a macabre realism to the already harrowing experience.

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 while their guide described the cruel and unnatural punishments inflicted on their countrymen by the cursed European invaders, I quickly became aware that I was the lone Caucasian of the group.

As horror after horror was recounted and their faces grew hard in anger and shock, I retreated. Their private grief and disgust at the travails of their countrymen and women was not one I could share, whatever my sympathies or private laments might be.

Before my midnight vigil, I had come to Hang Duong Cemetery earlierthat day, as many do. There I met an entertainment entrepreneur from Saigon with his wife and family who told me they try to make the visit an annual pilgrimage.  His wife presented me with a joss stick to place on Vo Thi Sau’s altar. Another less frequent pilgrim was a businessman from Hanoi who told me he would come down with his family and business associates every few years, when time permitted.

There was a group of stylishly dressed young things, taking photos and chatting gaily. Old warriors and widows moved solemnly around the grave yard, lighting joss sticks and laying flowers on the graves of distant family members and friends. An ancient woman sat at the side of one such tomb, her grandchild listening attentively as she explained to him her personal story of the losses incurred at Con Dao.

It seemed to be a common theme that many come to pray at the cemetery, giving sorrow, reverence and thanks to the long dead martyrs. But this is Vietnam and it would seem wasteful and perhaps foolish to not also stop at the foot of the child warrior’s tomb and to ask for dispensation from the spirit of Vo Thi Sau.

Vietnam has a mishmash of accepted religions, from Buddhism 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 isa  common theme and often coexists with other beliefs. So a person might declare themselves Christian but still maintain a small ancestor shrine in their home.

As I heard it, the general philosophy of ancestral worship is summarised in the phrase:  “when you eat a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree“. It has come to pass that the tree that Vo Thi Sau tended was a large and eventually very successful one. So many have eaten of the fruit of this booming independent nation that it is not so illogical that she is venerated and an object of ancestral prayer.

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 saint and a dispenser of good fortune and improved finances by the populace.

Martyrs and heroes aside, many of the supplicants have arrived precisely for that reason; to ask for good luck, for success in business or for a cure from poor health. All 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 me to say a prayer for their wealth creation over the next year, another a prayer for the scholastic success of her daughter.  In the end, I tell them I was not a very good Vietnamese as I prayed for continued peace and that the sort of horror and despair that Con Dao represents would never be repeated. And illogical as it sounds, I hope Vo Thi Sau was listening.


Submitted: April 20, 2019

© Copyright 2020 Paul R. All rights reserved.

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