‘’Hell on Earth’’ was how Con Doa Prison was described during its heyday – and that alone tells you all about the dire conditions and brutal torture liberally dished out by its guards and security staff.
It seems ironic that Con Dao Prison is situated on a beautiful tropical island considering the horrors that took place there. Con Son Island, where the prison is located, features turquoise waters and sand so sugar-white it could rival the finest beaches of Barbados.
History of the Con Dao Prison
Con Dao Prison began life as a French colonist institution where prisoners would be sent after committing particularly violent crimes. However, Con Dao quickly became a political prison where the crimes of its inmates became less and less severe.
Soon, people arrived at the island after committing relatively benign crimes such as vocal and active opposition to French rule. As a result, Con Dao Prison became increasingly crowded.
Võ Thị Sáu was a Vietnamese political prisoner who arrived at Con Dao after attempting to assassinate a canton chief. Previously, she had killed two French soldiers with a hand grenade. The second attempt was not successful and she was promptly executed at the age of just 18. Today, her grave is a popular destination and she is considered a martyr by the local population.
Con Dao Prison During the Vietnam War
In 1954, the keys to Con Dao Prison were handed over to the South Vietnamese Government who continued the sinister culture and grim punishments inflicted by the French. However, the advent of the American War brought with it a new chapter in the prison’s story.
It was here that the notoriety of Con Dao evolved with the advent of the tiger cages. These cages, also found at Phu Quoc Prison, inspired misery and torment in those unfortunate enough to reside in them as they were too narrow to lie down in and too short to stand up in.
As a result, prisoners had to lay in a humiliating dog-like position for the entire day as the scorching sun beamed down on them. Above, guards would walk on top of a corridor and pour quicklime and water on the prisoners – burning their skin even more. Prisoners were also given as little sustenance as possible to live – causing them to become thin, wasted, and weak.
The other rooms were dubbed the ‘sunbathe’ areas as they lacked a roof and had to endure the elements for 24 hours a day. These rooms, like the tiger cages, were incredibly compact and housed several bound and shackled prisoners.
The tiger cages were constructed away from the main prison to hide the appalling conditions from public view. It wasn’t until 1970 that the true horrors of Con Dao Prison became known after it was featured in an article in Life magazine. In 1975, Con Doa Prison closed its doors for good after over 100 years of bloodshed.
Visiting the Con Dao Prison
Today, the horrors of the prison are explorable in the form of a prison museum. You’ll find lifelike depictions of life at Con Dao in the form of human-sized dolls and recreated prison cells. The tiger cells are perfectly preserved and will paint a ghastly picture of what life was like for those imprisoned here.
To get to Con Dao Prison, you’ll need to take a long ferry ride from Vung Tau and then pay an admission fee to enter.
Address: Nguyen Chi Thanh, Con Dao, Ba Ria – Vung Tau, Vietnam
Hours: 8am – 6pm