Of Spirits, Martyrs & Legends: the Magic & Sorrow of Vietnam’s Côn Sơn Island


A short up-and-down overwater flight from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport and, voilà, you’ve arrived. While your destination is just off the coast of southern Vietnam, it may as well be another world. In less than an hour, you are transported from the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to the quiet and melancholic beauty of Côn SơnIsland, the largest and most infamous in the 16-island Côn Đảo Archipelago.

Vietnamese come from far and wide not just to enjoy breathtaking views of the sea, fresh seafood, and invigorating walks along pristine beaches, but also to participate in a solemn pilgrimage to dark places that are a legacy of French and US brutality. They are a stark testament to the supreme arrogance of one fading colonial power that handed the blood-stained baton to an ascending neocolonial power, both convinced they had the right to determine the destiny of a country not their own. Many of those who travel here are war veterans and former prisoners who pay homage to their fallen comrades.

This tropical paradise was a penal colony during the French colonial era and the US War in Vietnam.  For 22,000 Vietnamese and some Cambodians, Côn Sơn Island was literally the last stop on a journey that began with their arrest and incarceration on the mainland. Their crime? Resisting the foreign invader du jour and fighting for their country’s independence and unification. In addition to execution, causes of death included disease and torture.

The French built the Côn Đảo prison complex in 1861 to hold political prisoners and handed it over to the South Vietnamese government in 1954. It was a political Alcatraz on steroids, with inhuman living conditions, barbaric torture methods, no escape and, for many, no survival. The US and its client state collaborators honed this hell on Earth to dystopian perfection.

The Tiger Cages

As with the French colonialists before them, the prisons continued to be used by the South Vietnamese government as a secure and isolated place to hold, interrogate, and torture its political prisoners – with the full cooperation, collaboration, and support of its US benefactor.

What most of the world knows about Côn Sơn Island is the result of a congressional fact-finding mission in July 1970 that included two U.S. Congressional representatives, Augustus Hawkins (1907-2007) and William Anderson (1921-2007), accompanied by Tom Harkin (1939-), then a congressional staffer and later a US senator, translator Don Luce (1934-), and Frank Walton (1909-1993), USAID Office of Public Safety director and prison adviser.

Don Luce, who had lived and worked in Vietnam since 1958 for International Voluntary Services, an NGO that was the model for the US Peace Corps, and the World Council of Churches, recalled the visit in an article he wrote entitled The Tiger Cages of Viet Nam from which this information is excerpted:

On the way out Frank Walton, the U.S. prison advisor, described Con Son as being like “a Boy Scout Recreational Camp.” It was, he said, “the largest prison in the Free World.”

We saw a very different scene when we got to the prison. Using maps drawn by a former Tiger Cage prisoner, we diverted from the planned tour and hurried down an alleyway between two prison buildings. We found the tiny door that led to the cages between the prison walls. A guard inside heard the commotion outside and opened the door. We walked in.

The faces of the prisoners in the cages below are still etched indelibly in my mind: the man with three fingers cut off; the man (soon to die) from Quang Tri province whose skull was split open; and the Buddhist monk from Hue who spoke intensely about the repression of the Buddhists. I remember clearly the terrible stench from diarrhea and the open sores where shackles cut into the prisoners’ ankles. “Donnez-moi de l’eau” (Give me water), they begged. They sent us scurrying between cells to check on other prisoners’ health and continued to ask for water.

Some of the Harkin’s photos and a story were published in the July 17, 1970 edition of Life magazine. The tiger cages, constructed by the French in 1940, included 60 cells with no ceiling that were used to torture prisoners by making them “sunbathe” in the searing tropical sun. Their tormentors routinely poked sticks through the bars, beat the prisoners, threw lime on their open wounds, and urinated on them.

Luce’s reward for his pivotal role in bringing these atrocities to the world’s attention was to have his mail privileges revoked by the US Embassy in Saigon, be put under surveillance by the police, including one attempt on his life (death by snakebite) and, finally, be expelled from the country less than a year later.

In early 1971, new tiger cases were built by Morrison-Knudsen Corp. and Brown and Root Company under a $400,000 ($2.7 million in 2021 US dollars) contract with MACCORDS (Military Assistance Command Civil Operations for Revolutionary Development Support), the US paramilitary economic aid program in Vietnam.

The Nightly Pilgrimage to Hàng Dương Cemetery & Võ Thị Sáu, National Heroine

Every night, shortly before midnight, hundreds of pilgrims file into the Hàng Dương Cemetery to pray and pay their respects at some of the nearly 2,000 graves there, many unmarked, each with a red star and the word martyr (liệt sĩ). 700 of the graves are marked. Piercing the midnight darkness is the red glow of incense sticks burning at graves throughout the 20-hectare (50-acre) cemetery, their pungent smell hanging in the thick night air.

The grave that attracts the most visitors is that of a schoolgirl guerilla from present-day Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu Province, who joined the anti-French resistance at the tender age of 14. Võ Thị Sáu (1933-1952) is one of the most famous martyrs for the cause of Vietnamese independence. Lê Hồng Phong (1902-1942), the second leader of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and Nguyễn An Ninh (1900-1943), writer, activist and revolutionary, are also buried there.

Other famous people who survived the prisons of Côn Sơn Island are Lê Duẩn (1907-1986), one of the architects of the 1968 Tet Offensive, Phạm Văn Đồng (1906-2000), who served as prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (“North Vietnam”) from 1955 to 1976 and of the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam from 1976 until his retirement in 1987, Lê Đức Thọ (1911-1990), who went on the lead the Vietnamese delegation at the Paris Peace Conference (he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with Henry Kissinger in 1973, but declined it), Tôn Đức Thắng (1888-1980), who became president after Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969 and Trương Mỹ Hoa (1945-), a survivor of the US tiger cages who served as vice president of Vietnam from 2002-2007.

At the age of 14, Võ Thị Sáu tossed a grenade that killed a French captain and injured 12 soldiers. In 1949, she threw a grenade at a Vietnamese village chief who was responsible for the execution of many Viet Minh resistance fighters. It failed to detonate, and she was captured by the French. Sáu was sent to three jails before being shipped to Côn Sơn Prison, presumably because the French didn’t have the courage to carry out her death sentence on the mainland at a time when it was against colonial law to execute woman. She was the only female prisoner held by the French on Côn Sơn. 

Like other Vietnamese who died for the cause of independence, Sáu, a national heroine who is celebrated in theater and song, was elevated to the status of ancestral spirit.  Every Vietnamese city and town has a street named after her, as are many schools. She embodies the spirit of millions of Vietnamese throughout history, including soldiers of the First and Second Indochina War, who sacrificed everything, their youth, their health, their love, their personal happiness, and their lives, so that Vietnam could become a unified, sovereign nation.

On January 23, 1952, two years before the French defeat at Điện Biên Phủ (during which Viet Minh soldiers invoked Sáu’s name) and the end of the 1st Indochina War, before the US took the baton of war and occupation into the 2ndIndochina War, Võ Thị Sáu was executed at a time when about 80% of the French war effort was being bankrolled by the US, which means it was an accessory to her murder.

On the morning of her execution, the prison chaplain paid Sáu a visit and told her, “Now I will baptize you and wash away your sins.”  “I have no sins.” she replied.  “Baptize the people who are about to kill me. I only regret that I have not yet exterminated the colonialists who stole Vietnam and the errand boys who sold it to them. I ask only for one thing. When you come to shoot me, don’t cover my face. I am brave enough to look down the barrel.” She wanted to see her homeland one final time and look into the eyes of the enemy before she breathed her last.

In yet another example of fearlessness, Sáu continued to sing Tiến Quân Ca, now Vietnam’s national anthem, until the order to shoot was given, after which she shouted out, “Down with colonial occupation!” and “Long live Hồ Chí Minh!” It is said that seven soldiers, each of whom was given two bullets, fired – with only two shots hitting their target. (There’s speculation they may have been drinking to make their task easier or could simply not bring themselves to execute a woman. Popular belief is that the firing squad was unnerved by her unflinching stare.) One bullet lodged in her hip and the other grazed her face. Rather than order a second volley, the officer-in-charge walked over to her, pulled out his revolver, and ended her life at point-blank range.

The French – with the assistance of their local “errand boys” – extinguished Võ Thị Sáu’s young and promising life that January morning, but her larger than life spirit lives on, her place in Vietnam’s millennia-long pantheon of heroines and heroes everlasting. She was only 19.

People flock to her tomb to pray for her and speak with her, to burn incense, and leave offerings at her grave. Some reach out to touch her headstone, seeking some sort of connection, while others stand in the shadows, hands folded and heads bowed in prayer.

I have visited and prayed at Võ Thị Sáu’s grave on several occasions and always leave both humbled and inspired by the supreme sacrifice she and countless others made on behalf of their country and universal justice. Visiting Hàng Dương Cemetery fills me with a deep sense of awe and gratitude for these martyrs, who achieved martyrdom and immortality through their selfless acts.

In a 2015 essay about his visit to Côn Sơn, James Rhodes described the island as a “beautiful place with a tragic history. It also shows that good people will overcome the evil and violent actions of others. This is the overpowering feeling that radiates throughout this entire area connecting one receptive soul to another, no matter where they may be. For this reason alone, this place is well worth visiting.”

This observation captures the bittersweet essence of what it feels like to explore the island and roam the hallowed grounds of the Hàng Dương Cemetery. While tragic, there is the profound and calming realization that the thousands whose remains are buried here stood on the right side of history and gave their lives in the struggle for Vietnam’s independence. That is one of Côn Sơn’s gifts to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Their spirits remind us of the Buddha’s fifth remembrance: My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand.

Postwar Vietnam and the Continued Need for Sacrifice

Fast forward to 2021, 69 years after Võ Thị Sáu execution and 46 years after the end of the US War. Although Vietnam is at peace and enjoys relative prosperity, it is faced with an array of burning issues and noble causes worth fighting for on behalf of Vietnam and the world. The current wars being waged are against climate change, corruption, deforestation, and environmental pollution, among a litany of other problems.

While martyrdom is no longer called for, hard work, courage, and sacrifice are so that the nation Võ Thị Sáu and others so valiantly fought to preserve can achieve its goal of long-term sustainable development. Sáu’s indomitable spirit must live on, albeit in a different form adapted to a new era.

All photos by Mark Ashwill.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.