“You wouldn’t be grinning if you had been in there 40 years ago,” laughs Huong, our guide, as I emerge, blinking, from the tiny prison cell. She’s right. My stint in the clink on the island of Con Son lasted all of five minutes and I’m now on my way back to the palatial surroundings of the new luxury resort that has placed this grouping
of lush tropical outcrops firmly on the international tourist map. It is hardly an onerous sentence.
Once upon a time, however, this was a place that nobody wanted to come to and everyone wanted to leave.
Only 36 years have elapsed since it completed its century-long tenure as one of the most notorious island prisons on the planet. Like Robben Island near Cape Town and Alcatraz
in San Francisco Bay, Con Dao was a name that struck fear in those who heard it as first the French colonists then the Americans and their client regime in Saigon, utilized its isolation to turn it into a fearsome cage for political opponents.
Since reunification in 1975, the islands have assumed a gentler persona, although many Vietnamese believe it to be haunted by the restless spirits of prisoners who perished here.
Nevertheless, despite its rehabilitation and its glaring visual attributes, the archipelago has lingered far from Vietnam’s tourist trail. Until now visitors have been limited mainly to groups of indigenous pilgrims, many of them former Viet Cong fighters, and a smattering of clued-up international visitors reeled in by the promise of solitude and the chance to observe Vietnam’s largest contingent of sea turtles during the nesting season from June to September.