Vietnam's Idyllic Con Dao island has overcome its dark past
By Silvia Meixner Feb 28, 2012, 3:09 GMT
Con Dao, Vietnam - The island of Con Dao in Vietnam is the last resting place of a national hero and although the name Vo Thi Sau means nothing to western visitors, she is revered at home.
The girl was captured in 1949 during the armed insurrection against French colonial masters and became the first Vietnamese women to be sentenced to death.
Her grave can be found at the idyllic cemetery of Hang Duong although most foreigners who come here gaze somewhat perplexed at the imposing marble edifice that has become a popular place of pilgrimage.
According to Vietnamese of a romantic persuasion, the presence of long-departed Vo Thi Sau can be felt here more intensely at night and they regularly bring offerings of roasted chicken, white flowers, incense stocks and shampoo to place at her graveside.
The dreamlike beauty of this garden of rest is a comfort to many since many of the people buried here met a violent end. A prison which used to be housed in the villa of the former French governor was run at various times by the French, the South Vietnamese and the Americans.
A compact exhibition gives an idea of the gruesome reality which once earned this territory the name of 'Devil's island.' Around 20,000 people died here. The tiger cages, used to keep prisoners like wild animals, achieved worldwide notoriety.
This is one aspect of Con Dao, which lies around an hour by plane from Ho-Chi-Minh-City in the South China Sea. The other side is much more beautiful.
Swimming somewhere out in the ocean are gentle manatees, the shy sea cows. These mysterious creatures are famously elusive, so much so that most Europeans will only ever have seen one in a zoo. Those lucky enough to spot a manatee will need a good deal of time at their disposal and the patience of a saint. One place to scour the turquoise waters is in Elephant Bay where a new luxury hotel recently opened.
Those who come in search of rural Vietnam will find Con Dao a refuge populated by friendly locals. Sometimes they gently poke fun at visitors but you can hardly blame them for that.
The 'long-nosed' travellers from overseas do look a bit odd when trying on colourful plastic crash helmets or when they hang around the market, looking nonplussed at the sight of what looks like water being decanted from large plastic bottles into smaller ones. The liquid is home-brewed schnapps, the locals tell them with a grin.
Around the market the atmosphere is tranquil rather than bustling. A few shops and businesses, a couple of streets leading off. Along the main bay runs a modest promenade with a few fishing boats bobbing on the waves behind. Unhurried is the best description of the way people conduct themselves, a sure sign of the local rhythm. There seems to be a consensus here that there is no need to rush about and it is infectious.
This is a quiet and compact paradise. The Con Dao Archipelago consists of only 16 islands. There isn't much land and little activity either. The government does have some grand plans which are spoken of with reverence even though no-one knows what exactly they entail. It appears that they want to transform Con Dao into an Eldorado for tourists. The landscape is there but visitors are so far conspicuous by their absence.
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