Not many tourists who go to Phu Quoc know that the island was home to one of Vietnam’s most infamous war-era prisons.
Phu Quoc is well known as a beautiful beach destination with white sandy beaches, turquoise waters and pristine forests. When I think of Phu Quoc, I picture myself flopping on a breathtaking beach drinking coconut juices by day and cold refreshing beers by night. But what is paradise for tourists today was once hell on earth for tens of thousands of Vietnamese revolutionaries, who were imprisoned here first by French colonial forces and later by the US-led southern Vietnamese puppet regime.
The French first built a prison on Phu Quoc to keep insurgents, but during the American War, the structure was expanded to cover an area of 40 hectares. It could hold up to 40,000 Vietnamese political prisoners at one time. After the Tet Offensive in 1968, the prison was quickly filled with captured soldiers and was at its peak in terms of prisoners held.
It was modestly surrounded by a wire fence with a number of sentry posts dotted around, no doubt offering prison guards a rather wonderful, if completely incongruous, panoramic view of the breathtaking coast and lush, tropical hills on the island. Today, there is little left of the original prison. Most of the structure was built out of corrugated iron that was easily torn down by locals after all the prisoners were released in accordance with the Paris Accords, which were inked on January 27, 1973.
On the site today, you will find a couple of dilapidated houses made of corrugated iron and a small, two-storey museum. It is only VND3,000 for a ticket into the museum so it won’t hurt your wallet too much to investigate inside – not that there’s a huge amount to see. There is a small bookshop with a number of memoirs written by former prisoners for sale. There is a small office for the museum’s staff and a larger room with a mock-up of Phu Quoc island.
More of the actual vestiges of the prison are displayed on the first floor. On the wall there are black and white photos showing the different ways people were tortured, as well as portraits of people who died there. A board lists 26 types of rather gruesome torture performed, including boiling prisoners in a lotus-shaped iron pot, hammering a nail into the prisoners’ body, or burying prisoners alive, which sounds more like execution than torture.
A piece of text on the board states that three prisoners were boiled to death in 1969 and another three suffered the same fate two years later. One prisoner, Duong Van Men, who came from Cu Chi district of Ho Chi Minh City, witnessed this all first hand. The man was also placed in the pot and only escaped death as the prison guards thought he had died. The museum has other objects, which were used to torture the prisoners, including long, rusty nails.
There are also small wooden and metal instruments that prisoners used to try and dig escape tunnels with. Most interestingly, there is also a rusty dustbin, the centre piece of a daring escape in 1971. Two prisoners hid inside in the bin and then placed wet sacks above their heads before fellow inmates put burning charcoal on top.
The prisoners in the bin could breathe through a metal straw that ran past the burning charcoal. The bin was then left to be taken outside and dumped by the prison guards. The two men successfully escaped doing this and one year later another two also managed to escape in this fashion. Documents state that there were 42 jailbreaks from the prisons with more than 200 inmates escaping to freedom.
Hundreds more were less fortunate and quickly recaptured or foiled from within. No doubt the punishment for those captured might have involved a stint in the “tiger cage” or an isolation cabin, which were both used as isolation-cum-torture chambers. You can see both outside the museum. In the cabin prisoners would have had no room to move around and no sunlight. It would have been cold at night and burning hot in the daytime.
Prisoners could be left inside for long periods; there are reports that some lost their sight as a result of this. The cage was even more brutal. A horizontal cylinder of metal and barbed wire that prisoners were forced to crouch inside. If you moved, fell over or lay down you would continually cut or scratch yourself on the barbed wire. The prisoners were forced in after stripping down to their underpants, so there was little to protect them.
In the cold weather, the jail keeper threw water all over the prisoner in a routine known as “refreshing the tiger.” On hot days, the jail keeper would throw salty water all over the cage, which was called “seasoning for the tiger,” which quite literally rubbed salt in the prisoners’ open wounds. It also made the sun burn their skin more quickly. Sunburned, scabby and scalded and left in the outdoors, numerous prisoners are said to have died inside the cage.
It is estimated that more than 4,000 prisoners could have died because of the brutal treatment and torture dished out at Phu Quoc prison. A recent exhumation discovered more than 800 remains, bringing the number of remains exhumed to date to more than 1,200; there is a collective grave with more than 100 remains. The search continues for the remaining corpses. There is also a project to restore part of the prison to educate present generations of its brutal history and highlight the horror of war.