Trai Phu Hai Prison - Con Dao Travel Guide

The door opens with a clang and a creak as your docent unhitches the heavy hasp on the massive door out front -- our guide was petite and wore a white ao dai dress that just didn't match the surroundings. Low guard towers loom over the open courtyard, and thick, high walls are topped in shards of glass. The guardhouse still has a chalkboard with smudges on it from the lists of names of the last residents. At the center of the broad space is a small Christian chapel built later in 1963, a bit of irony really considering the atrocities committed here. Comprising the bounds of the courtyard are the sloping terra-cotta-tiled roofs and shaded walkways of cell blocks. Where elsewhere in Vietnam the faded yellow plaster, heavy timbers, and umber tile-work of French colonial architecture looks quaint and inviting, here it takes on a rather sinister aspect.
The first cell on the left, number 9, is set up like the prisons in their heyday, when over 5,000 men were held here, with 80 to 100 shackled together in large common cells. Concrete mannequins, disturbingly lifelike, are rendered in all manner of contorted positions, just as the inmates were: one leg shackled to a long steel rod, one prisoner crammed against the other, surrounding an open area at center. Docents light a handful of joss sticks and visitors are invited to make an offering at a small Buddhist altar at the center of the room.
Built in 1862, the prison is the oldest of the island prisons. Originally Bagne 1 (or Prison 1) under the French, the South Vietnamese called it Camp II and later Phu Hai.