Monday, May 18, 2015

A Pilgrimage to Con Dao

Everyone, I think I've found the coolest place in Vietnam. It's the island of Con Dao, about an hour flight south of Ho Chi Minh City. It's a sleepy little place where you feel like you could just disappear for a few years and that would be ok. Personally, I went there to learn how to dive. Con Dao has the best diving in Vietnam simply because there's hardly anyone there. The coral and fish and beaches are relatively pristine (especially by Vietnamese standards) because there just aren't enough people there to destroy it (yet).
Hon Bay Canh: the island next to Con Dao where I learned to scuba dive

However, as I learned when I got there, people do not go to Con Dao to dive. Most don't even go for the beautiful beaches, virgin jungle topped hills or caves. Most of the people who go to Con Dao are pilgrims going to visit the tomb of Vo Thi Sau, a Vietnamese nationalist martyr who draws hundreds of people every night to her gravesite.

Con Dao was established in the late 19th century as a prison island by the French. They sent the most subversive and dangerous political prisoners to Con Dao, where they were kept in "Tiger Cages", tiny concrete cells with iron grated ceilings that allowed guards to observe them from above. In the early 1950s, French authorities found Vo Thi Sau guilty of engaging in guerilla activities and was sent off to Con Dao as a teenager. A few years later, at the legal age of 19, she was executed on the island.

Dilapidated Tiger Cages at the old Con Dao Prison
Vo Thi Sau wasn't necessarily the biggest, baddest guerilla fighter Vietnam had ever known. As a 15 year old, she lobbed some grenades at French soldiers and killed a few, but that isn't why she's remembered. Her name became synonymous with the brutality of Con Dao prison that long preceded her time there and continued for a couple more decades. In 1970, a US congressional visit to the prison island discovered the brutal conditions of the Tiger Cages which, by then, were operated by the South Vietnamese government.

At around 11pm, we hopped onto scooters and rode through the night to the edge of town where the cemetery is. You have to understand that Con Dao is a sleepy place. You can walk down the main street in the middle of the day and be practically alone. But the parking lot in front of the cemetery was bustling with families on scooters and guards directing giant tour buses into impossibly small spaces. This is where the action is on Con Dao.

As we approached Vo Thi Sau's grave, the Vietnamese guy who worked at the front desk and had adopted me for the week explained to that people go visit the cemetery around midnight because the spirits are more active then. I had to smile at this. After nearly a month in Vietnam I know that midnight is a far more desirable time of day to be out and about. The reason why you can walk down the main street in Con Dao in the middle of the day and not see another human is that the sun is a brutal beast in the sky chasing you from tree to tree, sucking your energy and crisping your skin in between shady refuges. The huge, open area where Vo Thi Sau is buried offers no opportunities for shade. Going there during the day would be life-threatening and I can promise that the pilgrims would be much more conscious of the sun beating down on their shoulders than the sacrifices their ancestors had made on that island several generations ago. Granted, cemeteries are much more evocative at night. When shadows cover most of the ground around you and your eyes play tricks on you, it's easier to imagine supernatural forces controlling your surroundings. During the day, the vicious Vietnamese sun bleaches the imagination and denies those spirits their shadowy, natural habitat. In this way, the night makes for a much more convenient meeting time. Us humans benefit from the greatest source of shade of all - the earth's thick center - and the spirits are more free to roam while our vision is impaired by that same darkness. It makes perfect sense.

Vo Thi Sau's tomb: somebody pointed out to me that its red tip makes it look like a stick of incense. 
We laid flowers at the base of Vo Thi Sau's grave and each took a few sticks of incense to place in a sandy altar in front of the grave. Unused to working much with ritualistic incense, I burned my hand trying to stuff my three extra sticks of incense into a very crowded altar. Luckily, I don't think anyone else noticed.

Naively, I thought that once we had seen Vo Thi Sau's grave, we were done with the tour and that we would turn back. Not so. Nearly two thousand prisoners had died on Con Dao during the prison's operation and we had many more grave sites to visit. We walked down narrow paths through trees and fields of headstones just slightly illuminated by little lamps placed by each one. More incense appeared and we lit huge bundles of it to honor more prisoner martyrs. Once we had honored all of the main characters, we used the leftover incense to distribute amongst the less fortunate graves that had no name and whose sandy altars were barren of incense sticks.
Lighting a bundle of incense at one of the altars

It was a wonderfully spiritual experience to be out in the cemetery that night. It was a completely different way of honoring the dead from what I was used to but it just felt right. Being so far away from the mainland, we had a clear view of the stars. The suns residual heat from the previous day was still enough to make us sweat as we walked through the grounds, but at least it didn't burn. It was up to the incense sticks to do that.

I don't think any trip to Con Dao is complete without visiting the cemetery and Vo Thi Sau's tomb. Most Vietnamese tourists who come to the island stay for just 24-36 hours; enough time to visit Vo Thi Sau and maybe spend a morning on the beach. However, I had a few more days and I spent them well. I got my diving certificate, drove all up and down the island and hiked to the opposite side, which was completely undeveloped, save a few miles of stone footpaths connecting various coves and deserted beaches. Bryn and I are already planning to go back later this summer. By then, the sea turtles will have migrated to the area to start laying their eggs. I heard that it's possible to sleep in hammocks out on one of the smaller islands and the marine park staff will come wake you up when the turtles arrive. You can bet that we will make that happen.
I left the walk to the Ancient Tree to our next visit

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