Paradise and Prisons: New York Times on the Con Dao Islands

The beach at Con Son Island

Vietnam is apparently going the way of Thailand. The New York Times wrote recently about the Con Dao Islands, once the site of horrific prisons run by the French, the South Vietnamese, and the Americans. Now these islands, particularly Con Son, the main island, are being developed as tourist hotspots. The island really is beautiful, as the Times slideshow makes evident, and also relatively under-developed.

I visited last summer and stayed at a beachside hotel, one of only a handful of westerners. Most everyone was a Vietnamese tourist, which, on the one hand, was refreshing to see. On the other hand, I had the feeling these folks were all really rich and patriotic Party members, as they all flew to the island, and went on the packaged tour of the prisons. In contrast, the very nice hotel employee who drove me to the airport has to take the ferry back and forth from mainland Vietnam when he wants to visit his family.

Vietnamese tourist looks at exhibit of torture

All the usual anxieties about tourism apply here about the tensions between tourism and preservation, amusement and history, forgetting the past and pleasure-seeking in the present. Some people want to keep the pristine parts of Vietnam pristine, but  we won’t be able to get away from these problems by longing to keep places pure and tourist free (and the people who usually seem to long for this kind of purity are the western tourists who first get to a place and want to ruin it just for themselves).

The difference is between tourist places overrun by wealthy foreigners and tourist places where locals can afford to visit and behave in just as ugly or beautiful a fashion as international tourists. What will hopefully happen is that Vietnamese middle-class tourists will get more of a chance to see places like Con Dao and experience their own joys and anxieties about tourism, in conjunction with the Vietnamese who will have to service them, some of whom must also travel quite far from home to get to their place of work but by much less glamorous means than Vietnam Air.

If you plan to visit, though, be forewarned. I had a great time, zipping around on the back of my hired motorbike taxi, who I could barely understand because he was a migrant laborer who spoke with an accent from deep in the mainland south. Then I told a friend in Saigon about the island. She visited a week after me and contracted dengue fever, which only sounds cool when it’s the name of a band.

Viet Thanh Nguyen

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