On the remote tropical island of Côn Sơn, off the coast of Vietnam, is a sprawling prison museum known as Côn Đảo Prison. Passed down through successive repressive regimes, the prison museum features beautiful colonial architecture dotted with terrifying life-sized sculptures depicting the torture and abuse of prisoners.
Originally built by the French colonial government in 1861 to house political prisoners, Côn Đảo Prison was transferred to the South Vietnamese government in 1954, which utilized it for the same purpose, with the help of the United States.
This fascinating complex of buildings is now run by the Vietnamese government and maintained as a special historical site open to the public. Although wandering through the historic stone buildings and courtyards seems tranquil at first, a peek inside many of the cells reveals life-sized sculptures immortalizing the wide variety of atrocities that took place there.
This prison is most infamously known for the “Tiger Cages,” notorious cramped cells built in 1940 by the French to keep prisoners of war. During the Vietnam-American War prisoners were caged in the cells like animals, brutally tortured, and mutilated.
The cages were hidden away from the main prison, unknown until 1970 when a visiting U.S. congressional delegation investigating the Vietnam War discovered them and revealed them to the public. Today you can see sculptures recreating how prisoners of war were crammed into tiny cells and shackled to concrete beds, while guards poked at them with long bamboo poles from a catwalk above.
Arguably, the most horrific sculpture features a female prisoner, who at the end of her life, protested her captivity by tearing open her own abdomen and throwing her intestines at the guards.
Côn Sơn Island (also known as Con Lon) is the largest of the Côn Đảo archipelago in Vietnam’s Ba Ria–Vung Tau province. While for decades the paradise island was home to prisoners, isolated and removed from the mainland, more recently has attracted tourists thanks to its beautiful beaches and tropical forests.
Know Before You Go
Flights to Côn Đảo leave year round from Ho Chi Minh City.