An Idyllic Vietnamese Island With a Grim History

  • By Guan Tan

  • Travel /13 February 2018

  • By Guan Tan

"Someone told me [Con Dao] is a very spiritual place and the Vietnamese go there to pray for good luck. If their wishes come true, they have to come back. Apparently, the island has so many myths," Filipino visual storyteller Franz Navarrete muses. The Singapore-based photographer departed for the southern Vietnamese island last month to highlight the startling contrast between the island's resort lifestyle and its grim history

"From Ho Chi Minh City I boarded a small Vietnam Airlines turboprop plane for a 45-minute flight to Con Dao. I instantly felt that it was very serene and peaceful. The picturesque scenery was like someting out of a fairytale."


In fact, the resort island has a very grim history. "About 20,000 Vietnamese prisoners were executed in Con Dao during the wars with France and America. For more than 100 years, Con Dao was a prison island," Navarrete explains. Pictured above is "one of the prison walls" that remains till date. "The former prisons were turned into museums. I had an evocative experience as the prison cells were well preserved and there were life-like mannequins–they look eerily real– showcasing the brutal experiences the prisoners endured in the past." 

"These are some scenese I took at the infamous prison complexes in Con Dao. Despite the well maintained condition, you will still get to feel the sense of suffering and loss that the prisoners had to undergo in the past."


Below, "the Hang Duong Cemetery where thousands of Vietnamese prisoners were buried" and a "statue of Vo Thi Sau, the 19-year-old heroine who fought against the French colonialists and was executed in Con Dao in 1952... She is considered a national heroine and matyr. Her grave draws a lot of visitors from all over Vietnam." 


For the most part of his trip, Navarrete "stayed in a small local-owned hotel called Lighthouse, in the town centre... Whenever I travel, I wake up before sunrise to observe how the locals start their day. Lighthouse's location was good as it's near the market, prison cells, coffesshops and promenade." 

On the image below, Navarrete explains, "I was doing my morning walk and noticed this beautiful shadow casted on the light blue wall. As luck would have it, a local lady walked through the door and her blue traditional dress complemented the wall."


"Here is a local lady selling some fresh catch from the ocean. Seafood is especially popular in Con Dao." Below is another lady "arranging the placement of the Vietnam flag before closing her seaside eatery."


"This is a vintage tram, a fun and refreshing alternative to normal taxi in Con Dao." To Navarrete, the locals "were very amiable and laid back. However, they could not understand or speak English enough. It would have been great to hear their stories." 

Pictured below, a scene in the town centre. "I stopped this young girl cycling. Her matching pink top and bike caught my attention." 


Later, Navarrete explored the luxurious resorts in the island, namely the Six Senses Con Dao and pictured below, the Poulo Condor Resort, "a relatively new high-end resort in Con Dao". 


Pictured above is a lady named "Tran, who is a service staff in a local hotel. It was her day off and I caught her stopping by the promenade to get some fresh air."

Below, another local rests by the promenade. "Walking along the seaside promenade was one of my favourite activities while I was in Con Dao... I spotted this lady sitting still and [she] seemed to be watching time go by." 


Above, a man "ending his day with a swim just before the evening set in." Below, what looks like a fisherman's engine sitting on a deck chair.

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Photographs by Franz Navarrete
Shot on Pentax 67 with Fuji 400H Films