Fifty years ago, a young Mal Tattersall joined thousands other demonstrators outside the American Embassy in London demanding an end to the Vietnam War and chanting: “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today.” Now he has visited the country and, amid the beauty, learned for himself about some of the atrocities that happened – on both sides.
Although travel is currently prohibited due to COVID-19, this is a destination that should be on your bucket list for 2021.
The guide books describe Phu Quoc, off the very southern tip of Vietnam and a short boat ride from Cambodia, as a paradise island.
And, of course, with its soft white sand, clear blue sea and all-year-round sun, that’s exactly what it is for carefree holidaymakers.
Go there. I loved it and you will too.
My boutique hotel Cassia Cottage, once a spice trader’s elegant retreat, was idyllic with its infinity swimming pool, lush green gardens and private beach.
There was no TV so, a note in my room explained, “you can completely focus on the beauty around you … take off your watch and enjoy Phu Quoc time”.
And sitting in the outside restaurant, tucking into a delicious dinner while gazing out over the Gulf of Thailand, was divine.
But a 20-minute drive away at the other end of the island lie the remains of the former Coconut Tree Prison.
For the 40,000 “revolutionary militants” locked up there between 1967 and 1973 during what we call the Vietnam War and they call the American War, Phu Quoc was far from paradise.
For them, it was hell on earth.
Coconut Tree Prison Tiger Cages
Now Coconut Tree is a “historical monument” – a macabre museum with life-size mannequins depicting in gory, bloody detail the 45 different tortures that guards allegedly used.
Many of the tableaux are so gruesome that it’s no wonder a notice in the Cassia Cottage reception warns guests against taking children there.
As you enter the prison, a sign hammers home the message that it was built by “the American puppet government”.
Just inside the 15-ft high fence, past coils of barbed wire and models of heavily-armed guards with ferocious dogs, are the notorious foot-high “Tiger Cages”.
Here semi-naked prisoners were forced to lie for days under the blazing sun, unable to stand, sit or even turn over, until their burnt skin peeled off.
Other men and women were crammed into corrugated iron “Catso Cages”, locked in with no light or fresh air.
Tortures included having blazing flares held to their genitals, being tossed into cauldrons of boiling water, having nails hammered into their skulls and being buried alive.
Little wonder then that 4,000 prisoners – that’s one in 10 of those held there – died. Most of the rest suffered some sort of permanent physical or mental damage.
A week later, some 1,000 miles north in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi, I visit another prison called Hoa Lo, which roughly translates as Hell Hole.
However it is better known as “The Hanoi Hilton”, the ironic name given it by shot-down US airmen held there during the war.
Built by the French in the 19th century, and with their guillotine still on display, this too is now classed as “a historical relic”.
And reading the Vietnamese propaganda posters on the wall, you’d think it really was like the Hilton.
“No more flights on B52s and carpet bombing,” gushes one, “only a serene time for these American pilots to think about what happened and feel the beauty of peaceful life and warm humanity in Hoa Lo prison.”
Nearby is a photo display of some of those airmen. One is John McCain, who following his release went on to become a US senator and challenge Barack Obama for the White House in 2008.
Another is Douglas Peterson, who after the war became America’s first ambassador to Vietnam.
The First Casualty of the Vietnam War
According to the guidebook, they were all given “the best possible living conditions”.
Not only were their wounds treated but they received regular health checks, spending their leisure time playing chess and basketball, watching films or listening to music.
At Christmas, the Catholics among them were even allowed out to go to church as their jailers showed “the lofty humane spirit of the Vietnamese”.
Sadly, that’s not quite how the American PoWs remember it. Far from being “serene”, McCain, who died aged 81 in 2018, told how he was tortured at least twice a week during two years in solitary confinement.
And former fighter pilot Peterson described his six years of imprisonment as “hours and hours of boredom, spliced with moments of stark terror”.
But then, as somebody once said, truth has always been the first casualty of war.
So two former prisons, 1,000 miles apart, where men on opposite sides in a barbaric war suffered and died. Both now turned into “tourist attractions” … and both evidence of man’s inhumanity to man.
Visit them both. Then enjoy the rest of your holiday. Soak up the culture and tuck into the amazing food in a beautiful, fascinating country with some of the most welcoming people anywhere in the world.
But never forget.
See Vietnam with Inside Asia
Mal travelled to Vietnam with InsideAsia, who tailor holidays to suit all interests and budgets and have a range of innovative small group tours. Phu Quoc can be added to any trip for those wanting beach relaxation after soaking up the mainland culture. A 12-night Classic Vietnam trip, including accommodation, transport, private guiding, domestic flights and a range of cultural experiences costs from £2,821 including direct flights from London. See www.InsideAsiaTours.com. Phone 0117 244 3380.