Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Vietnam, day 8: Consulting the Coracle - Prophecies of Cocktails

Con Son, Vietnam
21 May 2017
As it was our second-to-last full day on the island, we decided to get our asses into gear and look into going snorkelling, having heard that the Con Dau Islands were some of the best locations to do so in the world.
But we couldn't start our day without a visit to a nice cafe! Literally. Its name was Nice Cafe. And it lived up to its name. My peach iced tea was delicious, and Yannick got his coffee fix in the form of ca phe sua da, one of his all time favourite beverages. Our table was upstairs on a balcony overlooking the main street and all the way to the distant mountains. A half coconut shell served as our table's ashtray, and the only other patron at that time was a soldier in uniform.

And before finding a suitable snorkelling company, we had to drop by the market to purchase some fresh fruit for the day. Yummy! I missed having a kitchen, or even just a knife and cutting board, and seeing those juicy mangos was torture without the means to eat them. I had bought one when we were staying at a hotel before, and peeled the skin off with my fingernails, digging into it with my teeth, but as you can imagine it was too messy an experience to repeat. 

Then we wanted to ensure that we saw the tiger cages with ample time before they closed, so we sped on over, quickly dipping our feet in the sea on the way. The tide had washed away evidence of the rambutan feast that we had seen the other day, but one of the funny round boats had washed ashore. Apparently the name for these is "coracles". 

The French were the first to use Con Dau as a place to house prisoners, and built the first prison on Con Son in 1861. In 1940, the French constructed what are now called the "Tiger Cages", a series of cells that are now live in infamy. The Americans continued to use the cages during the American War, to incarcerate political prisoners from North Vietnam. The cages were deliberately built away from the main prison, though an alleyway, and were not known to the outside world for some time.

The cages were built at the bottom floor of a two-story building, with a long walkway above so that guards could poke prisoners with long sticks through the bars, and throw down quicklime to burn their flesh and blind them. The photos above show the two main buildings in the complex: the one above having been reconstructed (note the barrels of lime), and the one below showing the semi-destroyed tiger cages.

In 1970, Tom Harkin, a US congressional aide travelled to Con Son along with a few other government representatives and a translator, having been told of these nightmarish tiger cages by a former prisoner who was held there. He had been given very specific instructions on how to find it (including to traverse a vegetable patch behind the main prison), otherwise it may not have been found for many more years. They saw the horrendous conditions: prisoners with burns, sores, and mutilations calling out for water. In July 1970, Life Magazine published an article by Harkin on the tiger cages and sometime later they were torn apart, the prisoners moved to other prisons or to mental institutions.

Having been recommended the company Dive! Dive! Dive! by a fellow hotel guest, we wandered over to where Google Maps claimed it to be, only to find Phi Yen! Why, that was the very restaurant that we had been looking for the night before! Oh Google, why you so wrong? Phi Yen was not only a restaurant, but also a hotel, and a sign for snorkelling led us inside the lobby. The price of the options was rather steep, so we left with the notion that we would shop around. Just down the road we saw an identical sign, this time leading into a shop called Rainbow Divers. A note on the door read that they would be back later, so we decided to rest for a while at An Hai beach. However, we only walked a few meters down the road when an English couple on a moped pulled up next to us asking if we were looking for Rainbow Divers. It turned out that they were the owners and quoted us a much more reasonable price for a day out snorkelling. We agreed to return to the shop at 18:00 to sort out the particulars.
With an abundance of choices for beachside cafes, we selected the one that we had walked through for beach access on our first day on the island. We drank cocktails and made great reading progress, with a spectacular view to look out on. If that's not paradise, I don't know what is.

It so happens that that cafe changed my life and made the Mai Tai my new favourite cocktail (though since then, every Mai Tai I've had has been different and never as good as that first one and I'm constantly chasing the thrill of that first high).

That evening, we bought water and Oreos at a corner store, returned to Rainbow Divers to plan out our snorkelling trip for the next day, and then had dinner at the waterfront where everyone on the island goes swimming as the sun sets. Yannick ate meat grilled in betel leaves, and I got some corn on the cob and roasted sweet potato. We had a quiet night in after that, as we would have an early start in the morning.