With Phu Quoc’s beaches and easy-going lifestyle, it’d be easy to overlook the fact that the island hasn’t always been so peaceful. This was a major base of operations for the American and South Vietnamese armies, who maintained a POW camp here known as the Coconut Tree Prison.
“Coconut Tree Prison on fabulous Phu Quoc Island” sounds kind of nice, doesn’t it? Almost like a resort! But don’t be fooled. The most demented of tortures were inflicted on the prisoners unlucky enough to find themselves here. Not manicures, but fingernail-removal. Not lemon-juice cleanses, but straight-up starvation. Not tennis training, but kneecap shattering. Not spas, but waterboarding. Not massages, but chest-crushing inside wooden planks that are slowly squeezed together ohmygodisthatreallyathing?! God damn it, humanity!
The Coconut Tree Prison was constructed by the French during the Indochina War, but didn’t become truly notorious until the American War, when it fell under the purview of the South Vietnamese army. After the end of hostilities, the prison was closed, but it re-opened in 1996 as a national landmark.
The chest-crusher was special, but the prison’s most infamous device was probably the Tiger Cages: small boxes wrapped with barbed-wire, in which POWs were forced to remain for weeks at a time. The cages were too low to allow for sitting up, and too short for stretching out, so prisoners had to lay curled. They were compelled to defecate inside the boxes, and only given spoiled rice for food.
Today, visiting the prison is like stepping into a house of horrors. There are about two dozen sheds populated by mannequins with faces twisted into permanent grimaces of pain, being subjected to all manner of hellish torment. It’s not a lot of fun… for most people. But we did see one group of Vietnamese tourists, laughing and posing for selfies with some of the more grotesque mannequins. I couldn’t believe it.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the reason for opening this prison to tourists, is to promote the government’s version of history: namely, that the Viet Cong were brave soldiers, and their enemies cruel monsters. But propaganda aside, it’s a matter of record that the POWs held in this prison were horribly tortured. The Red Cross confirmed as much during their visit in 1969.
The Coconut Tree Prison is found in the south of the island, near the town of An Thoi. Note that it’s closed for lunch, from 11:00 to 13:00. We actually got in just ten minutes before the gates were locked, and afterwards saw a few groups of frustrated tourists who had arrived too late.