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Celebration of life warms the soul on remote Con Dao Island

Update: September, 13/2013 - 10:13
Luscious landscape: Tau Be Cape on Con Dao Island is a convenient spot to see the whole gulf dotted with islets and docks. — VNS Photos Le Huong

by Le Huong

 (VNS) Before departing for Con Dao Island, I was told it often had an "atmosphere of death", that it was "wild and the food is scarce", and that "it's worth only a day visit as there's nothing to entertain".

Yet my trip was so interesting that, since returning home, I have become obsessed with the smell of wild grass in the wind and the look of the sunlight on the land and water.

In the first hours after landing at Co Ong Airport, a feeling of calmness and safety overcame me. No one was rushing about on the scenic island, which is surrounded by blue sea and covered with a transparent blanket of breezes and sunlight. This feeling was confirmed when a motorbike man told me with a smile: "Just leave the bike at the hotel entrance with the key in it. There are no thieves here."

For the next few days, I revelled in the fresh air and feeling of freedom as I rode my bike from one place to another. When ever I stopped, at a crowded market, a busy restaurant or on a deserted cape, I did not have to worry about my bike. I just left it unlocked and enjoyed the surroundings.

There is only one petrol station on the island, so I was carefully warned by the bike man to fill the vehicle if I did not want to walk the bike with an empty tank.

Rooted in history: An old bang tree in the yard of Phu Hai Jail. The trees used to provide comfort to war prisoners at local jails during the French and American wars.

Two of the capes, Chan Chim and Tau Be, are great spots to view the whole gulf and its many islets. Welcome, but strong, gusts of wind made it difficult to take photos, but it was an unforgettable experience. I heard the sea whispering as the salty air blew over me.

Apart from a series of jails and historical relics dating back to French and American wars highlighted on the tourism map of the island, Hang Duong cemetery is a must-see place to tourists. It holds nearly 2,000 tombs of war martyrs who died between 1862 and 1975. It is both a holy and a beautiful place with hundreds of big trees – something like a park for both the dead and the living.

Taking advice from locals and being curious, I visited the place at midnight in order to "meet the souls". It was unlike anything I expected. It was not dark, deserted and scary, but a festival of light as the cemetery entrance was lit up with hundreds of candles. The holy atmosphere was scented with the fragrance of burning incense. Cool gusts of wind carried the murmurs of conversation from locals and visitors.

People took flowers, especially white flowers, clothes, mirrors and combs and other goods to put on graves and tombs to please departed souls. Many people flocked to the tomb of Vo Thi Sau, a noted heroine who was executed in 1952 at the age of 16.

Locals believed that as she died at a young age, her soul was powerful enough to turn dreams and wishes into reality. The world of the dead brought me a feeling of cleanliness, order, peace and safety. My friend, however, carried some garlic on his pocket just in case.

Another holy place to locals and tourists is a temple dedicated to Hoang Phi Yen, the second wife of Lord Nguyen Anh, who later became the first king of the Nguyen Dynasty, King Gia Long (1802-20). Although abandoned by the king, she always remained loyal - a high virtue in Vietnamese society.

Historical documents say that in 1771, the Tay Son revolution broke out in Quy Nhon, which was under the control of Lord Nguyen. In 1783, Lord Nguyen Anh was defeated by the Tay Son rebels in central Viet Nam led by three brothers.

Lord Nguyen Anh fled to the Con Dao island and sent a prince to France to ask for help in fighting the Tay Son. However, Phi Yen advised him not to accept foreign power to fight Vietnamese.

The lord was so furious that he ordered her to be left on a deserted islet, called Hon Ba (Ba Islet) in the southwest of the Con Dao archipelago. When the Tay Son approached Con Dao Island, Nguyen Anh and his supporters fled to Siam. (Later with the help of the French, he became the first king of the Nguyen Dynasty).

Phi Yen was saved by locals but, later at a local festival, a man teased her. Though the man just touched her hand, she cut it off and then committed suicide to prove her loyalty to her husband, the man who had abandoned her! She was only 25. So moved by her loyalty, locals built a temple to commemorate her.

During my few days on the island, I tried wonderful fresh seafood at local restaurants. Among my favourites were ca mu do (a fleshy, sea fish), large lobsters (yum!) and tom mu ni (a special type of prawn). Vegetables such as rau muong (morning glory) and mong toi (malabar spinach) on the island were extra delicious, crispy and sweet. They seemed to absorb the essence of the sun, the salt wind and fertile soil.

Con Dao road trip: The road named after Hoang Phi Yen, a loyal wife of King Nguyen Anh.

Yet what visitors seek most is preserved hat bang (the internal nut of a natural shade tree, Teminalia catappa). There are two kinds of this delicacy - sweet and salted. After being baked, the fatty nuts are dipped in sugar or salt. The taste lingers ... and lingers.

Bang trees were later used by Vietnamese war prisoners in local prisons during the French and American wars. The prisoners gathered the leaves to make mats to "soften" the hard cement and stone prison floors. The leaves were also used to write news and poems to pass to each other on the once forbidding island. — VNS

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