Phu Quoc Prison (Vietnamese spelling: Nhà tù Phú Quốc) was one of Vietnam’s most gruesome prisons. On the island of the same name, it only operated for a few years. However, Phu Quoc Prison resulted in over 4 000 thousand deaths and tens of thousands with permanent disabilities.
The remains of the unfortunate were buried in the nearby cemetery. Later, a monument was raised in memory of them. In 1995, Phu Quoc Prison was recognized as a National Historical Heritage Site.
The Historical Coconut Prison of Phu Quoc
Phu Quoc Prison was destroyed in the American War in 1973. After the National Reunification in 1975, the Vietnamese government reconstructed it in the same location. Nowadays, Phu Quoc Prison is a stark reminder of historical war crimes.
In the Indochinese War
In 1946, French colonialists took control of Phu Quoc Island. Their plan was to build the largest prison for political prisoners in Southeast Asia. The island was a strategic location and suitably far from the mainland. This was ideal for avoiding undesirable attention and scrutiny.
In 1949, the Chinese Socialist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) lost to the communists in the Chinese civil war. Afterward, a KMT general led 30 000 soldiers to Vietnam. The French then allowed these soldiers to camp in southern Phu Quoc Island.
In 1953, the KMT soldiers went to Taiwan following Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the new Republic of China. The French proceeded to make use of the KMT camp. They built a 400 000 m2 prison called Coconut Camp (Căng Cây Dừa).
Initially, the prison held 6 000 inmates which soon increased to 14 000 by early 1954. All the prisoners were male. About 100 died due to horrific torture, while a few hundred managed to escape.
After the 1954 Geneva Conference, the French handed the prison, along with its prisoners, over to the South Vietnamese Government.
During the Vietnam War
In 1955, construction for a new 40 000 m2 Coconut Prison (Nhà lao Cây Dừa) started on the old ground. This prison welcomed their first inmates in early 1956.
Some of these prisoners belonged to the Viet Cong — an opposing army of South Vietnam. During the following months, prisoners made a number of escape attempts. This, unfortunately, led to immediate on-site executions.
In 1957, the South Vietnamese Government transferred the political prisoners to the mainland and some to Con Dao Island. During the Vietnam War, the former South Vietnam was officially the Republic of Vietnam (RV).
During the darkest days of the Vietnam War, in 1966, South Vietnam built many prisons across Southern and Central Vietnam. On Phu Quoc Island, they built another Prison for Vietnamese Communist Prisoners (Nhà giam Tù binh Cộng Sản Việt Nam).
Phu Quoc Prison at Its Worse
The Prison for Vietnamese Communist Prisoners was commonly referred to as Phu Quoc Prison. This new prison was 4 square kilometers and only 2 km away from the old Coconut Prison.
Phu Quoc Prison then came under the management of US advisors and South Vietnamese officers. And, it became a nightmare of up to 32 000 political prisoners.
In 1969, the International Red Cross (IRC) came to Phu Quoc Prison and witnessed the extensive cruelty. However, all claims against the prison were denied by the Executive Commander of the DRV Army.
In 1971, an investigator from the US Ambassador reported that the ill treatment was still going on. In 1972, the IRC visited once again and repeated the claims, which were ignored and denied.
Witness the Brutality at Phu Quoc Prison
Phu Quoc Prison lists in the top of infamous prison museums in Vietnam. The others include Con Dao on an offshore island from Ho Chi Minh City and Hoa Lo in Ha Noi.
The recreated museum is not as big as the original prison. However, it’s still able to showcase the ordeals of prisoners. All exhibits have detailed information in English and Vietnamese. Guides are available for hire, but not necessary.
The museum is divided into an exhibition house and the rebuilt B2 section. The exhibition house displays mementos and photographs. In addition, there’s a documentary room about the lives of prisoners and their escape attempts.
The B2 section includes small houses and barb-wired yards. These showcase dioramas of prisoners being tortured using various methods. Visitors will also see an extensive recreation of escape tunnels.
The Torture Dioramas
According to records of different sources, Phu Quoc Prison implemented over 40 different torture methods. The most brutal torture dioramas include:
1. Prisoners laid naked under the elements in two-meter by half-a-meter barbed wire infamous tiger cages.
2. Prisoners forced to swallow their own teeth which were pried out.
3. Heads of prisoners dunked in a water barrel and drowned while hitting the barrel to burst their eardrums.
4. Eyeballs exposed to a high voltage flashlight until they exploded.
5. Prisoners having to stand on their head and roll their entire body over an iron rail.
Visiting Phu Quoc Prison
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- Opening hours: 8 AM – 11:30 AM ; 13:30 PM – 17 PM.
- Entrance fee: None.
- English speaking guide requires a fee.
It typically takes around one to two hours to fully experience Phu Quoc Prison. Daily visitors used to include American and Vietnamese veterans and their relatives. There are also people looking to learn about the tragedy that war brings.
Protip: Do not touch the exhibits to avoid damaging them. The museum also has a souvenir shop and a coffee shop for a quick rest.