Phu Quoc Prison, dubbed “Coconut Tree Prison” at the time of its construction, was built between 1949–1950 by French colonialists as a place to detain political dissidents. It was used heavily during the first Indochina war for prisoners thought to endanger the colonialist government, and was re-built by American and South Vietnamese forces in the early years of the Vietnam War.
Over the course of the war, Phu Quoc Prison held over 40,000 POWs and political prisoners who suffered tremendously. To remind the world of the brutal crimes inflicted upon the resistance fighters, Phu Quoc Prison installed human-sized dolls throughout the grounds, all re-enacting disturbing tortures inflicted upon the prisoners.
The installations are not only designed to depict the various torture methods used by the guards, but to also display pain through the permanently twisted expressions on the mannequins’ faces. Each prisoner grimaces in eternal agony, while the guards cast a cool, indifferent gaze onto their victims.
The gruesome scenes displayed at the museum accurately reflect the systematic torture reported at the prison. Prisoners routinely endured electric shock, blinding, starvation, beatings, crucifixion, burns and having their teeth broken by hammers. There are mannequins depicting prisoners’ chests being crushed by wooden panels and having nails driven through various parts of their bodies.
In the confines of the heavily barbed-wire courtyards are tiny cages made of barbed-wire, too low for a person to sit up and too small for one to lie out. These so-called “tiger cages” (also referenced in a prison on Con Son island) are where prisoners were placed for weeks to burn in the hot tropical sun and freeze during chilly coastal nights.
While it wouldn’t be a far-off thought to consider most of the scenes to be Northern Vietnamese propaganda, it would be wrong nonetheless; the Red Cross visited the prison in 1969 and confirmed the abuses, while an inspector from U.S. Embassy visited in 1971 and reported on the tortures occurring at the prison. There were approximately 4,000 registered deaths at the prison when the war ended; the rest of the prisoners were released. The majority returned home with physical and mental disabilities lasting from the barbaric torture they endured.
Phu Quoc Prison was declared a historical monument in 1993 and opened for tours to the public shortly after. Anyone who’s ever been to a war museum in Vietnam will know that all pretenses are thrown out the window; the images are raw, visceral, intense, and unforgiving, and Phu Quoc Prison is no exception. Aside from the extreme depictions of torture, there are gruesome and bloody photographs of prisoners on display as well. It goes without saying that this is not a place to take the kids.