It was the perfect morning to hang your washing out, warm and breezy with no sign of rain. At 8 am we were served eggs and pancakes while our feet sat buried deep in the soft sand of Long Beach. As the waves lapped against the shore nearby, we hatched our plan for the day, deciding to ride South in the direction of ‘Sao Beach’ and the infamous ‘Coconut Tree Prison’.
Initially the roads were great, we cruised south towards the airport enjoying the breeze upon our faces. But it didn’t take long for our well laid plans to fall apart. It quickly became evident that something wasn’t right. The coastal road we were heading for never appeared and the road we were on deteriorated quickly from tarmac to a devilishly loose gravel.
According to Google maps we were, without doubt, riding across a beautiful tarmac road heading precisely in the direction we intended. In reality we were struggling, trudging begrudgingly through a landscape more at home in the Dakar Rally. The gravel became soft sand littered with hidden rocks and debris. Our poor little bikes suffered as they huffed and puffed their way through difficult terrain. Once we passed a resting ground for heavy duty vehicles, it became clear that we’d stumbled upon the foundations of a new, un-mapped road which curved off in to the distance.
Through some trees to our left we found an alternative path which by default had become a road. We weren’t sure where it would lead, but currently, we weren’t getting anywhere. After a twisty, winding maze covered by a thick canopy of trees we emerged back on to a road which Google confirmed was the one we wanted.
Back on track we could finally open the traps. The road widened and all around were open plains of farmland. At a high point along the road we stopped to drink some water and check our progress. A powerful wind ripped across the road but the scenery around us was fantastic. I hadn’t seen this amount of open space in so long, the room to breath was endless. From here our map reading skills became redundant, no signal and no roads on to which we could deviate. We trundled along the empty highway until, by sheer chance, we came across an inconspicuous sign declaring our arrival at Sao Beach.
Swinging off the main road we continued slowly down a narrow, sandy dirt track towards the beach. Here the buses started to appear. They carried small armies of umbrella wielding Asians who doddered along the path towards the beach. After weaving our way through the marauding mob we emerged on to paradise. It seemed that the bus loads of tourists weren’t to interested in walking along the beach, more just standing near it and taking pictures. We wandered away from the crowds to a quieter end of the beach. In the distance there were no people, only the kind of peace found in the holy matrimony of sand and ocean.
By now the heat of the day and the dusty journey had us yearning for a dip. Like the beaches up north the ocean was crystal clear, calm and cool. After a refreshing swim I took a walk further round the deserted bay. The beach became narrow and imposing palm trees created separate islands in the sand. Behind each palm tree was a lonely patch of sand cut off from the rest of the world. Here, on my own hidden beach, I sat in the sand a took half an hour out of the day to write down all that had happened on our trip so far.
Leaving Sao Beach we headed a little further south to the imposing sight of ‘Coconut Prison’. Built originally by the French in 1949 to house people considered dangerous to the colonist regime, it was later rebuilt and used by the Americans who decided to keep the same name.
Having never been to the likes of Auschwitz I was a little unsure what to expect, but even from the outside this appeared to be a brutal place. The huge barbed wire walls of Coconut prison were an intimidating sight, a tangled web of razor sharp wire. Before entering the prison itself we visited a small building which held the stories of inmates and guards, along with pictures of the goings on within the walls. On entering the prison I was first drawn to the all to realistic model guards stood on patrol atop the watchtowers. It added a sense of realism to the now redundant prison, reminding us that this was way more than a museum.
Our first stop was the horrifically named ‘baking huts’. Inmates were forced inside the tiny tin huts to bake in the heat of the day. There were also barbed cages in which prisoners were left exposed in awkward positions under the harsh Vietnamese sun. Some stories recounted how acid was thrown over the prisoners before they were left to burn without clothing or water.
The prison huts themselves were bare and constructed entirely of metal. The heat inside these during the day must have been unbearable. Life-like models showed the brutality inflicted upon the prisoners. Chiseling of the patellas was touted as being a common method of torture. These models really fired home the realisation that the Vietnamese were inflicting these horrors upon their own people. The division of a boarder and vastly differing ideas, somehow seemed to justify the cruelty they could possess.
Wondering around the prison all was quiet, nobody spoke. Its hard to take in the harshness of the place. There’s a solemn atmosphere even today. Everything is razor sharp, rough or hard. I couldn’t believe the amount of escape attempts. The walls and wires seemed impenetrable. Yet the prisoners tried and failed in incredible numbers. It seems that once the human spirit has nothing left to loose the potential of escape is all there is left to cling to. Somehow, through sheer will, determination and an incredible knack for deception, some inmates of coconut prison did manage to escape. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Inside one of the prison huts we discovered a narrow tunnel dug in to the earth. We scrambled down and walked along a surprisingly deep and well lit alley carved from the earth. Walking their path to freedom must have been the narrowest of tightropes. Not knowing what lay beyond, but knowing it couldn’t be any worse than what they had left behind. When I emerged from the tunnel I couldn’t believe how far I’d traveled. I tried to imagine the relief of that first gulp of free air but then imagined their trepidation that their escape had, really, only just begun.
Back on the bikes we raced home to catch the sunset on long beach. We finished our day as it had begun, with our feet buried in the sand. The welcome addition of a cold beer capped off an incredible day. The sun danced its last rays along the horizon and we watched as a gang of local children played in the water by a fishing boat. The beauty of Phu Quoc is the ability to combine reckless adventure with this absolute serenity.