Con Son prison island 

When I went on a fact-finding visit to Vietnam in 1974 as part of a US Congressional team, the war was still on, but the South Vietnamese were fighting it without the Americans. The North Vietnamese Army was to conquer the South within a year, but our mission then was to assess if the South could hold out. We visited different parts of the South, travelling everywhere by military helicopter. On one occasion the general in charge treated us to a picnic just South of the demilitarised zone, with the North Vietnamese guns right across the river. Since there was a UN observation post just down the river, he had worked out that we would be safe.

One of the strangest visits we made was to Con Son prison island, where brutal treatment of prisoners had been alleged. On the notice board inside the entrance hall the names of the prison governors over the years were lettered. In the mid 50s they suddenly changed from French to Vietnamese, but the prison continued as before. There was no sign of brutality, or indeed talk of it when we spoke freely with prisoners. The infamous "tiger cages," depicted as rank pits of iniquity in the US press, were in fact above ground, with their chain-holding points long corroded and rusted.

One prisoner I spoke with ashamedly told me he had killed a friend in a drunken fight. I bought an elegant dragon's head walking stick he had carved, with a bullet casing as its tip. I later gave it to Dr Rhodes Boyson, an English MP friend, who was delighted with it. "Made by a murderer, you say?" he queried with delight.