Vietnam #1: It’s a Long Ass Flight to Vietnam
Vietnam #2: The Best Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam #3: A Lesson in History and Propaganda
Vietnam #4: The Streets of HCMC
Vietnam #5: Is the Mekong Delta Worth It?
Vietnam #6: My First Overseas Doctor Visit
Vietnam #7: Welcome to Central Vietnam
Vietnam #8: Two-Wheeling in Vietnam
Vietnam #9: Don’t Skip Hoi An
Vietnam #10: A Hot Day in Hue
Vietnam #11: Exploring Hanoi
There was one thing I really wanted to see in Hanoi: The Hanoi Hilton. No, I’m not talking about a hotel. The Hanoi Hilton was the name given to Hoa Lo Prison, the prison used by the French colonialists against the Vietnamese, and later, by the North Vietnam to imprison American POWs during the Vietnam War. As an avid politico, I had read all about the Hanoi Hilton. I was desperate to see it in person.
Hoa Lo means literally “fiery furnace,” derived from the prison’s location among a concentration of stores selling stoves. It is also an apt name given the prison’s horrific conditions.
The museum is small with exhibits occupying its modest two floors, all of which emphasize a central message: The French colonialists cruelly massacred the Vietnamese prisoners while the Vietnamese treated American POWs with kindness and generosity. I am not being facetious. Like most of the museums we saw in the south, Hoa Lo Prison is an exercise in Vietnamese propaganda at its best.
We entered Cell D first, “the largest cells of Hoa Lo Prison where the French colony kept male prisoners…It was this same cell that the French used to detain many revolutionary Vietnam soldiers. These soldiers subsequently became senior executives of the Communist Party of Vietnam and Government of Vietnam…”
Cachot is a tiny prison room at the far end of the first floor. Acording to the sign, Cachot was “used to confine prisoners who broke the regulations of the prison. Cachot in Hoa Lo was ‘hell of the hell,’ dungeon was dark and narrow. Prisoners were kept seperatelly, put in stocks, and to eat and relieve themselves on the spot. All the prisoners confined here were puffed with oedema, their eyes were clouded over and their bodies were covered with scabies caused by the lack of light and air.” [Spelling is not my own.]
Some exhibits demonstrate the lengths the Vietnamese went to escape.
Outside, a memorial honors the “struggle against enemy’s terrorism” and efforts to turn “the prison into a school to propagate the revolutionary argument.”
We then moved on to the Vietnam War era. A sign offers context: “The United States government carried out sabotage warfare by using their air and naval forces against the North Vietnamese from 05 August 1964 to 15 January 1973… Some of pictures and objects in these two exhibition halls show details of US pilots’ lifes when they were temporary imprisoned at Hoa Lo prison.” [Spelling is not my own.]
These were the beds used by American POWs.
Here I am sitting in a prison cell. It’s not particularly comfortable.
Hoa Lo’s most famous POW was Senator John McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona and the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. He was captured in 1967 when his plane was shot down over North Vietnam. Contrary to the propaganda in the museum, McCain was put in solitary confinement and severely tortured. Today, he can’t lift either of his arms above his shoulders. He can’t comb his own hair. Here is a photo of his capture.
U.S. POWs, including John McCain, pictured at their release in 1973.
The museum paints a very rosy picture – almost hysterically so – of the conditions in Hoa Lo during the Vietnam War.
While I obviously didn’t buy into the propaganda machine, it is fascinating to see the historical pictures and the tale that is still being woven today by the Vietnamese government, more than 40 years after the war ended.