Friday, July 15, 2011

Hanoi Hilton

The original French name of the "Hanoi Hilton" prison where many of our servicemen were jailed during the Vietnam War

      I didn't want to post about my visit to the former POW camp in Hanoi until after I left Vietnam as freedom of speech is limited there and, even though I am not going to make wild political statements, I wanted to feel at liberty to write what I wanted to without having to worry about how the Vietnamese government might react to it.  As a matter of fact, Vietnam is one of only five countries worldwide where the government blocks Facebook, even though I found ways to get around the block during my almost two weeks in the country. 

      The first thing of note about Hoa Lo prison is that is stands literally in the shadow of the Melia, the 5-star hotel where the Fulbright contingency stayed in Hanoi, and nobody bothered to tell us it was there.  I had assumed that the prison was outside of the city and was surprised when, by pure accident, we discovered that it was right there on the the outskirts of the old French Quarter and I had actually strolled by it several times in my morning walks without realizing it.
Rules posted at "Hanoi Hilton" (Hoa Lo Prison)... I especially like the "no frolicking" rule

Front gate

      The second thing that surprised me about the prison is that it was originally built by the French in colonial times to house political prisoners (i.e., Vietnamese who were resisting the French occupation of their country).  Most of the displays in the prison (which is now a museum) documented the Vietnamese prisoners who were incarcerated, tortured, and executed there from the late 1800s until the French left the country in the 1950s.  I walked from cell to cell, looking at the documentation of the mistreatment the French subjected the Vietnamese to, amazed that human beings perpetuate misery, cruelty, and injustice.  One would think that the Vietnamese, having suffered there so much under French rule, would have learned a lesson in humanity - but evidently the Hoa Lo prison pretty  much went from being a place where Vietnamese were tortured by the French to a place where the Vietnamese became the torturers of American POWs in the 1960s, even though the government of Vietnam continues to deny this.

Artwork portraying how the French colonialists treated Vietnamese prisoners

A typical cell

Figurines depicting how Vietnamese prisoners were treated at the facility under French rule

      Hoa Lo means "fiery furnace" or "hell hole" in Vietnamese, and considering that temperatures in Hanoi were hovering around 100 degrees with the barometer about maxed out I can only shudder at the thought of  anyone - of any nationality - trying to survive there.  The displays showed the horrific conditions of the prison - tiny cells, leg and arm shackles, instruments of torture, and even a guillotine used by the French against Vietnamese insurgents.  It was only in the last few rooms that still exist (most of the prison was razed in order to built an adjacent high-rise building) that the American POWs who were held there were mentioned.  The display that "documented" the U.S. pilots who were held there started off by talking about what was describing the "American aggression" which began the war.  Then came the display which "documented" how well our servicemen were treated while imprisoned there.  As you can see, the claim is that Vietnam was economically challenged during the war but did the best they could with the little they had to care for their prisoners.  "Evidence" of the good treatment included cigarettes, cough drops, photos of prisoners celebrating Christmas and playing volleyball, etc.  Also included was John McCain's flight suit (well, the Vietnamese claim it's his suit) and parachute from when he was shot down.

The Vietnamese claim this is John McCain's flight suit and parachute from when he was shot down and imprisoned here

Rules posted for American prisoners to follow

This display is supposed to show how great the American prisoners were treated - evidently the average Vietnamese citizen truly believes that their government treated the POWs well.  One Vietnamese said with 100% sincerity that, "the Vietnamese people were starved during the war while the American prisoners were given large meals.  It is the Vietnamese way ... after the way the French treated us we would never treat our prisoners poorly."  The guy making these claims believed what he was saying was true. 

      As we all know, U.S. servicemen mistreated and tortured in this prison and it was kind of sickening how well the Vietnamese documented their own abuse at the hands of the French but refused to acknowledge their similar behavior. The one vivid memory I have of growing up during the Vietnam war was the images of our returning POWs which were broadcast on TV.  The physical and obvious mental trauma that they were experiencing as they walked, limped or were carried off the planes is burned into my memory.  I'm not here to defend or condemn America's involvement in Vietnam, but I do feel like we are a country that admits our mistakes, and we can be proud that we are able to do so.  I came away from the visit with sympathy for all prisoners of all countries who had been starved, abused, and murdered in that sad, sad, place.
Guillotine used by the French to execute Vietnamese political prisoners "back in the day"

The artwork showing sympathy for political prisoners is at odds with the display inside which misrepresents what happened here in the 1960s and 70s