Sunday, June 16, 2013

Hanoi - Hoa Lo Prison, or the "Hanoi Hilton"

After visiting the Ethnology Museum, we took a cab back to the Old Quarter of Hanoi and set off to find the notorious old prison that American POWs called the "Hanoi Hilton."  It was a bit of a walk, so first we stopped to get some lunch.  

Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim
67 Duong Thanh
Bun cha:  Ground pork patties and grilled pork belly with vermicelli noodles, greens/herbs,
and spring rolls.
We walked into the shop and were initially put off by the mess -- there was trash all over the floor. But then we reminded ourselves that the mess was a sign of good food, so we pulled up a couple of tiny plastic stools and ordered some bun cha, one of Hanoi's signature dishes.   It was tasty (though I don't love pork belly and overall I preferred the bun bo nam bo that we'd had the day before) and gave us a burst of energy to continue our hot and humid search for the prison.
Along the way we saw an open-air barber shaving a man on the street corner in front of a mirror tied to a tree trunk.

After a few more blocks, we found the squat yellow building that we'd been looking for.
The prison was built by the French in 1896.  The original complex was quite large, as shown in the historical photographs, but only a small fraction of it remains today -- just the "maison centrale" and two short wings on either side.
Aerial view of the original complex
The museum (or "museum", if you will) was devoted primarily to exposing the horrible things that the French colonists did to the Vietnamese who were held in the prison.  The rooms that remained were set up to demonstrate the harsh living conditions, and wall exhibitions recounted some of the unpleasant things that happened under the French control, especially as metropolitan attention shifted to other parts of the world and the prison was left understaffed.  Even taking into account the museum's obvious anti-French/imperialist agenda, it's pretty clear that this was not a nice place to be.

The stocks
Makes me shudder to think about bare ankles in those shackles.
The loo.
One of the (almost) solitary confinement cells. The floor slanted
downward from the stocks, presumably to make sleeping very
uncomfortable (as blood would rush to prisoners' head) and to
reduce puddling of urine/feces.
Portion of the sewage drains on display.
A bunch of prisoners (100, I think) escaped through the sewage system.
A guillotine that was used to decapitate prisoners.
In stark contrast to the slanted but still grim tale of oppression by the French, the other half of the museum was dedicated to showing what a nice place the prison was for American prisoners of war. 

John McCain's flight suit
Merry Christmas, prisoners!
Letters from home
Field day!

For as much as the propagandists want us to accept their message as the Truth, you'd think they'd be sensitive to concepts of credibility.  I mean, this doesn't even pass the laugh test.  I'm willing to believe that some version of these happy things happened -- at least enough to be captured on film -- but it was obvious that we weren't getting the whole story, and the lack of credibility in this portion of the museum undermined the credibility of the entire institution.  I would have been more appalled at French oppression and more impressed by Vietnamese care if there had been at least an attempt at objectivity and self-awareness.

Of course, speaking of self-awareness, this museum really made me realize how infrequent it is for me, as an American, to see history written by "the other side."  They say history is written by the victor and, as far as the Vietnamese are concerned, the Americans weren't the victors.  It's a good reminder to think carefully about the stories that we, as Americans, think of as true history.  There's always another side to the story.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I can't even comment...but no, the US did not leave victorious... Lady