Hoa Lo Prison,

I didn’t do too many touristy things in Hanoi, I was mainly there for the food, the new friends, and Halong Bay! Plus it was rainy and cold and I was solo half the time, but I did make my way to the Hỏa Lò Prison, also know as the “Hanoi Hilton,” as it was known during the Vietnam War where POW’s were held, including, famously, aviator and then (and now) Senator and former Presidential candidate, John McCain (R-AZ). The prison, now a museum, was built in the late 1800’s (starting in 1886) during the French colonial period, and was called Maison Centrale (Central House), and used to house, jail, and torture Vietnamese political dissidents who stood up against colonial rule. Though a brutal prison (there is one room with a huge guillotine, and isolation rooms that are just dark holes in the wall, “E” block where prisoners were shackled in rows to the floor, a women’s section, and the “death row” section, where prisoners were held just prior to execution), the camp would serve as a basis for the future Communist revolutionaries, as the prisoners developed unique systems of communication, fostered radical ideas (as most prisoners were politial dissenters and activists anyways), and many of the prison’s former captives went on to be leaders in the Vietnamese Communist Party after the French left in 1954.

The prison was a source of propaganda during the Vietnam War, as well as where American and foreign POWs we’re kept hostage. The Vietnamese would use get the prisoners to make confessions against the West, to showcase their might, and break the will of prisoners. Though the conditions were deplorable, they would portray the prisoners as well kept well treated, in conditions in-line with the Geneva Convention. You can see this throughout the prison, as a lot of the photo and museum items aimed to display the POW experience as favorable, including showing photos of them having Christmas celebration (with a tree and everything), talking and playing games, smoking, etc. The videos in one room, showcased the military victories against the American campaign and referred to the Vietnamese as patriots and heroes, the video showing many scenes of victorious battle and hailing the capture of Americans. But even though the propaganda and theme of the Vietnam era section of the prison/museum is most definitely pro-Vietnam/Communist, I didn’t feel threatened and the history was otherwise presented mostly fairly and even-handed. There were a lot of photos depicting anti-war protests all over the world, even the USA even showing the late 90s/2000s when the Prison became a museum, with photos of John McCain returning for a visit and photos with other world leaders and American Presidents. Even the display of John McCain’s flight suit, though a homage to the capture of the prison’s most famous Vietnam era captive, was presented more as history and not as a chest-pounding brag of their military accomplishments. But Vietnam won the war, and you definitely know that when exploring the Vietnam Era part of the prison.

The colonial era parts of the prison most definitely depicted the very real sorrow and desperation of the French era prisoners, with many life like models and recreations of the prisoners locked in dark rooms, chained to the floor or walls, etc. The wall of photos and names of prisoners, in one room, served as a “hall of heroes” to all the revolutionaries who served time in the prison. Overwhelmingly, the museum and prison serves as a reminder of the colonial-era atrocities against the patriotic people of Vietnam, so go in knowing that and know that it’s so much more than just a former POW camp.

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