I was sharply surprised – I truly expected a propaganda-laden display that exalted the revolution and excoriated the United States. I was wrong.
I’m speaking about the infamous Hà Nội Hilton. It housed American warplane pilots who were shot down over northern Việt Nam from 1964 to 1973. The likes of Senator John McCain, Ambassador Douglas “Pete” Peterson (America’s first ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam in 1997), and Admiral James Stockdale (Ross Perot’s running mate) were imprisoned there. Today it is easy to confuse it with the Hà Nội Towers hotel which soars twenty stories above the old prison. The actual name of the prison is Hỏa Lò (say wah luh), the snide moniker “Hà Nội Hilton” being given to it by American prisoners. It was built by the French colonial government in 1896 to hold Vietnamese nationalists who were plotting to rid themselves of the French.
French rule of Indochina (which included present day Cambodia, Laos, and Việt Nam) was not gentle. Though there was a French presence prior to 1857, that year is usually considered the beginning of colonization. By the late 1890s, the government controlled the entire region of Indochina, and was busy extracting coal, rubber, rice, and other export products, while introducing opium to the Vietnamese through the construction of a refinery near Sài Gòn. Opium use had previously been confined to the Chinese population. As the French tightened the screws, the greater the resistance by the Vietnamese. Hỏa Lò prison was built to house – and execute – the leaders of the resistance.
Only a small portion of the old prison still exists, the rest having been sold off for commercial development. Many areas have been restored with manikins added to show the treatment of the prisoners. I can’t say the depictions were blatant propaganda – just realistic. There was no overt animosity shown towards the French just as (as I have written before) they have no animosity towards Americans. In fact, today, Việt Nam and France have excellent relations. Nonetheless, it was disquieting to see the very small size of the cells, realize they were not lit with lanterns, and most had manacles installed. Five different men who eventually became the Secretary General of the Communist Party were imprisoned at Hỏa Lò at some point in time.
It was in these same cells built by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners that the Vietnamese housed American pilots. I doubt I could have endured five, six, or seven years of imprisonment as these men did. Interestingly, there are only two small rooms devoted to the American time, and there are no mannequins. But there are pictures of some of the more famous POWs, including Senator McCain. There is no denial of American claims of severe maltreatment of the prisoners, but there are photos of them attending church and playing sports. It would have been easy to plaster the walls with pictures of B-52 bombers, and the destruction of the north, but there is little of that – just a few pictures and statements intended to convey a different perspective than an American view. It was at once disappointing there wasn’t more to the display, yet relief at not having to put up with obvious falsehoods.
As I wrote on Reunification Day, I am proud of my service in Việt Nam during the war, but as an objective student of history, I understand differences in perspective. The Vietnamese were on the receiving end of a lot of bombs, and Americans remember their POWs.
Thankfully, this prison will never be used again. Hopefully, mankind’s only prisons will be museums such as Hỏa Lò.
(Preparing for Bilbo’s eleventy first birthday.)