I am not a history buff. I’m just not. I’m an interactive learner, so something really only sticks if I hear and see it at the same time. Reading the history books? Not so much. So, I’m woefully admitting to knowing very little of the nitty gritty details about the Vietnam War or about the French occupation that came before it.
Vietnam was David’s country. I planned Halong Bay (which ended up being the far superior Bai Tu Long Bay), Sapa and Nha Trang, but David was responsible for Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. First thing on his list for Hanoi? The Hanoi Hilton, or Hoa Lo Prison as it is known locally.
As you wander down the surrounding streets of the prison, it’s a bustling city. There are high-rise hotels, you can hear children laughing during recess at a nearby school and the cafes up the street are heaving with friends sharing their morning tea. Entering the prison, however, is a somber place, as you’d expect. Technically it is only the gatehouse of the prison that remains, as the remainder of the prison was demolished in the 1990s.
The prison was built by the French in the late 1880s as a place to house political prisoners. It was named “Maison Centrale”, the words that still grace the entrance. In English, this is Central House, and considering how many people made their way into the prison, but not out, it seems to have held a central place in the history of Hanoi. The French built the prison with such precision that there were only millimeters between strong walls and they ordered the iron locks and hinges all the way from France to ensure high quality.
There is no doubt about it, the prison guards and the conditions were absolutely brutal. Torture wasn’t a rare occasion, but an everyday. Rations for prisoners were somewhat abided by, but the food would be old and rancid. Prisoners were locked at the ankle and there was one communal toilet in a long room that would often overflow, leaving the horrific stench and liquid to sop through the room.
Solitary confinement? Not so nice. You would again be attached by the ankle, but would lie on a sloped concrete floor so that your head was lower than your legs, letting the blood rush to your brain. And in one room stands the fear-inducing guillotine, brought especially from France. Heads of political prisoners would be displayed outside the gates as a warning. How Game of Thrones-esque.
Clearly the French did not treat the Vietnamese well. But then you carry on into the section of the prison regarding how the Vietnamese treated the Americans, after the Vietnamese gained their independence of course. It seemed like the Hanoi Hilton really was an incredible place to stay. There were pictures of prisoners playing basketball, celebrating the holidays, getting great healthcare, etc.
I left the prison saying to David that it is amazing that following such poor treatment, that a country can turn it around and do things differently when they were in charge.
But I really should know better by now that there are always two sides to the story.
One of the artifacts on display at the Hanoi Hilton is John McCain’s flight suit. As in 2008 presidential candidate John McCain. I did some Googling. Now, I’m not saying that I think McCain is the be all end all in rationality (Sarah Palin, anyone?), but his accounts of his time at the Hoa Lo Prison were dramatically different to the exhibits on display. He was starved, interrogated, kept in solitary confinement for years and denied a necessary second operation on his leg for his “bad attitude”. Those photos that we see of happy prisoners were created under duress, according to McCain.
Nobody wins in a war. Yes, there might be a ‘winning’ side, but it makes monsters of men and women. It creates lasting PTSD in many and countless others don’t come home at all.
It’s impossible to tell where the exact line of the truth lies in what happened at Hoa Lo prison. Instead of feeling wiser about its history, I left confused, a little bit angry and couldn’t help but wonder the effect of sweeping the bad bits under the rug. In no way am I pompously saying that my country is perfect. It’s not. I am uncomfortably aware of our brutal history, particularly surrounding our Aboriginal Peoples, but I’m aware.
Do the youth in Vietnam ever hear the other side? I’m not saying the other side is the right one, but it provides two sides to this complicated story.