Touring Hoa Lo Prison in Vietnam

From a half-mile away
trees huddle together,
& the prisoners look like
marionettes hooked to strings of light
Yusef Komunyakaa, from Prisoners

Tours around parts of Southeast Asia usually include lessons in modern history — the brutality of colonialism and war, and the struggles for independence. Nowhere else is the brutality so prevalent or recent than Cambodia, but Vietnam has its own horrors showcased for the world’s tourists to view.

Hanoi Hilton hoa lo prison
The entrance to the Hanoi Hilton

There are more than a few museums dedicated to the Vietnam War that display the inhumanity of the weapons used on the citizens; the War Remnants Museum in Saigon has a floor dedicated to Agent Orange and its long-lasting effects on the environment and people. Of course, visitors have to be aware that certain details about the war are left out in an effort to properly retell the official Vietnamese government narrative of the illegal activities of the evil colonialists destroying the poor nation’s desire for peaceful unification.

On the day before my week-long trip to Cambodia, I headed to Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi — it was a short walk from my hotel in the Old Quarter, but took a while to get to because of the traffic that sometimes blocks all attempts to navigate the narrow streets and unusable sidewalks. The exterior of Hoa Lo isn’t what one would expect of prison that housed the horrors of colonialism and war — it’s a large wall along the street that happens to have an entrance with a small ticket booth and sign indicating that it is some sort of tourist attraction. Had I not intended to visit this site, I probably would’ve walked right by it.

hoa lo Memorial
Memorial to the revolutionaries who fought against the French colonialists

Most of the museum that was the prison focuses on the French colonial period. There are stories of those who were imprisoned for organizing their fellow countrymen to fight for independence, including some who were imprisoned multiple times after escaping through sewers. Their stories are meant to inspire visitors with their dedication to the cause for an independent and unified Vietnam.hoa-lo-artThere are also depictions and replicas of the torture methods employed by the French.hoa lo prison cellsAnd the dingy cells that were packed with emaciated prisoners.

Toward the end of the self-guided tour through Hoa Lo Prison, visitors are introduced to the Vietnam War era, when the prison was used to house POWs. Everything in this part of the museum focuses on the treatment of the American POWs by the Viet Cong — how everyone who passed through the doors was treated according the Geneva Conventions. There are even photos of American soldiers playing volleyball and decorating a small Christmas tree. If the photos tell the narrative of the POWs during the Vietnam War, then it isn’t ironic that it was dubbed the Hanoi Hilton.

mccain flight suit hanoi hilton
John McCain’s flight suit

They even have Sen. John McCain’s flight suit that was recovered when he was pulled out of Truc Bach Lake in 1967. McCain was held in Hoa Lo for five years, during which time he says he was severely tortured. All evidence of torture by the North Vietnamese has been removed from local history.

It may be full of propaganda, particularly for the latter part of the prison’s history, but Hoa Lo is still a worthwhile stop on a journey through Hanoi.

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