|Hoa Lo Prison - Hanoi|
The walls were painted black, as if the place needed a more creepy feng shui to make your skin crawl. And it was cold, the type of chill that penetrates into and ices your marrow space. It’s the cold that wool, down, Canada Goose, and layers cannot conquer. Could this place be as those in charge claimed, a venue set up for contemplation, for serene reflection? I guess it depends on who you ask.
We were in Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison. In its prime, this once massive French fortress, aka Maison Centrale, was the place no rebel in Vietnam’s twentieth century struggle for independence wanted to be in while the country was still a colonial outpost. More recently US POW’s captured during the slog of the Vietnam War derisively dubbed Hoa Lo the Hanoi Hilton. By the way, hoa lo translates to ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘hell’s hole.’ Serene reflection in a ‘fiery furnace’? Something doesn’t compute.
|Independence Palace - April 30, 1975|
On April 30, 1975 Ho Chi Minh’s Communist minions smashed through the iron gates of Saigon’s Independence Palace finally prevailing in their quest to unite Vietnam’s North and South. As the helicopter ferrying the last of those desperate to leave took off from the roof of the US Embassy, a decade of war came to a close. It was also the day the victors started writing their version of history. The North’s narrative would have us believe POWs had the best possible living conditions. Aside from treatment of injuries, our guys were given periodic health check-ups, healthcare, and generally treated well and humanely. All this TLC despite difficulties and shortages the Vietnamese people faced during wartime. Such ‘best possible living conditions’ were designed to allow the men use of their quiet time, when not watching TV, playing chess, or pick-up basketball, for serene reflection on their role in the ‘The American War.’
Former POW Senator John McCain and the hundreds of other US airmen who were Hilton guests might have a different perspective. The depiction of what they experienced/endured during their stay had “very little connection with actual events that took place inside those walls.” They know all too well having your hands and feet bound, then hoisted on a meat hook while bent in a hog-tied position was not a therapeutic option at the Hilton’s spa. Spending months in solitary confinement was also not considered to be an upgrade to a private room. While it’s true a firm mattress is often preferable for achieving a good night’s sleep, the hotel’s offering of concrete slab beds was a bit extreme. Bottom line, other than sharing the facilities with assorted vermin and rodents, starvation, isolation, and torture were POWs’ constant companions.
It is said victors write the history. That accounts for Vietnam’s portrayal of Hoa Lo as our captured airmen’s venue for serene reflection. It’s also true that sound journalism requires checking and cross-checking sources; a principle critical in the climate of alternative facts and fake news. So it’s good to keep that in mind as one considers how serene reflection within the walls of the Hanoi Hilton stacks up against the TripAdvisor review Senator McCain would have given the hotel …. would not recommend, a 0/5.
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The Gallery of my Vietnam images is titled Vietnam Vignette
images © David Greenfield 2018