A Morning at the Hanoi Hilton
We ended up in Vietnam because we couldn’t get to Thailand on award miles and what a fortunate turn of events that was! We ended up loving the country so much that we plan to return; sooner rather than later. Graeme and I are both history buffs and we probably watch way too many documentaries, but we enjoy being able to stand on the same ground where history took place.
On our first day in Hanoi we wanted to visit Hoa Lo Prison/Maison Centrale, known in popular culture as the “Hanoi Hilton”, a location that is synonymous with the Vietnam War. There seemed like no better place to kickstart the trip than visiting the site that we had heard so much about.
Preparing for our Visit
The former prison, located in the French District, originally housed political prisoners and later American POW’s. Just before this trip I read “Faith of my Fathers“, “The Things They Carried“ and “Defiant“, I highly recommend them if you plan to visit and even if you don’t. You can check out our Vietnam reading list for other titles that we have consumed over the years. These books, and others, certainly gave me a deeper insight into where we were headed and I appreciated a deeper dive into the American perspective as we experienced the Vietnamese interpretation. For me, the juxtaposition of the two illuminated the ongoing complexities of the war.
The Hanoi Hilton Today
Today the prison is a fraction of the size it was during the Vietnam War and it houses a small museum. The yellow stone walls surrounding the grounds are thirteen feet high and two feet thick. There are shards of broken glass, shells and barbed wire on the top of the walls and the doors are iron. Originally intended to house up to 500, at its zenith, it sheltered 2000 souls. It was daunting and we hadn’t even made it inside the walls.
Inside the Prison
We paid our entrance fee and walked through the open door, out of the dappled sunlight and into the former prison. Once inside, it was dark, stifling and humid. This structure held the secrets of horrifying human suffering and I could feel that from the moment we entered. Similar to other locations of great pain and loss it was subdued and quiet.
The museum was self-guided and we started by weaving our way through large rooms with torture devices, replicas of men shackled to wooden racks and metal beds, and a long row of prison cells. We saw cells reserved for women with children, solitary confinement, punishment cells, a guillotine, and death row. The cells were dark and close and it was difficult to see inside them. It was unimaginable to consider living here under war conditions, or for that matter, any circumstances at all.
There were rooms reserved for describing the American POW “experience.” There were photos of men playing sports, celebrating holidays and receiving health care. From my reading, I understood that these were staged photographs. The descriptions under each photo contained an anti-American sentiment. We saw Senator John McCain’s flight suit, prisoners personal items, toiletries and clothing.
There were several small courtyards tucked away throughout the prison and they seem cruel, especially from the inside looking out.
There was a stairway leading up to a small museum that contained art and other historic artifacts but we did a quick walk through as it didn’t have much to interest us.
After spending a little over an hour here, we were ready to leave and we walked back out into the sunshine and refreshing chaos of Hanoi.
I am glad we visited this place, glad we were able to see this part of the Vietnam War story, and glad that we left it behind. It touched us in the ways we expected but it also left us with much to consider and reflect upon.
As we were leaving I noticed a small progression of moss marching its way across the stone courtyard. I liked to think of that bright green moss as an enduring symbol of the bravery, honor, hope and perseverance of the men who prevailed here during the war…..and those who did not. My heart ached for that part of their story, but for those who survived it wasn’t the end of their story. I’m grateful for that.
All errors in history are inadvertent and are mine