Thursday, 22 May 2014

Hanoi Hilton (Hỏa Lò Prison)

When our city tour of Hanoi ended with a visit to the Hỏa Lò Prison, I was unprepared for the bleakness of this historic place. It was a fascinating reminder of the horrors of prison - full of suffering, full of both mental and physical torture and of course, executions were quite common - although the Vietnamese authorities would like you to believe that while the Hoa Lo Prison was a shocking hell hole for captured Vietnamese revolutionaries during the time when the French occupied Indochina, in contrast, captured American pilots during the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese called it the American War) were treated relatively with respect when they were imprisoned there.

The Hỏa Lò Prison was built by the French colonists in Vietnam at the end of the 19th century to hold their Vietnamese political prisoners who were agitating for independence. The French called the place Maison Centrale or Central House, a euphemism for prisons in France.

When first built in 1896, its maximum capacity was meant to be 460 inmates but by the time the French colonists relinquished Vietnam in 1954, conditions in the prison had become so miserable that more than 2,000 people were held in sub-human conditions.

During the Vietnam War, North Vietnam held their American prisoners of war in the same building. Maybe the conditions were no longer as appalling as during the French colonial times but definitely, the American POWs were subjected to torture and indoctrination, not to mention poor food and spartan and unsanitary living conditions. In response, the Americans gave a nickname to the Hỏa Lò Prison, calling it sarcastically as the "Hanoi Hilton".

About half of the prison was demolished during the 1990s to make way for high-rise development but the gatehouse remains today as a museum.

When I was walking along the corridors and visiting the exhibitions at this museum, I had to remind myself that propaganda was still very much in existence and the Vietnamese authorities retained bragging rights when describing the Hỏa Lò Prison. After all, they were the ones that had chased out the French in 1954 and won the American War in 1975, and that was all that mattered to them.

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