Visiting The Hanoi Hilton Today.
Above Photo: The Hanoi Hilton today.
Constructed on what is believed to be the site of a former craft village, the Hoa Lo prison in Vietnam’s capital Hanoi has become better known to foreigners by the appellation it was given by United States air force personnel during the Second Indochina War: the Hanoi Hilton.
Situated on the corner of Hai Ba Trung and Hoa Lo streets and built in 1896, two-thirds of the former prison was demolished in 1993 to make way for the building of a serviced apartment and office complex. Soon after, the remaining vestige of the prison was turned into a museum and opened to the public as a ‘memorial to the revolutionaries’.
Many tourists come primarily to look at a place that has entered the folklore of American history as it pertains to Vietnam, probably unaware that Hoa Lo means as much, if not more, to the Vietnamese than it can ever mean to Americans.
A free brochure, which features an aerial photograph of the Hoa Lo prison taken before much of it was demolished, states, ‘Towards the end of the 19th century, in an effort to contain the growth and development of popular anti-colonial movements amongst the Vietnamese community, the French government of Indochina reinforced its apparatus of suppression by strengthening the police force, developing the court system and constructing an extensive network of prisons. Opened in 1896, Hoa Lo was the largest…in the north of Vietnam…’
From 1896 until 1954 when North Vietnam came into being following the defeat of the French colonisers, Hoa Lo was used to house 1,900 Vietnamese revolutionaries. The second floor of the prison museum is dedicated to them.
The brochure, naturally, goes on to extol the great sacrifices made by the revolutionaries and dissidents who were ‘confined for years in tiny cells with chains and leg-irons [enduring] savage treatment by prison guards.’
Conditions were harsh. For example, according to French records, between 30 June 1920 and 30 June 1921 87 people died in the prison. Of these, 17 died from fever, 15 from the flu, and 10 from cholera.
Among those incarcerated were five future General-Secretaries of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Le Duan probably being the best known outside of Vietnam. Le Duan succeeded Ho Chi Minh as the most powerful figure in North Vietnam after the latter’s death in 1969 and became general-secretary in 1976.
While it may be significant to the Vietnamese, the tourist authorities know precisely what initially attracts visitors and so they have dedicated much of the ground floor area to the period between 5 August 1964 when the first United States prisoner made his way through the portals to 29 March 1973 when the last of almost 600 airmen was released.
That first man was Lieutenant Everett Alvarez. Stationed aboard the USS Constellation, he had flown a sortie against North Vietnamese patrol boat bases as part of American retaliation for what became known as the Tonkin Gulf incidents. Alvarez’s plane was one of two US aircraft shot down in the raid, but he was the only pilot to safely parachute from his damaged plane. ‘He landed in shallow water, fracturing his back in the drop. Local North Vietnamese militia soon arrived and took him to a nearby jail, where he was briefly visited by Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, who had coincidentally been touring the region at the time.’ So wrote journalist Stanley Karnow in Vietnam, his epic history of the nation and especially the American part of the war.
The museum carries laborious details of cooking, exercising, medical care, regarding the United States personnel who were incarcerated there. Probably the most famous of its POWs was John McCain, later a United States Senator and the defeated Republican presidential candidate in the 2008 elections.
The prison was hardly the almost ‘holiday camp’ atmosphere that is portrayed by pictures and written material on show in the museum today. While North Vietnam was a signatory to the 1949 Geneva Convention, which holds that prisoners of war should receive ‘decent and humane treatment’ as they are deemed to be ‘victims of events’, the North Vietnamese government took the not-unreasonable line that those engaged in the bombing of their country from the air were engaged in ‘crimes against humanity’.
The Vietnamese confined many of their captives to solitary cells for long periods and abused many for declining to broadcast prepared anti-war statements. James Stockdale, a navy pilot who was shot down in 1965 but later rose to the rank of admiral, observed after his release, “The pain and loneliness were shallow complaints compared to finding yourself stripped of all entitlement to reputation, love, or honour at home.”
The notes on plaques in the prison claim 3,700 United States airmen were shot down and captured. According to Karnow, ‘Since 1961 nearly 9,000 U.S. airplanes and helicopters had been lost in action over Cambodia, Laos, and the two Vietnams. Some 2,000 pilots and crew members had been killed, more than 1,000 were missing, and the captives in Communist hands numbered close to 600.’
Today, the Hanoi Hilton is just one of a number of tourist attractions serving to draw people from all over the world to experience the not just the natural beauty of Vietnam but also its fascinating history.
For POWs left behind in Laos:
Peter Alan Lloyd
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