The Two Histories of the Hanoi Hilton

The Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi combined the single-minded propaganda of the War Remnants Museum and the strange echoes of death sites felt at the Cu Chi Tunnels, resulting in a bizarre experience. A friend and I went together, and we were two of only about thirty or forty visitors in the mid-afternoon heat, so often we were the only people walking through rooms that were once packed full of prisoners, our voices swallowed up by the thick concrete walls.

Before it was the Hanoi Hilton, it was the Maison Centrale of Hoa Lo

Before it was the Hanoi Hilton, it was the Maison Centrale of Hoa Lo Prison

American prisoners of war nicknamed this place the “Hanoi Hilton” in a bitter jab at the conditions they endured. The official Vietnamese line is that the POWs were treated very well, and learned to empathize with the people they had previously only known as “the enemy.” However, multiple POWs have reported inhumane conditions, including substandard housing, insufficient food, and physical torture.

A 1969 New Year's message from Ho Chi Minh, wishing to eject "The Yanks" and reunite North and South

A 1969 New Year’s message from Ho Chi Minh, wishing to eject “The Yanks” and reunite North and South

But the first part of the museum doesn’t even mention Americans. The prison was built during French colonial times to house political prisoners, and the gatehouse that remains as the museum still has “Maison Centrale” arched over the doorway–the central house of the prison complex. Inside, there’s a mix of murals, glass cases filled with objects and scale models of the prison, and life-size sculptures of prisoners chained together and plotting revolution.

Before the 1880s, this part of the city sold stoves. This is part of the reason the prison is called "Hoa Lo"; it means "stove" and also "hell hole."

Before the 1880s, this part of the city sold stoves. This is part of the reason the prison is called “Hoa Lo”; it means “stove” and, supposedly, also “hell hole.”

Shackled statues

Shackled statues

The Vietnamese who were imprisoned by the French endured terrible conditions; the exhibits emphasized how resilient the prisoners were, and how they did everything they could to resist their imperial jailers, including gathering under an old almond tree in the courtyard to discuss resistance measures. The guillotine used to execute prisoners was on display, as were the solitary confinement cells, the piece of sewer pipe that 100 prisoners escaped through, and the room that held many more female prisoners than could comfortably fit.

Part of the sewer used as a means of escape by Vietnamese prisoners

Part of the sewer used as a means of escape by Vietnamese prisoners

Several prominent Communist leaders were imprisoned here, when it was under French control

Several prominent Communist leaders were imprisoned here, when it was under French control

The guillotine was used as one method of execution

The guillotine was used as one method of execution

There were just a few small rooms devoted to the prison’s use in the ’60s and ’70s. These held artifacts like John McCain’s flight suit, a bed used by the prisoners, and a guitar and badminton net from all the leisure activities the POWs were supposedly allowed.

John McCain's flight suit

John McCain’s flight suit

Supposed evidence of benevolence

Supposed evidence of benevolence

The two most striking things I saw in these small rooms were a video from the time of the war, and a document listing the regulations of the camp. That list started with:

American servicemen participating in the war of aggression by U.S. administration in Viet-Nam and caught in the act while perpetrating barbarous crimes against the Vietnamese land and people, should have been duly punished according to their criminal acts; but the Government and people of Viet-Nam, endowed with noble and humanitarian traditions, have given those captured American servicemen the opportunity to benefit a lenient and generous policy by affording them a normal life in the detention camps as practical conditions in Viet-Nam permit it and conforming to the situation in which the war is still on. [sic on everything]

The video was a marvel of propaganda. It alternated scenes of American POWs playing basketball and grinning at dinner with scenes of Vietnamese cowering from falling bombs and picking through the wreckage afterward. It was a genius video; who could watch it and not sympathize with the Vietnamese, who were so generous to the people who were daily trying to kill them? Of course the smiling the POWs did for the cameras was all done under duress, and it was sick to hold up these tortured men as examples of how beneficent their captors were. But just because the POW sequences were lies doesn’t mean the bomb and wreckage scenes were. It was a bloody, hateful war–as they all are.

Lots of propaganda photos, accompanied by text detailing the typical life of a POW here

Lots of propaganda photos, accompanied by text detailing the “typical” life of a POW here

My interest in the prison derived from my knowledge of the Vietnamese-American War, but once again, seeing the place in person showed me a side I wasn’t aware of–how significant the prison was to the Vietnamese as a place where they had been tortured and unjustly confined by French colonial forces. There wasn’t even a straight line drawn between the displays showing how badly the Vietnamese were treated, to displays showing how well the Americans were treated. That was a line you could draw, yes, but the way the museum was set up, it was more like it was a museum about the prison under the French, and the heroic Vietnamese prisoners who lived and died inside; and there were a few rooms about how the prison was later used.

It was fascinating, and sobering, and nothing like I’d expected.

The Temples and Night Markets of Luang Prabang

UNESCO put Luang Prabang on its World Heritage Sites list because it’s a town with a well-preserved mix of Laotian and French colonial architecture. After the jumble of rowhouses and tiny shops of Chiang Mai, it is striking to see the long, broad buildings of Luang Prabang, painted a colonial yellow and set at a dignified distance from the brightly decorated Buddhist temples.

Colonial architecture

Colonial architecture

Colonial yellow

Colonial yellow

Dignified, stately, slow-moving: these are the words I kept coming up with as I wandered the streets of Luang Prabang. A little in keeping with that stately feeling (and certainly in keeping with its colonial history), there were a lot of fences and walls; more space is cordoned off in this small town than I saw walled away in all of Thailand.

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Every evening, vendors set up outside those walls for the night market. In Thailand, the markets are set up on card tables, but in Laos, the goods are laid out on tarps and blankets on the ground. If you want to inspect the goods at a particular booth, you have to squat down, or use one of the tiny plastic stools the vendor whips out for you. I would gingerly lower myself onto these unstable pieces of plastic and smile genially as all the women selling quilts and table runners laughed. Just about every stall has a woman holding a baby, and some stalls are staffed by men or teenagers. I saw one little boy playing on an iPad while his parents sold handicrafts–it’s a shrinking world, indeed!

The tents of the night market

The tents of the night market

Bombs to bracelets

Bombs to bracelets

I picked out wedding presents and souvenirs from various stalls, but my favorite spot was the bombs-to-bracelets stall. The US waged a secret bombing campaign on Cambodia and Laos in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as part of its campaign against the Communist bogeyman. The villagers of Ban Napia in eastern Laos took the aluminum from the thousands of bombs dropped on their homes and, in their words, turned it from “something that kills into something that feeds,” producing spoons. They later added bracelets and charms to their collection, and the number of bombs dropped can be guessed at by the fact that they’re still making jewelry today, nearly 40 years after the bombs stopped falling. I chose to support the artisans, although there is some controversy in doing so, because villagers have to collect scrap metal to make them, and there are a lot of accidents and sometimes deaths with the UXOs (unexploded ordnances). As with so many potential purchases, it’s complicated.

Meat on a stick--a lot of it

Meat on a stick–a lot of it

The much-lauded buffet (I never tried it)

The much-lauded buffet (I never tried it)

Of course, there’s food. One woman sliced watermelon with a machete while another flipped sweet potatoes on a small woodfire grill. A narrow alley of food vendors included pork and fish on sticks, dumplings, grilled sticky rice, and two giant all-you-can-eat buffets. I had really good veggie and pork dumplings, and a non-spicy lemongrass sausage (a specialty of the area).

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong

Gold painting everywhere

Gold painting everywhere

Luang Prabang has dozens of Buddhist temples, and a high concentration of monks and novices (those under age 25 are called novices). The temples, or wats, are painted in elaborate, intricate scenes, sometimes both inside and outside. The grounds are spare, with just a little greenery carefully confined to a few areas, and the rest tiled courtyards between buildings. Monks and novices move around on the edges, running errands, doing homework (many boys enter the monastery to get a good education), making adjustments in the temples.

Seriously impressive

Seriously impressive

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Probably the most famous wat in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong, sometimes called The Temple of the Golden City. Since Luang Prabang is on the World Heritage list, there’s a lot of upkeep work going on at various temples, funded by various countries–and this temple is no exception. The US Embassy is supporting efforts to reinforce the structural elements of the temple, and scaffolding was set up around the buddha when I visited.

Unfinished renovations

Unfinished renovations

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The main building was painted a maroon color inside, and then gold leaf designs were painted on top of that, on every available surface–ceiling, columns, walls. Inside, a long wooden pipe sat along one wall, and at the end of it sat a small buddha in a glass box. During a water-based festival, water blessed by monks travels through the wooden pipe and washes the buddha. My favorite part of this temple was a separate building, which housed a giant dragon boat. The back wall was red, covered in intricate, colorful mosaic scenes and accented with sparkly glitter. There was no way to get a decent picture to show just how big and full of life it was, but I tried. Exteriors of some other buildings were dotted with similar mosaics.

View from Mount Phousi

View from Mount Phousi

Buddhas in various positions

Buddhas in various positions

Mount Phousi rises above the center of town, and a small temple sits atop it, with various buddha statues and shrines scattered below it, so each step of the climb to the top takes you past a holy site. At the top, if you can balance yourself between the edge and the dozens of fellow tourists, you can see a beautiful sunset over the Mekong. On the walk up, off to the side is the Imprint of the Buddha’s Foot; it’s a large, vaguely foot-shaped indentation in the rock that someone decided was a holy sign. (In that way, it reminds me of the Virgin Mary water spot under the bridge on Fullerton in Chicago.)

Indentation of the Buddha's Foot

Indentation of the Buddha’s Foot

The foot is just past a pavilion with a view of the Nam Khan River to the east, and on this pavilion stood a young novice. His name was Tip, and he was doing homework. He clearly stations himself here most nights in hopes of practicing English, because he was eager to ask and answer questions with me. He was 17, he’d been a novice for many years, his wat was across the river, America sounded interesting… I didn’t have time to ask for a photo or chat with him further, because a couple teenage Laotian boys entered the pavilion, and Buddhist monks aren’t supposed to be alone with women. I didn’t want him getting in trouble, so I said goodbye and he said, “I hope you have many happinesses in your travels in Laos.”

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