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.

S-21: A Place of Learning Becomes a Place of Torture

Every totalitarian regime has an apparatus for maintaining control: trusted government officials and spies, torture facilities to get information from those the spies turn in, secret prisons to stash uncooperatives away. Every totalitarian regime finds that the paranoia this system engenders results in the very same officials and spies who turned people in being themselves brought in on charges of sedition. If your government is run on fear, that fear is going to turn against the government and the people who work in it.

S-21

S-21

Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime was no different. Pol Pot and his top advisers, including Comrade Duch, set up prisons throughout the country. I visited S-21, a high school that was converted to Security Prison 21, now called Tuol Sleng, which apparently means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or “Strychnine Hill.” Unlike the killing fields at Choeung Ek, S-21 wasn’t torn down during the liberation. Instead, it looks like the prison was left exactly as it was when the prisoners were freed. The bed frames sat at an angle in the center of the floor, the doors creaked on the hinges of the wooden barracks built in classrooms. The floors were dirty and the walls covered in grime and what was probably dried blood. It’s like the prisoners who were here only just left. History as recent as yesterday. Ghosts in every room.

S-21 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

One of the prison rooms

One of the prison rooms

S-21 is a complex of buildings. Most of them were open to the public but unlabeled, and only a few had placards explaining what went on in there. One building had thin metal frame beds, small lockboxes used as chamber pots, and shackles along the wall. Another building had cells made of wood on one floor and cells of brick on another. They were tiny, barely big enough for me to stand in, and I don’t think I could stretch out my legs if I sat on the floor. The cells were built as the regime brought in more and more prisoners, accusing more and more people of crimes against the state. They needed room to put them.

Wooden cells

Wooden cells

Bricked-up cells

Bricked-up cells

Some rooms were emptied of artifacts and filled with fading posters explaining who the leaders of the Khmer Rouge were and what the status of their trials was as of 2011. So far, Comrade Duch is one of the only ones to be convicted of war crimes. The posters included snippets of communication between the top Khmer Rouge officials and their families; these letters were filled with rants against capitalists and those who opposed the regime.

The gallows

The gallows

An artist's map of the country after the war

An artist’s map of the country after the regime

One floor showed photos of victims and of guards, and copies of statements they signed when confessing crimes–seeing as how some of the guards became victims as the paranoia of the state increased. One binder included confessions by foreign nationals who happened to be in the country at the wrong time. A popular crime to confess to was working for the American CIA.

A written confession and English translation

A written confession and English translation

One floor was dedicated to peace; it had photos of a place that was the site of the only land battle in Japan in WWII, and also a room of drawings by kids calling for peace. All in a building with barbed wire strung in front of the balconies so prisoners couldn’t attempt suicide by jumping. In the courtyard, plumeria trees bloomed.

Barbed wire to prevent suicide jumpers

Barbed wire to prevent suicide jumpers

Part of an art project that asked former workers at S-21 about their memories of the place

Part of an art project that asked former workers at S-21 about their memories of the place

There were signs posted outside some of the rooms with a person smiling/laughing and a line through it, but I can’t imagine who would go through these rooms and have any desire to smile. Outside, a poorly translated sign proclaimed the rules of the place, which included “While getting lashes or electrification you must not cry at all” and “Don’t make pretext about Kampuchea Krom in order to hide your secret or traitor.” Duch said the Vietnamese who set up the museum at Tuol Sleng invented these rules, but others claim they were real.

Security regulations at S-21

Security regulations at S-21

Graves of prisoners

Graves of prisoners

In one disconcertingly bright room, past a row of rusted foot shackles used to immobilize prisoners, down a long corridor of bricked-up cells barely large enough to fit in sideways, behind the barbed wire fence, I saw a graffitied message a tourist had left at some point. It was a hard message to read in that horrible place, one that seemed nearly impossible under the weight of this very recent, very terrible history. But it was vital to see, and to keep close when returning to the recovering city outside: Give us hope.

Give us hope