Monday, May 27, 2013


Entrance to Hoa Lo Prison, aka 'The Hanoi Hilton'
Future Senator McCain, as a young prisoner of war (Source: Hoa Lo Museum)

I’m heading down Hai Ba Trung, one of Hanoi’s busy downtown streets. Motorbikes and buses buzz by, until I turn on a quiet side street, finding a walled old colonial complex. Reaching the gate, a French arch over double doors reads, ‘Maison Centrale’. This entrance gate is misleadingly pleasant in appearance.

Upon passing inside, I find forbidding hallways, and dark rooms with steel doors. Electric fencing across the rooftop gives away the purpose of this place. This wasn’t just any little 'maison', this was a prison! Located in downtown Hanoi, this is the infamous former prison known as Hoa Lo. It is better known in the US by the name that American Prisoners of War gave it: "The Hanoi Hilton'.
Dark cells in the prison's 'death row' - Hoa Lo Prison is now a museum

Within these dismal walls, hundreds of American POW’s were held captive, as the war dragged on for longer than anyone expected. Hoa Lo happens to be a prison where the Vietnam War’s most famous prisoner of war was held captive. That prisoner was a Navy pilot, by the name of Lt. John McCain.

Flying a bombing mission over Hanoi in 1967, McCain’s A-4 aircraft was struck by a missile. Ejecting as his jet spun downward, his helmet and oxygen mask were blown off. Both of his arms and a leg were broken. He landed in Hanoi’s Truc Bach Lake, and barely able to move from his injuries, he was pulled from the water by the Vietnamese. In a rage from the deadly air attacks, McCain was beaten, and stabbed with a bayonet.

Brought to a prison and left in a bare cell, McCain was denied medical treatment. He nearly died. Then the
Old aerial view of Hoa Lo Prison (Source: Hoa Lo Museum)
Vietnamese military learned that his father was a Navy admiral. Deciding  that McCain was more valuable to them alive then dead, they finally gave him medical treatment. They hoped to use him for propaganda purposes. This didn’t stop them from mistreating him later, and during the next 5 1/2 years, he was tortured and beaten numerous times. Years later when became a US Senator, he spoke up repeatedly against the use of torture, since he had survived it himself in this prison.

French colonials imprisoned the Vietnamese in leg restraints
Hoa Lo prison was originally built by the French back in 1896. During colonial years the inmates here were Vietnamese revolutionaries and criminals. As bad as it was during the American years, conditions were even worse when it was a French prison. Originally built to hold less than 500 inmates, it was later packed to hold nearly 2,000.

Entering a long, open prison room, I learn how French guards dealt with the problem of overcrowding. On both sides of the room are long wooden platforms, where Vietnamese prisoners were lined up one after the other. Running lengthwise on these platforms are leg stocks, and the prisoners were restrained with one, or both of their feet locked inside. This way they were forced to either sit, or lay down in one spot for nearly the entire day. Since the prison is now a museum, emaciated dummies have been placed in the stocks to demonstrate the effect. It looks like something out of a cruel, 19th century slave ship.     
Depiction of French torturing Vietnamese in the prison
Most of the Hoa Lo museum is dedicated to Vietnamese prisoners who fought the French, and for some Vietnamese inmates, their punishment here was final. Entering another grim room, I come upon a guillotine. This isn’t some side show reproduction either, this instrument of death is genuine. Invented during the terrors of the French revolution, the colonials brought the guillotine to Vietnam, and it was used in this prison to execute murderers and revolutionaries. Down a dark adjacent hall, depressing brick prison cells make up the section which was Hanoi’s death row.

Stepping into an inner courtyard, I happen upon a bas relief depicting the torture of Vietnamese prisoners here. After North Vietnam won its independence from France in 1954, the communists took over Hoa Lo. A decade later, the Vietnamese would use some of those same torture techniques that had been inflicted on them, on American prisoners held here. There is no bas relief depicting that.

Heading for a corner of the prison, I find the smallest cells of all. I open the creaky steel door, and look inside. Small, dark and empty, the cell is
Conditions were inhumane in these cells for solitary confinement
totally without furniture. With very little light, it is practically a dungeon. These were for solitary confinement, and the shutters were usually kept closed in the summer, making the heat stifling. For the Vietnamese, and the Americans who languished here, these cells were despair at its worst.

As if these cells weren’t bad enough, the communists occasionally restrained McCain and other prisoners here by their feet. Just inside the door is the room’s only feature; metal leg irons on the floor. When prisoners were locked into these, conditions were filthy, since prisoners had no choice but to relieve themselves where they sat. The concrete floor is relatively clean now, but at prison camps across Vietnam, American POWs were often not allowed to bathe for days or weeks at a time.

Most of the museum is dedicated to Vietnamese who suffered here, but two rooms have displays on American prisoners. As usual, their propaganda claims that the Americans were treated well here, and any mistreatment of POWs is completely omitted.

There are some intriguing photos here. An old black and white propaganda photo shows Vietnamese troops parading American POWs through Hanoi streets, while citizens look on. I wonder if Vietnamese even realize today, that parading around war prisoners is a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Upon one wall, is a photo of the prisoner who almost became President of the United States: young Lieutenant John McCain. I have to hand it to McCain, he could have very easily died here in captivity, but he looks strong in this picture. If they were attempting to get McCain’s photo to look like a gloomy mugshot, they failed completely. Blonde and unshaven, he looks serious, even defiant. He looks more like a college linebacker than a prisoner. A display case contains what it claims is McCain’s flight suit, but this is unproven with the name patch removed.

Leaving the prison, I return to the same neighborhood on a later day. Entering an impressive high rise, I find a modern café on the ground floor. Buying a juice, I grab a seat, and take advantage of their free internet. Out in the lobby, a pair of pretty Vietnamese ladies hand out fliers to promote cell phones. Men wearing suits and ties catch the elevator, on their way to business meetings. It’s a picture of thriving capitalism, and it all happens to be located on land that was once part of the Hoa Lo prison.

As capitalism in Vietnam took off in the 1990’s, the government realized that this big former prison was located on very valuable downtown land. So the majority of the prison was torn down, and two modern buildings named the ‘Hanoi Towers’ were constructed in their place. Only one wing of the former Hoa Lo prison still remains, and it’s now the museum.

Ex-POW Capt Peterson later became ambassador to Vietnam!
Where once there were old brick cells and prison turf, there is now a towering building full of office space and retail. It doesn’t seem possible, but on the very same land where John McCain’s dirty prison cell once stood, you can now rent a serviced apartment in a 25 story building, starting at  $3000 per month! It’s an outrageous price for such a poor country, but at least it’s progress. To replace a dark, dilapidated old prison with two new commercial buildings, makes for excellent progress anywhere.

More important than what happened to those prison buildings, is what happened to the men who survived here. One of those POWs, Air Force Capt. Pete Peterson later joined the State Department. After diplomatic relations were re-established in the 1990s, this former prisoner of the Hanoi Hilton returned to Hanoi. He was America’s first Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

For John McCain, it may have been the twisted turn of events and injuries that he survived in Hanoi, that brought him to politics. If his high speed ejection and subsequent abuse had not caused him permanent injuries, he may have remained a naval officer for life like his father before him. But since he could no longer be a pilot and was left partially disabled, McCain later left the Navy and entered politics where he remains today. Despite the torture and mistreatment he endured here, McCain has admirably not held a grudge against Vietnam. As a US Senator, he supported improved relations, and he voted in favor of normalizing diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

Over the years Senator McCain returned to Vietnam repeatedly, and these days, he advocates improved military relations. He most recently returned in 2009, when he again toured the Hoa Lo prison, accompanied by two other US Senators. Before leaving the place where he almost lost his life, he signed the museum’s guestbook. His message: “Best wishes.”

Old prison in foreground, new high rise beyond

Young ladies promote mobile phones on former prison property, now a commercial center

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