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Visiting the Hanoi Hilton

26 June 2012


As an adult, I am slowly re-learning history, in methods and contexts that make sense and interest me.  I went to Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, knowing only that American POW’s were kept there during the Vietnam War, including—and most famously—John McCain.  However, I left Hoa Lo Prison knowing so much more, and with a thirst to continue researching and learning until my questions had been answered.

The French ruled an area called French Indochina, which included Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, from 1858-1945 (87 years.)  The French built the Hoa Lo prison, and used it to house, torture, and murder many Vietnamese, as they sought independence from the French.  During that time, the guillotine was commonly used—and even the elderly, female, and pregnant were not spared. 







It was only later than the “Hanoi Hilton” was used to house US Prisoners of War.  The Vietnamese were meticulous in their record keeping and saving of war artifacts.  For example, they have the parachute and jumpsuit worn by John McCain on display.

John McCain's parachute & suit

Much of the prison museum dedicated to the US POW’s focused on their kind treatment by the Vietnamese.  They show pictures of Christmas decorations, basketball games, and visits from humanitarian groups.  The display is extremely convincing.  They include video footage of the POW’s as well.  Particularly after seeing the exhibits on the horrors of that prison under the French, it’s easy to accept the compelling evidence that the US POW’s were, in fact, treated very well. 










 But as with everything, there are two sides to the story.  A little bit of online research tells a different story about the POW’s.  Many of them wrote memoirs upon their return home, and all of them tell about the torture they endured under the North Vietnamese.  Interesting, they were not tortured for tactical information about the war.  Rather, they were tortured into giving false statements about how well they were being treated by the North Vietnamese!  North Vietnam wanted to use these statements to turn global opinion against US involvement in the war.  So I guess, in some respects, that part of the prison museum was simply communist propaganda at it’s finest. 

Visiting Vietnam has been very enlightening, and sobering, as far as our involvement in the war is concerned.  My father-in-law fought in Vietnam for a year and has been haunted by it ever since.  My husband’s uncle spent only a week in Vietnam, but stepped on a land mine and lost both his legs.  It was a defining period of time for our parents’ generation.  I’m glad to learn about it at a time where it finally makes sense to me, in a way that is tangible, interesting, and I know I’ll never forget. 

7 comments:

  1. Wow! That's so interesting!! Thanks for sharing this!

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  2. This is fascinating. I love (without the positive connotation) learning and exploring about the atrocities of our past, particularly the more modern ones. Our visit to Auschwitz will never leave my mind, and left me wanting to see more and know more. I fully believe that we can't truly learn from, and hopefully prevent repeating, our past unless we are frank and honest about what took place- no matter who was at fault. I say this because, seeing how Krakow and Poland were so up front and honest about their past caused me to notice how much of the U.S.'s darker periods are swept under the rug, or just grazed over, or even twisted so the faults of our "opponents" (often Americans themselves). It saddened me, truly, and made me want to learn as much as possible about my own country's domination. Thanks for sharing, Emily. I'd love to go there myself, but, until then, I really appreciate your posting about it.

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  3. Isnt it funny how much more willing we are to learn when there's no pressure of tests and gpa's and class rank?! Thanks for sharing and reminding me again of all the American heroes out there.

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  4. The stories and information you can gather while in Vietnam put a completely different perspective on the war in Vietnam. I remember learning about it and wondering why I was never told all these things. War is war and often never right but it's sobering to take it in and make an opinion on your own. I found this happened a lot while travelling throughout south-east Asia. Seriously the best history lessons of my life. It's great that you are sharing these different perspectives that are often overlooked when travelling to new places. The history is so recent and fresh in Vietnam that it's hard to escape it. I found this also to be true in Cambodia. I can't wait to read more posts.

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  5. I love this post! I like how you're also a sneaky detective-in-training and uncover the real story.

    Have to say though, if you're going to get tortured for anything, pretending like you're having fun so you don't get tortured seems like the best of the worst possible scenarios.

    'Woo! Party! Yeah! US POW <3 N.VIET!'

    ... Right?

    Hope you're having a blast, love you x

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  6. History was never my strong suit as a kid, but I grew to love it as I applied it to my life and what I would do in certain situations. My grandpa was a POW in the Philippines and survived the Death March of Bataan. It's actually how he went from the Filipino military to the U.S. military. To understand this as an adult tells me so much more about my grandpa as a PERSON and not just "my grandpa".

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  7. This post is absolutely riveting. What a beautiful, tragic, piece of history to get the honor of experiencing. Thank you for sharing!

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