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.