Apr 24, 2017

Hoa Lo Prison - Hanoi "Hilton"

The Hoa Lo Prison is better known to Americans as the “Hanoi Hilton” and where John McCain and other American POWs were held during the Vietnam War. It is called the “American War” in Vietnam.  Vietnam has been invaded by the Chinese, French, and Japanese.  The “American War” was the most recent and the shortest except for the five-year control by the Japanese.  

The major portion of the prison depicts the incarcerations of prisoners other than Americans.  In January I had visited a prison in the south of Vietnam that was run by the South Vietnamese and the “American Puppet Government.” I am appalled at how cruel people can be to their own people.  North or South,
they treated each other brutally. The museum tries to relate how “kind” they were to the American POWs with pictures of them playing basketball and eating Christmas dinner.  They were probably treated better (most likely due to worldwide press coverage) than they treated their own countrymen but they still suffered during their time in the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

Ho Chi Minh is the father of the present-day Vietnam and highly regarded by the Vietnamese. He is referred to fondly as “Uncle Ho.”  Every day there is a long line of people waiting to get in the mausoleum. He is laid out similar to Lenin. Some say it is really a wax stature, but who knows?  Nearby is the house
where he lived.  Ho Chi Minh is the only leader that I can recall that never surrounded himself with luxury and sycophants after gaining power.  They like to tell visitors that he was given an air conditioner and he said, “I don’t want it. Take it to a hospital. They need it more than I do.” Also on the same grounds is the famed One Pillar Pagoda regarded as one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples. 

One of the highlights of this trip was meeting up with Jim and Allison Combs who were on their way to hike in Sapa and homestay with a Hmong family.  The last time Jim was there was 20 years ago when he was a student at National University in Singapore. The Crown Plaza Hotel has a residence section that was perfect for our reunion: two bedrooms, two baths, kitchen, dining area and living room all for $150 (plus more points in our IHG loyalty program).

To maximize our time sightseeing I rented a car with a driver for 12
hours - $100 plus tip!  Besides Hoa Lo Prison and Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum we went to the Ethnological Museum which had a variety of traditional housing styles.  One ethnic group used water flowing through bamboo pipes to pound the grain while they were working in the fields. They also used waterpower to run the bellows for forging metal.  

One of my favorite activities in Hanoi is the Water Puppet Theater.  With clanging cymbals and drums the water puppets (operated by puppeteers standing in water behind a screen) relate the legends of northern Vietnam.  It is uniquely Vietnamese. 

Twenty years ago we had dinner at the Indochine Restaurant. Jim ordered soup.  It was so good I had it for dessert.  Our last meal together before Jim and Allison took the train to Sapa was at the Indochine Restaurant.  You can’t go back.  The owners had changed and so had the location.  The soup was good but the portion small – just not the same.