HANOI HIL­TON RESER­VA­TIONS

A LOT OF THE GUESTS CHECKED INTO (BUT NEVER LEFT) THE FRENCH-BUILT MAI­SON CENTRALE PRISON IN VIET­NAM

Life & Style Weekend - - ESCAPE - www.an­nrickard.com WORDS: ANN RICKARD

NOT sure how the term “dark tourism” can be fully de­fined but it is ob­vi­ous it means vis­it­ing des­ti­na­tions his­tor­i­cally known for death and tragedy. It raises many ques­tions. Is it ghoul­ish to visit Auschwitz or is it a tourist’s duty to make the trip if you are in Poland? Would vis­it­ing a slum in In­dia be bad taste? The Chu Chi Tun­nels in Saigon? The Geno­cide Mu­seum in Ph­nom Pehn? Is a grue­some cu­rios­ity to see these sites where so much suf­fer­ing and mis­ery took place a bad thing? Or an op­por­tu­nity to learn from the past and be thank­ful for where we live to­day? We felt this way when a visit to the in­fa­mous Hanoi Hil­ton in Viet­nam was pro­posed re­cently. Called Hoa Lo Prison it was built by the French in 1896 in the mid­dle of the city, planned to house 450 in­mates but by the 1930s it held close to 2000 de­tainees, mostly po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. Later it was used by North Viet­nam to hold US Pris­on­ers of War dur­ing the Viet­nam War, or what the lo­cals call the Amer­i­can War. The French called it Mai­son Centrale, mean­ing Cen­tral House, their eu­phemistic name to sig­nify pris­ons in France. Dur­ing the Viet­nam War, the Amer­i­can POWS nick­named the prison the Hanoi Hil­ton and most vis­i­tors to Hanoi to­day do con­sider a visit an es­sen­tial part of their itin­er­ary. Most of the vast prison was torn down in the 1990s, the only part left to­day is a well-pre­served mu­seum, but it is enough to send chills down the spine as you walk through the dis­plays. Life-sized mod­els of bone-thin, wretched pris­on­ers shack­led to the floor or lan­guish­ing in groups on long, low wooden benches, make you shud­der, de­spair. It’s an un­com­fort­able place to be as you walk through the nar­row cor­ri­dors flanked by heavy steel doors, some with grills where you peer through to small cells. The dun­geons where dan­ger­ous pris­on­ers were kept in soli­tary con­fine­ment are es­pe­cially har­row­ing. The Guil­lo­tine Room is the most chill­ing. The men­ac­ing struc­ture was used to ex­e­cute Viet­namese rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies and its fore­bod­ing pres­ence – so loom­ing, real and ter­ri­fy­ing – means most peo­ple can spend only a minute or two in this room. The dis­plays are mostly of the French Colo­nial pe­riod, fo­cussing on the ter­ri­ble suf­fer­ing of the Viet­namese rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in the early 20th cen­tury but there are ex­hi­bi­tions show­ing the Amer­i­can POWS in­car­cer­ated dur­ing the Viet­nam War … the most known to us Se­na­tor John Mccain, held there for five years. These dis­plays mostly show pho­tos, uni­forms and uten­sils used by the POWS, a lit­tle less con­fronting but still dis­turb­ing. Our visit came just a mat­ter of weeks after John Mccain’s death in Au­gust so there was a deeper-than-nor­mal in­ter­est in the dis­play show­ing him be­ing res­cued from his downed plane in nearby True Bach Lake in 1967. Out­side, a long cor­ri­dor shows memo­ri­als to Viet­namese pris­on­ers. Of mor­bid fas­ci­na­tion is a sewer through which five death-row in­mates es­caped on Christ­mas Eve in 1951, just one of sev­eral suc­cess­ful jail­breaks. The build­ing is a be­nign-look­ing yel­low build­ing sit­ting al­most un­no­tice­ably in busy tree-lined Hoa Lo St in the cen­tre of Hanoi close to the French Quar­ter. After be­ing im­mersed in the past and the ter­ri­ble suf­fer­ing that took place in­side the build­ing, com­ing out, blink­ing into the sun­light to find your­self on a busy road with the om­nipresent tidal wave of mo­tor­cy­cles is a re­lief. We asked our­selves had it been ghoul­ish to visit the Hanoi Hil­ton when there was so much go­ing on out in the streets of Hanoi, or was it in­sight­ful and mean­ing­ful, giv­ing us pause to think and re­flect and try to un­der­stand what went on.

“MOST OF THE VAST PRISON WAS TORN DOWN IN THE 1990S, THE ONLY PART LEFT TO­DAY IS A WELL-PRE­SERVED MU­SEUM, BUT IT IS ENOUGH TO SEND CHILLS DOWN THE SPINE AS YOU WALK THROUGH THE DIS­PLAYS.”

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