Originally published on facebook – September 30, 2010 at 9:18am ·

HANOI – day 3. “The Hanoi Hilton”


Woke up at 8am – construction noises next door. Showered, free breakfast, coffee and I am ready for my day. Nicole and I are going out together today, going wandering. We walked to the Hao Lo Prison, paid about $0.50 admission. It’s quite and old building, originally built by the French in the late 1880’s to house Vietnamese revolutionaries, men and women both. Only a portion (maybe a 1/3) of the original building remains. Originally named Maison Centrale by the French, the big doors near the entrance still have this name.  Hao Lo commonly translates to “fiery furnace” or even “hell hole”, originally from a concentration of stores in the area that sold wood and coal fire stoves  At the top of each thick concrete wall is a massive chunk of raw concrete with tons of shards of broken glass embedded in it. As well there are the remains of what look like electrical wires running around the top.


The first room we enter is large-ish ( approx. 15′ x 40′). This the main prisoners cell. There are raised wooden platforms that run along the long sides of the room with a rail of attached leg irons near the front. They have positioned  quite life like statues of men to show how they were kept, one leg in the irons, the other free. At one end of the room is a raised platform of bricks with a squat hole in it for the toilet. In another room was a full size guillotine. Apparently the heads were caught in baskets and then displayed on the streets afterwards, presumably as a deterrent to other potential revolutionaries. Nice.



The women prisoners without children were kept in four small rooms measuring approx. 8′ x 12′. Probably up to 40 women could be in a room at a time. There is a small window high up from the floor, allowing in some light and a glimpse to sky but nothing else. Women with children were kept in a room approx. 12′ x 15′. Once again 2 wooden platforms were raised off the floor. No leg irons are shown to be in use here and it appears that the women and children were allowed to move freely throughout the space. I have no idea of the number of people that may have been kept here.

In another room are some of the devices used to torture the women prisoners, electrical shock machines and wires, a bamboo cane, and a glass bottle are some of the items on display. In one case there is a jute bag and a pair of boxing gloves, put the bag over the head of the prisoner and they won;t know where the next blow is coming from. Pretty horrific stuff.

Outside the rooms in a portion of what remains of the courtyard there was an Almond tree. Apparently it became a meeting point to pass on information, possibly even to plan escapes. The prisoners ate parts of the tree to help maintain health and fight illness. As well, wood from the tree was used to make pipes and musical instruments. Maybe this helped them to keep morale up.

We moved on to an area dedicated to showing what life was like for the American pilots that were kept imprisoned here after they were shot down. These are the guys who nicknamed it “The Hanoi Hilton”. John McCain is well known to have been a prisoner. A lot is made in this area about how humanely the guys were treated here. Showing pictures of healthy though thin guys playing basketball and soccer. Even making themselves a special Christmas dinner and decorating a tree. The overall tone was definitely to show that, yes, these guys are prisoners but it really isn’t so bad, they get great medical care, can watch movies to learn about our country (read propaganda) and are really healthy and though the food is probably different for them it is plentiful and good. From what I remember reading about the “Hilton” this wasn’t really the case, there was torture, both mental and physical and I don’t think the guys were really having a good time here. The following is an excerpt from Wikipedia that confirms my suspicions….

“The Hanoi Hilton was one site used by the North Vietnamese Army to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids.[12] Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949,[12] which demanded “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war, severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement.[12][7][13] The aim of the torture was usually not acquiring military information;[7] rather, it was to break the will of the prisoners, both individually and as a group.[7][14] The goal of the North Vietnamese was to get written or recorded statements from the prisoners that criticized U.S. conduct of the war and praised how the North Vietnamese treated them.[7] Such POW statements would be viewed as a propaganda victory in the battle to sway world and U.S. domestic opinion against the U.S. war effort.[7][10] In the end, North Vietnamese torture was sufficiently brutal and prolonged that virtually every American POW so subjected made a statement of some kind at some time.[15] (As one later wrote of finally being forced to make an anti-American statement: “I had learned what we all learned over there: Every man has his breaking point. I had reached mine.”[10]) Realizing this, the Americans’ aim became to absorb as much torture as they could before giving in;[13] one later described the internal code the POWs developed and instructed new arrivals on as: “Take physical torture until you are right at the edge of losing your ability to be rational. At that point, lie, do, or say whatever you must do to survive. But you first must take physical torture.”[16]

Regarding treatment at Hoa Lo and other prisons, Communist propagandists countered by stating that prisoners were treated well and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.[18] During 1969, they broadcast a series of coerced statements from American prisoners that purported to support this notion.[18] The North Vietnamese would also maintain that their prisons were no worse than prisons for POWs and political prisoners in South Vietnam, such as the one on Con Son Island.[citation needed] Mistreatment of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners and South Vietnamese dissidents in South Vietnam’s prisons was indeed frequent, as was North Vietnamese treatment of South Vietnamese prisoners and their own dissidents.[19]

When prisoners of war began to be released from this and other North Vietnamese prisons during the Johnson administration, their testimonies revealed widespread and systematic abuse of prisoners of war. Initially, this information was downplayed by American authorities for fear that conditions might worsen for the those remaining in North Vietnamese custody.[10] Policy changed under the Nixon administration, when mistreatment of the prisoners was publicized by U.S. Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and others.[10] Beginning in late 1969, treatment of the prisoners became less severe and generally more tolerable.[7] Following the late 1970 Son Tay prison camp attempted rescue operation, most of the POWs at the outlying camps were moved to Hoa Lo, so that the North Vietnamese had fewer camps to protect.[20] This created the “Camp Unity” communal living area at Hoa Lo, which greatly reduced the isolation of the POWs and improved their morale.[20][10]”

We spent quite a bit of time in the prison, I think much more then either of us suspected we would. We both felt somewhat subdued as we left. Throughout the place there was still an almost tangible sense of oppressiveness, heaviness and foreboding.

Just around the corner from the prison we found the Quan Su Pagoda, This is one of the most active pagodas in Hanoi, and it is the headquarters for the Vietnam Buddhist Association. Dozens of young monks reside in the complex and study in its classrooms. It was lovely and soothing to our frayed nerves. We did a wander through the courtyard and then went inside to kneel with Buddha. I always find this to be a supremely calming thing to do and I think Nicole felt the same. We sat for a bit but hunger soon took us over so we headed around another corner back to our haunt from the night before, the Quan An Ngon restaurant, yum.

We struggled a little more this time, trying to find me something without pork in it. Since shrimp and pork seem to go hand in hand in Vietnamese cooking I struggle a bit to find protein to eat. Nicole has written down for me,  “Tuo cong an thit heo (thit bo)”  translates to “I don’t eat pork (or beef)”. Did I mention she speaks Vietnamese? Handy gal to have around!

After lunch we zig-zagged up towards Ho Chi Minh;s Mausoleum. I knew that HCM himself is in Russia from September to December getting his yearly “face-lift” but we thought we could be able to wander the extensive gardens and maybe visit his residences, cars etc. Unfortunately either due to visiting hours being over or because of the set up for the 1000th year Birthday celebrations of Hanoi City, we couldn’t access any of the areas.

Oh yes, the 1000th Birthday of Hanoi City. There are decorations going up everywhere, and in a big way. Everything is on a massive scale. Flowers are being planted on every spare park space, extra urns of dirt and plantings are being set up along  lit of major streets Platforms are being built, speakers are being set up. Every lamppost and tree is being prettied up with hanging lamps of lotus flowers or silk orbs. All this at a cost of over one million dollars, this is just for the cities birthday, not even the countries. Apparently there will be protests and as trouble seems to follow me I plan to NOT be in Hanoi during the celebrations.


After our miss at the mausoleum we walked to the food street I had found previously. As we went the wind started to pick up and we heard thunder start to roll in. We had a walk through the food market and as we started to turn our attention to getting back to the hostel the storm broke. We ran for it but no luck, soaked. We found shelter in a cafe, mango shake for me and a tiger beer for Nicole. We figured we could just wait it out but after an hour there was no sign of the rain stopping. A woman walked past the cafe selling rain ponchos, we each bought one for a $1.00 us and headed back out into it. We waded (literally) back to the hostel in time for me to pick up my train ticket to Sapa, have a quick dinner and shower, pack my bag and get to the train on time. still raining. Hugs goodbye to the lovely Nicole!