Ok, well today was relatively calm. The highlight of my day was a visit to the Hoa Lo Prison, which as I mentioned yesterday, was what US POW’s nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton.” The prison was originally built by the French in the late 19th Century, and the bulk of the displays related to the French treatment of Vietnamese revolutionaries between then and 1954. There was also a small section (that was of course crowded with American tourists) about its involvement up until 1973, in housing US POW’s.
I should note that only a small section of the prison still exists, as most of it was demolished to make way for a high-rise building. The remaining rooms detailed exhibits about the construction of the prison, the French orders for the treatment of prisoners, means showing how some of the revolutionaries managed to escape, and other things.
There were many aspects of the prison turned museum that were really creepy. In many of the cells they had lifelike manikins that at times in the dark looked a bit too realistic if you ask me. You first saw them in a room where their ankles were cuffed in rows. You could also enter the so called dungeon section, which had solitary cells, as opposed to group cells elsewhere.
One of the most fascinating, and at the same time disturbing and creepy areas was the torture room and the death cells. The death cells seemed to served a similar purposes to solitary cells for death row prisoners we have today. In the torture rooms there was a large guillotine, which the French put to good use with the revolutionaries. The room also contained elements for torture, like an oil drum sort of thing which they trapped people in and then added water. Similarly was an object which people would stand on to have their arms tied up to the ceiling, before the object would be pushed out, leaving them dangling there. One of the worst sights was a picture of a French warning to other revolutionaries…they put the decapitated heads of the executed on public displays.
By a stark contrast, the two rooms showing about the US POW’s made the situation look incredibly positive. There was a poster showing every day prison life which made it sound like a great place to be…almost like summer camp. Now, one must take into account the propaganda…of course they’re not going to say they mistreated US POW’s…if it were the other way around, the US would be (and is) the same way.
Well known POW’s housed there included Pete Peterson, who would eventually become the first US Ambassador to Vietnam in the late 1990’s. Also, the prison apparently housed John McCain. His flight suit and parachute were on display, as was his mug shot, along with those of several other notable US POW’s, all of which they make very clear where returned home in accordance the Geneva treaty ending the war.
That was pretty much the highlight of my day. Just thought I’d mention two interesting cultural aspects here. I’m sure you’ve all seen pictures of women carrying these things over their shoulder with two baskets hanging down off a piece of wood. You see them everywhere here, most of whom are wearing those famous conical hats. They transport just about everything, including of selling things, especially fruit, and transporting garbage. I’ve even seen a few that carry a full kitchen on them! I saw one last night that had a boiling pot on one side and all the ingredients on the other! She was in the process of cutting them up! Also, you see many bicycle vendors, some of which have a whole convenience store on them!
Also, you see many women here (and only women) covering much of their face with a mask over their nose and mouth or sometimes a handkerchief. In an interesting twist, while we see beauty as darker skin, people here (and all over SE Asia) see beauty as lighter skin. Apparently make-up in Thailand all consists of whitening cream!
On the subject of women, I witnessed something on the bus to Ha Long City that was a stark reminder that this is not an egalitarian society. Our mini bus was packed with no empty seats. A man got on and they forced (literally by grabbing) a woman to give up her seat to him and sit on an ice cooler instead.
Right, well I should wrap this up, as I need to be getting to the airport. Farwell Vietnam…it has been fun. Someday, I will definitely return! Check back tomorrow for news when I get back to Hua Hin.