Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Hanoi Hilton, Sunday September 23rd, 2007

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 11, 2007

Our visit to the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, however, was a chastening experience. It’s famous for being the gaol where the American POWs were kept during the Vietnam War (which Long calls the American War) but most of the displays show the barbarism of the French who incarcerated the ‘rebels’, i.e. the nationalists who were fighting for Vietnamese independence. We saw a guillotine, (something not on show in France where they like to draw a veil over the violence of their revolution), and in one of the cells there was a model showing how the prisoners had to sleep shackled to an iron rail.

The women were made to wear a sort of wooden frame around their heads and necks to prevent escape, and there were even photos of women who had been beheaded, displayed as a deterrent to any would-be independence activists. I knew that such things were done in the 17th century, and still are by the Taliban, but I had never imagined that the French would commit such atrocities within living memory. Deaths in this gaol were horrific due to the appalling diet and hygiene, and there was even a ‘black hole’ for real ‘recalcitrants’ where conditions were beyond description – reminiscent of Devil’s Island, a hell-hole of disease and brutality in French Guiana described in Papillon by Henri Charriere. There were even torture implements on display…

A couple of rooms displayed the treatment of the American POWs.. The Vietnamese say that they were well-treated, and perhaps they were by comparison with how the French treated the Vietnamese, but the signs and labels are all written in such a propagandist style that it brought snorts of derision from Tim. I suspect that any treatment of POWs in a Third World country and a Third World diet would seem inhumane to Westerners, but there is some evidence that the POWs were tortured. Later on, at the Cu Chi Tunnels, we saw some of the cruel traps that were set in the jungle to capture but not kill American soldiers, and they were deliberately designed to maim and incapacitate their victims so that they could be brought in for ‘interrogation’. All sides committed atrocities in this war, and this prison is a reminder that people seemed able to justify – at least to themselves – some appalling cruelties in its name.
It was a horrible place, and our visit left us feeling quite subdued. We were glad to get back to the hotel and freshen up for the ‘Welcome Dinner’, which was at the Wild Lotus restaurant in Nguyen Du St. This was a stylish restaurant with good service and an imaginative menu. They have a good wine list, but we had the first of many gins and tonic to start with – there’s nothing else as refreshing in the tropics! We enjoyed a scrumptious sweet corn and leek soup and the salmon rolls, with a ginger, chili and wasabi dip, were divine.

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