After having a look at the opera house at the posh end of town (and noting that Starbucks have sited themselves there, just down the road from the stock exchange and a Prada fashion store), I made my way to the Hoa Lo Prison museum. This was a really good, if somewhat disturbing way to begin to find out about Vietnam’s more recent history.
Most of the museum recalls the lives of the political prisoners who were imprisoned here when Vietnam was under French colonial rule 1858-1954. The prisoners were mainly imprisoned for their loyalty to the Vietnamese communist cause, and for the work they did as revolutionaries, trying to resist French occupation.
The prison was purpose built on the site of Phu Khanh village, which had been famous for its handcrafted pottery. The French moved all the locals (48 households) out to a different part of the city and dismantled and moved Chan Tien Pagoda too in order to build the prison, which the regime had dire need of to keep up with its punitive rule.
The museum justifiably waxes lyrical about the heroism, determination and ingenuity of the prisoners, who organised themselves incredibly well and managed to teach one another all sorts of useful things, even under the noses of the vicious guards. All while enduring horrendous conditions, inadequate space, food and clothing and lack of latrines and so on. Having escaped (there were a few successful escapees) or after French colonial rule ended, many of the ex prisoners from here became significant leaders in the communist party.
The prisoners organised protests to get better conditions – hunger strikes and even once staging a protest by not wearing their prison uniform, but performing all their tasks naked, as a protest that they only had one set of clothes so when they washed them, they had nothing to wear. After three days of this, some local bigwig was brought in to try and sort it out. He demanded they get dressed, to which the prisoners’ elected spokesman (who could speak French) said something like, “All that we require is that you treat us with the dignity that befits the nation of France”. The next day all the prisoners had a spare uniform as they were supposed to.
There were various horrendous forms of torture used in the prison. In the mid 1890s, the French brought guillotines over to Hanoi to use on the revolutionaries who were sentenced to death. They staged the executions in front of the main door of the prison which they opened just in time so all the prisoners (as well as the general population) could see what was happening to their fellow inmates, as a deterrent.
I couldn’t help wondering whether this was some rather warped, deep seated act of revenge on the part of the French regime against the communist revolutionaries in Vietnam. The revenge really being paid forward from the time when French revolutionaries had used the guillotine to avenge themselves on the French aristocracy a century earlier. Violence does seem to beget violence. It’s a thought, anyway.
There was one section of the museum devoted to the American pilots who were captured and imprisoned here during the Vietnam war (1964-73) too. It makes the point though, that then Hoa Lo became knicknamed “The Hanoi Hilton”, as the way the Americans were treated was a darn sight more humane (by the Americans’ ready admission) than how the Vietnamese communists had been treated by the French.
One of the loveliest things was the almond tree in the prison yard, whose branches, fruit and leaves were regularly used by prisoners to make medicines to heal each other’s wounds from the beatings and illnesses they suffered with. One prisoner who was also a musician managed to fashion a pipe from one of the branches another prisoner procured for him while the guards’ backs were turned. The almond tree is still flourishing now. Another example of how we wreak our havoc and destruction and yet the good earth endures.
I was impressed by the amount of information there was about female prisoners here, and by their incredibly brave and self sacrificing actions. There were stories of female prisoners who continued their revolutionary work from within the prison. One of whom had encouraged her husband to take up an opportunity to serve the Party in China, and consequently never saw him again. She remained in Vietnam, studied medicine, then later was imprisoned for years for revolutionary activity at Hao Lo, separated from their little daughter, and dying of typhoid having caught it from her fellow prisoners while she nursed them.
The end of the exhibition includes some stuff about the importance of working for peace, and the pride of some of those American pilots who have worked politically for good relations between the two nations since the end of the war (including Senator McCain who was imprisoned here and ran for President in a couple of elections not all that long ago, though he has since died). It also says the Vietnamese prize peace always.
But in the end, the take home message is really all about the almost deified status of the communist revolutionaries, as good examples of bravery, commitment to the Party and determination. Vietnam’s flag is still predominantly red, if my emojis are well informed. 🇻🇳
From Hao Lo I made my way to a recommended Vietnamese eatery, and indulged in this Hanoi speciality:
I searched the extensive menu fruitlessly for anything that was just vegetarian (I could’ve got a plate of green vegetables, but that was about it). As Shiv had said, I could have said “Today’s my vegetarian day” and they might have managed to give me something appropriate. I could have, but on this occasion I didn’t. Here was my delicious main course. The orange sauce was very spicy indeed: