Hanoi Hilton and Mr. Cain

My initial impressions of Hanoi weren’t very good. It seemed like hawkers rule the city. Someone is constantly in your face trying to sell you something. When you learn that all the prices are inflated and haggling is the norm, it can get tiresome (for me anyway) very fast. Taxis are notorious for cheating travelers. The trick for me then was to always use one from my hotel or from a reputable club or other hotel. If the doorman calls one, they generally have a relationship with that company. My doorman even took down the number of the taxi. That way the drivers know that a disgruntled tourist can report back to the doorman/hotel and they can get blacklisted. I called one taxi randomly in the street and he did start the meter, which is always a good sign, but I watched it carefully and in about three blocks we had gone two kilometers! I let this go longer than I should have and a 20,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND) taxi ride had already hit 100,000 and my reckoning of my map assured me we had just taken a left where it should have been a right and were off to roll up the meter a bit more. I insisted he stop and told him in simple English my original ride from the hotel to the same spot was only 20,000. He didn’t argue much and I pointed to the meter and said (lied) that I didn’t even have that inflated amount. I offered 40,000 which he took without disappointment and I got out for a long walk back to the hotel.

The Hanoi Elegance 4 is a refurbished building with long but narrow rooms (as in I must turn sideways to get past the end of the bed). I had a computer in the room with free internet, fresh fruit daily, and bottled water, as well as a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall (which made me have to duck as well as crab walk past one of the twin beds). A rain shower in the gleaming bathroom had plenty of hot water and the breakfast (included) was quite nice. The awkwardness of the room width was quickly forgotten because the staff behaved as if this was a five-star property tucked away in an alley in the Old Quarter. Without a doubt I will stay here again if I return to Hanoi.

But no trip to Hanoi can be complete without a visit to its most famous “hotel” the Hanoi Hilton. Hoa Lo Prison is notorious from the Vietnam War and John McCain was perhaps its most famous guest during that time. There are photos of him visiting again years later. One such pic lists him as Mc John Cain.

When I visited I naively expected to see some information on what the POWs went through. History mocks those who seek no further than the homeland textbook. The French built this prison, Maison Centrale, starting in the late 19th century when ‘Nam was still part of French Indochina. Its capacity varied over the years but was more or less 500 prisoners.

A walk through the complex makes me wonder where 500 bodies could be kept, so it was a real stunner to learn that during the height of French torture and abuse of Vietnamese political prisoners there were over 2,000 men and women packed inside. A guillotine is on display as are a lot of photos. Signs in English tell the story of the Vietnamese struggle for independence and the atrocities the Vietnamese suffered at the hands of the French and the destruction and loss of life when the United States carpet-bombed the civilian population.

One display shows the various objects the French used to torture female prisoners and lets your imagination fill in the gory details.

In one room is a collection of American war artifacts including a flight suit and the multi-lingual instructions for begging for mercy and promising a reward from the US government for that mercy.

“I am a citizen of the United States of America. I do not speak your language. Misfortune forces me to seek your assistance in obtaining food, shelter and protection. Please take me to someone who will provide for my safety and see that I am returned to my people. My government will reward you.”

Other photos, surely one part truth, two parts propaganda, show American POWs cooking Turkey for Thanksgiving, decorating Christmas trees, smoking cigarettes and playing basketball. The displays for the French-Era Vietnamese polticial prisoners showed people packed in like cattle, taking turns at the window for air, and long rows of shackles where men were left to lay nearly motionless without bathroom access or hygeine for days, weeks, months.

A self-guided tour doesn’t take very long and it is an eye opener. Everyone has their own version of history and the truth of it all lies somewhere in the middle of all the accounts. What I can say for certain is brutality is a human curse and tradition. Myopia in historical matters is a guarantee that what goes around, comes around, and goes around once more, and few are those who will ever see the irony of it.

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