Hỏa Lò Prison aka "Hanoi Hilton": An American contemplating history from the Vietnamese perspective

Hỏa Lò Prison, aka "Hanoi Hilton" is an essential stop while in Hanoi, this prison that housed Senator John McCain during his POW years, has been converted to a museum. Consistent with our other Hanoi experiences, the prison was filled with pro-Vietnam propaganda, including a quite different description of Senator McCain's 5 1/2 year imprisonment.


Opening in the late 19th Century, Hỏa Lò Prison was built while Vietnam was under French colonial rule. Now a museum, the exhibits within the former prison document the horrors political dissidents endured under French rule. Vietnamese prisoners, men, women, and children alike, were tightly packed into rooms with poor ventilation and plumbing. One could only imagine how awful the conditions were during Hanoi's hot and humid days. The museum provides what is likely a realistic rendition of these conditions (minus the smell) through photos and life-like figures. Walking through the exhibits was truly haunting but an important lesson and reminder of the historic cruelties of the human species.


Perhaps less reliable was the exhibit on the prison's most famous resident, Senator John McCain. As Americans, we have learned in our history classes that on October 26, 1967, the late Senator McCain was pulled from the wreckage of his plane that had been shot down while flying over Hanoi. In the crash, Senator McCain suffered several injuries including, fracturing both arms and a leg, but after being pulled from Lake Hanoi, he was beaten badly before being transported to the prison. During his 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war, Senator McCain was routinely tortured, spent years in solitary confinement, lost 50 lbs off his already slim figure, and his hair turned from grey to white. The exhibits at Hỏa Lò Prison, however, tell a very different story.


The first thing you should know when coming to Hanoi is that in this communist country, there is a prolific propaganda machine at play. Of all the places we visited in Vietnam, nowhere was it more evident than at Hỏa Lò Prison and more specifically, in the John McCain exhibit. If you know this going into the exhibit, then you'll be able to resist the urge to say, "that's not how it went," or "who are they kidding?" Seriously though, there's educational value in spending time with the exhibit. There are photographs and artifacts of interest. There are also recitations of "facts," that give insight into history is often about perception and opinion. Here, Vietnam tells a story of how well Senator McCain was treated, even like a "VIP guest." That being said, the museum does show the two countries' reconciliation efforts, even displaying photos of visits from Senator McCain in more recent years.


In all, we found Hỏa Lò Prison and the museum within fascinating. This is an essential stop when in Hanoi, especially if you love history.

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