The French colonized Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, lumping them all together in what they called Indochine (or Indochina because it was between Indonesia and China). Vietnam was under French rule from 1886 – 1954, although the first French influence dates back to the 17th century and a Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes. The French quarter of Hanoi still holds all the main government buildings that line broad streets.
Hoa Lo prison (French: Maison Central, American: Hanoi Hilton) was built by the French in 1896 to contain political prisoners. It was a huge, sprawling complex that could accommodate up to 3,000 prisoners, male and female. Today only a piece of the façade and a few rooms, kept as museum displays, remain.
The French were dismayed to discover that the Vietnamese prisoners, so slight of build, could easily escape through barred windows designed for Europeans. To counter this, the prisoners (men and women) were kept fettered and often yolked, allowed to walk freely for only one hour a day. The toilet facilities were open and in the room they were imprisoned.
The most feared place in the prison was known as the Dungeon. The prisoner was kept fettered, with the floor sloping away behind him. The room was all concrete, had almost no light, and no air circulation. Other methods of torture were used as well and didn't spare the women political prisoners either – they were tortured with with bottles, electrical wires and wooden canes.
A total of three guillotines were sent to the prison from France. One was used publicly to terrorize the population. When the political resistance leaders were identified, they were beheaded in public and their heads put on display in the market. An interior guillotine was used for prisoners the French wanted to disappear.
“After three months, the Viet Cong military discovered that he was the son of an Admiral and tried to give him back,” Han said. I assume for certain concessions. “But, John McCain said he would only go if all of the 500+ pilots currently held in the prison were set free, too. Naturally, our government refused and John McCain stayed in prison here for five years, five months and three days. He said in his biography that he was tortured and sent to the ‘dungeon.’”
“Our prison officials say ‘No, he was never tortured’.” Han shrugged and then added philosophically. “There was propaganda on both sides. Now, we try to see both sides.”
Han showed us a room where a video documented the twelve days of bombing at the end of 1972, plus photos of captured American pilots and a flight suit. “It’s true, we did keep American pilots under bridges, in hospitals and in key buildings like our electric plant. It was so the Americans wouldn’t bomb those sites. We were just protecting our city and our people.”
Coming up next: Reverence
Photos: R. Marion