My feet brought me to this place. I kept standing in front of the gate. It is written as Maison Centrale, from the word, you can easily guessing what country influence this place. Actually it is Hoa Lo Prison or some people called it as Hanoi Hilton, an irony way to called a prison for Americans prisoners of the war. At first, it was constructed by the French in 1896 for political prisoners, but later on 1954, the Vietnamese took it over.
I didn’t plan to go there. Honestly, I didn’t know this place is exist until I saw it on the city map. Usually I already googled a lot about places to visit before I come to one country, but this was an exception. I was not in the mood to be hurry so I changed my plan and just visit this prison. Founding this place also another coincidence. That time, I just told my heart, if I found it, I will go there – if not, it doesn’t matter at all. But here am I, standing in front of the Hoa Lo Prison. I went to the ticket counter to buy the ticket. I need to paid for 20.000 VND to went in.
If you go to Vietnam, you can’t pass their history of being an independent country. It cost too much life of people. I already saw so teary museum in Saigon, a War Remnant Museum. I was thinking again whether I should come inside of the building. But later on, I thought probably it will good for me to know the history of some war victims from Hanoi point of view.
On 1896, in ordered to cope with Vietnamese struggle movement, French changed the famous Hoa Lo from a famous trade village which specialized producing ceramics into a prison where confined and persecuted many of patriotic soldiers. Many of Government Leaders and Vietnamese Communist Party were imprisoned there.
There is 2 floors to be seen on the building. I was wandering from one room to another. First room that caught my impression a lot was a room with lots of stuff such as the cutlery they used back then. It was so interesting to realized the cutlery they used was so simple and humble, only some bowl from the thin can or coconut skin.
If I can quoted from what one of the Female Prisoner who stayed there around 1939-1945 wrote about how they ate long time ago, it sounds like this ; “According to regulation, food for prisoners were changed week by week : a meal with pork meat for Sunday. It was old sow meat or stringy meat. Three meals with boiled old buffalo meat which was so tough, the other meals were small chub with it’s gut which were boiled with soybean jam, mould dry fish, boiled soya curd. Vegetables vary on seasonal basis : water dropwort, white radish, boiled cucurbit or stunted water morning glory. Popular rice were crushed white rice from the South which were out of date, having parasite and very insipid. Many prisoners had heart edema cause eating that kind of rice in a long time. There was time when 40 prisoners died in a month…”
Imagined how they way they ate and what they ate my stomach just growling.
I continued my walk. Back then, prisoners not only put in separated room. They also possible can be chained not only on their legs, but also on their neck. Another inflame emerged from my stomach when I saw the illustration of prisoners on that time. Women and Men can be mixed together. That was truly sad.
A separated room called as Cachot Area or Dungeon. Cachot is used to prisoners who broke the prison regulations. It’s so dark and narrow, such as hell on hell in Hoa Lo. Because of lack with light and air, prisoners who putted in here usually had edema, blear eyes and body full with scabies. I kept walking fast to avoid another inflame feeling I had when I saw the room.
In another floor, there was a special exhibition about how Vietnamese Women Soldier on the war and how they influenced it and became National Heroes. I still remember what Ho Chi Minh said about Vietnamese women ; “Vietnam is heroic national, Vietnamese women are heroes.” Seeing the pictures of Vietnamese women at war made me agree with his statement.
Sometimes reading a war history, people tend to forget how women hold so many aspect to help the soldier gained the win against enemies, even not few who gave up their lives. My heart touched a lot when I read a statement from a Woman Comrade, Vo Thi Tang, who gave victorious smile when American imperials put her into the jail for 20 years of labor, “Will your regime be able to exist for more 20 years to keep me prison?” Many women at that era that gave their energies, from being a spy, sewing clothes, feeding soldier, nursing them or carrying heavy stuff. They were so brave, a real soldier. I am a bit shame now seeing how my female generation can not be compared even a bit to them, we are busy trying to grab discount on Zara, spend all of our money to make up which we hope can able to cover our flaws or hate each other woman. We never realized how hard life at that era, and only complaining about how difficult our life now.
War always had two faces and make people in hard situation. Not all soldier who really want to be into war. Mostly had to face it in the name of honoring their country. It was also happened to some American soldiers who got stuck with their assignment to bombed Vietnam. Many of them later become prisoners in Hoa Lo. Many of them also try to share their life to the local people and make something different. Many of them also longing for their country, so they tried to make themselves as much as they can to feel like in their country. It can be showed by how they try to celebrated Christmas, playing card, play the guitar, share their books, cigars and try to taught the local to play ball and speak English.
I was done with Hoa Lo prison. This prison taught me a lot. Even John Mc. Cain, the Republican President Nominee on 2008 United States Election also ever been stayed in this prison, when they were captured him at Truc Bach Lake, October 1967. I guess he also got many lesson from his stay on the prison. My short visit to Hoa Lo also taught me many – especially how strong the Vietnamese people fought for their independence, men or women. One last poem I saw on the wall, it’s on Vietnamese language but from the title I couldn’t agree more.
John Mc. Cain visited Hoa Lo Prison, April 2000
Thinking and growling,