Whenever he has come to Vietnam for tourism or work in the past decade, Richard O’ Neill, an information technology teacher from the US, has visited the former prison Hoa Lo, where American prisoners, including Senator John McCain, were held during the Vietnam War.
The prison, widely known as ‘The Hanoi Hilton’ among US soldiers, would help Americans understand more about Vietnam’s history, he said, making his way through the dark corridors and musty cells of Hoa Lo.
The stark and forbidding prison held many revolutionary heroes who were incarcerated during French colonial rule in the 1940s and 1950s.
A guillotine is displayed in one room, while images of US prisoners of war (POWs) could be seen in others. Among them is a picture of McCain, who revisited the prison a few years ago.
The yellow stone-and-concrete prison built by the French colonialists in 1896 was later used to house American POWs, usually airmen caught after their planes were shot down.
Pete Peterson, former US ambassador to Vietnam, spent much of his six and a half years as a POW inside a dank cell at Hoa Lo. Ex-prisoner of war Senator John McCain was also held there for more than five years.
The last inmates, Vietnamese criminals, were removed from the prison in 1994.
Most of Hoa Lo has been knocked down to make way for an office tower owned by a Singapore businessman. Only a few cells in the original building remain. A part of the prison has been preserved and converted into a museum, with its main entrance with the French sign “Maison Centrale” reminding passers-by of a time in Vietnamese history.
Among many foreign visitors at Hoa Lo was a tourist from the US. He attentively looked at each picture and object exhibited there. A glass case at the door of one room contains towels, a pair of shoes and sandals. But more grisly reminders are everywhere, from the rusting leg shackles that held prisoners on their beds to the steel cell doors with peepholes.
He said he saw a lot of pain for the Vietnamese. War is terrible, but Vietnam achieved victory. “It is a strong country.”
Catherine Lee, a tourist from Britain, said she was moved when she visited Hoa Lo. The country has a sad history.
Before coming here, she knew little about Vietnam and thought it was a country at war. Everything she has seen here has dispelled that idea.
On the streets of Hanoi, most physical evidence of war has disappeared, allowing many memories of the Vietnam War to fade away. In the old quarter near the prison, shops and restaurants line the streets. Many foreigners are puzzled by the chaotic traffic at a busy intersection. Hoa Lo remains one of the few sites with evidence of the war in the city.
Hoa Lo is now a tourist attraction. Older American tourists still come to Vietnam in part to look for signs of the war and to contemplate the significance of that long-ago struggle. But a small group of young visitors shuttled by guides from cell to cell inside Hoa Lo said they have no direct memory of the Vietnam War.
“Forty years after the war ended, the images of Vietnam I see are not of a fallen country but of a nation on the rise,” Catherine said.
Hanoi, the center of Vietnam’s booming economy, is a dynamic metropolis full of hotels, high-rise buildings, shopping malls, Internet cafes and young people.
Flashy neon-lit billboards of Coca-Cola and Tiger Beer and Toyota and Samsung cell phones are everywhere.
Increasing numbers of Americans visit Vietnam every year drawn to the country’s spectacular natural beauty and friendly people.
A teenager at a Starbucks where many Vietnamese and expatriate businessmen discuss deals while sipping cappuccino shrugged off questions about the Vietnam War: “The war happened so long ago. We should not talk about it anymore.”