Planes and prisons in Hanoi…

Our last full day in Hanoi was dedicated to ‘history’ – we paid a visit to Hoa Lo Prison – aka ‘Hanoi Hilton’ – just outside the Old Quarter. The prison was built by the French during their occupation of Hanoi on the site of an ancient ceramic-making village. Locals used to make ceramic pots and utensils here which were apparently extremely valued in Hanoi and the rest of Vietnam – but the French relocated all of the locals, stopped production and then built a prison to house Vietnamese revolutionaries who were opposed to their presence – along with a court house and other administrative buildings from which they ruled Hanoi.

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In addition to this, (this being the reason we had heard of Hoa Lo prison), it was used as a prisoner of war detention camp for US pilots, who had been shot down or captured during the Vietnam War – including Senator John McCain.

The inside of it was pretty sparce and you could imagine how grim it would have been for the prisoners – particularly the Vietnamese prisoners locked up by the French – we saw the stockades that they were held in, the dungeon that those who misbehaved were sent to, ‘death row’ and a range of torture implements that were used.

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One of the most gruesome leftovers in the prison was the guillotine and basket that was used to execute the prisoners. Their heads were also put on display as warnings to other prisoners – the pictures of which were pretty disgusting.

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The strange thing about this place was the apparent contrast in the way that the Vietnamese were treated by the French and the way that the US pilots were treated by the Vietnamese. The rooms dedicated to US prisoners had photos of them eating Christmas dinner and playing volleyball or chess, as well as the original paperwork stating that the American prisoners should be treated fairly. It’s always difficult to imagine what the actual truth about the conditions they were held in is – but Hoa Lo prison certainly provided enough ‘evidence’ that they weren’t treated that badly at all!

We saw some artifacts from US prisoners, such as cigarette holders, clothing and drawings or poems that they had written whilst imprisoned. Also on proud display was John McCain’s pilot suit that he was wearing when he was shot down and captured at Truc Bach Lake.

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It was really interesting, spending a few hours at the prison, and the Vietnamese have put a lot of effort into demonstrating what life was like in the prison – including putting life-size figures of prisoners in the cells, so you could almost ‘see’ them in there.

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After the prison, we walked up to the Army Museum. We were really looking forward to this, as we had heard some great reviews, but to be honest, as soon as we got there, we had a feeling we would be disappointed. The ‘museum’ was made up of three separate buildings and an outdoor aircraft space, but half of the buildings seemed to be closed. We knew they were renovating the ancient history section, but the other sections seemed incomplete too.

Many of the most interesting looking displays had no information attached to them, or had a plaque written in Vietnamese so we couldn’t understand what they were. The time sequence didn’t quite flow either – we jumped around between relics from the Japanese invasion, French occupation and US war and never really knew which part of history we were looking at.

Aside from this, they did have a huge amount of objects on display, from guns and grenades, to photographs, personal objects and vehicles. By far, the most impressive part of the Army museum was their collection of aircraft – both French and US captured airplanes as well as Vietnamese tanks and planes used at various times in history.

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We saw a giant Chinook round the back of the museum as well as a huge display of wrecked aircraft, which had been turned into a big monument.

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Another part of the museum complex was the Hanoi Flag Tower – this made quite a dramatic statement, towering over the displays of enemy aircraft below it.

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We walked up to the top of the Flag tower to look at the views across Hanoi.

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After a couple of hours at the museum (including time for lunch in the bistro next door) we walked back to the hotel the ‘long way round’, past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Heroes Monument (i.e. we took a wrong turn!). It was good to walk through the new part of the city however, as we had spent most of our time in the old quarter.

Once back at the hotel we caught up on a few bits and pieces on the internet, including booking our next hostel! We’re going to Halong Bay for three days in the morning and after that, heading straight to Hue – the ancient capital of Vietnam.

At Halong Bay, we’ve planned to stay on a Junk boat as well as one of the islands there – in a sea-front bungalow on stilts! Are really looking forward to it – let’s just hope the weather is kind to us!..


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1 Comment

  1. September 29, 15:39 #1 Mum

    You’re looking good Aisleen (and Richard). Sounds like you’re enjoying Vietnam. Where do you head next, Cambodia? Hope your wish for good weather is granted. Happy travelling xxxxx