Hanging out at the Hanoi Hilton

When I first arrived in Saigon I was a bit naïve. I wrote about the remarkably one-sided American War Museum and how infuriating and weird it was to be there as an American. By the time I made it up to Hanoi, 4 weeks later, I was a bit more grounded. After meeting so many people and seeing everything from the claustrophobic Cu Chi Tunnels to the vast cemeteries and craters in Hue, I realized that the story of a war this devastating and complicated can never really be told fairly, particularly in a nation where people are still so divided.

History is written by the victors though, and nowhere was this more apparent then in Hanoi, where I visited the Hoa Lo Prison, one of the most infamous jails of the twentieth century. Most of the museum is devoted to the French imprisonment of Vietnamese rebels during colonialism, but a few spare rooms to pay tribute to Hoa Lo’s role as a POW camp during the Vietnam War. And by pay tribute to I mean completely misrepresent. When I saw the exhibit on the treatment of American POW’s during the war, all I could do was laugh. While most of the content in the war museum was at least based in truth, this exhibit was such a blatant piece of propaganda it was absurd.

Hoa Lo is better known as the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison that once held John McCain. For some background,a brief quote from the academic literature of wikipedia:

The Hanoi Hilton was one site used by the North Vietnamese Army to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded “decent and humane treatment” of prisoners of war, severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. The aim of the torture was usually not acquiring military information; rather, it was to break the will of the prisoners, both individually and as a group.

Oh but not so say the plaques on the wall! Hoa Lo was a model prison where downed servicemen (a short film calls them the “pilots in pajamas”), learned valuable skills, played cards and generally had a pleasant time. Kind of like a slumber party, but with more chopstick whittling.

I mean look how much fun these guys are having, in this totally unforced moment:

Even John McCain, he loved it here!

He loved it so much he came back to visit and reminisce:

They also have his flight suit on display. He was a celebrity after all.

Okay sarcasm overload. If you live in the United States you probably know that in reality John McCain spent 5 and a half years in Hoa Lo, during which he was tortured literally every day. He still suffers from disabilities because of it. Basically, this entire exhibit bordered on grotesque parody.

I loved Vietnam, and truthfully I love it all the more for making me think. After all, Vietnam’s not the only country to rewrite or ignore uncomfortable bits of history.

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4 thoughts on “Hanging out at the Hanoi Hilton”

  1. Had the pleasure of going through Vietnam for a month last year and thoroughly enjoyed it, had a great time. An absolutely beautiful country. And uhhhhh, yeah, the Hanoi Hilton is a little strange, not least of course because built right over it is a giant luxury condo highrise. How weird.

  2. After reading this, I feel like an idiot. Despite the main photo on your homepage, I thought I was clicking on to an article that would feature pictures of plush suites and tales of room service & merchandise thievery at an ACTUAL Hilton Hotel…

    Oh dear.

    Still, it’s a great article. It’s fascinating/shocking how some countries can re-write their history, or make it so one-sided. I had no idea that John McCain was a POW and subjected to such brutal treatment during the Vietnam War.

    Some of my Korean friends complain about the Japanese leaving out the brutality they inflicted on Korea out of their history books. I ask my Korean friends, “well, do you get taught in school about bad things that Korea has done in history?”


    I think every country is guilty of this, but to different extents. When I learned about slavery at school, I was only taught about slavery in the US – it never touched on UK slavery, apart from briefly telling us that there was a slave trade in the UK.

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