I have to give the kids a lot of credit. When I announced that we were heading off to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and embalmed remains, I expected cries of protest. They merely shrugged and set off. We queued up, surrendered our big cameras, and snapped only two forbidden photos with the iPhone while waiting in the Don’t Take Any Photos line.So how did Uncle Ho look? I’ll let you do a Google image search on that if you’re really curious. But basically–very waxy. I’m not exactly a huge Ho Chi Minh fan, but I suspect that I’ll never visit another Communist capital with an embalmed leader on display (Lenin, both North Korean Kims, Mao) and it seemed like a good opportunity. For those of you curious about this practice, I highly recommend this fascinating photographic guide to the world’s embalmed leaders compiled by The Washington Post. After our visit the kids admitted that they didn’t expect to actually see Uncle Ho under glass.
With our first grim stop of the day complete, we headed off for more fun: the Hỏa Lò Prison Museum, known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton. This infamous prison was first built by the French during their colonial rule to house Vietnamese revolutionaries. During the Vietnam-American War it held American POWs, most famously now-Senator John McCain, a naval aviator during the war. The prison was demolished in the 1990s for development; only the gatehouse remains as a museum and monument.I had no idea of the origins of Hỏa Lò prison–only its role in the American-Vietnam War. Like many colonial powers, the French brutally cracked down on dissent among their Vietnamese subordinates. The museum’s exhibits described cruel punishments and revolts by prisoners, calling it “hell on earth.” And I believe them.
Then the guidebook shifts tone. Once the French lost power and left Vietnam, Hỏa Lò became a prison for criminals. And the guidebook defines criminals as American pilots who bombed North Vietnam. That got my attention.
I read on, expecting some sort of rationalization. I knew that Americans were tortured, deprived of medical attention, and starved at Hỏa Lò by their Vietnamese captors, which led to the tongue-in-cheek nickname among the Americans, The Hanoi Hilton. So I anticipated some explanation along the lines of “Sure, we weren’t so great to those American captives, but here’s what the Americans did during the war….”. And frankly American troops did some pretty terrible things. Carpet bombings. Napalm. The massacre at My Lai.
But that’s not what the guidebook says. Here’s an excerpt:
During the wartime in Vietnam when people faced numerous shortages in their everyday life, US prisoners of war including pilots were humanely treated by the Vietnamese Government which gave them the best possible living conditions. Captured American pilots were given sufficient personal belongings to meet their daily needs.
In the prison, captured pilots were created favourable conditions for entertainment, cultural and sports activities, chess playing listening to Voice of Vietnam (English broadcasts), watching films, and enjoying music.
And from a display:
No more flights on B-52s and carpet bombings, only a serene time for these American pilots to think about what happened and feel the beauty of peaceful life and warm humanity in Hoa Lo Prison. Cy read the displays, looked at the photos showing holiday parties and smiling POWs, and said, Wow. It looks like….camp.
You know that this isn’t true–the American POWs were tortured, I said. Yes, he replied.I felt angry. Spinning the truth is one thing, but there was no truth there. I imagined generations of Vietnamese children visiting this museum and believing that their benevolent government really made a summer camp for prisoners.
I’m not saying that the U.S. is perfect in its treatment of wartime prisoners. There are many examples–and recent ones–of shameful behavior toward prisoners, such as Abu Graib in Iraq. While many Americans demanded accountability at the time, ten years on very few of the Americans involved have faced consequences. So really, truly, Not Perfect. But still. At least there’s hand wringing, and dialogue. And hopefully, maybe, lessons learned for the next time.
John McCain, now Senator from Arizona, figures prominently in the exhibit. He appears in several photos, and his flight suit at the time of his capture is on display. But the most confusing photo for me shows McCain visiting Hỏa Lò in 2000. Given the complete fabrications in the displays, I can’t imagine how he could muster the courage to visit, knowing the falsehoods presented as fact. In May of 1973 he wrote the story of his five brutal years in captivity. It’s painful reading, and long–but worthwhile.
I wish we had visited Hỏa Lò earlier in our trip, and not on our last full day. We loved our visit to Vietnam, and I still hope to return to see more of this beautiful country.