The Hanoi Hilton. This is the name of the U.S. Vietnam conflict’s prisoners of war, holding compound. I think even this sarcastic nickname is difficult to believe. I’m not going to sugarcoat this article. My patriotism towards being American is lacking. That being said, I will not let people criticize my nation without my consent. I bold-faced told an Australian I met in China that instead of antagonizing me about my government, he should focus on the problems in his own nation. He was apologetic as I walked away. Here’s an interesting fact: I have met several people over the past few months that have asked me, “Why are U.S. Americans always so apologetic on their nation’s behalf?” I thought about this question and had to smirk a little. I was perplexed because I understand where my compatriots were coming from by being apologetic for our country’s behavior. But I also am very proud to be American at the same time. So seeing this infamous prison was an experience, but also a test of my inner patriotism.
The Hanoi Hilton is actually called the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. It is housed in a former prison. It was built in the 1880’s by the French who were colonizing Hanoi at the time. To be a prisoner here was torture, to say the least. When you walk through this dimly lit prison in the heart of Hanoi, you feel chills up your spine. The museum exhibits ease you into prison life by showing you the inmates clothing, eating utensils, and a scale model of the prison when it was built. You can see down the corridor as you move from exhibit to exhibit. I glanced a time or two and noticed that there was a room where people were sitting and watching a movie. I could hear the creepy dramatic music playing.
As we cycled through the exhibits and into the movie room, I realized that these people weren’t real and there was no movie. The museum simulates how the prisoners were reclined and shackled at the ankles. The horror soundtrack was just for creating a frightening ambiance. It was pretty the same music that the History Channel plays in it’s endless supply of Holocaust documentaries. It worked. I couldn’t look at the realist mannequins who were all looking my direction. Each one was doing something different, but all of them had a story to tell. I kept feeling their fake eyes watching me, asking me for help. I thought that one was going to move.
We were shuffled into the solitary confinement cells. It was the same shackled process with one mannequin hidden in the rooms. Here the prisoners had to lay in a windowless cell where they had to defecate and eat in the same laying position. This place was the setting of numerous acts of cruelty. But I want to remind the reader that this was not the same techniques that the American soldiers faced, this was during colonial times. But it was horrifying, none-the-less.
We walked through the courtyard on this rainy morning, and they showed a section of sewer drain that had been resurrected. The bars had been cut, thanks to a local woman giving prisoners a saw and and some acid. For a series of 6 days in 1945, some hundred prisoners escaped through this hole. This raised the most questions, but it wasn’t addressed in detail.
The next sight was probably the most horrifying. It made my heart skip a beat: The guillotine. I’ve never actually seen a real guillotine. It is a French invention of murder. We walk into a vaulted ceiling room and it was to my left. I was so close to it that I could have reached out and touched the board you lay on. I was frozen. It was meant for one thing only. Knives can be decorative, guns can be for sport, but guillotines, they are for death. I stood in this room looking at the 15’ tall device for a long time. The blade was rusted over now. On the wall next to it, there was the wicker basket that the decapitated heads were kept in. They showed a black & white photo of freshly chopped heads laying in the basket. They lit the guillotine from the bottom, creating a distinct shadow of the slanted blade on the back wall. Before I left the death row exhibit, I mustered the courage to take one single photo of it, but I will not share it in this blog.
I was visiting the museum with two Germans that I had met at the guesthouse the night before. They were careful what to say to me when we entered the American P.O.W.’s holding exhibit. I didn’t ask them about Hitler, so… But as we traveled through the first exhibit, looking at the pictures of bombed cities, mothers screaming over dead children, I felt guilty. I know that this portrayal was showing a bias, especially when they displayed pictures of about 10 different nations demanding we stop the war, but a lot of innocent people died in the U.S. Vietnam conflict. I don’t think my new friends were looking for any answers from me, but I did feel a little tense. Especially when they talked about the some 20,000,000 gallons of agent orange that were dumped by my country into Vietman, that are still causing birth defects in babies today.
The next exhibit showed pictures of the American pilots who’s planes were shot down. They were all kept in the same building I was standing. However, the pictures displayed locals pulling American pilots out of the wreckage of planes and to safety. They continued to show photos of the soldiers celebrating christmas dinner and playing basketball while imprisoned there. All of them donned their biggest smiles. I knew what was up. Even Dana, the German girl, turned to me and said, “Okay, this has to be an inaccurate depiction. After all, they were in prison for bombing this country.” I told her that Senator John McCain can’t lift his arm very high to this day, due to the torture he went through while here. I knew this was missing some facts.
Whether it was factual or not, this museum was interesting to see. At some point, every traveler will deal with someone else having a problem with their homeland. As a U.S. American, it isn’t jealousy that I hear about, despite the untraveled redneck’s foolish assumptions. Usually the criticism I face as an American traveler falls under these topics:
Why do we need so many guns?
Why do we need so much oil?
Why do we try to control the world?
Why are we so fat?
Why can’t we drive manual cars?
Why can’t you get anywhere in the U.S. without a car?
Why can’t our government get along and make a decision?
You can ask me anything you want about the United States, but the second that conversation goes from question & answers to attacks, I find myself backed into a corner. My American upbringing has bestowed enough manners on me not to attack your nation. Even you, Albania.
I love my country. There are lots of things that I don’t agree on, but at least I have that right! Everyday I see people in my county struggle and suffer, just like everyone else. But I also see people who come to my country and prosper more than they could dream of in their homeland. I think that the America that our forefathers created is hard to see at times. But it is under the Union that they established that we were given the freedom to mold into the Union that we are today. And everyday I see people in America fight with the freedom they were given to change U.S.A. for a better tomorrow. I told Dana that if I was alive during the Vietnam War, I don’t know honestly how I would have felt about my country’s actions. We’re not perfect, but I truly am proud to say that I’m an American… I just wish we weren’t so fat.