Visiting the Hanoi Hilton

We decided to get up early for a change, and we made our way over to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake in downtown Hanoi. Besides being a nice walk, we had heard that it is the site of a great deal of early-morning Tai Chi, and we wanted to have a look for ourselves.

IMG_4058The only time we have seen the streets of Hanoi quiet was during this pre-0600 walk.

“The Lake of the Returned Sword” is so named because according to legend, emperor Lê Lợi was boating on the lake when a golden turtle god surfaced and asked for his magic sword, Heaven’s Will. Like awesome cars, fierce weapons are always named. Lợi concluded that this god, Kim Qui, had come to reclaim the sword that its master, a local god named Long Vương (the Dragon King) had given Lợi some time earlier, during his revolt against the Chinese Ming dynasty. Lợi renamed the lake to commemorate this event. The Turtle Tower (Thap Rùa), a small building occupying most of a small island near the center of lake, still stands and is linked to the legend.

We saw the island, the small pagoda upon it, and we saw the people exercising. We saw no Dragon Kings, nor Turtle Gods, but that’s just as well. Very few of the exercisers appeared to be doing Tai Chi, but there were many exercisers. A few western folks were taking a run, but as I have said before, I have yet to see any of the local Asian folks doing any optional running. I have also met a couple of guys who were astonished that I would rather walk than ride somewhere. I believe that they think we are mad for taking the time and engaging the effort for discretionary ambulation.

Most of the Asian exercisers were wearing street clothes, and they were of all ages. They worried not about how they looked while exercising, nor where they were exercising. We saw a man arching his back violently across the top of a stone bench, doing some form of extreme ab workout. We saw a group of old women massaging each other’s backs (and disconcertingly, each other’s buttocks). We saw a couple of other groups of middle-aged women stretching and waving their arms around in time to music. There was, in fact, a lot of arm waving by everybody. Some people were just walking around the lake briskly and flapping their arms around. We even saw one guy who appeared to patting his head and rubbing his tummy while he walked.

The best exercisers, by far, were the laughing yoga folks. Laughing yoga (Hasyayoga) is a practice involving prolonged voluntary laughter, based on the belief that voluntary laughter provides the same physiological and psychological benefits as spontaneous laughter. Laughter yoga is done in groups, with eye contact and playfulness between participants. Forced laughter soon turns into real and contagious laughter. There was a group of about 100 men and women, including a few western tourists, performing Hasyayoga on a plaza adjacent to the lake. We did not take any video of this marvel, but there’s a short, fun video online if you want to see and hear Hasyayoga in action.

IMG_4059The laughing yoga folks. HA HA HA, HEE HEE HEE!

The laughter was contagious. Amused, we headed for our next destination, the former Hỏa Lò Prison (spoiler alert: not nearly as fun as laughing yoga). This prison, used by the French during their colonial occupation to imprison Vietnamese dissidents, and later used to hold American prisoners of war during the Vietnam war, is now a museum and educational facility describing both eras.

As museums go, it was fairly modest, but its simple dioramas and written descriptions were moving.

The prison was built in Hanoi by the French in the late 1800’s, when Vietnam was part of French Indochina. The French called the prison Maison Centrale…literally, Central House, a traditional euphemism to denote prisons in France, and it was located near Hanoi’s French Quarter. Maison Centrale was built to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners agitating for independence. As we learned, these prisoners were frequently subject to torture and execution. A renovation in 1913 expanded the prison’s capacity from 460 inmates to 600. It was nevertheless often overcrowded, holding some 730 prisoners on a given day in 1916, a figure which would rise to 895 in 1922 and 1,430 in 1933. By 1954 it held more than 2000 people; with its inmates held in subhuman conditions, it had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation and of the bitterness of the Vietnamese towards the French. The Vietnamese name for the prison, Hỏa Lò, means fiery furnace or more extravagantly, hell hole.

IMG_3932A depiction of female prisoners in the women’s area of Hỏa Lò Prison. Children and infants were often imprisoned with their mothers, and had to share one portion of rations.

IMG_3933The guillotine used by the French to execute dissident Vietnamese at Hỏa Lò. Although often they just tortured them to death, or shot them.

IMG_3931This is how the male Vietnamese prisoners were housed at Hỏa Lò. Each was shackled to a platform by one or more feet, immediately next to another man.

After the Vietnamese gained their independence from the French in 1954, the use of this building as a prison was discontinued. That respite lasted for ten years, until the building received it’s first American POW as a guest in 1964. U.S. POW’s, like the Vietnamese before them, endured miserable conditions at Hỏa Lò, including poor food and unsanitary conditions. The prison complex was sarcastically nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the American POW’s.

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, including bombings of the civilian population in Hanoi. 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 purpose of the torture was generally not the acquisition of military information; rather, it was to break the will of the prisoners. The North Vietnamese hoped to get written or recorded statements from the prisoners that criticized U.S. conduct of the war and praised how the North Vietnamese treated them. Such POW statements were viewed as a propaganda victory in the battle to sway world and U.S. domestic opinion against the war effort. In the end, North Vietnamese torture was sufficiently brutal and prolonged that virtually every American POW so subjected made a statement of some kind at some time.

IMG_3935The flight suit worn by U.S. Senator John McCain when he was captured is on display at Hỏa Lò, along with a number of photos of him while he was a resident of the Hanoi Hilton. All of the photos of American pilots show happy and healthy men, appearing to have fun. That’s bullshit, of course.

The displays at the museum focus on the brutality imposed on the Vietnamese by the French, and predictably gloss over the brutality imposed on Americans by the Vietnamese. As a matter of fact, the entire section of the museum dedicated to the imprisonment of U.S. POW’s presents it as if they had attended a summer camp, where they were well-fed, and amused themselves with volleyball and card games in the summer and Christmas decorations in the winter. “History is written by the victors”.

I left there thinking: damn, this little country gave the boot to occupiers and “invaders” from both France and the United States. That’s powerful stuff. I guess they didn’t want to be occupied anymore.

I tried to imagine what would happen if America were invaded by an occupying force, regardless of the stated reason for the occupation. We would do anything, and pay any price, to overthrow our occupiers. They felt the same way, I suppose. That’s why occupations never stick.

IMG_3934An altar in the meditation garden at Hỏa Lò.

IMG_4062This unusual sculpture watches over Hỏa Lò’s meditation garden, in remembrance of the Vietnamese who suffered fighting for independence from France.

We walked around a bit more, seeing some of the other sights that the city offered to us.

IMG_4060Saint Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral in Hanoi. It’s architectural style described as resembling Notre Dame de Paris. The church was one of the first structures built by the French colonial government in Indochina, and opened in December 1886. It is the oldest church in Hanoi, and is still in operation.

IMG_3930A dog shouts at passers-by from his fourth story perch on one of Hanoi’s busy streets.

IMG_4061A line of parked scooters on a sidewalk. It is said that there are about 2 million scooters in Hanoi. We may have dodged them all while trying to cross the streets. The ones that aren’t buzzing like huge insects in the streets are packed in like this on the sidewalks. Thus, pedestrians have to walk in the streets and try not to be hit.

Eventually, Becci’s back started to get the best of her, and she decided to head back to the room for a lie down. I got her settled, and decided to head out to check out the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu to my cab driver).

Văn Miếu is a temple of Confucius in Hanoi, and this site once hosted the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. The temple was built in 1070, and the Imperial Academy began in 1076, remaining active until 1779. Văn Miếu is one of several temples in Vietnam which are dedicated to Confucius, sages, and scholars. The various pavilions, halls, statues, and stelae of doctors are places where offering ceremonies, study sessions and the strict exams of the Dai Viet took place. The Văn Miếu temple is featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese đồng banknote. That’s about five bucks.

Văn Miếu is a lovely place, with beautiful, ancient buildings, still ponds, and intensely manicured trees, shrubs, flowerbeds, and lawns. Most of the signage and displays are written in Vietnamese, which I cannot yet read, so I cannot tell you a whole lot about the rationale behind the buildings and gardens; I can describe only what I saw.

One of the temples contains sculptures of Confucius and four of his greatest disciples.

IMG_4063One of the buildings at Văn Miếu, which was once part of the Imperial Academy.

IMG_4065A sculpture of Confucius at Văn Miếu.

Thoughtful of Confucius, here are a few of my favorite Confucianism’s:

– Even the greatest of whales is helpless in the middle of a desert.
– It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop. (I tell myself this continuously during marathons)
– Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.
– By three methods we may learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.
– Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.
– Wherever you go, go with all your heart.

IMG_4067A look at the grounds at Văn Miếu.

IMG_4064A stork standing on a turtle in Văn Miếu. I have no idea what it means but it looks cool.

IMG_4066There were several of these dioramas on the grounds of the temple. Each contained a small, manicured tree with little ceramic human figures around the base, performing various everyday activities from back in the day.

That night, Bex and I foraged for sustenance on the streets of Hanoi. We made a rookie traveler mistake and got pulled into a tourist restaurant (our second such in Vietnam! Dammit!) for an overpriced, under-flavored meal. We ordered the classic Vietnamese hotpot, probably delicious elsewhere, and we enjoyed for an hour or so the contents of a bubbling cauldron of overcooked vegetation and meat. It was like eating grass clippings with a little overcooked beef tossed in for texture. It was endlessly chewy and virtually flavorless, with a good helping of force-feeding tossed in for good measure, as our attendant kept re-filling our bowls as we tried to choke this stuff down. We had forgotten our roots, and in a quest for comfy chairs we had gotten away from the people’s food!

We instituted a new rule for Vietnam: Don’t eat an establishment unless you have to bend your knee past a 90 degree angle to sit on the seating implements of said establishment. It turns out that restaurants with proper western-style seats are all crap.

IMG_3952A street performer with fan. She was backed by a small group of musicians playing traditional instruments.

IMG_4068Traditional Vietnamese hot pot. Alas, this particular one was wretched. We have decided that any restaurant with full-sized seats is a crappy tourist trap. If you want a good meal in Vietnam, eat at a place where you have to sit on a plastic stool that is one foot tall.

Next Up: The awesomeness that is Halong Bay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s