While in Hanoi, the one thing I knew I had to see was the Hao Lo Prison, which was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. It’s where American prisoners of war were held during the Vietnam War. I will admit, I don’t know too much about the Vietnam War. Growing up, it seemed history class always made it to about the early 1900’s, maybe World War I, before the school year ended. And then we started over the next year. So I only remember learning about the Vietnam War one year, and I don’t really remember much about it.

The first section of the museum was about the period of time prior to the Americans going to Vietnam, when the Vietnamese imprisoned by the French. It told of torture, unsanitary conditions, a lack of food, and sickness suffered by those held captive. I certainly had never learned about this part of history. It was hard to take, hard to read about how the prisoners went through. Though it wasn’t exactly a full history lesson, and I’d be interested in reading about the French side of things.

The second section was about the Americans imprisoned by the Vietnamese. The story suddenly changed. Instead of reading about tortured prisoners, I was reading about American prisoners playing checkers and cards, eating hearty meals, laughing and in general having a grand ole time. I’m paraphrasing a little, but one of the signs said that despite poor economic times in Vietnam, American POW’s were given better food and living conditions than the Vietnamese were getting. Even without knowing as much about the Vietnam War as I should know, I’m willing to bet Vietnam, or any country really, would not provide BETTER conditions for prisoners that its own citizens were receiving. It just doesn’t make sense.

Lots of people have opinions about the Vietnam War and whether or not the Americans should’ve been there at all. It was odd just being in Vietnam knowing my country participated in such a controversial war there a few decades ago. Visiting the Hao Lo Prison Museum was even more strange. I never expected the signs to read “the Vietnamese tortured the Americans” but I also didn’t expect to read that the prisoners were having FUN. After this visit, I’m very interested in learning more about this period of history.

Want to see more pictures from Hanoi? Check them out on my Facebook page: Vietnam

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16 comments on “Hao Lo Prison or the Hanoi Hilton

  1. Wolfe

    So…if I were browsing an issue of POW Monthly, Vietnam might be featured as a desirable locale? Wow.

    1. Ali Post author

      Ha! Yep, something like that. Games, gifts, good food….like a cruise ship you can’t jump off of.

    1. Ali Post author

      Yeah, I guess it’s just completely the other side of what we were always told about the war so it seems so strange.

    1. Ali Post author

      Thanks! It was definitely interesting and thought-provoking.

  2. Matthew Cheyne

    I believe that the senator and presidential runner up John McCain was a POW in the Hanoi Hilton. He was a pilot in the Vietnam and his plane got shot down and he spent several years in a cage there.

    As for the account of how the Vietnamese communists were treated by the french, it’s similar to how they treat their “enemies of the people” such as human rights activists, democracy activists, people who blog against the state and what not. I’ve read numerous stories from Human Rights Watch about the treatment of Vietnamese activists. Many of them are detained on dubious charges and sent to reeducation or labor camps for a period of time. Others are subject to constant surveillance and harassment for what they do.

    As an historical footnote; Australia took tonnes of Vietnamese refugees who made the trip here by boat all the way from Vietnam to Australia during the late 70s and early 80s. You probably would have seen all the restaurants in inner city Melbourne when you were here with all the Vietnamese names. They were mostly originally created by refugees who came by boat.

    1. Ali Post author

      They did have McCain’s uniform & pictures of him, again trying to make it sound like he didn’t suffer intense beatings. All very odd to see. I didn’t realize so many Vietnamese moved to Australia. Sounds like a really rough way to get there!

  3. Jessica Festa

    I went to this place when I was in Hanoi…seriously fascinating yet upsetting the treatment some people had to endure.

    1. Ali Post author

      I totally agree, fascinating but difficult to see.

    1. Ali Post author

      Nah, it’s not all depressing. I loved Hanoi, it’s one of those cities where you can just feel the energy. I also got a rush just from crossing the street, so who knows.

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