HANOI, Vietnam — The “Hanoi Hilton” is the sarcastic nickname bestowed by US prisoners of war on the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi, formerly North Vietnam. Most Americans know the prison as the place where wounded prisoner of war (POW), Senator, and one-time presidential candidate John McCain was imprisoned for five years during the Vietnam War. Originally built by French colonialists in 1896 to house recalcitrant and revolutionary Vietnamese rebelling against their foreign rulers and named ‘Maison Centrale,’ the prison was built with stone walls 13 feet high and two feet thick. Its fearsome iron doors and locks were specially constructed in France and shipped to Hanoi. Most of Hoa Lo was razed in the 1990s to make way for shopping malls and apartment buildings, but a small section remains, and has been converted into a museum.
The purpose of the museum is ostensibly to show the revolutionary Vietnamese heroes’ struggle against brutal colonial repression, but the space is much more than a monument to political conflict. It is a reminder of utter, complete, and devastating misery, and how draconian discipline and punishment — no matter the regime inflicting it or who the prisoners are — is an affront to and directly contradicts basic human rights. The means of punishment employed at Hao Lo were rope bindings — including hanging from a hook with legs bound to feet — feet chained in irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum, as an installation, is working on a level similar to Laurie Anderson’s recent show Habeas Corpus at the Park Avenue Armory (minus the telepresence) and S.A.C.R.E.D., Ai Weiwei’s series of sculptures about his detention by the Chinese authorities. Ai was not the first to use maquettes and prison dioramas — Hoa La is full of them.
The concept of the museum is turned upside down here, at least in terms of valuing culture and art as uplifting experiences. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum is a bare-knuckles recreation of destitution. The place will depress and sadden any visitor. The designers, who reconstructed actual parts of the original prison, did not have (or need) art theory to explain what type of environment they would be building. All you have to do is walk into one of the death row holding cells and you immediately get the point. The cells’ sheer mass and profundity, the moist and cold interior coupled with the lack of light, are powerful enough that words are superfluous.
Hoa Lo prison was built on top of the ancient Phu Khanh village, famous for centuries in Vietnam for making earthenware kettles, teapots, and portable stoves. Some translate Hoa Lo village as ‘village of portable stoves,’ ‘fiery furnace,’ or even ‘hellhole.’ The French destroyed it and in its place built one of the largest prison complexes in Indochina — at the time the facility also included a courthouse and the headquarters of the secret police. The prison is an emblem of the worst behavior an oppressor can inflict on the oppressed. However, Hoa Lo also served as a de facto university for scores of prisoners, and many political leaders of Vietnam spent time in its cells. They huddled together for years on end, educating one another on how to get rid of their French overlords, and came up with not only strategy, but ideology. From 1930 to 1945, the jail also housed female prisoners and their photo portraits hang forlornly on a wall.
Some prisoners used Hanoi’s underground sewer system as an escape route and their daring is depicted in a sculptural installation at the jail. Elsewhere, an actual guillotine stands poised in the ready position, reminding viewers that yes, there was a time when the expression “Off with their heads” bore real meaning.
In its final phase, Hoa Lo was used as a POW staging ground that gave the Vietnamese ample opportunity for propaganda. It is a subject Arizona’s Republican Senator, John McCain — who was captured in October 1967 — has written about in great depth in his numerous books. He broke both arms and a leg while ejecting from his fighter plane, nearly drowned when he got tangled up in his parachute in the lake where he landed, and was rescued and beaten by the villagers he had been trying to bomb. During his time in captivity he experienced such despair that he tried to hang himself not once but twice with his knotted shirt, but was caught by the prison guards and beaten again. None of that is apparent in the cheery photo on display at the Hoa Lo Prison Museum today, which shows him being treated by a Vietnamese doctor. He has been back numerous times since then and led the push to normalize relations between Vietnam and the United States. Another member of Congress, Republican Congressman Sam Johston of Texas, spent seven years interred here, including 42 months in solitary confinement.
The stigma, tension, and upheaval of the Vietnam War is long gone. The north and south of the country have reunited. According to a new law, any foreigner who stays in Vietnam more than three months is eligible to buy land, an ironic twist since conflicts over land ownership and redistribution helped spur the Communist insurgency in the first place. No matter what one believes politically, everyone can agree that the conditions in Hoa Lo were subhuman and atrocious. It’s an experience that only a museum, with its ability to recreate actual presence, can fully convey.
The Hoa Lo Prison Museum is located at 1 Hoa Lo Street, Phu Khanh village, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, Vietnam.