The Hard Parts of Hanoi
There were two places I wasn’t sure I wanted to visit while in Vietnam: Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and Hỏa Lò Prison - the Hanoi Hilton.
In the end, I went to both.
I toured the mausoleum because, well, it isn’t every day you get to see the embalmed remains of someone who’s been dead for 50 years. Why not have a peek when you have the chance? It’s science!
Although the public is not permitted to photograph the eerily preserved corpse of the former leader of North Vietnam - soldiers confiscated my daughter’s Nikon and held it until we came out - I can report that Uncle Ho isn’t looking great. He’s kind of waxen. No color at all in his very thin face.
“Looks like something out of Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum,” my daughter said when we were out of earshot of the guards.
I doubt he’s made of wax. It’s too dang hot for that. He’d melt. Although, come to think of it, Ho’s resting place is easily the chilliest air-conditioned building we visited in Hanoi. It’s been reported that his remains are tended by the same Russian embalmers who keep Lenin on display in Moscow. They come in once a year to freshen up the former revolutionary.
We arrived just as the mausoleum was closing. Luckily we avoided the interminable lines that usually snake around the buildings. As we approached the gates an enterprising man was waiting with a cart filled with fabric. He stopped us and pointed to an English-language sign telling visitors they couldn't enter in pajamas or shorts.
It was 96 out. Bryn was wearing shorts.
The peddler quickly wrapped her in a sarong and charged a couple of bucks for the colorful rectangle. I suspect he rakes in a mountain of dongs from leggy Western tourists on hot days.
The government may be communist, but the people of Vietnam, like the sarong seller, seem to have a knack for capitalism.
Hỏa Lò presented a more serious crisis of conscience. I was reluctant to enter the prison where John McCain and hundreds of other American pilots were imprisoned, beaten and tortured.
But McCain himself visited the prison in 2000.
Worth seeing, I figured. And it was.
According to a pamphlet handed to members of the public on their way in, the French are the bad guys in the Hỏa Lò prison story. (They built the giant dungeon and called it “Maison Centrale” around the turn of the last century.)
The Vietnamese are - no surprise - the good guys.
And the American aviators held captive from 1964 to 1973? They were at a sort of summer camp - behind bars - having a grand time while they waited for release:
During the wartime in Vietnam when people faced numerous difficulties and shortages in their daily 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 in Hỏa Lò Prison were given sufficient personal belongings including smallest things to meet their daily needs…In the prison, captured pilots were created favorable conditions for entertainment, cultural and sports activities, chess playing, listening to Voice of Vietnam radio….watching films and enjoying music. Parties were organized for them during New Year festivals and holidays, what were impossible for the Vietnamese at that time.”
Yeah. Those of us who read “Faith of My Fathers,” by John McCain and other accounts of Vietnamese POW treatment know it was party all the time at the Hanoi Hilton.