" The complex has several souvenir shops but the prices may be on the higher side. Since it is quite near the Old Quarter, a visit here can easily be combined with shopping there. And moving freely in bustling crowds will never seem more sweet!"
By Vikas Datta

Hanoi, Sep 24 - Walking through its dark, depressing corridors and a glimpse of its dank dungeons may make you feel you have stepped into an Alexandre Dumas novel. A visit to the Hoa Lo Prison, later famous as the Hanoi Hilton in another war, is an educational experience about colonial repression as well as the resilience of the human spirit and its unquenchable desire for freedom.

It is a rare Asian country that has not undergone colonial rule, and the crushing repression of the native people's freedom struggles frequently resorted to. Prisons of the era, maintained as memorials, serve as a stark, sobering reminder - be it the infamous 'Kala Paani' of the British Raj or this euphemistically-termed Maison Centrale (Central House) of the French overlordship in Indochina.

Built in the last two decades of the 19th century, Hoa Lo, often translated as fiery furnace, also means stove and may have come from the number of shops and vendors of wood and coal stoves there, said the Vietnamese volunteer guiding a group of Indian journalists through the prison.

Most of the jail complex was demolished in the 1990s (and now hosts a 25-story serviced apartment building and a commercial complex) but a key fraction - mostly around the gatehouse - has been converted into a museum, which focusses on the French period and mostly skips over its later history as an American POW camp.

The tour begins with photos of what the original area, of the prison, artifacts like uniforms and articles of daily use for inmates, their possessions, a model of the entire original complex and a multi-lingual, multi-media presentation.

Meant to confine political prisoners, the jail's original capacity was 450, but a decade later, it was extended to 600, but was still overcrowded, holding 900 by the early 1920s and over 1,400 in the 1930s. In the last couple of years before French rule ended and North Vietnam became an independent country, it held over 2,000 prisoners.

Conditions were hellish as the display shows. Apart from overcrowding, there was subhuman treatment - recalcitrant prisoners were placed in rows with one of their feet shackled for long periods. Incorrigibles or those breaking the regulations were flung into the subterranean catchot or dungeon, where they were supposed to eat, sleep, and relieve themselves at the same spot. The confinement left a marked toll with these inmates suffering from oedema, blurred and lost vision and scabies from their fetid conditions and lack of fresh air and light.

The reconstructions with life-size figures, shackled together or stuffed in dungeons, can convey but a fraction of what the original prisoners must have undergone but are still a powerful, visual depiction of their sufferings.

And for the ultimate punishment, there was 'Madame Guillotine'! The device will be familiar for readers of Tale of Two Cities or The Scarlet Pimpernel but seeing its menacing outline before you is unforgettable.

The jail ultimately proved useless in dampening the Vietnamese ardour for freedom. Bringing together political prisoners, including many leading figures of the Vietnamese Communist Party, only enabled them to more freely exchange ideas and plan, said the guide. Escapes were rife with many successfully tunneling out through the sewers - whether the jailers were French or the Japanese occupiers in World War II.

A centre for revolutionary doctrine and a site of remembrance in North Vietnam, it was used during the Vietnam War as a prisoner of war camp for American servicemen and the poor food and unsanitary conditions led its US inmates, with characteristic gallows humour, to name it The Hanoi Hilton. One prominent inmate was then US Navy pilot John McCain, later a Republican senator and challenger to Barack Obama in the 2008 US presidential election. His flight suit is still on display.

But the American part is mostly glossed over and during our visit, the particular area was closed for renovation.

The complex has several souvenir shops but the prices may be on the higher side. Since it is quite near the Old Quarter, a visit here can easily be combined with shopping there. And moving freely in bustling crowds will never seem more sweet!

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])


comments powered by Disqus
Read more on:
 
PERMALINK

http://www.nerve.in/news:2535002406656
You can quote the permanent link above for a direct link to the story. We do not archive or expire our news stories.

STORY OPTIONS
  Email this story to a friend
  XML feed for Americas
 
COPYRIGHTS INFORMATION
All rights reserved for news content. Reproduction, storage or redistribution of Nerve content and articles in any medium is strictly prohibited.
Contact Nerve Staff for any feedback, corrections and omissions in news stories.
 

All rights reserved for the news content. Reproduction, storage or redistribution of Nerve content and articles in any medium is strictly prohibited.