Day 261: Vietnamese Prison

An old co-worker, Austin, was in Hanoi for the day before flying back to Thailand, so we met for breakfast. I hired Austin a couple of years earlier to work in sales. After earning his Master’s degree, he quit in the spring of 2018 to travel the world for a year. He was in his mid-20s, was about 5’8”, had black hair, and looked a lot like my ex-husband. 

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Austin spent several months in Europe, Egypt, India, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. He needed to leave that day before his visa expired, so he was flying to Thailand for a short time and then planned to go back to Vietnam because he loved it there so much. He was traveling as a backpacker, staying in hostels. He frequently met other travelers and ended up traveling with them for a while. 

Austin originally planned to travel for a year, but it was going so fast that he realized he wanted it to be more like two to three years. After Southeast Asia, he planned to go to Australia to visit his sister who was living in Perth. He also applied for a work visa there because his finances would only last a year, which was coming up soon. 

Austin gave me a lot of good tips on things to do in Vietnam because he had spent the last month there. He told me that when he first arrived, he was lonely and it felt strange traveling solo again because most of his travel was with other travelers he met. Within a short time in Vietnam, he met more travelers and explored with them. 

I was happy to see Austin and to see him enjoying travel so much. He had the right attitude and appreciated the ability to travel. It was funny because we were both managers at Target, but at different times and both worked with my friend Karyn. We both worked at McMaster-Carr and were now traveling the world. We enjoyed talking for a few hours over a delicious breakfast. 

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Austin had to go buy a plane ticket and leave the country that day, so we parted ways. I walked to the HOA Ko Prison. The sign at the entrance said, “A hell on earth in Hanoi set up by French Colonialists, it was also called “a school” by Vietnamese patriotic soldiers (1896-1954), a “Hilton Hanoi” – where the American Pilots lived while they were arrested in the North of Vietnam (1964-1973) and now it is “an attractive destination” by the friends who love peace.” 

There was a special exhibition called “Finding Memories” currently at the prison. The sign described the presentation as recreating “the struggle of the people of Ha Noi and Hai Phong to overcome the pain and loss of war and to achieve victory. It helps those who haven’t experienced wars to learn more through remarkable and humane wartime stories, especially the stories about American pilots in Hanoi-Hilton. 45 years have passed, and the Vietnamese people always bestow the most beautiful appreciation for American Peace-lovers.” 

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The French controlled Vietnam for 100 years and built the prison in 1896. It was one of the biggest and most solid prisons in Indochina. The prison signs describe  the poor conditions that the French created for the Vietnamese people. It was hard to walk through the rooms and cells. Sometimes there were porcelain sculptures in the shapes of bodies to depict what it was like for prisoners. There was also a guillotine on display. 

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A pamphlet provided more information, “Throughout nearly a century under the French occupation (1858-1954), the life of laboring Vietnamese was extremely hard and miserable: shortages of food and clothing and family separations. Not being resigned to losing the country and being enslaved, the Vietnamese rose up against French colonialists and regained national independence and sovereignty.” 

The first part of the pamphlet talks about how the “Vietnamese patriotic and revolutionary fighters” were treated inhumanely by the French. They were tortured, lived in unsanitary conditions, and then killed. I did my best to remember that I was only hearing one side of the story. 

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During the American War (we call it the Vietnam War), they captured hundreds of American soldiers and kept them as prisoners from 1964 to 1973. Sign after sign pointed out how good they were to the Americans. They gave them daily exercise and even let them put up a Christmas tree. They could also send letters home. I tried to keep an open mind and recognize that I was hearing the history from Vietnam, so the story might be different if told by the prisoners. 

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The last section of the prison was devoted to the peace that the U.S. and Vietnam now have. They were proud that they beat the U.S. despite their better technology and said it was because their spirit was stronger. There were pictures of John McCain who spent years there as a Prisoner of War. There were also pictures of recent U.S. and Vietnamese presidents shaking hands and agreeing to peace. 

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As one tour guide would tell me many days later, “The U.S. and Vietnam share a history.” It was hard to imagine the pain that took place at that prison when it was operated by both the French and the Vietnamese. I know people who fought in the Vietnam war and it wasn’t easy for either side. I thought that overall, the prison did a good job of saying just that – most people suffered on both sides while governments fought. 

After the prison, I walked to a cafe and enjoyed a dessert. The sidewalks were packed with motorbikes, so I often had to walk on the street.

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I kept walking and ended up at a festival where streets were closed off. Little kids drove tiny cars around, which was so adorable! Then I came across food stalls, so I ate a crepe-like wrap and sushi rolls that had hotdogs and vegetables inside. There were groups of people singing and playing music, and others creating giant Jenga stacks in a competition. 

I ended up at a theatre that had a water puppet show. I bought a ticket and enjoyed the playful production. People played music on the side of the stage while puppets raced around the pool of water. 

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I walked through a night market on my way back to the hotel. It was packed with people shopping and eating. I wasn’t feeling very good and my throat was still hurting, so I didn’t stay long at the market. After working on my blog, it was bedtime. I had a long day ahead of me the following day and wanted to make sure I was well enough to attend. 

Post Edited By: Mandy Strider
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