Museums At a Hanoi Prison Museum, a History Too Painful to Aestheticize


At a Hanoi Prison Museum, a History Too Painful to Aestheticize

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.

There are actual pictures of the prison and the way the museum is recreating the conditions the prisoners were in through exhibits with a number of pictures.

This looks like an art website, apologies if anything is at the website that is offensive, this story looks fairly straight-forward.


Thanks for the article which provides needed information on what life was like in Vietnam under the French occupation.
See: “Before the Revolution (The Vietnamese Peasants Under the French,)” by Ngo Vinh Long which details how the French drove the once prosperous peasantry into poverty and used forced labor on colonial rubber plantations.
What has always struck me is how the USA never voiced even a whisper of protest against the French exploitation and oppression of Vietnam, but then had to start an illegal war (that killed at least 3 million people) in order to “promote freedom.”


Why is this surprising? French colonialism never threatened the USA. Communism was always seen as a very direct threat and it was spreading like wildfire throughout Asia. Communism was a truly global malaise. Makes complete sense that they got involved when they did in order to stop it. Sadly, it was a failure.

But this is probably not how the left presents things, right? :wink:


“Communism was always seen as a very direct threat…” Yes, that about sums it up. Not that the Viet Minh were ever an actual threat (being our formal allies in WW II), but that it was politically undesirable to be viewed as “soft on communism.” President Truman’s betrayal of our Viet Minh allies helped get him elected to a second term at the eventual cost of over 50,000 US soldiers dead (not to mention the over 3 million Asians.)
We might also be able to say the same about Lyndon Johnson, but the reality of US aggression in Vietnam caught up with him before he could run for re-election.

Do you remember how Ho Chi Minh personally escorted a downed US pilot by the name of Lt. Shaw, 51st Fighter Group, from behind Japanese lines to the safety of a US base in China? This was at a time when the Japs offered financial rewards to the Viets for the capture of US aviators and when the French colonial government also assisted in the same. From Lt. Shaw’s diary:
“For 30 days, playing hide and seek with the French and the Japs, the patriots (meaning the Viet Minh) brought me from one hiding place to another. They did their best to make me comfortable.”

General Chennault wrote: “I am heartily in favor of maintaining good relations with any organization in French Indo China that will effectively aid in escape the US military personel likely to require aid in that country, regardless of their local political affiliations.”

The very first protest against the US betrayal of our Viet allies was made by US Merchant Marine sailors in 1945 when Truman order them to transport French troops to the newly independent Vietnam to “subjugate the native population.”

You say: “Makes complete sense that they got involved when they did in order to stop it.” With all due respect sir: 1. The USA was already very involved in Vietnam in 1945, and 2. Truman’s refusal to accept Vietnamese independence from France was based on political expediency and had nothing to do with the security of the USA.

Reference:“The OSS and Ho Chi Minh: Unexpected Allies in the War Against Japan.”
D. R. Bartholomew, 2006.

BTW: your suggestion that the truth of history is a “how the left presents things” is not correct. There are many who, out of a patriotism, refuse to admit that the United States of America could ever be guilty the horrendous mistake of an illegal war that caused the unnecessary deaths of millions. Why be one of them?

These authors are not leftist:

H.R. McMaster, General, US Army: “Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.”

Archimedes Patti, OSS, CIA: “Why Vietnam?” US administrations, both Democrat and Republican ignored Patti’s letters and prevented him from publishing his Vietnam memoirs until the 1980’s. Mr. Patti helped to recruit the Viet Minh as US allies in WWII.

Today the USA has full diplomatic relations with the very same government that we fought so bitterly in the sixties and seventies. I spent two years on the ground there with the units of the 3rd Marine Division. I see my country’s promugulation of war in Vietnam as nothing less than a crime against humanity. I’m not a communist or even a leftist.


Yes, thousands of boat people braved the weather to come to America from Viet Nam and the Stalinist regime there, God Bless Them, I think we let them down. Many Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians and Hmong.


I believe this is about a prison in Hanoi.

I believe anyone in Wisconsin knows thousands of Hmong came to the USA to escape the oppressive government in South East Asia. Seems I have seen these types of quotes before.


So it is only the grievances of emigres from socialist countries that you care about. The political environment only allows such “sympathy” because it comports with the anti-communist bias of the establishment.

You should realize the US foreign policy has killed and impoverished millions. It is not necessarily an "anti-US’ that makes me say that. I could imagine an alternative scenario where someone such as Henry Wallace became President were there would not have been many invasions such large loss in life. I also remembered how the US helped Ho Chi Minh in WWII.

Do you have anything to about Jeffery Erwins’s comments?


Vietnam was not originally an impoverished country. It’s people became such as a result of French and Japanese taxation and exploitation. People became poor and had to accept what employment that they could get just to survive. Money from the United States enabled the French colonialists to buy the allegiance of many Viets, Hmong included. This flow of cash continued though the US aggression in Vietnam. After it’s defeat in that war, the USA left Vietnam a broken and impoverished country without enough resources to go around. Promises of aid were broken. Is it any wonder that citizens who had sold their allegiance to a foreign power were left destitute? We might remember our own revolution against England. When the revolutionaries won that war, they forced out all of those citizens who had sided with the Crown.

To characterize the Vietnamese government as “oppressive” is not correct. Conditions created in Vietnam by the USA were oppressive. We would not have had “boat people” and Hmong coming to Wisconsin if President Truman had simply recognized Vietnamese independence in 1945. Or if President Eisenhower had allowed the elections that were mandated by the Geneva Conventions to take place in 1956. Or if President Johnson had had the wisdom to make the same peace in 1964 that was eventually forced on Saigon in 1975.

Over three million dead, but what we hear about is some Hmong refugees in Wisconsin. I don’t understand that.


This is about the Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi. If one wants to hash out history, let them, I’m not going to veer off far off topic which is not essentially a general grab bag of the Vietnamese war. There was a cold war going on, enough about this. Yes, war crimes probably happened on both sides.


Obviously, Communism wished to take over these nations, again, we are way off topic in talking about a prison in Hanoi for the interest of everyone.


The article about the prison helped bring to light the French oppression in Indo China. I noticed rows of Viet prisoners in stocks and chains. I noticed the beheading machine. And I have read about how the French executed Viet scholars for speaking against the French occupation of Vietnam. It’s a great article, and it helps to show the incorrectness of statement such as: “Obviously, Communism wished to take over these nations…”

Vietnam wanted to be free of French exploitation and enslavement. Again I would refer you to; “Life Before the Revolution,” by Long which details the oppression.

Viet patriots wanted their country to be free of the French. The USA would not help, but the USSR would. Communism is what was necessary to throw out the French, so communism it was. We have only ourselves to blame.


World War II somewhat left that whole area greatly injured along with the Chinese civil wars; today, 2 among the most repressive regimes in the world are North Korea and China, it’s pretty weak to blame everything on the USA and yes, that so many refugees have come here is telling.

So all of this sounds like it is from Hugo Chavez’s anti-Yanqui book.

Blame the USA, okay and there in that immediate area, the most repressive regimes still in the world exist if not including Viet Nam too.

Yes, and the Hmong have plenty to do with it.

Ever see a Vietnamese Bakery in the USA? Or go into their stores, French products! French rolls, French cakes.

So, this all smacks of making the West and colonizers a figure of Hate, we could do that with religions and so on.


The Vietnamese pridefully speak French and probably wish they still had it in their country, this is all a lot of demonization but nobody is going to fall for it,

As for the Hmong, I guess we can say the Chinese and Laotians and maybe Vietnamesse committed massive atrocities against them.


You really think Singman Rhee was a good guy? Today, the US has the largest rate of incarceration, mostly on non-violent drug-related crimes.

Perhaps the Vietnamese do not have rich culture of dessert cuisine or realize that French products sell over their own ethnic products. It is nature of petite capitalism, not necessarily an expression of affinity towards French colonial rule.

So, essentially you are dismissing history (that is the history French-administered Vietnam). It is not even about wanting to acknowledge the abuses of the French, but instead, mentioning the abuses of the Vietcong in order to drown it out (and making a comparison to Hugo Chavez). Regarding Chavez, that is the equivalent of “name-calling” since you wanted to compare Jeffery Erwin to him.
that Donuts are ethnic food. the SimpsonsIt is apparently Cambodian cuisine.



I know you have been indoctrinated to think in a certain way about your country since elementary school, but please believe me: the USA is not responsible for every problem in the world. Believe it or not, countries are also responsible for their own mess. The Vietnamese could have gone a different path. Things could have ended differently even with American involvement later on and now you would not have this terrible lefty white guilt thing going on.

But this is probably very difficult to believe because you ‘know’ that the USA is responsible for every mess out there because your teachers and history books told you so.


You said the term “white guilt”. What does “white guilt” have to do with envisioning an alternative scenario where the US did not intervene in Vietnam, a scenario where millions did not have to die and Vietnam could (somewhat) independently pursue its own path for independence?

Besides, Jeffery Erwin mention some positive aspects of US policy concerning the Viet Mihn in WWII. Those are certainly commendable acts of the US and should be celebrated.

So how is Vietnam responsible for its “own mess”?

There are cynical, realistic reasons why the US intervened in Vietnam. The one explicitly articulated in the Pentagon Papers is to contain China. The intervention (for the aforementioned) cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and tens of thousands of American soldiers. Do you think that suffering is worth it to “contain China” and “communism”?


Well, since you asked, I volunteered to serve in Vietnam in 1964 and was among the first US ground troops to land there in April of 1965 at Hue. After serving my first tour I began reading the books on Vietnam by the French journalist Bernard Fall, and it became obvious that the USA was repeating the same mistakes that the French had made and that Ho Chi Minh was NOT an enemy of the United States. In spite of that enlightenment, I went back for a second tour, 3rd Mar Div. By our Lord’s grace and my mom’s prayers I survived.

Thank you for your reply, but your statement that my mind has a “terrible white lefty guilt thing going on” is unfair. Did you bother to look at the book list that I posted? Lt. General McMaster (U.S. Army) is a very reputable historian and by no means a “lefty.” The same can be said of CIA officer Patti and others as well.

Documented history speaks for itself. With all due respect sir, I feel that both you and our great country would be better served if more attention was paid to that history and less to the blind patriotism that insists that the USA must always be right no matter what.


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