The Prisons Turned Relics of Vietnam
‘The story of these prisons is as twisted as the history of Vietnam’
When one enters the gatehouse of the Hỏa Lò prison in Hanoi, it barely echoes the horrors associated with it, well at least until the point one reaches the guillotine room, where the beheading apparatus still stands as if awaiting another victim.
Dark, grim and a strange odour of death - these are the words that best describe this place, even four decades after the last execution took place here.
The prison cells and sooty dungeons, now present in the historically preserved, still reek of the silence characterised by an ending, pretty much justifying the name ‘hell of death’ given this place by the North Vietnamese natives during French colonial rule.
Fetters installed in the floors that were used to shackle the legs of prisoners, who had to defecate and urinate on the spot, still lie there, along with hunched mannequin prisoners.
Almost a century back, locals say, the prisoners could not see or hold on to their legs, their bodies full of scabies and puffed with oedema.
Hỏa Lò is one of many prisons that the French colonists built in the late 19th century to imprison Vietnamese revolutionaries who rebelled against them.
The colonists’ harsh detention regime against the prisoners, mostly patriotic and revolutionary Vietnamese fighters, is still etched in the collective national memory of the peninsular country, evoking feelings of anger and nostalgia.
“I feel very upset and sorry for the prisoners who were kept in that horrible place. The conditions there were extremely poor. I feel anger at what they did to our men. As you can guess, it is heartbreaking to look at how our men were tortured in those prisons,” says 23-year-old Nguyen Trong Kha, who works as a tour guide in Hanoi.
Kha added that the stories of torture of his fellow countrymen have instilled feelings of patriotism and untethered love for the country among the natives.
“I am extremely proud of my country and the men who fought for it. I think we have grown pretty fast since we ended the war. Without the sacrifices of soldiers and revolutionaries, we, as a country, would not be where we are today.”
After the end of French colonial rule in North Vietnam in 1954, prisons like Hỏa Lò were used by North Vietnamese authorities to incarcerate criminals.
A decade later, American pilots captured in the long Vietnam War found themselves in the dungeons of the same detention centres - creating a complex dissonant national memory of these prisons.
Like elsewhere in Asia, prisons have acted as crucibles for shaping revolutions and nurturing the anti-colonial movement in Vietnam.
Young revolutionaries who fought the mighty French during the colonial rule and were subjected to extreme torture in these detention centres remember them as centres of political enlightenment that paved the way to the modern-day country.
“But after the French rule, the South Vietnamese, who sided with the Americans, and the nationalists, who were opposed to both the Americans and the communists, were also sent to prisons, which were basically re-education camps or concentration camps.
“Their memories are completely antipodal. Just like everywhere else, memory is used for very particular ideological purposes in Vietnam,” says Subarno Chatterji, an expert in Vietnamese literature and history who teaches at the University of Delhi.
It is a memory, says Chatterji, which the Communist Party doesn’t wish for people to remember today.
“The party, after the French ouster, themselves resorted to all forms of horrible things in the prisons. And even the communists who disagreed with the party lines were put into prisons.
“This memory, however, is completely missing from the Communist Party accounts which drive the current national narrative.
“Therefore, the Communist memory, also the official memory, is different from that of the people, particularly the South Vietnamese,” says Chatterji.
The story of these prisons is as twisted as the history of Vietnam.
In April 1945 when the first American soldier set foot in the country, their mission was simple - to establish an intelligence network behind the enemy lines in Indochina, which had been occupied by the Japanese since 1940.
With World War 2 raging in the Pacific, it was important for the United States to limit Japan’s influence in the region.
Located strategically between the three theatres of war - China, Burma and the South Pacific - Vietnam had been under French occupation since 1861. Helped by the French collaborationist government, the Imperial Japanese Army had swept through much of southeast Asia.
When the Americans finally arrived in Vietnam in 1945, they had no real allies in the region. It was then that they were approached by a certain Vietnamese general, who introduced himself as Ho Chi Minh. His aim was simple - get American help to defeat imperialist Japan.
Following Japan’s defeat in World War 2, and their subsequent exit from Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh became the first Prime Minister of North Vietnam.
With the Cold War era setting in, Ho Chi Minh’s communist North Vietnam naturally allied with the USSR. His army, the Vietminh, wanted to reunite capitalist South Vietnam, supported by the United States, under his leadership.
Many in the South were unhappy with President Ngo Dinh Diem’s leadership and a civil war finally broke out in 1958 between the two halves of a divided Vietnam, with the South coming under attack from many communists in South Vietnam itself.
Wary of communism, the US officially believed if one country fell to it, many in the neighbouring area would too - like a stack of dominoes.
With a weak and corrupt government at the helm in the South, many peasants joined the rebellion and started supporting the Vietminh.
In 1963, John F Kennedy sent 16,000 military advisers to help the South Vietnamese army. Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, claiming that the North Vietnamese army had attacked the US Navy, America finally declared full-blown war.
It was then that these prisons, including Hỏa Lò, were used to detain American pilots.
And just like that of Communist dissenters and South Vietnamese, the pain and suffering of these detained American pilots are missing from the national records.
“If you talk about national portrayal, it depends on which side of the history you look at it from. The Communist side shows glory, revolution and whatnot. But they conveniently ignore the stories of torture and suffering of the American prisoners of war,” says Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharjee, a research fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs.
“Even if it is shown, it is to glorify Vietnam and assert that we defeated the most powerful country in the world and captured its soldiers too.”