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Chambers at Large in Hanoi, Vietnam

Updated: Jul 14

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Vietnam was to learn more about its history and culture.  A tour of the city of Hanoi opened my eyes to a tragic past and a progressive future.

The name Maison Centrale sounds innocuous enough until it becomes apparent this yellow building was once the gatehouse to a prison where dissidents against the French colonial regime were incarcerated and where American servicemen were held as POWs during the Vietnam War.

The two storey building is surrounded by a high wall on which glass shards are embedded in the cement.  It is painted a brilliant shade of yellow, which is a royal colour.  Other government buildings are of a similar hue.  However, I was also told the paint does not allow moss to grow, ensuring the buildings always appear clean and vibrant in the sunshine.

Inside Maison Centrale however the walls are painted pitch black, the ceilings are low and barred windows offer little light into an area which had to be insufferable in the extreme heat and high humidity of the summer, freezing cold in the winter. 

The prison was destroyed in the 1990s, but the gatehouse is now a museum which gives concise information as to the conditions the political prisoners endured.  Numerous prisoners were held in one room, manacled on cement “beds”, a toilet area simply a hole in the ground.  Disease was rife, but the proximity of the prisoners meant that a solidarity to the communist cause was strengthened.

A guillotine is on display as, sadly, men and women were decapitated and their heads put in baskets to be displayed outside the prison walls in the hope it would stop others from rebelling against the colonial regime, but as one comrade stated:

 

“I don’t need to deny my revolutionary activities, because it’s my duty to contribute to saving my 20 million fellow citizens and overturn the imperialist and bourgeois class.”


If the confines of a cell was not enough, there is a dungeon, a black hole where inmates who broke the prison rules were held.  Prisoners suffered terribly here due to lack of light and air.

From 11th to 16th March 1945 over one hundred political prisoners escaped from the prison via an underground sewer.  All reached different locations and participated in an insurrection in August 1945.  They then became Party and Government leaders. 

A number of escapes were attempted, but many prisoners died whilst incarcerated and a shrine to those men and women is outside in a small courtyard where an almond tree grows.

This almond tree provided the prisoners with nuts to aid malnutrition, but the bark and leaves were used to help cure dysentery and clean wounds.  It was also under this tree political prisoners could discuss means of fighting against the enemy’s repression.

A corridor of memorial plaques lists the hundreds of names of the political prisoners who died within the walls of Maison Centrale.

In 1954 the French left Hanoi and Maison Centrale was called by its Vietnamese name:  Hoa Lo Prison, but it underwent a more ironic name when it housed American servicemen as prisoners of war.  It was called the Hanoi Hilton.

The photographs in the museum show the servicemen playing cards, music and enjoying Christmas dinner.  However there are documented accounts of torture and abuse by the servicemen after their release.

The museum is a very sad reflection of man’s inhumanity to man and although I learned a great deal about the history of Vietnam I was only too glad to leave and head to a coffee house to learn how to make egg coffee.

Vietnam is the second largest coffee exporter in the world and egg coffee looks very much like Irish coffee.  It is made by whipping up egg yolks with condensed milk, vanilla extract and gently pouring the thick creamy result over hot black coffee. The young man who showed my fellow travellers and me how to make this drink also added a dash of rum to the mixture and, just like a cappuccino, finished it off with a sprinkling of cocoa.  As it was three o’clock in the afternoon it was too late in the day for me to drink coffee.  (I’d be awake for the next forty eight hours so I had a beer instead.)  I’m told the drink is flavoursome, but quite sweet, probably as a result of the condensed milk.

Renewed and fortified we were then taken to a market where many of the shop keepers had been working since the early morning.  Knowing tourists were not likely to buy foodstuffs many of those stall holders were having an afternoon nap, or playing on their mobile phones.

My visit to the “Hanoi Hilton”, a coffee shop and a market proves how Vietnam has changed in fifty years.  Although it is still a Communist state, ruled by one party, the economy is very much capitalist.  Some shops are open 24 hours and there is a will to earn money as there is no welfare state and everything, including education and healthcare, has a price.  Neither are free.

However, young people seem to enjoy a freedom whereby they meet up and chat of an evening.  On leaving the centre of Hanoi it was a delight to see the streets decorated with lanterns and hundreds of people eating in the numerous restaurants, their scooters parked nearby.

With a western influence very much pervading the youngsters way of life, it may only a matter of time before Vietnam’s capitalist economy infiltrates into its political arena.


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Finally, I must mention one fellow traveller: Dean. He took hundreds of photographs, many more than me, and has been most generous in sharing them. Thank you, Dean. I am most grateful as good photographs always enhance my blog.


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Touring Vietnam and Cambodia was fascinating. To read about my first day in Hanoi, where I visited the Temple of Literature and Train Street, please click on the link:

 



From Hanoi I travelled to Ha Long Bay which was a day I will never forget. To find out why please click on the link:



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Although I never thought about visiting Viet Nam when I was younger, reading your descriptions made me think I should have considered it. (At 83, I now have no interest in a plane ride to a country on the other side of the world.). Thanks for the insight to a place I will never visit.

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