Morning found us walking purposefully south and west of our hotel, navigating via Google maps on my phone because we found it difficult to follow the tourist map our hotel concierge gave us. We zigged and zagged a number of doglegs around Hoan Kiem Lake, dodged traffic, made vague promises of “later” to groups of school children wanting to practice their English, and fought the temptations of inviting streets and alleyways. After about 30 minutes we turned a corner and saw what we were looking for, one of the remaining outer walls of Maison Centrale, the infamous Hanoi Hilton, where captured American pilots were imprisoned and tortured, some for more than eight years, during the “American War.” When I saw the recognizable wall, my breath caught in my throat and I anticipated another difficult morning.
We paid our admission fee, entered though the main arch and picked up our headphones and players for the audio tour.
As it happened most of the tour focused on the construction of the prison by the French in the late 19th century and the abominable conditions experienced by the Vietnamese patriots who were imprisoned there. The place was called “hell on earth” and the French were said to use “ruthless and inhumane torture against patriotic and revolutionary prisoners.” Exhibit after exhibit detailed the meager food rations, the beatings, the stench, the killings by guillotine, the attempted escapes and subsequent recaptures and punishments, and of course the heroic acts of the patriots to subvert their French rulers.
After the overthrow of the French in 1954 the Vietnamese took over the prison, and from 1964 to 1972 during the “war of destruction against North Vietnam” the prison held captured US pilots.
Our audio tour painted a happy picture of war prisoners being well looked after, playing basketball, decorating Christmas trees, preparing holiday dinners. We’ve been told a different story.
Later I looked up the tap code that we’ve heard about so many times from survivors of the Hanoi Hilton and found this.
We left Maison Centrale in a glum mood and walked back toward the center of town. We had lunch on a balcony overlooking the cathedral and the setting lifted our spirits while we batted around doing an overnight cruise on Ha Long Bay. We wanted to do it, but it would eat up two full days of our time in Hanoi and we were really enjoying the energy of the city and hated to leave. Choosing a tour operator was also causing some agita, as there are dozens of them and the guidebooks and online sources are full of warnings of low quality, unsafe or unscrupulous companies. What to do, what to do?
We pushed that dilemma to the back burner and enjoyed the afternoon and evening. shopping, eating, and doing the usual Schulz Aimless Wandering that we’ve perfected over the years.
Back towards our hotel we found ourselves on Musical Instrument Street and while we were marveling over some of the unidentifiable native instruments Jack spotted a mandolin, a target of his obsession over the years. He recently bought a ukulele bass and wisely talked himself out of adding another instrument to the growing onboard collection.
As darkness fell activity spilled out into the streets and we returned to our hotel to freshen up and rest before tackling dinner.
It was Cinco de Mayo so like all good Americans we opted for Mexican again and enjoyed two-for-one margaritas and about the best quesadilla I’ve ever had. In Hanoi.