Day 5: Part I ~ October 6th, 2015 ~ Tuesday Morning – Hanoi, Vietnam
*** Each day was so overwhelming, so full, that more than one blog post is needed. Hope it is fairly easy to follow.***
Mornings in a windowless hotel are interesting, yet I awoke refreshed. Burt was showering, so I checked email on the decent wifi signal and prayed quietly, waiting my turn in the shower. We have been informed that today we will be meeting with Montagnard pastors, and we’re scheduled to fly to South Vietnam and Saigon this afternoon.
After Burt headed downstairs for breakfast, I prepared for the day and was just finished dressing when the bedside phone rang. It was Burt, calling to let me know that Minh had organized a last-minute trip to tour downtown Hanoi and visit Hoa Lo Prison.
The Hanoi Hilton.
I was frozen for a moment, and just stood there with the phone in my hand.
Yes, I’m here. I’ll be right down.
But what about devotions?
He said we had to leave in 10 minutes, so we’ll postpone devotions for now. After blindly scrambling around the room to shove my wallet and passport into my pocket and grab the room key, I hurried downstairs only to find that not everyone was ready yet. Thankfully, I had time to select a few items from the breakfast buffet while we waited for the group to be ready.
Mind spinning, I climbed aboard the van and after a short drive we pulled up at a large orange/yellow building with ugly walls and barred gates, with the words “MAISON CENTRALE” over the arched entrance in dirty white letters. The majority of the sprawling Hoa Lo Prison was demolished two decades ago, but the gatehouse remains along with a portion of a cellblock, with the intent to be a historical museum and symbol of Vietnamese nationalism. I was not fooled, and could not stop the tears that began to fall with abandon the moment I stepped onto the sidewalk.
Minh went over and purchased tickets for all of us, and then we walked in the main entrance and turned right down the hallway. We slowly and quietly moved past locked cell doors, peering into dark holes of rooms, each with a tiny barred window high on the wall. The air seemed chilled and clammy, and antiquated electrical circuitry traced along the corridor walls, fragments of an alert system long silent. I was deeply affected, and raw with barely contained emotion.
As we walked, I thought about the resilient hopefulness of American Prisoners of War once kept here, who walked these depressing halls and trod this heartless ground. I thought about how Isaiah 61 talks about how God’s Spirit brings “freedom to the captive”, and how in my own life and in the lives of my parents, freedom from the captivity of the traumatic past leads to unquenchable hope for the future.
Probably because they knew they had screwed up, the Vietnamese Government has dedicated most of the prison to their own patriots and hero citizens who resisted French occupation to form a sovereign nation. There are parts of the museum dedicated to the daring escapes of Vietnamese prisoners.
A sewer grate supposedly cut thru by Vietnamese patriots.
A proclamation handwritten by U.S. prisoners, at the strong invitation of their captors.
There is also a part of the prison museum dedicated to United States military prisoners of war. There are carefully worded captions and signage explaining the loving and caring treatment extended to American POWs during their stay, and how in spite of the cruel bombing these prisoners had carried out, they were cherished by the North Vietnamese government. I know from reading personal accounts of our servicemembers, memoirs written after their return and personal observations of the hobbled physical toll almost 50 years later on these men, that these signs and messages are untrue.
Draped by an ejection seat parachute canopy, there is a well-worn U.S. Navy flight helmet and flight suit on display in a tidy glass floor case, with Senator (CPT ret.) John McCain’s name on the name tape. In the corner next to the glass case is a short bed frame of brass or iron, with a thin lumpy mattress and threadbare blanket, which museum guests are asked to believe was the bed he slept on during his imprisonment. They had flight plan charts with targeting map overlays, and all types of propaganda all over the walls and displays. I cannot hate them for that, as “shaping the message” was one of my primary tasks in Baghdad. But it was all very sad and real, and at that moment I was anything but a tourist or sightseer.
I stood transfixed in that room, surrounded by bomb shards and captured intel and Navy issued gear, and soaked it all in. There was a feeling of antiquity and historical significance in the room, and I could also sense a faint fragrance of pain, grief and heartache on the soft breezes in this drafty wing of what was once a sprawling above-ground dungeon fortress.
The rest of our group had moved on to another section, so I hurried to catch back up with them at the back of the museum. Walking out into the narrow alleyway behind this gatehouse structure of Hoa Lo Prison, I noticed we were blocked in on three sides by high stone walls with glass shards embedded along the top. The fresh air was nice, and as I rejoined our group, Minh was explaining the story of the adjacent commercial development. I craned my neck to look above the back wall, and there stood a majestic and towering luxury hotel, The Somerset Grand Hanoi! The land is owned and managed by a massive Asian hotel and residency service corporation now, and they have built a wonderful modern “Hilton-esque” property on the site of the prison, which daily employs and serves thousands of people. Genius. Overwhelming happiness and joy flooded my spirit as I watched the sunlight glint from hundreds of picture windows high above the city.
Rebuild. Repair. Revive. Restore.
I had seen enough, and as I was walking out thru the gift shop, a display of postcards caught my eye. Each was a black & white photograph of American POWs from the Vietnam War, taken in-country during their imprisonment. I had the impulse to buy the entire pack, so I did.
Privately, symbolically, America’s POWs flew home to the US with me a few days later.
Although the back alleyway was open to the elements and light had been streaming in, coming back out thru the front gate with the ugly lettering was a relief and the sunshine seemed brighter as self-absorbed morning moped commuters ambled past on this quiet and lightly-used street.
A very friendly man on a Honda taxi dirtbike made eye contact and came over to me with a huge smile. It was not clear if he wanted to befriend me or the U.S. currency in my pocket, but we exchanged one or two sentences in broken english, then he saw that I was sort of distracted and distant. “Ok?” he clumsily asked with a thumbs up and a nodding smile. I gestured behind me at the façade of the prison and said something to the effect that “this place makes me sad”.
“Ok, ok!”, he nodded, and then fumbled with his saddle bag to pull out an old-style pea green “steel pot” military helmet with a mix of various national flag insignia. He seemed to be asking if I would don the helmet and allow him to take a picture of me in front of Hoa Lo Prison, no doubt for a small donation. In spite of the sadness in my heart, I chuckled and said “No you wear it for the picture!” The result was hilarious, and I did end up giving Honda Taxi Biker a small but tidy sum of $1.00 USD or 20,000 Dong for his efforts. It was a cheerful exchange, and I was feeling lifted as the rest of our group came wandering out to the sidewalk to climb back in the van.
After we pulled back out into the morning Hanoi commute, I was able to briefly share my background, testimony, and parental history with the group. It was a powerful moment, and the team seemed to view me in a different light at the conclusion of my sharing.