The Hanoi Hilton has to be one of the more difficult of Hanoi's tourist attractions to visit; certainly as an American, it was for me. This French-built prison was used during the French occupation of Vietnam to house Vietnamese prisoners who were accused of plotting against French colonial rule; during the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese, understandably, call the American War) American POW's were housed there.
Much of the prison as it stands now has been restored to look a lot like it did before the American War; the emphasis is on the Vietnamese who were confined here in grim conditions during the 1920s through 1950s.
Executions took place here, too.
The American inmates are given some attention in the displays as well, but as a kid who grew up hearing stories about the inhumane treatment given many POW's by the Vietnamese, the artifacts can be more than a little jarring. There are propaganda photos of American servicemen gathered around a piano, singing Christmas carols; collections of cards made and games played by the soldiers; and a photo of men in prison garb playing a rollicking game of pool. The implicit (and explicit) message here is "look how poorly the French treated us while they were in charge, but how kindly we treated the Americans!"
Senator John McCain's flight suit (I wonder what he'd have to say about this museum... privately, of course):
We also (how could you not?!) visited the complex containing Ho Chi Minh's house, as well as his remains. And if his very well-maintained remains aren't a strange enough tourist attraction for you, there's also a truly bizarre museum!
The grateful people of Vietnam built the gentle, humble Uncle Ho a giant Presidential Palace (so the story goes), but the man refused to move in, preferring to remain in his smaller "house on stilts". After seeing the two buildings, I'm pretty sure I would have made the same choice. Traditional, wooden Vietnamese house, surrounded by a pool and gardens? Or French-style office building? Hmm.
Guards on point at the House on Stilts:
(By the way, somewhere around here was when Logan and I turned to each other, mouths agape, and said at the same time. "OMG WE AREN'T BEING SHOVED!" Must not be in China anymore...)
There's a pond in front of the House on Stilts where Ho Chi Minh came to feed his carp every day. Supposedly, if you go there and clap, the carp will rush to you. I guess we just don't have enough zing in our clap.
Also on the grounds: the One Pillar Pagoda. See if you can guess how it got its name.
Also, Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. Apparently, the very existence of this building goes explicitly against Ho Chi Minh's wishes; he wanted to be cremated. Instead, his embalmed body is on display in this block of a building.
Walking through is quite a to do, with proper hand position (straight by the sides), facial expression (solemn only please), and speed (moderate stroll, no stopping) closely monitored by a dozen or so eagle eyed guards.
Also on the "don't miss" list for this area is the Ho Chi Minh Museum!
Far from being a dry accounting of the man and his life, this idiosyncratic museum is full of strange displays that, I suppose, are meant to be viewed metaphorically. Or perhaps under the influence of some pretty serious drugs.
For instance, here is part of the exhibit celebrating the Vietnamese independence from France:
Nothing says glorious sovereignty quite like this.
My single most favorite item in this entire museum is a picture of major world leaders gathered in Vietnam. It makes me SO HAPPY to see our former president dressed up and looking pretty much the same as he always does... confused. (Second best? Vladimir Putin! I LOVE IT!)
A hit new choir ensemble?
And there you go; our ten-cent tour of Hanoi's most easily acessible war-related sights. Next up, we start talking food.