Eating like the locals in Hanoi

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Our Food on Foot tour started with an unexpected ride in a cyclo, like the canopied vehicle above left. Our driver had his hands full dodging Hanoi’s hectic traffic.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

A cyclo driver sent to fetch us was the first clue that our Food on Foot tour around Hanoi’s Old Quarter was going to anything but a staid affair.

Susan, my travel companion, and I had been advised that our guide — I was expecting someone on foot — would pick us up for our Friday evening outing. So a few minutes before 6 p.m., we were waiting patiently in our hotel’s lobby.

But it wasn’t our guide who arrived. A cyclo — best described as a bicycle-powered pedicab — pulled up at the entrance. Mr. Cyclo hurried in, spoke to the friendly hotel staff and then was pointed in our direction. He had come to take us to our tour.

Susan and I looked at each other — there may have been a raised eyebrow or two about the mode of transportation — and off we went with this short, wiry man. Susan and I maneuvered under the canopy, squashed ourselves into his vehicle’s metal seat and put our feet on the footrest. He quietly climbed onto the bike behind us. Silently I was wondering how this slight gentleman was going to be able to pedal two Westerners who, together, no doubt outweighed him by at least 100 pounds.

There ensued a wild trip through the narrow, bustling streets of the Old Quarter. I was laughing so hard I was crying, both from the exhilaration of the unexpected cyclo experience and the fear that we’d have a collision with a car, a scooter, another cyclo or a pedestrian. I had a fleeting mental picture of the three of us sprawled helplessly on the street with an overturned cyclo pinning us to the ground, its wheels spinning madly above us. Fortunately, this did not come to pass.

I was also trying to take photographs as we zipped in and out of Hanoi’s hectic traffic. At some point, Mr. Cyclo abandoned his seat and the task of pedaling his customers. He must have decided that pushing the vehicle had to be easier than riding it. Maybe he just couldn’t see past us well enough to steer?

Our journey probably wasn’t more than 10 or 15 minutes, and we were safely delivered to our destination. We met Trang, our English-speaking guide, and a young couple, Ben and Cara, who had arrived at 6 that same morning from England.

Introductions finished, and with assurances from Trang that she was taking us only to places where the food would not make us sick, we started our 3.5-hour tour. This was only our second day in the country, and getting a food-related illness at the beginning of our trip — or any time — was something we wanted desperately to avoid.

Sure, we could have gone independently, deciding where to stop by how the dishes looked (or guidebook recommendations), but we thought a tour would be fun, and a good introduction to both the cuisine and culture of northern Vietnam.

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Green papaya salad topped with beef jerky, chopped peanuts and herbs.

Our first stop was a street stall, where we sat on low, plastic red stools and ate salad prepared from fresh, thinly shredded green papaya. One of the toppings was beef jerky. Susan thought this might be an interesting gift to bring home for her husband, so Trang negotiated with the vendor for a small purchase. Unfortunately, when we came back though U.S. Customs, the jerky, packed in a plastic bag, was confiscated. It might have made it through had it been professionally vacuum-packed.

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Next we followed Trang (above, left) down several streets to a dark alley — we never would have found this on our own — where at the street’s curve a woman was making her specialty, fish soup, by the light of several dim bulbs.

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Fish soup was overflowing with green vegetables and chunks of fish.

Fish is not among my favorite foods, so I only had a few spoonfuls. The cook also made fish balls stuffed with pork and mushrooms, which Susan pronounced as “good.”

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Sticky rice seasoned with turmeric and topped with peanuts and mung beans.

Then it was off to the next stall, on a busier street, where we sampled dishes of sticky rice with turmeric, peanuts and mung beans. Chicken and pork were also available as toppings. Trang went off to get drinks and returned with cold bottles of Bia Ha Noi, the local beer.

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Tofu with mushrooms (clockwise from left), sautéed chicken with pineapple and carrots, and morning glory with garlic, served with rice and tea at Cai Mam Restaurant.

Cai Mam Restaurant, which boasts “simple but authentic” food, was our next stop. Trang ordered steamed rice, morning glory (a.k.a. water spinach) with garlic, green beans with fried lemon grass, tofu with mushrooms, and sauteed chicken with pineapple and carrots. As with all previous stops, the food was delicious.

It was while we were chatting at Cai Mam that Trang good-naturedly revealed that there are five things a savvy Vietnamese woman wants her prospective husband to possess before she’ll agree to marriage:

  1. A good bicycle, preferably a Peugeot
  2. A good watch, preferably a Seiko
  3. A house in the city
  4. No mother-in-law
  5. An old father-in-law

I don’t think she was entirely kidding. It was also fun to learn about Trang’s training in the hospitality industry, and see that she seemed to be having as good a time as we were.

By now, we were all feeling quite sated, and we quickly declined Trang’s offer to order yet more dishes.

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The lights around Hoan Kiem Lake lend a festive feeling to the area.

But she had one more treat in store. We headed toward Hoan Kiem Lake and stopped to admire the decorative sunburst lights hanging from the trees over the promenade adjacent to the water. Pedestrian and vehicular traffic is dense in this area, particularly on a Friday night, so we stuck close to Trang, trailing her like eager ducklings, to get safely across the streets.

Again we entered a dark alley, traveled its length, and climbed several flights of poorly lighted stairs.We emerged at Giang Cafe, known for its egg coffee (caphe trung), a concoction of egg yolk, Vietnamese coffee powder, sweetened condensed milk, butter and cheese, according to its website.

The current owner, Nguyen Tri Hoa, writes that his father, Nguyen Giang, founded the cafe in 1946, during which time he was working as a bartender at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi Hotel. (The cafe’s location has changed twice.)

Originally, the cup of egg coffee was served submerged in bowl of hot water to keep it warm, the owner writes, and he says his father used egg in the recipe because milk was scarce in Vietnam in the 1940s.

The busy cafe was itself a bit grungy, and had no restroom facilities. The patrons seemed to be a mix of tourists and locals. Cigarette smoke was thick in the air, and spent sunflower seeds tossed onto the floor contributed to the ambiance. The small balcony had a nice view of the lake, but with very few places to sit outside, we were crowded around a small table inside.

I don’t drink anything with caffeine after about 4 p.m., so I relied on Susan to describe the beverage. She said the texture was like coffee mousse, adding that it was “fluffy, sweet but warm.” The introduction to egg coffee made a positive impression; she ordered it at several other locations throughout our trip, but I think her favorite was the original Giang Cafe version.

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We passed this buffet of colorful fruits available for preparing hoa qua dam, generally served over shaved ice or with sweetened condensed milk. Not that we had any room left to sample any more food.

Our goodbyes said, Trang hailed a taxi for us and arranged our return to our hotel. An uneventful cab ride couldn’t compare with the excitement of the cyclo, but on a full stomach that’s just as well.

Quick references: Food on Foot tour booked through Vietnam Awesome Travel,  vietnamawesometravel.com. $25 per person for group of four or fewer; $23 for groups of five to eight (maximum size). Tour runs about three hours, hotel pickup, all food and drink included, tip for guide and return transportation to hotel are extra. Food choices can be customized to accommodate allergies and preferences. Lunch tour pickup at 11:30 a.m., dinner tour pickup about 6 p.m. The company also offers a wide range of experiences that can be booked throughout Vietnam.

Cai Mam Restaurant, 29 Hang Trong, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi; caimamrestaurants.com

Giang Cafe, 39 Nguyen Huu Huan St., Hoan Kiem, Hanoi, giangcafehanoi.com

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How I spell D-A-D

Dad and me
I’m resting in the crook of my father’s arm in front of our house in Coral Gables, Florida, in the late 1950s. I’m about 2 years old, my father is 32.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photo. All rights reserved.

When I was elementary-school age, my father and I would often take a leisurely walk around our neighborhood after dinner. Most likely, I would be wearing my Keds or saddle shoes, and be dressed in mismatched shirt and shorts — plaids clashing with stripes — handed down from my older sister.

My dark brown hair was about chin-length, with short, fringy bangs across my forehead. My mother thought this style was the best weapon against my recurring episodes of prickly heat, especially on my neck, in those pre-central-air-conditioning South Florida days.

In my memory, my father would still be wearing his suit trousers, a white short-sleeved shirt, his tie, and flat work shoes, this being the time before the explosion of specialty footwear.

It’s also possible that on some of those balmy 1960s evenings, he would be clad in the groan-inducing plaid shorts he favored, an open-necked shirt or T-shirt, and sneakers.

We would tread the pink-tinged sidewalk around our block in Coral Gables, passing shamrock-green, neatly trimmed lawns; swaying coconut palm trees; red-, yellow- and pink-blooming hibiscus bushes; and bougainvillea trees of muted purple, orange and fuchsia.

As we walked, my dad and I would hold hands, and he would give me words to spell. I could read by the time I was 4, and I was allowed to check books out of the school library in first grade, so I could spell words harder than “dog,” “cat,” and the like.

I was not much older than 6 or 7, and I can’t remember any one specific word that I had either mastered or that repeatedly stumped me. Perhaps I was working on gardenia, its fragrant bushes also amply represented in our neighborhood, or mango, like the tropical fruit tree we had growing in our side yard.

We’d walk for at least a half-hour, though at that age my conception of passing time wasn’t sharp. In addition to being educational, this was also my special time with my father. He was a young oral surgeon in his early 30s, still building his practice, with a wife and young family, living the suburban life in post-World War II America.

Many nights after dinner he would be off to dental association or other meetings, so I treasured our opportunities for father-daughter bonding. I think my curly-haired sister may have also been along on some of these walks, but not my brother, who at five years younger than me, was barely toddling.

We probably also talked about his family, where he grew up in northern New Jersey and other topics. I was absorbing legend and lore, but my childhood mind wasn’t thinking much about my father in his formative years as a boy, a son and, too soon, a teenager serving his country. To me, he was just Dad.

My two favorite pictures of my father reside on my living room mantel. Both are black-and-white photographs.

In the first, he’s sitting on a bench with his twin brother, in what looks like a studio portrait. They’re maybe 4 or 5 years old. They are adorable in matching suits, short pants and tucked-in ties. My father’s grin looks particularly impish.

In the second, he’s in his Army Air Corps uniform, standing in front of barracks at Aloe Army Air Field in Victoria, Texas, sometime in 1944.

He’s smiling, slim and handsome in his khakis, his garrison cap covering his already-balding head. He’s squinting into the sun, and there’s something about the grin that says: “The world is my oyster.”

This picture only came to light two years ago. I knew, of course, that my father had been in the service in World War II, like millions of other young men.

But it wasn’t until I took possession of his 400-plus letters to his teenage sweetheart, the woman who was to become my mother, that I found the negative for this photo and several others, and a treasure-trove of old pictures.

These letters, and about 200 more that my mother wrote, form the basis for my book, “Fondly with All My Affection: A World War II Love Story.”

Throughout my life, my father and I had a close bond. There was never an awkward period, or a time when we’d fallen out. I knew him as a kind, compassionate man, a skilled surgeon and a person generous with his time and money.

We’d talk often, sometimes several times a week. The conversations were generally brief, and he frequently asked me what book I was reading. He was always looking to stimulate his inquisitive mind.

Sometimes he called to get help on the pop-culture clues needed to solve the New York Times crossword puzzle, which he worked daily. Obscure, four-letter words with three vowels he could handle. The names or genres of chart-topping music artists and celebrities … not so much. But knowing them were essential to my job as a newspaper copy editor and writer, so he had a built-in supplier of trivia answers.

This week marks the 10th anniversary of my father’s death. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of him.

In pictures, America’s years in Vietnam

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With arms raised skyward, a paratrooper from A Company, 101st Airborne Division, helps to guide a medical evacuation helicopter toward wounded troops on the jungle floor. Other soldiers give aid to comrades injured during a five-day patrol near Hue, in April 1968. Photo by Art Greenspon of the Associated Press; book published by Abrams.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text. All rights reserved.

“Vietnam: The Real War, A Photographic History” by The Associated Press (Abrams, 2013; $40). With an introduction by Pete Hamill, and text by Mike Silverman.

The iconic photos are all here:

  • An elderly Buddhist monk, seated in the lotus position, self-immolates on a Saigon street, on June 11, 1963. Thich Quang Duc was protesting the mistreatment of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Photo taken by Malcolm Browne
  • A suspected Viet Cong operative, wearing a short-sleeved plaid shirt, wincing as a pistol is fired at his head from point-blank range on a street in Cholon (a Chinese neighborhood in greater Saigon) on February 1, 1968. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnamese chief of the national police, is the man holding the gun in his right hand, aiming at Nguyen Van Lem. Taken by Eddie Adams, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1969 for this image.
  • A naked, 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, and her brothers and cousins, screaming as they run down Route 1 near Trang Bang after a South Vietnamese plane, looking for hidden Viet Cong, accidentally released flaming napalm, on June 8, 1972. Taken by Nick Ut, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography in 1973 for this image.

These unforgettable, powerful black-and-white photographs, and about 250 more, illustrate the turmoil and profound sacrifices that were made in the war in Vietnam. Only the introductory photos before the main title page are in color.

Browne, Adams and Ut were interviewed years later about these individual photos for the AP Corporate Oral History Program. For each photo, the book includes the frames taken before and after the iconic ones, and each photographer reveals illuminating details on the circumstances under which the images were made.

The concise text and sobering statistics provide an overview, imparting enough information for those unfamiliar with Vietnam’s modern history to understand how the United States’ role in Indochina began and how the long-fought war left an indelible scar on the American psyche.

France’s involvement in Vietnam, culminating with the former colonial power’s devastating defeat at Dien Bien Phu in March 1954, should have been a warning to America about the perils of intervention in Southeast Asia. It wasn’t, as America began sending advisers to Vietnam as early as 1957 under the Eisenhower administration.

Among the most poignant photos are those of burning villages; mothers cradling their babies as they attempt to escape invading troops; and in particular, a picture of a distraught father, whose outstretched arms are horizontally holding the lifeless body of his child, who had been killed in a Mekong Delta village napalm attack. He is standing next to a South Vietnamese troop carrier, whose soldiers are doing nothing to aid the father. The toll on civilians was very heavy indeed.

There is no mistaking the courage and camaraderie of the troops, carrying their wounded through the jungle to safer ground, a Marine wiping away tears while kneeling beside the poncho-covered body of a dead comrade, or a rifle-ready infantryman shielding a wounded soldier crouched in a foxhole behind him during a firefight.

Images of the sweat-and-grime-covered faces of young, exhausted American soldiers; troops slogging across a river, obscured under water except for rifles held dry above their heads; and the agony of crippling injury and death emphasize the intense, energy-sapping conditions the combatants confronted.

Or as a closeup of the hand-lettering on the fabric strap of an unidentified American soldier’s helmet says: “WAR IS HELL.” (Photo by Horst Faas.)

Furthermore, this collection is a tribute to the photographers and reporters, who repeatedly put their lives in danger to record the execution of the war and the sweeping range of human emotion. Prominently featured is the work of Henri Huet, Huynh Cong Ut (better known as Nick) and Dang Van Phuoc, all Vietnam natives, and German Horst Faas and American Eddie Adams.

Prints of some of the photographs were included in an exhibit called “Requiem,” which we saw at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam.

Ut, Dang Van Phuoc, Faas, Adams and Browne all survived the war. Huet and about 70 other photographers and journalists did not.

Huet was killed when the helicopter he and Larry Burrows (Life magazine), Kent Potter (United Press International) and Japan’s Keisaburo Shimamoto (freelancing for Newsweek) were riding in was shot down over Laos in February 1971. Seven South Vietnamese military personnel also died in the crash.

Their remains weren’t found until more than 20 years had passed.

More than 3 million Vietnamese died in the war.

More than 2.7 million U.S. servicemen and women served in the “designated war zone,” including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

More than 58,000 American names are engraved in chronological order, according to date of death or the date they went missing, on the polished black granite walls at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Quick reference: Ut’s photo and Adams’ are part of an exhibit, “Vietnam: Evidence of War,” through July 31 at the Dolph Briscoe Center of American History at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ Presidential Library. http://www.cah.utexas.edu/exhibits/current.php

You can order “Vietnam: The Real War” from Abrams at www.abramsbooks.com/product/vietnam-the-real-war_9781419708640. Or from other online vendors.

Nearly all the photos can be viewed (and can be purchased) at the AP site: www.apimages.com/Collection/Landing/Vietnam-The-Real-War/d52ea03a0ea2468399f694459d4c0fb7

 

A window into Vietnam’s ethnic minorities

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A Bahnar communal house was constructed on the grounds of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in 2003. It’s built high off the ground to accommodate elephants passing underneath.

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

 

An early version of our Vietnam itinerary included a few days in the extreme northwest around Sapa, near where Vietnam shares borders with Laos and China. Guidebook pictures of emerald-hued, terraced rice fields set against a mountainous backdrop, and ethnic minorities in their colorful clothing were particularly enticing, as was the possibility of purchasing unusual handmade souvenirs.

I thought we’d join a guided hike and maybe participate in an overnight home-stay, sleeping in a house on stilts. But it quickly became clear that if we were going to include Angkor Wat in Cambodia on our itinerary, we’d have to eliminate something in Vietnam. Visits to Hoi An, a Japanese- and Chinese-influenced riverside town, and Hue, the imperial capital of the Nguyen emperors, both UNESCO world heritage sites, were also under consideration.

The pull of the mysteries of the Angkor Wat temples won out, so two or three days each in and around Sapa, Hoi An and Hue became victims of time and logistics. We would have needed at least another week to accomplish three more cities.

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We were, however, able to learn more about the country’s 53 ethnic minorities by spending several hours at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi. Inside, this excellent, modern facility has ample exhibit signage (in three languages), re-created scenes of tribal ceremonies and rituals, examples of everyday farming implements, baskets, musical instruments, textiles, and videos of artisans at work.

The informational plaques highlight by region where the minorities live, their approximate population, what their chief forms of income are and other distinguishing characteristics.

Meanwhile, outside, several tribal-constructed, architecturally accurate buildings made from natural materials are open to explore.

Visitors will come away with a better understanding of the minorities’ geographical heritage; how many make a living through hunting, fishing, rice farming and tending livestock, and more recently in the Central Highlands, growing coffee; the grinding economic challenges many face; and how some of the tribes prefer their remote isolation rather than mixing into greater Vietnamese society.

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The construction of conical hats, made from dried palm leaves, has been practiced in Chuong village, about 20 miles from Hanoi, for many generations.

The Viet people, also known as the Kinh, comprise the majority, and account for about 87 percent of Vietnam’s total population of more than 93 million.

By comparison, that number dwarfs the roughly 12 million population for the 53 ethnic minorities, according to The Economist newspaper. The minorities are spread throughout the length and breadth of the country, though pockets of communities, such as around Sapa, exist. Spellings of the minorities’ names can also vary according to source.

Individual clans can be distinguished by the color of their garments, often intricately embroidered; the size and shape of their headgear; and their elaborate handcrafted jewelry. Many also retain their own language, cultural and religious practices.

Some of the groups are also further divided. For example, Hmong subgroups include Red Hmong, White Hmong, Green Hmong, Flower Hmong and Black Hmong, the last of whom chiefly wear clothing dyed a deep indigo.

The Hmong might be the most recognizable of the group names to Americans, because men from the Hmong villages were among those who fought alongside U.S. and South Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War.

Among the displays sure to draw visitors’ attention: a bright red wedding dress, belonging to a woman from the Hoa minority (ethnic Chinese), and a life-size buffalo cart, used by the Cham in the plains and coastal regions of south and central Vietnam at rice harvest time, and to fill other transportation needs.

Outside, even more eye-catching is the Bahnar communal house, called a “rong,” on stilts, with its sloped roof towering more than 60 feet. Forty-two villagers from Kon Rbang in the Central Highlands built it in 2003. Each roof “top” has a pattern that differs among villages. This one was fairly plain, with a horizontal red diamond pattern, and what might be a horn-shaped motif at either end.

It’s said that some rongs are built so far off the ground as to accommodate elephants walking underneath.

The height of the Bahnar house’s steep entrance steps carved into thick logs was enough to put me off an attempted climb. OK, I wimped out.

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Women enter an Ede longhouse by stairs on the right. The men use the left staircase.

Fortunately, the Ede longhouse, also on stilts, had only five steps, which led to a wide platform. If I lost my balance and fell off, chances of hurting myself were less.

I climbed the “women’s” steps, designated with two little round “breasts” and a crescent near the top. The men’s steps to the left have no defining decoration.

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The length of an Ede house indicates a family’s wealth. New sections are added as the clan’s daughters marry, as is the matrilineal custom.

Inside, various compartmentalized spaces are used for sleeping, kitchens (one for family use, one for guests), storage and community functions. One could only hope that the people doing the daily cooking in a structure composed of wood and bamboo with a straw roof would be eternally vigilant.

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The horizontal beam stretched east to west near the ceiling features two carved elephants, another indication of the family’s wealth, as it would be expensive to own large mammals.

The design of this longhouse, roughly 138 feet in length, is based on one from the Ky village in Dal Lak province in the Central Highlands. Its inhabitants would have been the matrilineal line of an extended family, the brochure from the museum explains. Its length also would be an indication of the family’s wealth, with a new section added as the daughters marry and their husbands take up residence.

The Ede number around 183,000, 11th overall among minority strength, according to Vietnamese Embassy statistics.

Also of interest outside is a tomb of the Gia Rai people, surrounded by a fence with sexually explicit male and female wooden carvings — symbols of fertility — straddling it. I was going to post a picture of this, but after a closer look at my photo, the figures veered too close to an R rating (or above) and I didn’t want to offend anyone. There are plenty of images on the web, if readers are interested.

Again, the Gia Rai observe the matrilineal custom, with men being buried at their mother’s tomb or “mourning house.” The figures are meant to be companions into the afterlife. The overall structure, also from the Central Highlands, looks more like a small wooden house than what Westerners would call a tomb.

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Guided tours in English, French and Vietnamese are available at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology.

The museum is in Hanoi’s suburbs, away from the Old Quarter and other attractions, but it’s well worth making the effort to visit.

Quick reference: 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Closed during the annual Tet celebrations. Exhibit information in Vietnamese, English and French. Admission: Adults, 40,000 Vietnamese dong (about $1.75). A small cafe, bookstore and museum shop are also on the grounds. Nguyen van Huyen Road, Cau Giay district. Taxi from the Old Quarter takes about 20 minutes and costs about 120,000 VN dong (about $4.50). www.vme.org.vn.

Travel tip: Taxis form a line outside the museum and drivers were eager to have our business. Our hotel had given us the names of three reputable companies, so we found one of those taxis (Mai Linh, with bright green livery, or a white vehicle with logo and info in green) and negotiated a price comparable to how much the trip out had cost. As an added precaution, we had the driver write down the price he said so that there would be no misunderstanding later.

In Hanoi, Vietnam: One prison, three names

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Opened by the colonial French in the waning days of the 19th century, Maison Centrale would become better known in the 20th century as Hoa Lo Prison or the “Hanoi Hilton.”

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Its infamous reputation among Americans dates to the imprisonment of John McCain, Douglas “Pete” Peterson, James Stockdale and several hundred other U.S. servicemen, who spent years as POWs in this building.

But “Maison Centrale,” French for Central House, as the name above the entrance proclaims, was used by the colonial French government long before American prisoners of war arrived and sarcastically nicknamed it the “Hanoi Hilton.”

The tales from the French administration days are as gruesome as from the American era.

Only a small part of the building remains, the rest having been demolished in 1993 to accommodate the high rises built behind it on valuable Hanoi real estate. The prison’s yellow two-story entrance dwarfed by the sparkling skyscrapers make for an incongruous picture. Progress, indeed.

It takes about 60 to 90 minutes to view the exhibit and outdoor memorials, less if you don’t read the politically charged descriptions of what went on at Hoa Lo over the decades. Memorials in the courtyard are dedicated to the Vietnamese “freedom fighters,” and some metal friezes illustrate the horrible conditions in this house of horrors.

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The architectural schematic of Hoa Lo prison, circa 1896.

The prison, classified as a “historical relic” by the Vietnam Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, was built from 1896 to 1899. It unceremoniously displaced what was then Phu Khanh village, a community of 48 households, known chiefly for its production of earthenware pots, kettles and stoves. Hoa Lo translates as “fiery furnace,” a nod to its earlier function, and the building came to be popularly known by its street location name, not Maison Centrale.

Among the remains of the French architectural-style buildings are two of the four watchtowers; imposing sections of 13-foot-high stone walls, electrified, and topped with shards of jagged glass; two sets of “barracks” where men and women were separately housed; the dungeon; and cells where Vietnamese political prisoners awaiting death sentences were held.

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Climbing the electrified, shard-topped walls in an escape attempt would have been a formidable undertaking.

As the propaganda-heavy booklet I bought on site says: “Hoa Lo was ‘notorious’ for detaining and physically and mentally torturing thousands of patriotic and revolutionary Vietnamese.” The French didn’t cotton to the idea that the Vietnamese thought they should be in charge of the administration of their own country.

Most of the barracks areas have been turned into a museum, and the rooms illustrate the inhumane conditions under which poorly clothed and fed prisoners were held. Inadequate ventilation and sanitation, overcrowding and forced labor made matters even worse. Diseases such as beriberi, malaria and typhoid were rampant.

One room illustrates how brutal the inmates’ treatment was. Half-naked, life-size male figures, seated side by side on long raised platforms, legs stretched out in front of them, have their ankles clamped in wooden fetters. Their movements were severely restricted, forcing prisoners to live in their own filth.

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These figures re-create the inhumane conditions under which prisoners were held at Hoa Lo Prison. 

Other rooms display documents and individual iron fetters and fierce implements of torture. A reasonable amount of English translation exists, and it puts heavy spin on valiant Vietnamese resistance.

A guillotine imported by the French in 1894 was transported around North Vietnam and used to carry out executions of said “Vietnamese patriotic and revolutionary fighters” (this wording is repeated often in the booklet) in the countryside and the prison. A picture of it is featured in the booklet, but we did not see the guillotine in the room where it has been housed.

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Torture, overcrowding and disease plagued inmates from every era at Hoa Lo Prison.

Considering the number of political prisoners, it should be no surprise that by the 1930s, a group of communists had banded together to spread their doctrine and “enlighten the masses” of inmates, teaching some to read and write and to speak French and English.

A few successful escapes occurred, including one after the Japanese replaced the French as overseers in the later stages of World War II. The sewers were the conduit for another attempt, in 1951. Portions of sewer are displayed near one of the exterior walls.

The French reimposed their rule after the end of WWII, and it was to take another nine years, after the debacle of Dien Bien Phu, until the Vietnamese were able to expel the French from the country for good.

After 1954, for about a 10-year period, the Vietnamese became the jailers, using the prison to house criminals, the booklet says.

Its incarnation as “hell on earth” for Americans began in August 1964, when the first U.S. pilot to be captured — and the first to be shot down in North Vietnam — Navy Lt. Everett Alvarez Jr., was brought to the prison. He was to become the second-longest-serving POW of the war, marking 8.5 years in captivity.

James Stockdale, commander of a Navy carrier air group, clocked seven years in Hoa Lo. His A-4 was shot down on Sept. 9, 1965. Forced to eject, he broke a bone in his back and dislocated his knee. In his 40s, he was one of the older POWs, and as the highest ranking naval officer in captivity, among the leaders of American resistance. He was to spend four years in solitary confinement, endure beatings and starvation.

A “prize” the Vietnamese thought they could exploit arrived in 1967. On Oct. 27, on his 23rd mission, Navy pilot John McCain’s A-4 was hit by a surface-to-air missile. During his first few days at the “Hanoi Hilton,” his serious injuries, including a broken left arm, right arm broken in three places and a broken right knee, weren’t attended to. Instead, his interrogators beat him.

It wasn’t until they figured out that McCain’s father was a Navy admiral — later commander in chief in the Pacific — that the pilot was given medical treatment, albeit insufficient.

He spent part of his captivity at another prison, known as “the Plantation,” but was brought back to Hoa Lo in late 1969. He would spend much of the rest of his POW years there, before being moved back to “the Plantation,” from where he was released after the Paris Peace Accords were signed.

What is purported to be McCain’s flight suit hangs in a glass case at the far end of a Hoa Lo room with a black-and-white checkered floor.

McCain writes in his autobiography, “Faith of My Fathers,” that when he was captured, his flight suit was cut off. An extremely skilled tailor would have been needed to restore the suit to the condition of the one on display.

The Arizona senator and 2008 Republican nominee for president is convinced it isn’t the uniform he wore. He has revisited the prison several times since his 1973 release.

“Of course it’s not,” he told a reporter from Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, in 2013, noting the plentiful misinformation about what’s on display with regard to the American POWs in the museum.

For example, one of the explanatory plaques says: “… America pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead, they were well treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter.”

Other photos — the POWs engaged in a game of chess, conducting religious services, playing basketball in the prison yard — make it seem like life in captivity was just a series of small inconveniences. Starvation diets, chronic diarrhea, torture and solitary confinement, which McCain writes about extensively, would argue differently.

Peterson, an Air Force captain and pilot shot down on his 67th mission in September 1966, was a POW for six and a half years. Like McCain, some of his time in captivity was at other prisons. Peterson returned to Vietnam in 1997 as the first U.S. ambassador to the country since 1975. He served in that position until 2001.

Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. He retired from the Navy as a vice admiral in 1979, and embarked on an academic career. He was selected by Reform Party presidential candidate H. Ross Perot in 1992 to be the No. 2 man on the ticket. Stockdale died at age 81 in 2005.

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A memorial to the Vietnamese who died at Hoa Lo Prison is in the rear courtyard.

Quick reference: Hoa Lo Prison, corner of Hoa Lo and Hai Ba Trung streets, Hoan Kiem Lake district, Hanoi. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission: 15,000 Vietnamese dong (about 66 cents).