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TRAVEL FEATURE

The Hanoi Hilton today: Shackles, plaques and airbrushed history

A Vietnamese doctor is shown treating John McCain at the ''Hanoi Hilton'' prison after his jet was shot down during the Vietnam War. McCain later became a U.S. senator and unsuccessful candidate for president.

HANOI, Vietnam — Going inside the stone walls of the prison sarcastically dubbed the “Hanoi Hilton” brings a respite from the honking traffic outside – until the iron shackles, dark cells and guillotine hammer home the suffering that went on there.

Synonymous in the U.S. with torture of American pilots captured during the Vietnam War, the prison has been turned into a museum that focuses on mistreatment of Vietnamese revolutionaries by French colonial rulers with scant mention of the Americans who were held there.

RELATED: Vietnam POW returns to the Hanoi Hilton in search of closure

The POWs’ personal stories are a stark contrast to Vietnam’s official accounts that they were well-fed honored guests. Instead, they tell of brutal interrogation sessions that included torture and severe weight loss from malnutrition.

The Vietnamese appear to have learned those practices from the French, who built the prison in 1896. One display says it included a courthouse and secret police headquarters, “forming a complete autocratic ruling system to aid in their domination and oppression against patriotic movement of Vietnamese people.”

Following North Vietnam’s “liberation” by communist forces in 1954, criminals were held there. Then, from Aug. 12, 1964, to March 29, 1973, part of the prison became home to U.S. POWs, including John McCain, who became a U.S. senator, and Pete Peterson, who later served as the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam after diplomatic ties were restored.

While the facility has been cleaned up, it remains a grim place — dark concrete walls and floors; dim, bare light bulbs and cells with barred windows near the ceiling that remain much as they have been for well over a century. Drains at floor level allowed human waste to be washed out; rats used them to come in.

The complex once took up an entire block adjacent to downtown Hanoi, but about 80 percent of it was torn down and replaced by Hanoi Towers, a modern twin-tower residential/commercial development. An outdoor playground several stories up overlooks the prison’s remnants.

A monthly list taken from the prison’s archives shows 87 of the 800-900 Vietnamese prisoners dying in a one-year period spanning 1920-21 from diseases likely complicated by overcrowding and food deprivation. What little that was available to eat often was outdated and tainted by worms. A memoir by a former female inmate tells of 40 people dying in one month alone.

Dubbed the “Hell of Hells,” one room was a stuffy, lightless “cachot” — dungeon — where those who broke prison rules were detained in shackles. Another holds long rows of hard benches with statues of prisoners languishing in leg irons. A photo from 1908 shows inmates wearing wooden frames around their necks to make escape more difficult.

In the death row section, where the guillotine is on display, prisoners were shackled constantly with cell doors opened only twice a day for meals. Photos of the decapitated heads were hung around the city.

A small section of the museum and just over three pages of the 29-page guidebook are dedicated to U.S. POWs.

One room features a television showing black-and-white footage of air raids to a background of wailing sirens, interspersed with the sounds of bomb concussions and anti-aircraft fire.

“The crimes committed by American imperialists were extreme,” a voiceover intones.

There are photos of protests against U.S. military intervention in Vietnam, claims that “thousands” of U.S. planes were shot down and pictures of POWs playing volleyball, basketball and chess or decorating Christmas trees and receiving letters and supplies from home.

Former POWs say many of those photos were staged under duress, and they mock one sign on display saying: “During the war, the national economy was difficult, but the Vietnamese government had created the best living conditions to U.S. pilots, for they had a stable life during their temporary detention period.”

alexander.paul@stripes.com

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