Wednesday, August 19, 2009

History of Hanoi: Part 1

Hanoi is a city full of history. We have had a chance over the past few days to experience some of that history. First, literally across from our house is the Hoa Lo Prison (Maison Centrale), now a museum. The prison was built by the French from 1886 taking many years to complete. The museum now looks at the two parts of history which dictate the life of the prison, French colonial rule and the Vietnamese control of the prison in the Vietnam War.

You have to keep an open mind when touring the prison as the whole story portrayed by the Vietnamese may not to the whole story. The depiction of the French is one of brutality and exploitation. The inmates, mainly political prisoners were tortured and some executed. There is a guillotine in the museum and an area where prisoners were kept on death row.

The portrayal of the Vietnamese treatment towards the Americans is somewhat watered down with pictures of doctors happily treating the POW’s (including Republican John McCain), sports being played, Christmas dinners served and so on. The prisoners, principally captured pilots, sarcastically called the prison "Hanoi Hilton" for which it is now known. From the American side torture was in fact current practice: I have read that the main aim of the North Vietnamese was to break the will of the prisoners and gain written statements praising their treatment and denouncing America’s position in the war. These statements were used as propaganda against the war effort. Looking through the museum you can see that despite the massive changes taking place in Vietnam, Communism still influences what we read and as I said before we must keep an open mind on how we interpret that.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was our next stop. This is a memorial and the resting place for the Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh. Born in 1890 and passing in 1969, Ho Chi Minh was a truly extraordinary man who from a very young age dedicated his life to gaining independence for his homeland. I have recently read a book on Uncle Ho, gaining a great insight to this brilliant man’s life. He spent 30 years outside of Vietnam first educating himself and then from afar pushing his cause to rid colonialism from Vietnam. It took a great part of his life but his dream was achieved and on September 2, 1945 as the President of Vietnam he read the Declaration of Independence in the centre of Ba Dinh Square now the location of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Independence Day is a massive celebration in Vietnam today.

Lines of people (mostly locals) wind for hundreds of meters before they can enter the Mausoleum, which is constantly guarded by security. After about a ten-twenty minute wait you enter up red carpeted steps being sternly reminded by the guards in pristine white uniforms if you step out of line. There is no talking, no hands in pockets, no shorts or uncovered shoulders, no bags and strictly no photography. All this I can understand and I had no intention of making the guards angry. Ho Chi Minh in all his glory is lying in a glass case at the centre of the Mausoleum. Against his wishes he was embalmed and his body restored on display for the world to see. He had wanted to be cremated however the following government did not follow his wishes. You are in and out within 30 seconds however that is enough time to see the pristine condition of Uncle Ho. He is an honoured and extremely respected man in this country which is easily seen with the sheer numbers that pour though ever day just for a quick glance.

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