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'Hanoi Hilton' now holds only painful memories

April 27, 2000
Web posted at: 4:53 p.m. EDT (2053 GMT)

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The former Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by American prisoners of war, is now a museum with a high-rise next door  
By Tom Mintier
CNN Correspondent

This news analysis was
written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

A tour of misery

As American as hamburgers


HANOI, Vietnam (CNN) -- On the streets of Hanoi, most physical evidence of war has disappeared, letting fade many memories of the Vietnam War.

More than half of Vietnam's 70 million people were born after the war ended on April 30, 1975. And the Vietnamese now celebrate "Reunification" on that date each year.

But one major landmark of the conflict still stands in the northern capital -- the infamous Hoa Lo prison, nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American prisoners of war held there.

Once a potent symbol of American frustration with the Vietnam War, the prison is now a tourist attraction, in the shadow of an upscale high-rise building owned by a Singapore businessman.

Only a few cells of the original building remain. The rest of the prison was torn down to make way for the high-rise. A plaque at the door is the only external sign of the building's history.

The day I visited the prison-turned-museum, a woman was outside it selling T-shirts, one printed with "Good Morning Vietnam" in red letters. The movie of the same name was one of the many ambivalent American films about the war. But this is just a souvenir T-shirt, something to take home and show friends.

"Two for five," the woman said, referring to the price in U.S. dollars. She repeated it over and over with increasing urgency, as if I could somehow walk away without hearing her. The shirts are 100-percent cotton, she said, with large sizes for "you Americans."

A tour of misery

Many of the tourists shuttled by guides from cell to cell inside the "Hanoi Hilton" are too young to have personal memories of the war.

A glass case at the door of one room contains a stack of towels, a pair of shoes and sandals and a log book of the prisoners' daily exercise routine. But more grisly reminders are everywhere, from the rusting leg shackles that held prisoners on their beds to the steel cell doors with peepholes. Marks scratched out by POWs to keep track of the days of captivity are still visible on the moldy walls.

Standing inside a cell, I could not help but wonder what misery the POWs endured. The long days and nights of solitary confinement. The beatings and torture at the hands of the guards. As I stood there for a few minutes, I had to shake away memories that I never actually experienced. So many ghosts, so much torture is embedded into the concrete walls.

Tourists pass photographs of captured pilots -- yellowed, faded images from a different era. The one of U.S. Sen. John McCain -- held as a POW more than five years -- looks very different than the television images during his recent run for U.S. president.

Both McCain's arms and one of his legs were broken when his U.S. Navy A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over Hanoi. It has been 27 years since he was released from prison, but he is still unable to fully raise his arms.

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In the building next to the former prison, American-born chef Bobby Chinn offers salmon and hamburgers at the Red Onion restaurant, which boasts a view of Hanoi's rapidly-changing skyline  

McCain returned to Vietnam this week ahead of Sunday's 25th anniversary of the war's end. He visited the lake where his jet crashed and the "Hanoi Hilton," where he spent much of his time in captivity. He told me he is no longer angry with his former captors and that the hate he once felt went away after he entered public life. How is that possible, I wondered to myself.

As American as hamburgers

Plans once called for a famous international hotel to be built on the spot where the "Hanoi Hilton" stands. But the hotel chain apparently decided against any association with the prison and opted instead for a location on the other side of town.

The contrast of what was and what is can be found in the high-rise next door to the former prison.

At a restaurant called the Red Onion, Vietnamese and expatriate businessmen discuss deals as they lunch on grilled salmon and charbroiled hamburgers. American-born chef Bobby Chinn directs his Vietnamese staff in preparing the type of food that just five years ago was impossible to find in Hanoi but now is daily fare for many.

The view of the ever-changing Hanoi skyline is spectacular from the oversized windows. If you stand up at your table and look down, you can also see the former prison. That's the way it is these days in Vietnam: Look in one direction and see the past, and look just a little higher on the horizon and see the future.

The Vietnamese have little time to spend looking at the past. The doctrine of Karl Marx and state-planning, fought for so hard three decades ago, are no longer followed by many in their day to day lives. Capitalism and the goal of making a buck are at center stage.

CNN In-Depth: Vietnam at 25
CNN: AsiaNow

Embassy of Vietnam -- Washington, D.C.
Permanent Mission of Vietnam to the United Nations
U.S. Embassy -- Hanoi
CIA World Factbook 1999 -- Vietnam
U.S. Sen. John McCain -- Senate page

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