Rain rain go away, come again another day; as the saying goes for children wanting to play outside, so it does for us: children wanting to play outside. It is the rainy season so there’s little to complain about really but our planned ride to the scenic highlands north of Hanoi is all but washed away down the gutters of this city that lives on the street, rain or shine. And the city does carry on, under poncho’s, umbrellas and canvas awnings it’s life as usual leaving us to turn our attention to this city rather than the countryside we’d hoped for. We’re two kids staring at a window pane specked with a million orbs of raindrops making the outside world a kaleidoscope of opportunity we can’t reach.
So with Rob and Greg given a dubiously earned rest we turn our focus away from the window pane of opportunities to search this city for interest we’d stopped looking for. First stop, Hao Lo prison, which translates to something like ‘Hells Hole’ or ‘Fiery Furnace’. Visions of torture and woe emanate from this name alone but the name in truth originates from its location on Pho Hao Lo street. Hao Lo also means stove and it was the wood and coal stoves sold on this street that lend this prison its red herring name. Contradiction drips from the elegant French architecture all the way to the arched entrance; hell’s hole looks so gracious from the outside.The building was finished in 1889 by the French and named the Maison Centrale to house political prisoners of the local Viet resistance. Typical of the time, prisoners were kept in appalling conditions aimed at destroying their will to fight more than simply housing or punishing them; this grand estate neatly wraps brutality in beauty. So French. Elegant corridors and stately courtyards abut rooms of cold, inhumane indifference, a guillotine standing pride of place beside tiny cramped cells with shackles embedded into the floor. We see some signs of overt torture and brutality but for the most part it’s a sterile environment compared to similar places elsewhere, all around us exists a denial to its purpose, a pretty face to mask the degradation of humanity denied the gore to make it easily defined.
And so the irony and contradiction continues in this place that doesn’t seem to really know what it’s supposed to be; torture facility, prison, grand manor, national emblem? The pen of history is often severe and so it is in the Maison Centrale as the Vietnamese forces eventually claimed their nation and Hao Lo was born. The captives became the captors, the subjected became the subjectors but this building with an identity crisis persisted only to pick up another personality to add to the mix. Hao Lo may have many personalities but it’s purpose remains, The Viet army used this purpose built facility to hold US fighters through the American war in a twist of ironic justice. Words scratched into walls of the Viet struggle tormented US fighters as a mocking reminder of not only their place but who’s nation it is and who it’s being liberated from. And by whom.Images line rooms of US soldiers being treated humanely, enjoying sports and games of chess. It appears that the Viet army took a more humane approach to imprisonment leading to the common name for this place, the Hanoi Hilton. Far from the French brutality US soldiers were kept in healthy conditions as this building took on another slant to its personality. This is at least what the walls say, more probably the old adage persists that history is not what happened, rather what’s been written. And in this sense the writers are the victors, a Vietnamese pen scribing history on French walls telling stories of US defeat. What truth must lie within these walls to contradict what’s written upon them leaving the name Hanoi Hilton aptly loaded with contradiction.
From Hao Lo it’s off into the wild mess of Hanoi traffic to see Tung, our friend and tour guide in his home town of Hanoi. We’ve never met Tung but after weeks of chatting after being introduced by a mutual friend we feel like we’ve known each other for ages. We’re standing on a street corner at a cafe, ‘Cong Ca Phe’, named after the Viet Cong forces that liberated this country in an elegant shift from the prison that represents their struggle so aptly. The identity of this nation sits so linked to the Viet Cong and outside a cafe that bares the name a perfect representative of the nation the Viet Cong fought for comes smiling at us. Riding his scooter on the wrong side of the road, without an indicator wearing a helmet about as protective as a cotton cap comes Tung to meet us. Yes, he represents this nation perfectly.We sit down for coffee and turn weeks of on line faux dating into something more human as a national identity slowly becomes a person while Tung sips his coconut coffee. Wrestling in this skin of a young man of 23 is a world of opportunity; just like his nation he is only recently able to imagine possibilities not afforded his parents generation. We didn’t make it outside to play in the northern countryside as we’d hoped but inside this rainy city we find that possibly the best representation of this nation was our friend in waiting all along. We’ve barely met Tung, but in this next week stuck in rain trapped Hanoi the ideals of this nation might just become a person, the new generation of a people that made it out of a fiery furnace.