The infamous Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam.
The infamous Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam.

Should tourists have reservations about Hanoi Hilton visit?

Not sure how the term "dark tourism" can be fully defined but it is obvious it means visiting destinations historically known for death and tragedy. It raises many questions.

Is it ghoulish to visit Auschwitz or is it a tourist's duty to make the trip if you are in Poland? Would visiting a slum in India be bad taste? The Cu Chi Tunnels in Saigon? The Genocide Museum in Phnom Pehn?

Is a gruesome curiosity to see these sites where so much suffering and misery took place a bad thing? Or an opportunity to learn from the past and be thankful for where we live today?

We felt this way when a visit to the infamous Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam was proposed recently.

Called Hoa Lo Prison it was built by the French in 1896 in the middle of the city, planned to house 450 inmates but by the 1930s it held close to 2000 detainees, mostly political prisoners. Later it was used by North Vietnam to hold US Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War, or what the locals call the American War.

The French called it Maison Centrale, meaning Central House, their euphemistic name to signify prisons in France.

During the Vietnam War, the American POWs nicknamed the prison the Hanoi Hilton and most visitors to Hanoi today do consider a visit an essential part of their itinerary.

Most of the vast prison was torn down in the 1990s, the only part left today is a well-preserved museum, but it is enough to send chills down the spine as you walk through the displays.

Life-sized models of bone-thin, wretched prisoners shackled to the floor or languishing in groups on long, low wooden benches, make you shudder, despair.

It's an uncomfortable place to be as you walk through the narrow corridors flanked by heavy steel doors, some with grills where you peer through to small cells. The dungeons where dangerous prisoners were kept in solitary confinement are especially harrowing.

The Guillotine Room is the most chilling. The menacing structure was used to execute Vietnamese revolutionaries and its foreboding presence - so looming, real and terrifying - means most people can spend only a minute or two in this room.

The displays are mostly of the French Colonial period, focussing on the terrible suffering of the Vietnamese revolutionaries in the early 20th century but there are exhibitions showing the American POWs incarcerated during the Vietnam War ... the most known to us Senator John McCain, held there for five years. These displays mostly show photos, uniforms and utensils used by the POWs, a little less confronting but still disturbing.

Our visit came just a matter of weeks after John McCain's death in August so there was a deeper-than-normal interest in the display showing him being rescued from his downed plane in nearby True Bach Lake in 1967.

Outside, a long corridor shows memorials to Vietnamese prisoners. Of morbid fascination is a sewer through which five death-row inmates escaped on Christmas Eve in 1951, just one of several successful jailbreaks.

The building is a benign-looking yellow building sitting almost unnoticeably in busy tree-lined Hoa Lo St in the centre of Hanoi close to the French Quarter. After being immersed in the past and the terrible suffering that took place inside the building, coming out, blinking into the sunlight to find yourself on a busy road with the omnipresent tidal wave of motorcycles is a relief.

We asked ourselves had it been ghoulish to visit the Hanoi Hilton when there was so much going on out in the streets of Hanoi, or was it insightful and meaningful, giving us pause to think and reflect and try to understand what went on.

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