It’s been said that we don’t know the value of peace until we’ve been at war. Perhaps that’s why Hanoi has so many reminders of conflict.
At the Vietnam Revolutionary Museum, you can see the impact of generations of war on the Vietnamese people. The outdoor exhibits alone take you back to 1954, the nine-year resistance culminating in the battle of Dien Bien Phu when the French colonialists lost to the Vietnamese. There are many intact and destroyed carcasses of U.S. B-52s shot down during the “Vietnam War,” or as it’s known here, the “U.S. sabotage war of North Vietnam.”
There are torpedoes from the former Soviet Union co-opted by the Vietnamese Communists to drive away the U.S. forces during that war.
And American tanks, a Chinook helicopter and of course those jets and B-52 bombers.
The Vietnamese fought the Chinese, too.
But among the war memorials and museums I visited while there, the emphasis was clearly on the interventions by the U.S. and the French.
The Hoa Lo Prison — aka, the Hanoi Hilton.
As an American, I expected to see more information on display concerning the American POWs here. Nope. Just two rooms, emphasizing the “resort-like conditions” they were housed in, complete with volleyball courts, and their glorious release.
“Was this a hotel or a prison?” I wondered to myself.
U.S. Senator and former U.S. presidential candidate John McCain spent five and a half years here. What he went through resulted in his never regaining the ability to lift his arms above his head. He has described the experience as torture. There are two images here: one black and white image of him receiving medical treatment, a second color image of him returning in 2000 as a visitor to the museum.
Both the Americans and Vietnamese fought violently during the conflict in the 1960s and 70s, but the museum is careful to document the cruelty the Vietnamese experienced at the hands of the French colonialists. The museum shows the small cells where famous revolutionary Vietnamese Communists suffered, and where groups of men, women and children were shackled side-by-side in large groups, seated on hard wooden tables.
But the most impact, for me, was in the room where a guillotine towers over the room, and a sign tells the frequency with which it was used to terminate prisoners.
McCain is irrevocably tied to this city, to this country. The war here shaped his politics, his heroism and sense of patriotism. Even though he recently died, there are still fresh cut flowers placed at his memorial along one of the dozens of lakes in Hanoi. It’s a peaceful moment, in a city that has known far too much violence.
It’s also a city which had hoped to host a historic peace agreement for the DPRK-U.S. summit.
Even though that didn’t happen, it’s a city which still showed the world what happens when you remember the wars you’ve suffered, if for no other reason, than to celebrate peace.