I’m still adjusting to my international life, and my process of adjustment often brings me to wonder “How did I get here?” Typically, it comes from a place of gratitude and awareness of unearned luck. I found myself wrestling with those feelings and that question several times recently in Vietnam.
The first time the question barged into my mind I was standing outside the Maison Centrale in Hanoi. This is the location of the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” — the prison where American pilots who had been shot down during the American war in Vietnam were held as POWs. Perhaps the most famous of these pilots was John McCain, whom I saw speak in person in 2002. Sitting twenty feet from the stage where he stood, it was clear that his awkward body movements show the remnants of the beatings he took in that prison. Another famous inmate here, James Stockdale, came to mind as I stood outside the wall of the prison-turned-museum. Stockdale went on to become an Admiral in the US Navy, and when he died in 2005 he was buried at the Naval Academy cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland, near where one of my friends is buried.
Last summer I went to visit my friend’s grave. The cemetery is on a hill, and my friend’s grave is down a bit from the crest of that hill. After sitting for a time at his grave, my wife and I walked to the top of the hill to take in the view of the Severn River. There we encountered a couple who stopped to ask us if we knew where Stockdale was buried. We chatted for a moment, long enough for the man to tell us he’d served under Stockdale and looked up to him. He didn’t know the man personally, but felt compelled to pay his respects during their limited time in town. This exchange flashed into my mind as I stood outside the wall of the old prison. I wasn’t sure I wanted to enter.
I felt in the moment that the memories I was having were somehow strange. I’ve not thought about James Stockdale probably more than six times in my life, and yet what occurred to me is how many people could there be in the world who have been to the place where he was held captive for seven years and the place where he is buried? And among that group, how many have been in these two places a world apart in the same year? It didn’t feel exactly like a coincidence, but I don’t know what else to call it.
I almost didn’t go in the museum. This prison was operational as a place of great suffering for decades — Stockdale and McCain are two well-known figures who survived it. There are dozens more names listed inside of Vietnamese freedom fighters who died at the hands of the French in the six decades it served as a center where interrogations, torture, and executions were routine. I know a bit about Vietnam’s history, enough to know that I didn’t have to go inside this museum to be aware of the complexity of what’s happened here, or of how American involvement in this country contributed to the suffering of all who were touched by that involvement. I stood in the street for a time, wondering if I’d regret going inside, wondering if I’d regret not going in, wondering if it mattered one way or the other.
I ended up going inside, and as I anticipated, the visit was upsetting. Great suffering occurred here — conveying that point is the purpose of the museum displays, but I think I would have felt that if the rooms were empty of all artifacts and testaments. This building alone is a symbol of strife: Vietnamese are likely to see this place as a representation of colonialist oppression — the French built it as a place to severely punish those who rebelled against their colonial rule. Americans can easily see the building as a sign of the most upsetting and defining event in American history since the Civil War.
The yellow walls just stand there though, out of place in this current context. It’s a tidy museum now. There’s a hotel high rise where there central prison courtyard once existed. Two blocks away from this location is the Hanoi Rolls Royce dealership. Walk in the other direction for 15 minutes and you’ll encounter cute coffee shops and outdoor Bun Cha lunch spots — all of these are symbols of a prospering Vietnamese economy. It might be easy to roam around the city as a tourist only thinking of the cheap food and drink to be had. I look through my photos of my week here, most are of happy moments of communing with my friends over a rich cup of coffee or breaking bread (well, noodles) together, and exploring a place I’d only read war-torn descriptions about. But there’s also this simple wall and the brief memorials behind it.
This wall, this building, feels out of place to me. Maybe I’m the one that’s out of place. Life, or is it just time, goes on, although for many in this prison, life ended here. For those who survived it, time may have felt like it stood still. I wonder how many of those imprisoned here asked themselves this same question: “How did I get here?”