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Friday, October 18: Day 179 – Hanoi Hilton

Xin chào means hello.

Cảm ơn means thank you.

Tạm biệt means goodbye.

In the north they don’t shake hands or hug. Arms are crossed with the head down. Greet the oldest person first to pay respect. Often there are five generations living in one house. Even if you are not on good terms, elders are respected.

In the south because of the influence of Western culture and especially among the younger Vietnamese, they mainly shake hands.

There are three sections to Vietnam:

North = Communist

South = Western influence

Middle = Hue, formal capitol of the last monarchy

Hanoi has been the capital since 1976. Prior to that it was the capital of the North, and Saigon was the capital of the South. When Saigon was taken by the communists, it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. If your family fought for the south, you can’t be in politics for three generations.

The official name of the country is Socialist Republic of Vietnam (Cộng hòa Xã hội Chủ nghĩa Việt Nam).


The Vietnamese flag has a red background. This color stands for lucky, happy, victory, and Vietnamese blood.

The yellow star represents happiness and the color of the head scarf of the Trung sisters who fought against Chinese domination of Vietnam in year 40 AD.

Trung Sisters

The yellow star has five points which represent the five classes of people in Vietnam: Worker, Farmer, Army, Trader and Intellectual.

In 1954 there was a peace accord. The French military left then. There was to be an election, but the communist candidate would have won. The north and south and French had one year to organize the government.


Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is built with Vietnamese architecture and
is where one can see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh. He looks like he is sleeping. Usually the lines are long, but today it is closed. It is open five days/week for only three hours/day.

We walked around the complex.

Building materials for the mausoleum came from all over Vietnam. Everyone in Hanoi volunteered to work one day. The name is written in red marble.The people called him Uncle Ho. The Vietnamese pay respect to him for his dedication.

Mausoleum security guards wear
white; the army wears green. The military used to require one male from the family to serve for 18 months. Today all males receive training for one week. Men serve in the military, but during the war everyone fights. If you pass military exam, you don’t have to be in the military.

In 1969 Ho died of sickness. The mausoleum was built between 1973 and 1975. His body was kept at a hospital until it was finished.

Ho Chi Minh wanted his body to be cremated and scattered among the three different parts of Vietnam: The north where he fought, the middle where he was born and grew up, and the south where he worked. He always looked to the south.

He wasn’t cremated because many
people did not get to see him in person or pay respects at a funeral due to the war.

Ho was the first president of reunited Communist Vietnam and previously was the first president of the communist north.

Ho was born into an educated family. His father was a high ranking official in a mandarin family, so he saw the inner workings of the government. His mother was a teacher. He studied in a French school. Ho left home at 20 and traveled to 28 countries in 30 years to learn. He never needed an interpreter as he spoke six languages.

Ho gave his life to Vietnam. He never married. In 1930 he founded the Communist Party. In 1939 during WWII Japan came to Indochina to cut off supply lines. Vietnam was under the control of Japan until 1945.

There was an opportunity for Ho to gain control before the French returned to their colony. On Sept 2, 1945 Ho founded the Communist Party. The mauseleum was built on the spot where he read the declaration.

During his life Ho used 50 to 200 aliases. Ho Chi Minh (he who has been enlightened) was his revolutionary name. Vietnamese names are ordered by last name, middle name, and first name.


The Governor’s Palace was built by the French for the French governor from 1900-1906 using German architecture. It has 30 rooms. The Palace was not bombed during the war.

In 1954 the French left and Ho Chi Minh took over. He refused to stay in the Governor’s Palace. The luxury didn’t fit his lifestyle. He lived in the workers house for five years. He used the Governor’s Palace to welcome officials. Gold was the color of the monarchy so French buildings were painted yellow.

For his 69th birthday the country built a traditional ironwood stilt house with two rooms and the toilet in a separate building. It is what Ho wanted. He lived there from 1958 until 1969 when he died.

Ho is respected in Vietnam because of how he lived and ruled simply. He was a writer. Ho had a bullet proof car that the Russians gave him. He rarely used it. He loved to listen to the radio and hear the human voice. He was lonely. He never married, but he loved and welcomed children especially on Sundays.

The house has a reading room.

An open area exists in the stilted section beneath the living quarters.

Ho enjoyed gardening and feeding fish at the fish pond. He would clap his hands and the fish would come to him.

Ho was always on time. He would take walks and exercise along Mango Road which he had planted. He enjoyed smoking.


Vietnamese calligraphy has been adapted from Chinese. In 1945 the first alphabet was established. It is a mixture of different languages. Some other Southeast Asian countries use Sanskrit.


One Pillar Pagoda is shaped like a lotus flower. In the 11th century the builder had a dream that he would have a son. After that his wife gave birth. He built it in thankfulness. It has been rebuilt many times. People come here to pray for children.


Old religion was influenced by China. Animism is where inanimate objects are considered to have spirits such as mountains and trees. Here is a picture of a worship place on the mountain.

Eighty percent of Vietnamese have no religion since Communists won’t allow it, so they worship ancestors. One will see a main altar to ancestors in the home. There are folk gods and goddesses. To advance in a communist nation, you can’t declare a religion. They believe in karma.

Buddhism is the second largest religion. There are two types of Buddhism: Sri Lanka/India and China. Vietnamese Buddhism is Chinese-based.

The next group is Catholic and comprises five percent and was brought to Vietnam by the French.

A pagoda has two purposes: worship and living quarters. A temple is only for worship.


Ha Lo Prison was built in Hanoi by the French in 1896. Originally designed to hold 450 inmates, by the 1930’s it held 2,000. It wasn’t very secure. Some prisoners escaped through the sewer system. The brutal treatment of the Vietnamese by the French here with shackles, torture, and starvation taught the Vietnamese to mistreat American POW’s.

The French cruelty led to many Vietnamese joining Ho Chi Minh’s Communist cause. During the 1960’s this prison gained the nickname Hanoi Hilton.

A section of the prison has been converted into a museum. Some of the information in the museum about protests in the USA and in other countries against the war is true. Other information proclaiming good treatment of American POW’s was at best one-off staged events and at worst untrue propaganda. See the storyboard below about sports for the POW’s. Another storyboard featured a Christmas party.

We saw information about pilot Everett Alvarez who spent eight years and seven months here, the second longest POW in American history.

A storyboard featured John McCain who spent 5 1/2 years as a POW. After a year the Vietnamese found out that McCain’s father was a Navy Admiral and offered to release him. McCain famously refused to go until the POW’s captured before him were released. He endured another 4 1/2 years of torture and solitary confinement until the remaining POW’s were released in 1973 after the end of the war.

A glass case contains McCain’s flight suit and parachute, except that McCain said that his parachute was shredded.

Vietnamese people are friendly to us now. The war is long over.


Vietnam has a population of 96.7 million people. There are 53 different ethnic groups. The Kinh (or Viet) people represent 85% of the population. Vietnam (Việt Nam) means people living in the south (of China). Nam is a Chinese word meaning “south”.

In the early days of communism in Vietnam, the intent was that everyone would be the same – no one rich, no one poor. Everyone worked for the government and got paid the same.
Doctors had to study for 7 years, engineers for 4 years, farmers for 1 month, workers for 1 hour. A doctor can be a worker, but a worker can’t be a doctor. Our guide, Law, described how this system doesn’t work. There is no incentive. People don’t want to work harder. Why be a doctor?

The government reformed the economic system in 1986. They gave city property back to the families who had lived in specific houses and buildings for generations. Now the people own the buildings and can use them in perpetuity, but they can’t sell them. However, the state still owns the land. This new mostly-capitalist economic system encourages private enterprise. In the rural areas farmland was given out according to the number of people in a family. Now they grow two crops instead of one. People pay taxes. They have begun to have rich and poor.

There is still only one political party – the Communist Party. At the local level anyone can run for office. A ballot can contain 10 to 20 people running for one office. These people do not have to be party members. The term is 5 years.

Local leaders are promoted to the regional level according to their success, not chosen by ballot.

The next level is a National Assembly of 499 members. These people definitely have to be Communist Party members. The president and other senior leaders of the country are chosen from this group by this group.

The government still controls newspapers, media, etc.

In Vietnam the government pays for 5 years of elementary school. After that people have to pay $200-250 per year for secondary. 4 years of public college costs about $10,000. Private is twice as expensive. The education system was influenced by the French.
The government covers health care for the first 3 years of life. Beyond that families can purchase medical coverage from the government.


Two hours west of Hanoi lies the Mai Chau Reserve. We will be spending the night there. It is peaceful and luxurious.

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