Facing a guillotine point-blank is unnerving. Having never seen one of these deadly diagonal blades in person, I wonder how many heads it separated from necks. This is no prop for Vincent Price flicks shot in Hollywood but rather the Hoa Lo, the infamous prison also known as “the Hanoi Hilton.”
But American POWs weren’t beheaded with this guillotine during the Vietnam War. The French used it against Vietnamese political prisoners at what colonizers called “Maison Centrale.” Built in 1896, Hoa Lo means “fiery furnace” or “hellhole.” In one cell block, life-size statues of mostly shirtless inmates languish atop two raised wooden platforms, to which their ankles are shackled.
On Aug. 5, 1964, Navy flier Everett Alvarez Jr. of Salinas, California, became the first of 766 U.S. “guests” at the Hanoi Hilton. POWs imprisoned there until 1973’s Paris Peace Talks included pilots James Stockdale, presidential candidate Ross Perot’s 1992 running mate, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. A glass trophy case supposedly holds the 2008’s GOP White House contender’s aviator’s suit, helmet and parachute.
The North’s purported torture of Yanks isn’t depicted, but photo murals memorializing people around the world who supported wartime Vietnam include U.S. protesters.
In the 1990s, the Vietnamese decided that operating a prison inside a city was immoral and converted a quarter of the Hanoi Hilton into a museum. The rest was demolished.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the U.S. defeat on April 30, 1975, I rode through the capital’s congested streets aboard a minibus. My guide, Mr. Hoa, takes our group to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. “Uncle Ho” is venerated as Vietnam’s George Washington, and his final resting place is a top visitor attraction. Joining a line of Vietnamese paying homage, I move briskly across Ba Dinh Square, where Ho declared independence in 1945. Large agitprop banners are in the square dominated by Ho’s 70-foot-high granite crypt.
Illuminated in the dimly lit chamber, lying inside a glass sarcophagus, is a seemingly serenely smiling Ho with wispy white beard, wearing a khaki Sun Yat-sen tunic.
Mr. Hoa explains that every October the mausoleum closes and Ho’s embalmed body is flown to Moscow for a “tune-up.” Egyptian mummification specialists have helped preserve him. Our escort says Ho’s name, chiseled above the massive tomb’s portico, shines red because of ruby-filled letters.
We walk to the nearby beaux-arts Presidential Palace built for France’s Indochinese governor-general, near the traditional teak stilt house image-conscious Ho had built for him to reside simply. Beside carp ponds are trees, fruits and flowers Ho planted.
Not everything in 1,000-year-old Hanoi, population 2.6 million, is influenced by France, America or war. Mr. Hoa takes us to Quoc Tu Giam, the 1076-built ornate Temple of Literature. Visitors enter a complex of courtyards with manicured lawns, bonsai-type trees, red pagodas with gold trim, altars and symbolic statuary. Incense burns, offerings to Confucius. Mandarins and monarchs’ names are engraved in Chinese characters on 82 stelae stretching back to 1307.
Later, our group heads to Hoan Kiem Lake. Hoan Kiem means “Lake of the Returned Sword,” which, according to legend, a magical turtle gave to 15th-century Emperor Le Loi to repel Chinese invaders.
Renowned since 1901 for French stylishness, Sofitel Legend Metropole is famed for glitterati guests. Somerset Maugham slept here, as did honeymooners Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard in 1936. Brad and Angelina prefer the Graham Greene Suite.
The lemongrass-scented five-star hotel features classic Metropole and contemporary Opera wings, surrounding an oasis with lush tropical gardens, a sparkling pool, the open-air Bamboo Bar, the glass-walled Le Club Bar and a spiral staircase ascending to Le Balcon, an outdoor spot ideal for special occasions. With superb cuisine and attentive service, Metropole dining is a gastronomic experience, serving Vietnamese fare at Spices Garden, Italian cookery at Angelina’s, while outdoorsy La Terrasse has a Parisian sidewalk cafe ambiance. Le Spa offers respite from Hanoi’s hustle-bustle.
Even resplendent Metropole was touched by Hanoi’s tumultuous past: In 1972, activist/actress Jane Fonda and folk singer Joan Baez sought sanctuary in a forgotten bomb shelter that was rediscovered during 2011 renovations to the Bamboo Bar.
Today, Metropole offers “Path of History” tours down into this fortified concrete bunker, a reminder of war in a now-peaceful nation.