Visit to Hue’s ‘hell on earth’ prison reminder of man’s inhumanity

by Vu Lan Dung

Reading A Perfect Spy, a book on Viet Nam’s greatest undercover operative, Pham Xuan An, by American historian Larry Berman, one detail drew my attention: the 1958 imprisonment in Chin Ham (Nine Bunkers) Prison of Tran Quoc Huong, alias Muoi Huong – the man responsible for recruiting An into a network of intelligence agents.

Curious about the prison, I decided to set off to the central city of Hue to visit the place, known as “hell on the earth” under the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in South Viet Nam in 1955-63.

The site, situated on a hill in An Tay District, is 6km northwest of the city centre. In 1941, French colonialists built nine rectangular bunkers to store munitions. When the Japanese invaded in March 1945, they took control of the Chin Ham area and seized most of weaponry.

After the success of the August Revolution in 1945, these munition storehouses were left vacant until 1955, when Diem’s younger brother Ngo Dinh Can converted them into a prison facility. Each storehouse was built of steel-reinforced concrete with a ceiling thickness of half-a-metre. A number of patriots were confined there for long periods, but the existence of the prison wasn’t publicly known until Diem’s regime was overthrown in November 1963.

Visiting the site today, I walk around the hill to view the storehouses under the guidance of Phan Hanh, a manager of the site. He stops in front of a small area with heavy grass cover and rubble and says, “This was the first prison house, which was for newcomers.”

“The second was for businessmen; the third and fourth imprisoned foreigners; the fifth detained monks, students, women and workers; and the sixth was a place where prisoners were tortured,” Hanh says. “The seventh was for activists who opposed Diem’s dictatorship, while the eighth was used to detain spies and communists, and the ninth was used as a watchtower.”

North Vietnamese forces would later treated wounded soldiers in these storehouses during the Tet Offensive in 1968, he added. The Americans bombed the facility, leaving them in the ruins seen today.

Beside building a commemorative house and a monument to soldiers who died in the war, Huong Giang Travel, with the support of the People’s Committee of Thua Thien-Hue Province, restored the eighth storehouse with 20 small rooms in 2008. Each room measures 0.8m wide, 1.75m long and 1.75m high. Stepping inside, I feel a chill and sense of panic at the site of mannequins imitating guards pushing a prisoner into a detention room. Glancing into one room, I see a statue wounded man with clothes in tatters lying on the floor. The renovators put such scenes in every room, depicting the hard lives of prisoners based on the stories of survivors.

Tran An Huy of Huong Giang Travel says only Vietnamese visitors have booked tours to the site. “Only veteran and military delegations have booked our tour to this place,” he said. “Tourists also have an opportunity to visit neighbouring destinations such as Princess Huyen Tran Temple and Can’s villa.”

“On average, the site welcomes hundreds of visitors a day, most of whom are veterans,” affirms Hanh. “Foreign tourists account for only about five per cent. People who used to be imprisoned here still visit the site. For example, Col Nguyen Minh Van of Ha Noi and Sr Lt Col Bach Ngoc Phach of Bac Ninh Province often return, such as on War Invalids and Martyrs’ Day on July 27 or People’s Army Day on December 22.”

The two-storey Can’s villa is about a kilometre away. Around the house is a floating pavilion, a semicircular lake and an orchard.

This is where Can spent holidays while still keeping a close watch on the prisoners. The site has fallen into disrepair, with rubbish everywhere and rainwater stagnating in corridors. Huy says that it would be restored in a project recently approved to attract more tourists.

The Chin Ham and villa sites were recognised as national historic sites in 1993 by the Government. — VNS

House of horrors: Ngo Dinh Can’s villa has fallen into disrepair with rubbish everywhere and rainwater stagnating in corridors. — VNS Photos Lan Dung

Lifelike: In the restored eighth bunker, tourists are shocked by mannequins imitating guards torturing a prisoner.

Underground history: The sixth bunker, covered with heavy grass and rubble, can be only recognised thanks to its nameplate. It was used as a torture chamber.

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