Hoa Lo Prison - A Horrible Prison or A 5-Star Hilton Hotel?

Duc - October 26, 2018

If you want to take a really deep down into Vietnamese history, Hoa Lo prison is a must-visit destination during your Hanoi trip. Why?

Because there are facts you will never know unless you pay a visit to there. Hoa Lo prison (also known as Maison Centrale or Hanoi Hilton) would help you to have experience a place full of darkness and silence of a cruel history in Vietnam. Hanoi Hilton Prison has actually a grim period of time in which you easily get goose bumps with some historical facts during French colonization.


  • 1 Hoa Lo Street, Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi.
  • Hoa Lo Prison Opening hours: Daily including Tet and national events; Open from 08:00 until 17:00; Close from lunch, 11:30 until 13:30
  • Fee: Adult: 30,000 VND for Vietnamese and foreigners; Disabled people, the elderly ( > 60 age): 15,000 VND; Children under the age of 15: Free

Unexpected facts of Hoa Lo Prison museum

The designed capacity and the fact

  • Designed capaacity of Hanoi Hilton prison originally would be 450 prisoners. But, real number is much higher
  • Under the French domination, it grew from 600 in 1913 to more than 2.000 in 1954 with its inmates held in subhuman conditions.
  • It had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation and the bitterness of the Vietnamese during the fighting against the French.

An unbreakable prison

  • The surrounded wall was built with steel rod and stone, 4m high and 0.5m thick. It had pieces of broken glass and high-voltage electric wires.

Hoa Lo Prison - Walls

Surrounding walls of Hoa Lo prison

  • All metal and glass equipment such as locks and hinges were imported from France and checked before construction.
  • French colonials carefully recruited guards from other prisons, who were infamous for their cruelty.
  • The French reckoned, Hoa Lo could be “Nobody in, nobody out”, and even “an ant could not get through it”.

Why the French built this prison? What is the meaning of “Hoa Lo”?

  • The prison was constructed in Hanoi in dates ranging from 1886–1889 to 1898-1901, when Vietnam still belonged to French Indochina. The French called the prison Maison Centrale (Central House) - a traditional euphemism to denote prisons in France.
  • Its purpose is to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners agitating for independence of the country.
  • In Vietnamese, “Hoa Lo” means "fiery furnace". The name originated from the street called "Pho Hoa Lo", the place mostly sold wood stoves and coal-fire stoves from pre-colonial times.
  • We named this prison as the formal name of this street: Hoa Lo prison as a memorial.

Why was Hoa Lo prison located in Hanoi center?

  • Situated next to the Court of Justice and the Intelligence Department, this prison was a warning against the Vietnamese patriotic movement.
  • It was used to detain the political prisoners or the ones in awaiting trial.

Hoa Lo Prison - Prisoners

Political prisoners in Hoa Lo prison

Hoa Lo Prison during Vietnam War (1954 - 1973)

As the French colonists left Hanoi as the result of the defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Accords, Hoa Lo Prison was under the control of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

From 1954 to 1973, Hoa Lo prison was used for the detainment of spies from the South.

Most of the political prisoners here were people who were against the Vietnam Communist Party or U.S solders.

Where Vietnamese government moved Hoa Lo prison after the war?

  • After the war time, Vietnamese government still used this prison for criminals. In 1994, most of the original jail has gone to the suburbs of Hanoi whilst a modern skyscraper called Hanoi Tower with high-end Western restaurants and shopping mall now takes up much of the space.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum: Only a corner of the prison has remained as a museum to commemorate Vietnamese patriots.

Hoa Lo Prison - Museum

Hoa Lo prison museum

How did Hanoi Hilton prisoners live?

  • In a shared room: 25-30 prisoners were fettered most of the time and shared only a toilet.

]Hoa Lo Prison - A high number of prisoners in one cell

A high number of prisoners in one cell

  • They were daily provided 2 meals with rotten rice, stunted vegetables, rotten dried fish and rarely with tough buffalo or old sow meat.
  • It was up to their attitude that their 1 or 2 legs would be fettered.

How brutal was torture in Hanoi prison like?


  • The prison was called the hell of earth for its cruel hundred methods of torturing.
  • Hanging prisoners up or down for beating with electric shock at their head or heart
  • Stuffing prisoners’ body with clothes soaked with gasoline and burning them up

The prisoners was tortured

The guillotine, the “human killer”

  • French colonials imported it to here since late 19th century.
  • Number of Vietnamese evolutionists beheaded by this guillotine is uncountable, most of whom were very young, even 19 years old.
  • The French even hung the prisoners’ head at public place to threaten and undermine the Vietnamese’s will.

The Cachot, also called “ hell of hell”

  • A special cell to punish political prisoners who were leaders of struggles in this prison
  • The prisoners are isolated, shackled all day and night and must eat, sleep or go to the toilet at the place.

Hoa Lo Prison - The cachot

The cachot in Hoa Lo prison

This position is very inconvenient since lying, blood concentrates on the head, so sleep is difficult. Moreover, going to the toilet in their own sleeping room made them easily contract diseases.

The death row

  • Prisoners who sentenced to be executed were fettered on the cement floor all day and night and did everything in that row.
  • Normally, they were detained for 10 months, but some were killed after three or four days.

Escaping from Hanoi Hilton Prison

  • In 1932, 7 prisoners pretended to be in serious illness and successfully fled on the way of being transferred to the clinic with the help from friends.
  • In 1945 happened the miraculous prison break of more than 100 patriotic prisoners. Taking the advantages of the disorder between the Japanese and the French in World War II, political prisoners mixed with common criminals, then exchanged prison uniform with daily clothes from visitors, walking out decently and escaped.
  • 1951 marked the most noted jail-break when 17 prisoners under death sentence managed to organize an escape from the sewer tube.

The sewer tube’s mouth was small while the grid is stiff and dense; therefore, the mission to go into the tube to cut the grid was horrified since the tube was filled with garbage, toilet’s waste and clinics stinky bandage.

  • On the Christmas night in 1954, 17 prisoners broke out of the prison. Unfortunately, when opening the sewer door and stepping on the street, they confronted a group of patrolmen and only 5 of them successfully escaped.

Hoa Lo Prison Hanoi or Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam War (against the U.S)

How many US pilots detained in Hanoi Hilton?

  • There were over 300 US pilots captured in this prison from 1964 to 1973.

US pilots captured and kept in Hoa Lo prison

  • Actually, the number of captured pilots was much higher but they were kept in several places.
  • Keeping US pilots right in the center of Vietnam was a strategy of the Communist government to stop the US aircraft bombing Hanoi.

Notably, the American senator John McCain and Pete Peterson, the first US Ambassador in Vietnam. In 1995, there was a re-establishment of diplomatic ties between two countries. 

John McCain was captured in Trúc Bạch Lake

How did they live in Hanoi Hilton?

  • The photos and exhibition show that the US prisoners had a quite comfortable living conditions thanks to the time for playing, learning and practicing their religions.

US prisoners had their Christmas meal in Hoa Lo (Hanoi Hilton)

There were so many different thoughts about how U.S POWs (prisoners of war) lived when they were in Hoa Lo, but there was a story written by To Hoai that on Christmas or Thanks giving day, the U.S POWs always had turkey (which was very unfamiliar to Vietnamese people) in their meals.