Hoa Lo Prison nowadays locates at 1 Hoa Lo Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi and it takes only 10 minutes to walk from Hoan Kiem Lake.
Through the flow of history, it presents as a brightly shining evidence of the tough and arduous period, which exists as a symbol for the indomitable constant spirit of Vietnam patriots. With that resilient aura, Vietnam nation seemed to be added more power to overcome a wide range of dangers, threat and defeat such fully armed crew as a French colony.
Hoa Lo Prison overview
Hoa Lo prison, known with another name Hanoi Hilton, once was called Maison Centrale by the French colony. The French name is known with the meaning the central prison, whereas the Vietnamese one refers to Hanoi prison.
About the name “Hoa Lo”, we can understand it in many ways, but commonly as below. In Vietnamese, “Hoa” means Fire and “Lo” means Kiln. The name was derived from the street called "Hoa Lo", the place mainly sold wood stoves and coal-fired stoves as well from pre-colonial times.
The French colony built this special relic in 1896 at one area that in the past was on the outskirts of Hanoi city with the aim of becoming the central prison for both the North and the South of Vietnam. The prisoners mainly were political ones, Vietnam patriots fighting against colonial authorities. The French colony initially constructed the prison on the purpose of being a political prison, killing the patriot spirit of Vietnam revolutionary soldiers.
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Hoa Lo prison map
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Under the French domination, Hanoi Hilton was built with the construction including stone walls of 4-meter height, 0.5-meter thickness and even electric steel wires as a reinforcer. Surrounded the prison, four corners of four directions were arranged with watchtowers for the wardens to follow and observe closely and carefully every single action.
Stone walls surrounded Hoa Lo Prison
The guards here were carefully trained from other prisons, who were notorious for their cruelty. All metal and glass equipment such as locks and hinges were imported from France and checked before construction.
Initially, this design only allowed Hoa Lo prison to own the container of about 500 prisoners. However, gradually, the area of Hoa Lo prison was getting bigger and bigger. As a result, the number of prisoners kept in this place was increased.
According to the Vice Head of Hoa Lo Hanoi Relic Management, at the period of 1950-1953, 2000 prisoners could be kept at this place. At that time, Hoa Lo prison could be described “Nobody in, nobody out”, and even “an ant could not get through it”
All the prison complex is divided into 4 parts: A, B, C, D with the below separations:
“Nobody in, nobody out”
The Hanoi Hoa Lo Prison area in total of entire prison complex at the old-time reached over 12.000 square meters. On the other hand, today, only 2.434 square meters of the area is kept and remained to turn into the historical relic mainly served for the purpose on visiting of those who would like to come and in own eyes observe the surroundings in a colonial prison.
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Known as the hell on Earth, the most frightening prison in the Southeast area, during the operation time, Hanoi Hilton had appeared to be the prison stealing the freedom of many generations of soldiers, Vietnam revolutionary activists. With specific prison architecture with inhumane torture methods and cruel duress, especially the guillotine which made this prison mark in the top list of the 10 most notorious prisons in the world.
Hoa Lo Prisoner's belongings
In the prison, visitors have the chance to see frightening iron shackles with a wide range of artifacts and photos of Vietnamese prisoners worn wood cang and feet fettered not to stand up or move around
The prisoners here had to suffer from the French colony’s savage torture methods and beating like forcing prisoners to cross their arms, keep heads down, take off clothing when being checked, feet canged and then no mercy using batons, cudgels hit all bodies from heads, hands, feet,...
In only one room, 25-30 prisoners were fettered almost all the time and shared merely a toilet. It was depending on their behaviors that their 1 or 2 legs would be fettered. They were daily provided 2 meals with rotten rice, stunted vegetables, rotten dried fish and rarely with tough buffalo or old sow meat.
25-30 prisoners in only one room
Besides, prisoners were kept in cachet, fined to have bare meals, forced to work extremely hard like repairing houses, pounding rice, serving at wardens’ housing corridors, war. Political prisoners at Hoa Lo prison had to deal with diseases, weakness due to the harsh daily curriculum.
The prisoners are often driven to starving, tortured, beaten and isolated from the outside world. To understand more, please read and think about the quotation of a warden: “To die is easy but to live is much difficult”.
A famous story in Hoa Lo Prison you will be told when visiting is a story about the miraculous and brave escapes of Vietnamese prisoners.
In 1932, 7 prisoners pretended to be in serious illness and successfully fled on the way of being transferred to the clinic with 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.
How Hoa Lo prisoners escape
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 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.
This was one of the scariest areas of Hoa Lo Hanoi, called “the hell of the hell” with narrow and dark rooms. Prisons were isolated, canged through the night with the inconvenience in daily life. They had to eat, sleep, defecate at right one place.
Those who were detained in cachet merely after a short time got edema, eye diseases, scabies due to lack of sanitary, light and fresh air. In 1932, Truong Chinh comrade, once General Secretary of Vietnam Communist Party was captured at this place right after leading political prisons to organize a meeting in prison for celebrating May 1st - the International Day of Labour.
“The hell of the hell"
This place was for those who were judged to have death execution and located in the bottom. They stay in all day and night and did everything in that row.
If someone wanted to come into, they had to go through 3 different iron door layers. Normally, they were detained for 10 months, but some were killed after three or four days
The most terrible stuff in Hoa Lo prison was the Middle-age guillotine, constructed by 2 wooden pillars 4m high and the blade kept above by latches. Below were another crossbar and narrow shelf for prisons to put their heads in.
The inhumane Middle-age guillotine
2 pieces of plank were cut in the shape of half of the moon. They matched with each other and created a circle which blocked above and below prisoner’s neck so that the blade fell down into the middle. Inside the pillars are 2 clefts so that the blade falls in a vertical line.
The number of Vietnamese evolutionists beheaded by this guillotine is uncountable, most of whom were very young, even 19 years old. This inhumane weapon often operated in the prison and moved from one place to another through the North.
Above is all the things you need to know before visiting Hoa Lo Prison. Don't miss this place when in Hanoi. Let's us help you plan your own itinerary to make the most of your time here! And contact us if you have any question!
Based on choices of travellers earlier this year