I. Hoa Lo Prison Overview
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.Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi has actually a grim history in which tourists easily get goose bumps with the brutality and torture of a French colonial prison.
II. Introduction of Hoa Lo prison
Why the French build 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.
- The name “Hoa Lo”: In Vietnamese, “Hoa” means Fire and “Lo” means Kiln. The name originated from the street called “Pho Hoa Lo”, the place mostly sold wood stoves and coal-fire stoves from pre-colonial times.
- In Vietnam, we named this prison as the formal name of this street: Hoa Lo prison as a memorial.
Why was the prison located in the center of Hanoi?
- 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.
The Viet Nam 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 did the Vietnamese government move this 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.
II.2. The construction
The designed capacity and the fact
- The capacity of the prison originally would be 450 prisoners.
- The real number is much higher:
- Under the French domination, it grew from 600 in 1013 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.
- All metal and glass equipment such as locks and hinges were imported from France and checked before construction.
- All guards were carefully recruited 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”.
II.3. The life full of torture in the prison
How did the prisoners live?
- In a shared room: 25-30 prisoners were fettered most of the time and shared only a toilet.
- 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 the 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 guillotine, the “human killer”
- It was imported from France since the late 19th centuries.
- 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.
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.
II.4. Escaping from the 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 Xmas night of 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.
II.5. The use of Hoa Lo Prison Hanoi or Hanoi Hilton in the 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.
- 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. In1995 there was a re-establishment of diplomatic ties between two countries.
How did they live?
- The photos and exhibition shows that the US prisoners had a quite comfortable living conditions thanks to the time for playing, learning and practicing their religions.
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.
III. Tourist information
- Location: No. 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
- Hoa Lo Prison Entrance 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
IV. Local tips
IV.1. Appropriate time to visit
- Visitors had better not visit the prison in the winter because the cold weather and the low temperature in the prison might make you feel uncomfortable.
- The best suitable season is the autumn from August to October.
IV.2. Regulations when visiting
- Don’t bring dynamites, inflammable things during the visit
- Only put flowers and incense on the memorial area
IV.3. How to get there
- From Old Quarter:
- Walk: about 19mins
- By taxi: Taxi (11.500đ – 17.500VND/km)
- By bus: No 02, 30, 32, 33, 34, 38, 71 ( Cost: 7000 VNDs/ ticket)
IV.4. Dress code
- Visitors should pay attention to appropriate outfit to express their respect to political heroes.
- Specifically, no hat, shorts or mini skirt when visiting worshipping/sanctuary parts.
V. Related tour
Visitors can choose one of two related tours to Hoa Lo prison. However, if you want to get know more about the grim history and war of Vietnam, there are 2 references we’d like to give you: Long Bien Bridge – A symbol of Hanoian Courageousness During War Time and Vietnam National Museum of History – An Architecturally Impressive Museum
Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi is a historical attraction to many local and foreign visitors.
Pay a visit to this prison to experience the history with your own eyes.
Let get a guide from Az Local Trip to explore Hoa Lo Museum with a local experience.