Hoa Lo Prison, more commonly known as the “Hanoi Hilton Hotel” in the States, is an infamous prison that gained notoriety during the Vietnam War for holding shot down American pilots. The prison has a much longer history however, none of which is any bit prettier.
We made our way to the prison from our AirBNB just after noon. It was about a 6 km walk, so we gave ourselves a fair amount of time to make it there. Along the way, we stopped by the Loving Hut for a vegan lunch out. Once we’d eaten, we continued on our way to the prison. We had a little difficulty getting there, because my phone had died and we couldn’t rely on my GPS, and only had a few maps to go by. But after several hours of walking, we made it to our destination. One of the big clues to us finding the prison, was also rather ominous – tall walls covered in thousands of sharps of broken glass at the top, further lined with barbed wire.
Entry to the prison was 30,000 Dong each, a fairly reasonable price.
The prison has been converted into a museum now, although the majority of the facility has been torn down. What remains is a few holding cells (death row), a holding block, a few other courtyards and cells.
Hoa Lo prison was originally built in 1898 by the French in Hanoi and called Maison Centrale – Central House. Originally the site of textiles factory and market, the French razed the area and turned it into a prison. It was designed after traditional French prison methods such as thick and tall walls, heavy iron gates, but with some notable Vietnamese influences such as large courtyards. Capacity could hold 600 people, but frequently help over 700 people on any given day. By the mid 1950s, over 2000 people were held at a time, pushing prisoners into extremely subhuman conditions.
The French were often very cruel to the prisoners, and used the prison as well as it’s central location within Hanoi, as a means of intimidation to impose colonial powers. Political dissidents and rebels were confined within the walls, and used the prison as a means of educating and creating the future Communist Party and leaders. Ho Chi Minh being one of the notable prisoners, though almost every party leader that would emerge later during the Vietnam War would have served time here.
Warders would often withhold food, or serve moldy rice to the prisoners. Rancid water would be given, and prisons would live in conditions of squalor. During summers, it would be difficult to breathe, and prisoners would arrange for the elderly or sick to be close to the fresh air; while during the winters, prisoners would have to lay chest to back to keep warm with no materials for warmth given. Women and children were also kept in their own cells, usually painted tar black to decrease moral.
The treatment of the Vietnamese at Hoa Lo by the French leaves a bitterness towards them to this day. However, once the Vietnamese won their independence against the French, they quickly turned the prison to their own gain and began holding their own political dissidents. There is even one of the guillotines that was used at the prison on display.
Once the Vietnam War was fully under way, the North began to hold American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Many notable pilots were shot down and sent to Hoa Lo including John McCain. They claim to have John McCain’s flight suit , however he has said that he does not think what they have on display was his. Which side is correct, I’m not really sure – probably McCain.
The propaganda against the Americans here is pretty bad. The prison claims that Americans were treated with civility and respect. There is no mention of the torture that the soldiers endured, nor of the deplorable treatments given to the Southern Vietnamese fighters. They also have a large display showing protests around the world condemning US involvement in the war.
The prison continued it’s use after the US withdrew and released the American prisoners in 1975. Eventually, the prison discontinued all use, and was demolished in 1990 and converted into a museum.
Luckily, the majority of the prison focuses on the prison itself, and actually does a fair job of removing politics from the exhibits. We managed to spend a little under an hour and half exploring the prison. If you find yourself in Hanoi, we recommend giving yourself a few hours to check it out, it’s certainly one of the many eye-openers you’ll find within the country.