Just 5 minutes away from the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, Hoa Lo Prison is well worth a visit.
The name Hoa Lo, commonly translated as “fiery furnace” or even “Hell’s hole”, also means “stove”. The name originated from the street name “Pho Hoa Lo”, due to the concentration of stores selling wood stoves and coal-fire stoves along the street from pre-colonial times.
The prison was built in Hanoi by the French, in dates ranging from 1886–1889 to 1898 to 1901, when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina. The French called the prison Maison Centrale – a traditional euphemism to denote prisons in France. It was located near Hanoi’s French Quarter. It was intended to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners agitating for independence who were often subject to torture and execution. A 1913 renovation expanded its capacity from 460 inmates to 600. It was nevertheless often overcrowded, holding some 730 prisoners on a given day in 1916, a figure which would rise to 895 in 1922 and 1,430 in 1933. By 1954 it held more than 2000 people; with its inmates held in subhuman conditions, it had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation and of the bitterness of the Vietnamese towards the French.
Known widely by the nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ given to it by the Americans during the Second Indochina War, Hoa Lo Prison was originally established by the French colonial government in 1896 for the purpose of detaining political prisoners and formed part of a northern network of ‘unjust and cruel prisons’ which included Cao Bang, Son La, Lai Chau and Hai Phong. Many leading revolutionaries were incarcerated here during the French colonial period, including Phan Boi Chau, Hoang Trong Mau, Luong Van Can, Nguyen Quyen, Nguyen Luong Bang and five future General Secretaries of the Communist Party – Nguyen Van Cu, Le Duan, Truong Chinh, Nguyen Van Linh and Do Muoi. Between 1964 and 1973 the prison’s inmates included several captured American pilots, notably Senator John McCain and Douglas ‘Pete’ Peterson, America’s first Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Most of the original prison was demolished in 1996 to make way for the Hanoi Towers (now Somerset Grand Hanoi) serviced apartment and office complex, but the southernmost corner has been preserved and reopened to the public as a memorial to the revolutionaries who died here in atrocious conditions. Visitors can view the original cells, complete with leg-irons, along with a selection of bilingual (Vietnamese and English) displays illustrating the horrors of life in the prison during the French colonial period.
Conditions were appalling; food was watery soup and bread. Prisoners were variously isolated, starved, beaten, tortured for countless hours and paraded in anti-American propaganda. “It is easy to die but hard to live,” a prison guard told one new arrival, “and we will show you just how hard it is to live.” The prison is really “A Hell on Earth”.
The Hanoi Hilton was depicted in the eponymous 1987 Hollywood movie The Hanoi Hilton. Hanoi Tower, built on the site of the infamous prison “Hanoi Hilton”; the entrance to the remaining parts of the prison visible in the foreground. By 1996, most of the walls of the Hanoi Hilton had been torn down to make way for new construction. Portions of the walls were retained for historical reasons. The Vietnamese also have bitter memories of the prison, for many communist revolutionaries were kept and tortured there. In 1998, the old front of the prison was painted and restored and the remaining portions of the prison were turned into a tourist site. Some of the cells have been opened and considerable information about Vietnamese prisoners is available. The information about the U.S. prisoners of war is unreliable. There is now a Hilton Hotel in Hanoi, called the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, which opened in 1999. It was built decades after the Vietnam War was over, but Hilton carefully avoided reusing the dreaded name Hanoi Hilton.
Hoa Lo Prison is a historical attraction to many local and foreign visitors. You should pay a visit to the prison to experience the history with your own eyes. There are many Hanoi city tours or sightseeing tours that include Hoa Lo as a stop in their itineraries.