Hoa Lo Prison
Thename Hoa Lo, commonly translated as “fiery furnace” or even “Hell’shole”, also means “stove”. The name originated from the street name”Pho Hoa Lo”, due to the concentration of stores selling wood stovesand coal-fire stoves along the street from pre-colonial times.
Theprison was built in Hanoi by the French, in dates ranging from1886–1889 to 1898 to 1901, when Vietnam was still part of FrenchIndochina. The French called the prison Maison Centrale – atraditional euphemism to denote prisons in France. It was located nearHanoi’s French Quarter. It was intended to hold Vietnamese prisoners,particularly political prisoners agitating for independence who wereoften subject to torture and execution. A 1913 renovation expanded itscapacity from 460 inmates to 600. It was nevertheless oftenovercrowded, holding some 730 prisoners on a given day in 1916, afigure which would rise to 895 in 1922 and 1,430 in 1933. By 1954 itheld more than 2000 people; with its inmates held in subhumanconditions, it had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation and ofthe bitterness of the Vietnamese towards the French.
Knownwidely by the nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ given to it by the Americansduring the Second Indochina War, Hoa Lo Prison was originallyestablished by the French colonial government in 1896 for the purposeof detaining political prisoners and formed part of a northern networkof ‘unjust and cruel prisons’ which included Cao Bang, Son La, Lai Chauand Hai Phong. Many leading revolutionaries were incarcerated hereduring the French colonial period, including Phan Boi Chau, Hoang TrongMau, Luong Van Can, Nguyen Quyen, Nguyen Luong Bang and five futureGeneral Secretaries of the Communist Party – Nguyen Van Cu, Le Duan,Truong Chinh, Nguyen Van Linh and Do Muoi. Between 1964 and 1973 theprison’s inmates included several captured American pilots, notablySenator John McCain and Douglas ‘Pete’ Peterson, America’s firstAmbassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Mostof the original prison was demolished in 1996 to make way for the HanoiTowers (now Somerset Grand Hanoi) serviced apartment and officecomplex, but the southernmost corner has been preserved and reopened tothe public as a memorial to the revolutionaries who died here inatrocious conditions. Visitors can view the original cells, completewith leg-irons, along with a selection of bilingual (Vietnamese andEnglish) displays illustrating the horrors of life in the prison duringthe French colonial period.
Conditionswere appalling; food was watery soup and bread. Prisoners werevariously isolated, starved, beaten, tortured for countless hours andparaded in anti-American propaganda. “It is easy to die but hard tolive,” a prison guard told one new arrival, “and we will show you justhow hard it is to live.” The prison is really “A Hell on Earth”.
The Hanoi Hilton was depicted in the eponymous 1987 Hollywood movie TheHanoi Hilton. Hanoi Tower, built on the site of the infamous prison”Hanoi Hilton”; the entrance to the remaining parts of the prisonvisible in the foreground. By 1996, most of the walls of the HanoiHilton had been torn down to make way for new construction. Portions ofthe walls were retained for historical reasons. The Vietnamese alsohave bitter memories of the prison, for many communist revolutionarieswere kept and tortured there. In 1998, the old front of the prison waspainted and restored and the remaining portions of the prison wereturned into a tourist site. Some of the cells have been opened andconsiderable information about Vietnamese prisoners is available. Theinformation about the U.S. prisoners of war is unreliable. There is nowa Hilton Hotel in Hanoi, called the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, whichopened in 1999. It was built decades after the Vietnam War was over,but Hilton carefully avoided reusing the dreaded name Hanoi Hilton.
HoaLo Prison is a historical attraction to many local and foreignvisitors. You should pay a visit to the prison to experience thehistory with your own eyes.