Travel Report: Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi.
Hoa Lo Prison, Hanoi, Vietnam.
If you’re visiting Hanoi and have the means to treat yourself to a luxurious stay, one might consider the Hilton Hanoi Opera. I’m sure you can picture the place, without even looking. Rooms feature elegantly handcrafted traditional Vietnamese furniture. Moreover, there’s a giant swimming pool, a full range of spa facilities and a fancy French restaurant where the tables overlook Hanoi Opera House.
During my stay in the Vietnamese capital I got to visit The Hanoi Hilton, though it certainly wasn’t the hotel described above. In fact, this Hanoi Hilton was an exceptionally grim place officially known as Hoa Lo Prison. Nevertheless, it stands as an unmissable site for anyone keen to wade knee deep into an essential chapter of Vietnam’s modern history.
Hoa Lo Prison was a compound of many names. French colonialists built it in the late 1880s in order to silence Vietnamese revolutionaries seeking national independence. The French called the place Maison Centrale (Central House), a common term in France for maximum security detention centres.
The Vietnamese dubbed the prison Hỏa Lò, a term with multiple meanings. It works as a direct translation of the word stove, but can also be understood as fiery furnace or hellhole. Indeed the French built the complex on Hoa Lo Street, a long road packed with shops selling wood and coal fire stoves back in Hanoi’s pre-colonial days.
Hoa Lo Prison.
While city authorities demolished most of the prison in the 1990s, a few of the original cells still remain. Inside, I found bony, plastic sculpture prisoners shackled to iron bars.
The Vietnamese political prisoners held here suffered appalling conditions. And today’s museum definitely doesn’t shy away from those harsh realities. After much reflection, I’ve decided not to go into the grim details. Especially as much of the abuse is so similar to that documented in my article on Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Cambodia.
A number of haunting paintings hang in the dark, narrow corridors that connect the larger holding rooms to the solitary cells. One of these, pictured above, shows a prisoner being led away for execution in the stone courtyard outside.
In said courtyard there are further depictions of prisoners carved into the compound wall. This is also where you’ll find the museum’s main memorial. In the 1930s Hoa Lo held up to 1400 people. This increased to over 2000 by the 1950s. Despite the awful conditions and regular executions, an unbreakable defiance shone bright among many of the inmates.
Somehow, right under the noses of the guards, they managed to read smuggled revolutionary texts and plan future uprisings. Several prisoners even went on to reach high ranking positions in the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Bare Feet, Steely Will.
In another courtyard, a newly opened exhibition led me deep into the narrative of The Vietnamese Resistance. Titled Bare Feet, Steely Will, its photo boards highlight the key events on the road to independence. It also features over 250 war mementos from Vietnamese veterans, as well as character profiles on the country’s most celebrated “resistance heroes”.
Take Nguyen Thi Dinh, for example, the Vietnam People’s Army’s first ever female general. Born into a peasant family in Ben Tre Province, she became a skilled soldier from a young age.
In the 1940s she fought with The Viet Minh against the French and spent years in various French prisons. Later, in the 1960s, she became a founding member of The National Liberation Front. And led the so-called Long Hair Warriors as the chairwoman of the South Vietnam Women’s Liberation Association.
In her later years she served on the central committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In 1976 Cornell University published her memoirs, No Other Road to Take. She was also the recipient of the Lenin Peace Prize. And, following her death, crowned a Hero of the People’s Armed Forces. Talk about a life lived.
A long alleyway in the heart of the museum provides a complete overview of the prison’s history. After Vietnam gained independence the government transformed the compound into an exhibition and education centre focused on the revolution. But in the mid 1960s it became a prison once more during The Vietnam War.
Hoa Lo Prison.
In fact, the North Vietnamese government believed Hoa Lo would be the perfect place to incarcerate captured American pilots. According to museum records, the first to arrive was Lieutenant Everett Alvarez Jr after he was shot down in 1964. The poor guy ended up giving eight years and seven months of his life to Hoa Lo. This made him one of the longest serving POWs in U.S. military history.
Life at the prison was famously terrible. The guards routinely beat and tortured inmates, while many pilots got sick from unsanitary water and rotten food.
Soon enough they began calling it The Hanoi Hilton, a term reportedly coined by the pilot Bob Shumaker. As the story goes, he carved the name into the handle of a bucket and used to swing it back and forth while greeting new arrivals.
Amusingly, the museum goes out of its way to paint a rosy picture of prison life. There’s a whole section dedicated to how the pilots were treated with “the utmost respect“. And how they had all kinds of facilities and activities to make them comfortable. Don’t believe it? Just look at these guys playing baseball, soccer and hanging out on the barracks’ steps with broad smiles on their faces.
The Hanoi Hilton.
Hoa Loa’s most famous inmate was an American pilot by the name of John McCain. The man who would eventually run against Barack Obama in the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election arrived at The Hanoi Hilton on October the 26th 1967.
It was a miracle he even made it through the entrance gate. Having parachuted into Hanoi’s Truc Bach Lake, McCain arrived at Hoa Lo with fractured arms, a broken leg and crushed shoulders. To begin with prison guards refused to treat him. But then someone discovered that his father was a hugely respected admiral. Suddenly, he was off to hospital for six weeks of (substandard) treatment. In that time his hair turned white and he lost around 23 kilos.
Fascinatingly, the museum showcases McCain’s original flight suit, parachute, helmet, boots and other personal possessions. Once he was back to something resembling good health, McCain found himself transferred to another Hanoi prison where he served two years in solitary confinement!
You would forgive him for never wanting to come back to Hanoi. And yet, John returned to Hoa Lo several times as a U.S. senator pushing for improved political ties between Vietnam and The U.S.
I came across some really curious items during my wanderings around the museum. I’ll sign this piece off with my favourite, a translated handwritten copy of President Ho Chi Minh’s 1969 New Year’s Message. Scrawled by an anonymous pilot, it reads:
Last year was full of glorious victories. This year the forefront’s sure to win still bigger ones. For independence, for freedom. Let’s fight so the yanks quit and the puppets topple. Forward! Fighters, countrymen! North and south reunited, could there be happier spring!
Unfortunately, the prison has been closed for most of the pandemic and, at the time of writing, remains shut. In normal times they open seven days a week between the hours of 08:00-17:00. Entrance is just 30.000VND (£0.90/€1.00/$1.30) For the latest info, check their website.
For more on Vietnam’s amazing capital, have a look at my other pieces from around Hanoi.
Like these? Then why not have a leaf through my articles from across Vietnam.
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I travel all over the country and into the countryside. There are still 7 re education camps in Vietnam sort of old concentration camps for those crazy that still do not like HCM ….
I have travelled all over the country too. I heard about such re-education camps, but didn’t visit one. Hoa Lo is a special complex with a deep history related to two distinct eras of Vietnamese history. I find it’s narrative disturbing but fascinating.
I’ll admit that I didn’t connect the dots at first and was thinking that you’d booked a room at the Hanoi Hilton. Glad you didn’t. I was struck by the wall carvings in the courtyard. I don’t know any technical name for them but they were like a recessed bas relief. Beautifully done for such an unpleasant subject.
Yes those carvings are really impressive. I tried to find out who the artist was but there is a distinct lack of information on the subject. I wouldn’t have minded a stay at the “other” Hanoi Hilton, but a bit costly even for my decent budget at the time.
Amazing history in this place. John McCain was a hero who was deeply disrespected by President BoneSpurs, because he was captured, so how could he be a hero? Too bad John did not live long enough to become president. I find it amazing how all countries tend to paint their POW treatment with a rosy brush. Ahhhh, humanity. Thanks for sharing. Allan
Yes I too was disgusted by President Dump’s awful treatment of McCain. Especially after he died, just despicable. Regarding McCain’s detainment, I think he said something along the lines of “I like the ones that didn’t get caught”.
So, as a true narcissist, he liked himself………..
Fascinating as always. I learn so much from you about an area of the world I’ve yet to visit. It’s always sobering to visit places like this, but I think it’s good that we’re able to do so, to educate us on the atrocities of the past and hopefully prevent us from making the same mistakes again.
Aw thanks Diana, it’s not easy to provide a potted history of places like these. Ideally you want to give a thorough overview without making it too dense. Thanks for your kind words. And yes, these places “should” serve as lessons to us all.
Yes, should is definitely the operative word here…
So interesting to read about the first woman general and a little on her journey. And to read about John McCain- I had known he was a POW but I didn’t know that this was where he was. These stories of resilience and of taking such a horrible experience and using it to try and make things better is inspiring. I always feel that you do a great job in writing about places like these. You give a good overview of the history while still being graceful with the realities.
Thank you Meg! Blushing a bit here, appreciate the kind words. I wonder if some readers figure I go searching for these dark places of history. But really, they just happen to be in the countries I visit, ha.
Fascinating Leighton, your words and photos giving me a deeper insight into Vietnam’s troubled history.
It’s a fascinating place Marion. And, after the unwaveringly grim genocide prisons of Cambodia, this one felt comparatively lite.
Great recap on such a grim place, never easy to learn about such gruesome history.
Thanks for checking it out Lyssy, I know which Hanoi Hilton I’d rather stay in.
I forget that John McCain had served in the war! Although I didn’t always align with his political views, I still deeply respect his long career in the military and politics. His dedication to a more-peaceful world is something that more politicians should get on board with, and learning about his experience (as well as the thousands of Vietnamese prisoners) in such a “hellhole,” as you mentioned, is very eye-opening, to say to least.
Totally agree with you on McCain. It’s hard to imagine going through all that and then returning to promote U.S.-Vietnamese unity.
We were there a few years ago..it was a tragic site to see .Saw photos of John McCain in POW. Seeing war zone areas around the world are heartbreaking 💔 But I always want see our world .
Agree wholeheartedly. You have to take the rough with the smooth while on the road. Thanks for stopping by.
Fascinating if gruesome history. We were only able to read the displays in the street outside on our visit, again due to the pandemic. Definitely on the list for when we return. What a great shot of the family reuniting, not surprised you reproduced that one – such unbridled joy.
Glad to have taken you on the tour you were unable to have. I know you’re gonna get back there at some point, I look forward to reading your take.
Wow, it must have been so interesting to learn about the road to independence for Vietnam. It’s so important to learn about all of this history, thanks for sharing as always.
Thanks Han, Vietnam’s modern history is tumultuous, but fascinating.
I have just spent the weekend in a Hilton hotel, I could not find any mention of this foreign branch. Interesting article, as always. Thanks Leighton.
We didn’t manage to get here during our brief stay in Hanoi so I found this especially fascinating. We did see where John McCain parachuted into the lake and were told that the plane was left there for some time afterwards – I have no idea if that is true.
Thanks for dropping by Sarah, glad you enjoyed this piece. The McCain lake spot is indeed a cool spot, so much so that I made sure to include it in my Hanoi roundup post. What a sight that would have been to see the wreckage of the plane in the water.
you do amazing job to present the history and darkness of this prison. thanks for great article. I didn’t know about John mccain backstory
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, it’s really appreciated! I agree that the history is equal part fascinating and horrifying.