Hoa Lo Prison Museum: A Maison Centrale in Hanoi, Vietnam

Hoa Lo Prison Museum or Hoa Lo Prison Memorial Relic (Vietnamese: Nhà Tù Hỏa Lò) was a Prison built by French from 1896 and called Maison Centrale to detain Vietnamese Prisoners, who fought agains the French Colonialists for Independence of the Country. This was famous with the name "Hilton Hanoi" by American Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. This was the place to detain Mr John McCain (Former Member of the United State Senate) and Pete Peterson (Who later became the first US Ambassador in Vietnam).

  • Location:  1 Hoa Lo Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
  • Opening hours:  from 8h00 to 17h00 every day except special holidays.
  • Ticket price:  VND 30,000 / turn.

Hoa Lo Prison

The name "Hoa Lo" means "Hoa - Fire" & "Lo - Stove" came from the original street name “Pho Hoa Lo - Hoa Lo Street”, as this area were a Ceramic Village and selling wood stoves and coal-fire stoves along the street from pre-colonial times.

The Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French from 1886 to 1901, when the country was still part of French Indochina. The French named the prison Maison. It was intended to detain Vietnamese prisoners, who fought agains French for independence of the country.

Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Lo Prison is known widely by the nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ given to it by the American Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. From 1964 to 1973 the prisoners detained here included several captured American pilots - who were shot down in Hanoi, notably US Senator John McCain and Mr Douglas ‘Pete’ Peterson, who was later the first America’s first Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Most of the construction was demolished in 1996 to make way for the Hanoi Towers (now Somerset Grand Hanoi Hotel) serviced apartment and office complex. But the southernmost corner of building has been preserved and reopened to the public as a memorial to the revolutionaries who had died here in atrocious conditions. Visitors can see 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 time.

The Hoa Lo Prison Museum was depicted in the eponymous 1987 Hollywood movie The Hanoi Hilton. By 1996, most of the walls of Hoa Lo Prison Museum had been torn down to make way for new construction. Portions of the walls of the prison were retained for historical reasons. The Vietnamese communist also have bitter memories of the prison, for many communist people were kept and tortured there. In 1998, the old front of Hoa Lo Prison was repainted and restored and the remaining portions of the prison were turned into a tourist sightseeing spot.

  • Architecture and Structure in Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Lo Prison has an area of more than 12,000 square meters with the main items:
•    A house for guarding
•    A house used as a hospital
•    Seven houses to detain the accused prisoners
•    A workshop for making iron, textiles, leather products
•    Four cells for dangerous and rules violated prisoners.

The prison is surrounded by a 4m tall of the fortified stone wall, 0.5 m thick with a high voltage system to prevent prisoners from escaping. Under the inner wall is a 3m wide pavement that is used for guards to go patrol. Four corners have four watchtowers, with the ability to observe the entire side of the inside patrol way and outside of the prison. All iron doors and locking systems are carried from France.

The main gate is built with a two-storey building, structured in rolling arches style. The prison area has 2 lines of iron gates. From one camp to another camp, they must follow a way of having many iron gates, so the prisoners can hardly escape.

Stepping through the prison main gate area, you can see many narrow, dark corridors that lead to the prisoners’ confinement area. The place is separated by a large, fortified door, nearly 4m tall, with a solidified iron locking system, where prisoners are chained into two long chains on the concrete podium. The light of this zone is only available from small window frames that create a dark scene.

The opposite of the capture area is the administrative area for guarding, consisting of two houses The first floor has a small corridor in the middle position, on the right side has endowment station, patrol walkway, clerk’s office, detention room, and night guards, on the left is the aisle path, the room of director. The second floor is used as a guard’s house with two porches, a dining room, a living room, and four bedrooms. One side is the infirmary, the right side of the stairs is the kitchen, the laundry, the left side of the stairs is the living room, the medicine room, the grocery stores. The second floor of this house is also reserved for prisoners of Europe, on the right side has four rooms and a woman’s infirmary. The left side also has four rooms and a male infirmary.

The other areas have only one floor and three clusters: Right cluster includes four detention rooms and outbuildings of the supervisors, a factory, a charity hospital, a boarding house for 30 women; a supervisor’s room with bathroom and injection room, 12 small rooms (cells) for dangerous prisoners, a gendarme station, a common jail holds up to 100 accused people. The left side has 4 cells and the supervisor of the home side, a common place for 40 people, a room for the supervisor. At the end of the prison has a room for about 20 women, the injection room, a common cell for 80 people, a room for the supervisor. The water from the prison is supplied from the Water factory of Hanoi.
Highlights of Hoa Lo Prison.

The most famous thing in Hoa Lo Prison is the guillotine. The guillotine was designed from 2 to 4 m high by wooden columns. The above is a large blade held by latches. The under are two semicircular pieces of boards combined into a perfect circle. Its purpose is to keep the heads of dead prisoners ahead.

Also in Hoa Lo Prison has a dangerous place called Cachot. This is considered the hell of hell. It has detained prisoners who have opposed behaviors, or dangerous offenders. It is extremely dark, cramped and airless. Cachot is a horrifying nightmare with prisoners. This is where the tortured, beaten scenes took place. Most of the prisoners at this place after a short time are so crazy, mangy, etc.

  • What to See and Do at Hoa Lo Prison Museum?

Visitors can take photos, and observe the imprisoned life in the small cells (1.8m x 1.8 m). Windows are always closed and the prison is always full of people. In this prison, you’ll see the horrified iron shackles and many artifacts and photographs of prisoners who are wearing leg chains, and can not stand up or move. Prisoners often starved, tortured, are always beaten and isolated. Thereby, visitors can understand the spirit of the revolutionary soldiers, and the humanitarian policy of Vietnamese people against the American pilots prisoner in the Vietnam War.
Besides, this has the special architecture style of the French in the 19th century, so you can take photos or simply just enjoy it to know more.

  • How to Get to Hoa Lo Prison:

Hoa Lo Prison  is one of the most famous attractions in the capital, so finding and getting to this is so easy by many transportations such as taxi, public bus, motorbike or bicycle.

This prison is at the corner of Hai Ba Trung Street, in the south of Hoan Kiem Lake, so it can take about 15 minutes (5 km) from the lake to the prison if you drive a motorbike.

If you want to use a public bus with a cheaper price (about VND 15,000 / person), you can use many available lines: 02, 09, 23. Besides, this prison is contributed by double decker bus lines in the capital.

  • Travel Tips When Visiting Hoa Lo Prison:

Travelers visiting Hoa Lo prison must notice the instructions on safety guidelines and fire prevention, the luggage must be sent in the special places. Especially, do not touch and move objects in the prison. You can visit the memorial area to burn incense, so you should not use it in forbidden areas.

Hoa Lo Prison nowadays is no more used as a function: containing prisoners, but when visiting this place, visitors can feel the patriot ideal of prisoners, harsh punishments in the hell of hell, or just simply understand more about the unique structure of the prison.

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Hoa Lo Prison Museum: A Maison Centrale in Hanoi, Vietnam Hoa Lo Prison Museum: A Maison Centrale in Hanoi, Vietnam

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