Located in the heart of Hanoi Capital and known as one of the most inhumane prison in Vietnam with the most modern equipment at the time for the harshest punishment. Hoa Lo prison is a symbol of the Vietnamese patriots’ indomitable will and myriad sacrifice for the national independence
Right after my friend and I left the Temple of Literature, we walked for about 20 minutes to reach the famous Hoa Lo Prison. Initially, I had planned to visit Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum which is just a stone throw’s away from the Temple of Literature, but my friend insisted on visiting the Hoa Lo Prison which he did not want to miss. I ended up visiting the Fine Arts Museum on my own on my last day in Hanoi. (My friend had left Hanoi one day earlier).
However, do keep in mind that it makes more sense to visit the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum after visiting Temple of Literature as they are located so close to each other!
The French colonists who built the prison in 1896 called it Maison Centrale, which is the name you see above the front gate of Hoa Lo.
Entrance fee was a very reasonable 20,000 VND (about US$1).
The word ‘Hoa Lo’ means fiery furnace or earthen stoves. Why is the prison called Hoa Lo? Let’s delve a little into its interesting history.
The prison was built on the land of Phu Knanh Village which was famous for its earthen home appliances like kettles, teapots and portable stoves. The hand-made products of Phu Knanh Village were so famous that people came from far and wide to buy them. Accordingly, the village was also known as Hoa Lo Village – the village of portable earthen stoves. Phu Knanh villagers enjoyed a well-off life. That is, until the French colonists came and occupied Hanoi. They moved all the villagers, the pagodas and communal houses to other places, and replaced them with the prison, a courthouse and their headquarters.
Covering a total area of 12,908 square metres, Hoa Lo Prison was one of the largest and most concrete prisons in IndoChina at that time.
The purpose of this prison was to hold Vietnamese prisoners, especially political prisoners who were fighting for independence. Many of the prisoners were subjected to torture and execution. A few who survived the torture went on to become important political figures in Vietnam’s Communist Party after the defeat of the French.
It was reported that white rice given to prisoners were out of date, having parasite and very insipid. As a result, many prisoners suffered from heart oedema and as many as 40 prisoners died in a month
There was one part of my tour that was pretty creepy. It involved dark cells and dismal rooms with life-like replicas of suffering prisoners.
I reached the cachot area, which was another creepy place for me.
Cachot or dungeon is used to confine prisoners who break the regulations of the prison. The prisoners were kept separately and inhumanely in the narrow and dark dungeon and they had to eat and answer nature call on the same spot. All the prisoners confined here suffered from oedema, their bodies covered with scabies dues to the lack of light and air.
Finally, we came to the last gallery where one of the two guillotines used by the French colonists to cut off the heads of revolutionary patriotic prisoners in Hoa Lo Prison was displayed.
After the French was ousted in 1954, the Hoa Lo Prison was used to incarcerate anti-revolutionaries opposed to the Communist Party.
Later on, during the Vietnam War, Hoa Lo Prison was used to detain, torture and interrogate downed American pilots and soldiers. Although Vietnam maintained that the American prisoners were well-treated, many US Prisoners of War (POW) reported of torture, medical neglect, unsanitary conditions and being fed food contaminated with faeces. Many observers actually considered it a war crime.
The condition was so bad that the American POWs sarcastically gave the prison a new name – Hanoi Hilton. This, of course refers to the famous Hilton hotel chain, but guess what? When Hilton Corporation finally opened a hotel in Hanoi in 1999, they had to give it a funny name – “The Hilton Hanoi Opera” – to avoid any link to Hanoi Hilton!
Since Vietnam had maintained that the American POWs were well-treated, I was not surprised to see that there were not much exhibits related to the Americans. The museum was mainly focused on the French colonial period and the sufferings of the Vietnamese political prisoners.
There is actually one propaganda-filled room devoted to the American POW but I did not take any picture of it. Displays in the room claimed the Americans were well treated and even cited the nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ as proof that prisoners found the prison comparable to a hotel!
I have to say, my visit to Hoa Lo Prison was both interesting and creepy but well worth it! Definitely not a place you should skip in your itinerary if you are a first time visitor to Hanoi!