Hoa Lo Prison - History and Facts | History Hit

Hoa Lo Prison


Although only the small southern section of the prison remains, Hỏa Lò Prison – translated as ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘Hell’s hole’ – in Hanoi, Vietnam was a vastly overcrowded, brutally horrific colonial-era prison, nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by downed US pilots during the Vietnam War.

Antara Bate

29 May 2021

About Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Loa Prison was a famous prison located in Hanoi’s French District that received great notoriety because of its use by French colonial government, and later North Vietnamese fighters during the Vietnam War.

In its long history, the prison place became a significant place for the Vietnamese resistance movement, and later on became the main holding camp for American Prisoners of War that were captured during the war. During its active years, the conditions in this prison deteriorated as the number of prisoners increased, and in the years of the Vietnam War American POW were held there in a truly horrific environment, although Vietnam’s government denies those claims to this day.

Hoa Lo Prison history

The prison was built in stages between 1886 and 1901 in downtown Hanoi by the French (when Vietnam was still French Indochina), Hỏa Lò Prison – translated as ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘Hell’s hole’ – was a place of incomprehensible brutality. Originally intended for 450 inmates (but by the 1950s was home to over 2,000), Hỏa Lò went through three distinct periods.

During the colonial French era, it was known, as all urban French prisons were, as ‘Maison Centrale’ – Central House – and was intended to hold Vietnamese political prisoners who were agitating for independence, many of whom were subsequently tortured and executed. Inmates were kept in what has been described as ‘subhuman conditions’ but because of the central location, street peddlers could make extra money by tossing opium and tobacco as well as messages over the walls.

After the French suffered their unexpected defeat at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954, Vietnam was divided into North and South at the 17th Parallel and Hỏa Lò served as an education centre for revolutionary doctrine and activity. Then came the Vietnam War.

The first US prisoner arrived at Hỏa Lò in August 1964 and until 1973, almost 600 American POWs were interred here, including future Republican presidential nominee John McCain. The nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was sarcastically coined, their treatment was horrific and brutal and breached the Geneva Convention to which Vietnam was a signatory, although North Vietnamese propaganda suggested they were treated excellently and the Hanoi Hilton nickname was because it was like a hotel. It wasn’t.

By the early 1980s when the Americans had left, the prison’s usefulness was coming to an end and it was demolished in 1990. The government decided in 1993, to satisfy the development of the capital, part of Hoa Lo Prison would be used to build “Tower centre” with a hotel and offices and another part of prison next to Hoa Lo Street would be preserved to mark the site of Hoa Lo Prison.

In 1997 Hoa Lo Prison was recognised as a historical monument by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism.

Hoa Lo Prison today

Save for the small southern section, the prison was demolished in the mid-1990s and today a museum about the prison stands on the site. The museum is divided into several sections relating to different periods of the site’s history.

Hoa Lo Prison today portrays a different side of the horror stories told by former inmates despite the prominently displayed shackles hanging on the walls. Much of the emphasis is on the French colonial era, with less of a focus on the experiences of the American POW who were detained there.

Getting to Hoa Lo Prison

The prison is located at the corner of Hai Ba Trung Street, in the south of Hoan Kiem Lake. The easiest way to get to Hoa Lo Prison is by taxi.

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