Hoa Lo prison - A hell on earth

Last updated - May 23, 2023
Hoa Lo prison - A hell on earth

Hoa Lo Prison, initially known as "Maison Centrale" was a notorious prison complex in Indochina, renowned for its size and brutality. It later gained notoriety as the "Hanoi Hilton" among US prisoners of war (POWs) held there. While most of the prison was demolished in the 1990s, a portion of it was preserved and converted into a popular museum, now regarded as one of the top attractions in Hanoi.

Seeing the relics, photos and the atmosphere in this prison museum will be very emotional for any visitors. Let together with Ama Journey discover this special place.

The history of Hoa Lo prison

Hoa Lo prison was built in the place called Hoa Lo Village. In Vietnamese, Hoa Lo means the fire earthen stove. The French colonists moved the village to another place to get the land to  build the prison, that is why people called the prison with the name of the village “Hoa Lo prison".

The French referred to the prison as "Maison Centrale" or "Central House" a term used to designate prisons for dangerous individuals. The primary purpose of this prison was to incarcerate Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political activists advocating for independence.

Constructed by the French in 1896, the prison itself, along with the surrounding roads that led to it, spanned a total area of 12,908 square meters.

After a renovation in 1913, the capacity of Hoa Lo Prison was increased from 460 inmates to 600. However, even with this expansion, the prison became severely overcrowded, holding approximately 730 prisoners in 1916. Reaching 895 in 1922 and a staggering 1,430 in 1933. By 1954, the prison held over 2,000 people in deplorable conditions, characterized by inadequate food, unsanitary facilities, rampant diseases, and poor personal hygiene. These subhuman conditions, along with the prison's history, made it a symbol of colonialist exploitation and fueled Vietnamese resentment towards the French.

Recreated scene in Hoa Lo prison

Following the events of 1954, the prison underwent a name change and was renamed the "Hanoi Prisoners Detention Center." It was then placed under the jurisdiction of the Hanoi Military Administration, operating under the management of the city's authority. Notably, from 1964 to 1973, the prison also served as a place of detention for American pilots, who famously referred to it as the "Hanoi Hilton."

A veteran is touching when visit Hoa Lo prison

Among the prisoners held there were notable individuals such as US Senator John McCain and Douglas Brian Peterson, who served as the first US Ambassador to Vietnam.

In 1993, in response to the capital's development needs, the Vietnamese government made the decision to repurpose a section of Hoa Lo Prison. This area was transformed into a "Tower Center," serving as a hotel and office complex. Meanwhile, another portion of the prison, located adjacent to Hoa Lo Street, was preserved and renovated as the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial, maintaining its historical significance.

How to go to Hoa Lo prison ?

Located in Hoa Lo street between Hai Ba Trung and Ly Thuong Kiet street. It is really near the Old Quarter, just 1.5 km away from the Hoan Kiem Lake.

Maps to go from Hoan Kiem Lake to Hoa Lo prison

You can reach here easily by motorbike, taxi, or bus. Several buses, such as No.2, 9, 40, and 49, have stops near Hoa Lo. Or simply, you can walk there from your hotel in the Hanoi Old Quarter.
Another amazing bus is Hop on - Hop off bus with only 100 000 VND ( $ 5) . It will take you to almost all of the best attractions in Hanoi, including Hoa Lo prison.

Structure and Architecture of Hoa Lo prison

Hoa Lo Prison, in the past, was one of the largest and most formidable prisons in Indochina. It encompassed an expansive area of over 12,900 square meters, including both outer and inner sections.

Hoa Lo prison in the past

The prison is encircled by a 4-meter tall fortified stone wall, equipped with a high-voltage system to deter prisoner escapes. Inside the wall, there is a 3-meter wide guard patrol pavement. Four watchtowers are positioned at the corners, providing complete surveillance of both the inner patrol area and the exterior of the prison. All iron doors and locking systems were made in France for sure the highest security for the prison

Locking system in Hoa Lo prison

The prison's main entrance features a two-storey building designed in the style of rolling arches. Inside the prison compound, there are two rows of iron gates strategically placed to make escape extremely difficult for prisoners moving between different sections.

Upon entering the main gate area, one encounters a network of narrow and dimly lit corridors that lead to the prisoners' confinement area. This section is secured by a large fortified door, approximately 4 meters tall, equipped with a robust iron locking system. Here, prisoners are restrained by two long chains on a concrete podium. The only source of light in this area emanates from small window frames, creating a somber and gloomy atmosphere.

Prisoners are restrained the legs on a concrete podium

The prison complex comprises various structures, serving different purposes. These include a guardhouse, a designated hospital building, seven detention houses for accused prisoners, a workshop dedicated to ironwork, textiles, and leather production, as well as four specialized cells for housing dangerous individuals and those who have violated prison regulations.

Especially, in Hoa Lo prison, there is a notorious area known as the Cachot, often referred to as the "hell of hells." This section is designated for the confinement of individuals who have displayed oppositional behaviors or deemed dangerous offenders. The Cachot is an inhospitable nightmare, characterized by extreme darkness, cramped conditions, and a complete lack of ventilation. It instills fear and despair in all prisoners unfortunate enough to be confined within its walls.

A cachot in Hoa Lo prison

Presently, a modest area of approximately 2,500 square meters remains preserved and transformed into the Hanoi Hilton. This historical site serves as an educational space for people of all backgrounds in Vietnam, particularly the younger generations. Despite its past association with brutality and torture, the Hanoi Hilton has become a powerful symbol, showcasing the unwavering determination of prisoners and the revolutionary traditions of those who made sacrifices for the nation's independence and freedom. It stands as a testament to the indomitable spirit of those who resisted and fought for their ideals.

What to do and see in Hoa Lo prison ?

Visitors are permitted to capture photographs and witness the confined existence within the small cells, measuring 1.8 meters by 1.8 meters. The prison atmosphere is perpetually crowded, with windows tightly shut. Within these walls, the remnants of horrifying iron shackles and various artifacts serve as a chilling reminder of the prisoners who endured leg chains, rendering them unable to stand or move freely.

Prisoners were endured leg chains in Hoa Lo prison

A guillotine in Hoa Lo prison used during the French Colonial period

Starvation, torture, constant beatings, and isolation were prevalent experiences for the inmates. This harrowing environment allows visitors to grasp the resolute spirit of the revolutionary soldiers and gain insight into the humane treatment extended by the Vietnamese people towards American pilots held captive during the Vietnam War.

The American pilots played basketball in Hoa Lo prison

Additionally, the prison boasts a distinct architectural style influenced by the French during the 19th century. Visitors are welcome to photograph the surroundings or simply appreciate the structure as a means of acquiring deeper knowledge.

Tips when visiting Hoa Lo Prison

A small note for taking photos: Using your cell phones or Mirrorless Camera are highly recommended. A DSLR camera will make noise in the quiet and gloomy atmosphere. Please consider.

Visitors could rent an audio explanation. This should be recommended for better understanding. Even if you have a tour guide, he or she could not explain for you in this quiet place as that will make noise. The audio device renting will cost you 50 000 VND ( $ 2.2 )

Hoa Lo prison entrance ticket

The entrance ticket will be 30 000 VND ( $1.3), visitors will see the ticket counter right in the left of the main gate.

The opening hour: From 8.00 - 17.30 everyday in the year!

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