Hoa Lo, aka The Hanoi Hilton: an Abbreviated Tour

Most Americans like to refer to it as the Hanoi Hilton, but Hoa Lo Prison’s notorious history dates back well before the American War killed 3 million Vietnamese and claimed the lives of more than 57,000 US soldiers.

In literal translation, Hoa Lo means “fiery furnace”. The name comes from the potters who fired their kilns day and night in the area, but the prison soon gained a reputation as a true hell hole. First by the independence-seeking locals, then by the invading Americans.

With anti-colonialism sentiment on the rise, the French began construction in 1896, and hastily began filling its cells and stockades less than three years later before construction was completed. Originally built to house 500 inmates, it held more than 2000 by mid 1952. The bulk of its tenants were political prisoners, men and women, many of whom were involved in the early days of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Torture was common. It has its own dark and dank Death Row. Executions were carried out by guillotine. There’s a mobile guillotine and vivid pics of decapitations on display.

After Hanoi’s liberation from the French in October 1954, the jail housed common criminals until August of 1964, when it made way for downed and captured U.S. pilots. Among them was John McCain, who would later be known as the man who unleashed Sarah Palin onto the world. Here’s McCain’s flight suit and a picture of him being treated by a doctor. Looks a bit staged to me.

All of what remains of the complex –two-thirds of the former prison was demolished in 1993 to clear room for Hanoi Tower, a high rise office and apartment building– is now a museum, focusing primarily on the French period, both a blunt reminder of colonial brutality and a source of revolutionary pride.

If you’re looking for remnants of the American War period, you’ll be a bit disappointed. (This was after all, a prison built by the French to detain and torture pre-revolutionary Vietnamese.) There are two rooms dedicated to the U.S. POWs; besides the McCain flight suit, plenty of propaganda photos of generally happy-looking soldiers grace the walls. Among the most interesting items on display is a letter written by POW Monika Schwenn to the prison chief requesting permission to keep her cat upon release (click and then magnify the image below if you want to read the letter). There’s also a carton of L&M cigarettes, a gift to the prisoners from the International Red Cross. (Does the Red Cross still dole out cigarettes to soldiers these days?)

Admission 10,000 VND (0.51 USD/0.37 EUR); Open Tues-Sun 8:30-11:30 and 1:30-4:30

There is an actual Hilton in Hanoi, by the way. Opened in 1999, it was carefully named the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel.

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  1. Samantha says

    I found the prison to be one of the most interesting places I visited in Vietnam. I have a fascination with Dark tourism and I really enjoyed listening to all the stories from our guide about the prisoner escape attempts, John McCain etc…your post reminded me of our trip. Brings back good memories.

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