This prison gained notoriety during the 1960s, when US prisoners-of-war here dubbed it the “Hanoi Hilton,” an ironic comment on the terrible conditions that they had to endure. It was originally built by the French in 1896 and was called Maison Centrale.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum
In those days it was used to house Vietnamese prisoners who were fighting to rid the country of its colonial oppressors, and it continued to operate until the 1990s. Most of the buildings were then razed to make way for the Hanoi Towers, which now stand on the site, but a small section of the prison was kept as a museum to show the world how cruelly Vietnamese independence fighters were treated. The dingy cells feature plaster models of emaciated prisoners shackled in chains, and it’s easy to imagine how awful the experience for inmates must have been. One room displays a gruesome guillotine, and a couple of other rooms show items that once belonged to American prisoners, along with photographs of them apparently having fun playing volleyball and laughing together.
This thought-provoking site is all that remains of the former Hoa Lo Prison, ironically nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by US POWs during the American War. Most exhibits relate to the prison’s use up to the mid-1950s, focusing on the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France. A gruesome relic is the ominous French guillotine, used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries. There are also displays focusing on the American pilots who were incarcerated at Hoa Lo during the American War.
These pilots include Pete Peterson (the first US ambassador to a unified Vietnam in 1995), and Senator John McCain (the Republican nominee for the US presidency in 2008). McCain’s flight suit is displayed, along with a photograph of Hanoi locals rescuing him from Truc Bach Lake after being shot down in 1967.
The vast prison complex was built by the French in 1896. Originally intended to house around 450 inmates, records indicate that by the 1930s there were close to 2000 prisoners. Hoa Lo was never a very successful prison, and hundreds escaped its walls over the years – many squeezing out through sewer grates.