Hoa Lo Prison: Vietnam’s Infamous Fortress of Horror

Hoa Lo Prison (Vietnamese spelling: Nhà tù Hoả Lò) used to be known as one of the most gruesome prisons in Southeast Asia. Visitors can still see the French name sign ‘Maison Centrale’ on the entrance.

Hoa Lo Prison is in Hoan Kiem District which is the center of Hanoi. It’s on Hoa Lo Street where many stores used to sell wood and charcoal stoves since before colonial times. The name Hỏa Lò can be translated as ‘fiery furnace’ or ‘stove’. 

Things to See in the Hoa Lo Prison

Things to See in the Hoa Lo Prison
[ image from Hoalo.vn ]

Hoa Lo Prison’s construction was a symbolic act of suppressing popular revolution. For this reason, the whole 12 000 m2 area was built from the best materials imported from France, resulting in one of the sturdiest prisons in all of Indochina at the time. 

Nowadays, only 2 434 m2 is preserved as a relic. Inside are exhibits spanning its history from a village to a prison during French Cochinchina and then the American War, to the present day.

Inmates’ Lives in Hoa Lo Prison

Inmates’ Lives in Hoa Lo Prison
[ by Kathy from Flickr ]

Hoa Lo made its way into Vietnamese history due to the brutality of its wardens and methods of torture. Visitors can see dioramas of inmates shackled by their ankles and unable to lie down. The tortures are also depicted through carved paintings.

‘Cachot’ is French for ‘dungeon’ which were of course the isolation chambers for disobedient inmates. Here they induced permanent trauma on the prisoners with beatings and tortures, then shackled them to eat and defecate in the same cramped space.

The most famous exhibit here is the guillotine used for the execution of many Vietnamese prisoners. This horrific contraption is also what landed Hoa Lo Prison in the top 10 most infamous prisons in the world.

Revolutionary Activities in Hoa Lo Prison

The sewer where prisoners escaped
The sewer where prisoners escaped
[ by Franz Venhaus from Flickr ]

Despite the horrendous conditions, prisoners still managed to conduct revolutionary activities. They held secret classes to instill political doctrines in other captives. Many of the future leading Communist figures in North Vietnam spent time in Hoa Lo during the 1930s and 1940s.

Maison Centrale was the “impenetrable and inescapable” pride of French colonialists. However, revolutionaries were still able to escape. In one instance they sawed through the iron bars of the sewers below the execution field— which you can see when you come to Hoa Lo.

This is also the place where John McCain – former US senator for Arizona – was held captive from 1967 to 1973. His confiscated belongings including his uniform, life vest, and parachute are still on display in Hoa Lo.

The History of the Hoa Lo Prison

Hoa Lo Prison was built on the ground of Phu Khanh Village (làng Phụ Khánh). It was the only traditional handicraft village in Thang Long Citadel that sold clay pots and stoves. The village was commonly called Hoa Lo Village, hence Hoa Lo Street later on.

During the French Colonial Period

Inmates shackled in Hoa Lo Prison
Inmates shackled in Hoa Lo Prison
[ by Gary Todd from Flickr ]

In 1896, French colonialists built Hoa Lo for political prisoners and named it Maison Centrale (nhà tù trung ương). During this period, Hoa Lo was divided into 4 areas of A and B (for inmates with less severe crimes), C (for French and other foreign prisoners), and D (for death row inmates).

The prison was located in the central urban location near Hanoi’s French Quarter. During the 1910s through the 1930s, street peddlers would toss letters, tobacco, and even opium over the walls. 

By 1954, it had held more than 2000 inmates at any given time. The French then left Hanoi following their defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Accords. 

Hoa Lo Prison came under the authority of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Thanks to its historical significance, it then served as an education center for revolutionary activities.

During the American War

Flight suit of John McCain
Flight suit of John McCain
[ by Raymond June from Flickr ]

Later, the North Vietnamese used it for U.S. prisoners of war (POWs). The inmates sarcastically called it the “Hanoi Hilton”.

In early 1967, a new area was opened inside and was dubbed ‘Little Vegas’ by prisoners. The buildings there were also nicknamed after Las Vegas Strip landmarks because many of the captured pilots were trained at a base near Las Vegas.

There are many controversies surrounding the North Vietnamese treatment of American POWs in accordance with the Third Geneva Convention of 1949. After a number of political interventions, prisoners’ living conditions gradually improved around 1970.

Visiting the Hoa Lo Prison

The guillotine in Hoa Lo Prison
The guillotine in Hoa Lo Prison
[ by Falco Ermert from Flickr ]
  • Ticket price: 30 000 VND per person
  • Personal guides and audio guides are available for a small fee.

How to get to the Hoa Lo Prison

It’s easy getting to Hoa Lo Prison since it’s in the center of Hanoi. There are many interesting destinations in the same district like the Hoan Kiem Lake, St. Joseph’s Cathedral, Hanoi Opera House, Vietnamese’s Women Museum, Old Quarter, and so on which you can easily walk to.Check out our article on ‘25 Best Things To Do in Hanoi’ to read more about how to get to Hoa Lo Prison and other destinations around.

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