The prison is located on the street which sold wood and coal fire stoves. The prison’s nickname is Hell’s hole. Maison Centrale, the official name, housed up to 2000 prisoners in one night. You’ll be shocked as to how that was possible, given the size of the place. This was one big reason the French Colonialists gained such a bad reputation in Hanoi. It was the pinnacle of exploitation, a symbol that tarnished the French Empire.
It was assembled late 19th century as a deterrent to anyone who wanted anarchy or opposed French Rule. Revolutionary figures spent some time in Maison Centrale. Conditions were cruel throughout the prison. Actively opposing inmates were put into chains which rotted their flesh. Other inmates were cramped together in small rooms with poor sanitary conditions. Some starved to death. Others survived by eating parts of the garden and buying goods through the windows from outside merchants.
The prison was made famous in the USA for its occupation of US Soldiers during the American-Vietnamese War. After the prison came under the rule of the Vietnamese Government, it continued to be used at a house to keep inmates. In 1967, the prison converted an area for American POWS. Nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by US Prisoners, the conditions remained harsh. The late US Senator John McCain was one notable detainee. Rope bindings, beatings, irons and solitary confinement were frequent, as the prison guards maintained their side was receiving the same treatment by Americans in the POW Camps south of the country.
Hoa Lo Prison calmed down the treatment of all prisoners from 1969 onwards. American POW numbers increased, which created a new sense of community in the house. The prison was eventually closed in the 1990s and reopened as a museum. The museum tells stories from viewpoint of different prisoners, shows old cells used for captivity and has a torture room where methods of punishment were used. There is a big outdoor area dedicated to global unity, love and peace, with messages of unification and understanding from all over the world.
Hoa Lo Prison is a place to visit, but not a place to stay. It isn’t for the light-hearted and you should expect to experience a few graphic images and stories from this place. It’s a memorable experience, one which might make you think differently about the value of the local green spinach, morning glory.
Hoa Lo Prison Relic is located at 1 Hoa Lo, Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem. Opening hours are 08:00-17:00.