No, it’s not a pretty French maison. Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American POWs imprisoned there during the Vietnam War, is one of the best historical sites in Hanoi – a disturbing prison vividly keeping its own terrible history alive. Take its historical narrative with a pinch of salt, and it’s well worth a visit.
It’s very visual, with a gory guillotine once used on Vietnamese prisoners and a re-creation of prisoners chained to one another in its dark cells, as well as other interesting exhibits from both the American War and the French colonial period. You can even see the flight suit John McCain (yes, that one) wore as he was shot down and captured whilst on a bombing mission over Hanoi in 1967.
Although the prison is often best known for the Americans it held and their own horror stories, the museum overwhelmingly focuses on the prison’s much longer, much more brutal use under French colonial rule. A visit there and you really sense the anger and contempt felt by Vietnamese about their colonial past, sidelining the Americans’ experiences there. Its information signs emphatically describe the difference between the miserable and cruel treatment of their own under French rule, and the comparatively humane treatment of the American POWs later held here (but, of course, they would say that).
Colonial repression under the French
Built by the French in 1896-1901 to house predominantly political prisoners, the original space was much bigger than what’s left today, since much of the site was demolished in the 1990s. Its busiest period was during the height of the Vietnamese anticolonial resistance movement (between the 1930s and 1954) when the prison became overcrowded, holding up to 2000 inmates. A recreated prison cell illustrates this, with scores of captives shackled together in long lines with no privacy or room to move (above). Some did manage to escape through terrifyingly narrow sewers, now on display outside the prison.
You get a very strong sense of the dark side of keeping a foreign colony in check as you wander around the prison. The displays become steadily more revolting as you continue to see photos of cruelty, an array of torture weapons, solitary confinement cells, shackles, and evidence of executions of Vietnamese political prisoners – especially the infamous French guillotine (pictured above). The below image, taken from the prison, depicts the severed heads of Vietnamese executed for participating in a plot to poison a French garrison in 1908. Grim stuff.
“Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton”
By comparison the prison contains very little information about the American POWs held there during the Vietnam War. Predictably, Hoa Lo’s American captives are presented as having lived in relative luxury – well-treated and healthy, as if they really were staying in the “Hanoi Hilton”, as the POWs nicknamed it. This of course contradicts evidence from the Americans held there, who described beatings, rope bindings and solitary confinement among other incidents of poor treatment. The museum glosses over all this and the interrogation room, then known as the notorious “blue room”, now contains carefully selected photographs and artifacts from the Americans’ time there.
The star exhibit is John McCain’s flight suit – pictured left – worn when he was shot down by a missile during a bombing mission over Hanoi in 1967. McCain was only held here intermittently during his time as a POW; he detailed his experiences in his 1999 memoir, Faith of My Fathers.
The practical bits
- Entry cost around 20,000 VND (around $1) when I visited in July 2014.
- The prison is within walking distance from the Old Quarter (perhaps 25 minutes) although the heat makes you want to stop and buy a fresh coconut every ten paces!
- Allow for at least an hour there.
- For further detail: Michael Aquino for About.com, Daily Mail on John McCain’s return to Hoa Lo, & Lonely Planet.