Entering Vietnam's Hoa Lo Prison

Notorious Hanoi prison held both Vietnamese and American prisoners

Prisoner diorama at Hoa Lo Prison ("Hanoi Hilton") in Vietnam
Prisoner diorama at Hoa Lo Prison ("Hanoi Hilton") in Vietnam. Tim Gerard Baker/Getty Images

Nothing prepares you for how creepy Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, Vietnam can be. A visit to the "Hanoi Hilton" can inspire sorrow, disgust, and, depending on your politics, different flavors of outrage.

Forget about the "Hanoi Hilton" described in gory detail by survivors like John McCain and Robinson Risner, or movies like the Hanoi Hilton. The prison's displays focus on the sufferings of Vietnamese revolutionaries who were confined (and sometimes executed) here when the French were the masters of Vietnam in the early part of the 20th century.

When the American POWs do make an appearance, they're presented as clean-shaven, well-treated, and making nice with their captors - all in a single room silently overseen by John McCain's captured flight suit.

Nevertheless, the Hoa Lo Prison is worth a visit, if only to experience the colonial experience as the Vietnamese see fit to tell it, and guess at the stories untold by the silent walls and shackles on prominent display.

Walking Through the Present-Day Hanoi Hilton

What you see of the present-day Hoa Lo Prison is actually only the small southern section of the entire prison complex back in the day; most of the prison was demolished in the mid-1990s to make way for the Hanoi Towers, a shiny office and hotel complex so steeped in capitalism it would have horrified Ho Chi Minh.

The present-day complex can be entered through the gate on Hoa Lo Street, known by Vietnamese inmates as "the Monster's Mouth". This door is emblazoned with the words Maison Centrale, or "central house", a common French euphemism for city prisons. (The prison in Conakry, Guinea is still known as Maison Centrale to this day.)

An illustrated walking tour of Hoa Lo Prison can be read online.

Checking into the Hanoi Hilton

Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French between 1886 to 1901, with an added renovation in 1913. The French colonial administrators thought to make an example of Vietnamese agitators for independence, and what better way to do that than set up a prison right in the middle of the city?

A stay in the Hanoi Hilton was no picnic. From day one, Hoa Lo was horrifically overcrowded - while its maximum capacity was 600 prisoners, over 2,000 were confined within its walls by 1954.

Prisoners in Hoa Lo were shackled to the floor and were often beaten by the guards. The "E" stockade (pictured above) housed political prisoners, who were cuffed in a seating position and arranged in two rows. A latrine stands at one end of the stockade, in full view of other prisoners.

Executions were carried out in Hoa Lo Prison by way of a mobile guillotine, which still stands near the prison's death row.

Unwittingly, the French had built in Hoa Lo an incubator for revolution. Hoa Lo's prisoners learned about Communism through word of mouth, and notes were passed around and out written in invisible ink formulated from medical supplies. At least five future General Secretaries of the Vietnamese Communist Party would spend their formative years in Hoa Lo Prison.

American POWs in the Hanoi Hilton

As U.S. foreign policy turned towards Indochina, the brewing war between the two halves of a newly-independent Vietnam would transform Hoa Lo Prison yet again.

The Hanoi-based Communist government of North Vietnam had intended to keep Hoa Lo Prison as a reminder of French brutality. But growing numbers of American POWs called for a change of plans.

In today's Hoa Lo Prison, the American POW experience in Hoa Lo prison is presented - whitewashed, actually - in two displays made up to look like comfortable barracks. Back in the day, though, this area was the dreaded "blue room", where new prisoners were interrogated and tortured if they didn't comply. Former POW Julius Jayroe tells of his first experience in the Blue Room:

"I was transported to Hanoi and introduced to the Knobby Blue Room in the New Guy Village section of the infamous Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison). The balance of that night, the next day, and into the following night, endured torture (tight cuffs, ropes, beatings) for refusing to give any info beyond name, rank, sn, and dob."

Nothing in the present-day Blue Room attests to the torture inflicted within its walls; instead, cheery images show clean-cut POWs making Christmas dinner, alongside displays of the prisoners' sanitized personal effects.

Reality of the Hanoi Hilton Told Elsewhere

You will have to get the American side of Hoa Lo Prison from books written by former guests of the Hanoi Hilton. The following POWs at Hoa Lo eventually wrote books telling of their experiences.

Admiral James Stockdale was kept in solitary confinement while in Hoa Lo - he injured himself to prevent the Vietnamese from using him as a propaganda tool. After his release in 1973, the Admiral released A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection telling of his years in the Hanoi Hilton.

Brigadier General Robinson Risner was the senior ranking POW in Hoa Lo Prison. Risner eventually released an autobiography, The Passing of the Night: My Seven Years as a Prisoner of the North Vietnamese, which describes his experiences as a prisoner of war in Hoa Lo.

The late Senator and 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and confined to Hoa Lo on and off from 1967 to 1973. His crash and torture injuries were so bad, he had not been expected to live; he was nevertheless nursed back to health by his fellow POWs. McCain later recounted his Hoa Lo experience in his book Faith of My Fathers.

The American POW experience in Hoa Lo Prison inspired the movie The Hanoi Hilton which used interviews with ex-POWs as sources for the gory torture sequences shot in the film.

Getting to the Hanoi Hilton

The easiest way to get to Hoa Lo Prison is by taxi - 1 Pho Hoa Lo is right at the corner of Pho Ha Ba Trung, south of Hoan Kiem Lake on the lip of the French Quarter. Read about transportation in Hanoi, Vietnam.

The Prison is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day of the week, with a lunch break from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.