The Hanoitimes - Standing at the heart of Hanoi city, Hoa Loa prison was proof of a revolutionary fighting period, a symbol of fearless determination and the resilient spirit of the Vietnamese patriots who were imprisoned here by the French colonists.
Hoa Lo prison was built in 1896 and initially named Prison Centrale (Central Prison). The French colonists later gave it a less fearsome name Maison Centrale (Central House) to avoid raising local people protests. Its signboard is still hang on the main gate of the vestige.
The prison stood on the land of Phu Khanh village, Vinh Xuong canton, where the local people used to craft earthenware for living. The fiery furnaces used to bake earthenware gave the name to the prison (Hoa Lo means fiery furnace). One of the French biggest penitentiary centers in Indochina, Hoa Lo prison served as a tool of the colonial administration to suppress the anti-French struggles of the Vietnamese people. Hoa Lo prison occupied an area of 10870 m2 in a total land area of 12980 m2. Hoa Lo ceased to be the place for imprisonment in the 1990s. In its place, ¾ of the facility was demolished to build two high rise buildings. The rest became a museum. The yard inside it houses a memorial to the patriotic revolutionaries who lost their lives due to torture, ill-treatment or execution. The prison comprised cells and dungeons. Cell A and B used to house suspects waiting trials or minor offense infractors. Cell C hold French inmates or foreigners. Cell D was the place where prisoners sentenced to death waited for execution or remission.
The structure is a symbol of the nation’s fearless determination in struggle and the resilient spirit of the Vietnamese patriots
The facility was so strongly fortified that it earned the fame of being unbreakable. Next to the prison is the Criminal Court and the Secret Police headquarters, forming a tripod to suppress the revolutionary movements. A wall with steel bars of 4m high and 0.5m thick surrounded the facility, reinforced by a high-voltage electric barbwire system. Watchtowers were set up at the four corners of the prison to observe every move of prisoners. Its iron doors, locks were imported from France. The cells, the stifling solitary confinement and the merciless wardens who killed inmates without hesitation earned the prison the alias “hell on earth” of Hoa Lo prison.
In January 1899, even still under construction, Hoa Lo started to jail inmates. Its original design was planned to keep 500 prisoners. But it was expanded several times to lock up more inmates. Between 1950 and 1953, up to 2,000 prisoners were detained in Hoa Lo prison.
Hoa Lo prison was once considered as “hell on earth”
After the liberation of the North, the prison remained as a penitentiary facility. Between August 5, 1964 to March 31, 1973 Hoa Lo was where American pilots shot down while bombing North Vietnam were incarcerated. The US prisoners sarcastically called Hoa Lo as “Hanoi Hilton”. Among the imprisoned American pilots included Douglas Peter Peterson, who later became the first US ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and John Mc Cain, a US Senator.
Nowadays, Hoa Lo prison is one of the most attractive tourist destinations in Hanoi.