Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Hoa Lo prison is a prison built by the French colonialists on the old land of Hoa Lo village, now has the address: 1 Hoa Lo Street, Tran Hung Dao Ward, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi. Hoa Lo Prison is a famous place because it used to hold many of the great revolutionaries of Vietnam during the Indochina War and American pilots during the Vietnam War. Hoa Lo Prison Museum is recognized by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism with Decision No. 1543-QD / VH dated June 18, 1997, as a historical relic. This place is visited by many tourists, including historical researchers.

Entrance to Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Entrance to Hoa Lo Prison Museum. Image: redsvn.net.

1. History of Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French in 1896; it was considered as one of the three most savage prisons in Vietnam along with Con Dao Prison and Son La Prison. The name “Hoa Lo”, commonly translated as “fiery furnace” or “stove” originated from the street name “Hoa Lo” where wood stoves and coal-fire stoves were sold in pre-colonial times.

The prison was called “Maison Centrale” or “Central House” by the French as the designation of prisons for dangerous or long sentence detainees in France. Its purpose is to hold Vietnamese prisoners, especially political prisoners who often incite independence.

Its capacity was expanded from 460 prisoners to 600 in a 1913 renovation. However, it was even overcrowded when holding some 730 prisoners in 1916, then rise up to 895 in 1922 or a figure of 1,430 in 1933. By 1954 it held more than 2000 people in subhuman conditions of poor quality food, poor sanitary conditions, many diseases, and bad personal hygiene. It became a symbol of colonialist exploitation and Vietnamese bitterness towards the French.

After the defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Accords, the French left Hanoi and the prison belonged to the authority of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. After that, the prison served as an education center for revolutionary doctrine and activity.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

The room depicts the prisoners being held in Hoa Lo Prison. Image: vietnamtravel.com.

There were lots of Vietnamese patriots and revolution leaders that were captured in Hoa Lo Prison consisting of Phan Boi Chau, Luong Van Can, Ho Tung Mau, Nguyen Luong Bang, Nguyen Quyen… and 5 General Secretaries of Vietnam Communist Party: Le Duan, Truong Chinh, Nguyen Van Cu, Do Muoi, and Nguyen Van Linh.

From 5 August 1964 to 31 March 1973; the prison was used to capture American pilots that were shot down during their bombing raids against North Vietnam; consisting of US Senator John McCain and the first US Ambassador to Vietnam – Douglas Brian Peterson. By this period, the prison was known to American POW as “Hanoi Hilton”.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Deputy Secretary Anthony Blinken tours the Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi, Vietnam on May 18, 2015. Image: vietnamtravel.com.

In 1993, to meet the development needs of the capital, the State of Vietnam decided: a part of Hoa Lo prison be used to build a commercial building with the name of “Hanoi Tower”. Today, Hoa Lo is only a part (more than 2,000 m2) adjacent to Hoa Lo street preserved and embellished into Hoa Lo Prison Memorial Area.
In this memorial area, there is a memorial to the patriotic and revolutionary soldiers who died at Hoa Lo prison, the model recreating the image of the revolutionary soldiers in the prison, the guillotine that the French colonialists used to execute the patriotic and revolutionary soldiers, and the system of displaying many valuable artifacts and documents.

2. Structure of Hoa Lo Prison

During the French colonial period, Hoa Lo Prison was built with a structure consisting of 4m high and 0.5m thick stone walls, reinforced with electric steel wire.

Hoa Lo Prison in the past

The prison is divided into areas with different types of prisoners at Hoa Lo Prison in the past. Image: vntrip.vn.

The total area of the former prison area was more than 12,000 square meters. However, today only 2,434 square meters are retained, preserved to become a relic, serving the purpose of sightseeing for those who want to come and witness firsthand the scenery of how the colonial prison is.

Main entrance of Hoa Lo Prison.

Main entrance of Hoa Lo Prison, American prisoners of war often satirically call Hoa Lo Hell “Hanoi Hilton” (Photo collection). Image: vntrip.vn.

Dubbed the place “hell on earth”, being the most feared prison in Southeast Asia, during its time of operation, Hoa Lo prison has become a place of detention for many generations of Vietnam’s soldiers and revolutionary activity people with prison architecture designed with brutal and cruel torture methods, most notably guillotine, the late machine has put the prison in the top 10 the most notorious prison in the world.

Guillotine at Hoa Lo Prison

The guillotine, a medieval weapon that contributes to the popularity of Hoa Lo prison (Photo collection). Image: vntrip.vn.

Guillotine at Hoa Lo Prison

The old guillotine machines are still preserved as a relic of history (Photo collection). Image: vntrip.vn.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Scary scene inside the prison, where prisoners are chained by steel shackles at their feet (Photo collection). Image: vntrip.vn.

locks & keys at Hoa Lo Prison Museum

All the locks & keys used here are special keys sent from France and strictly managed (Photo collection). Image: vntrip.vn.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

The scenery of torture reconstructed in the prison (Photo collection). Image: vntrip.vn.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

The scenery of torture reconstructed in the prison (Photo collection). Image: vntrip.vn.

Cachot (dungeon) at Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Cachot (dungeon) is the most terrifying place of the prison, dubbed the “hell of hell”, specializing in imprisoning those who violate the law, willfully oppose or organize protest (Photo collection). Image: vntrip.vn.

Cachot (dungeon) at Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Dungeons are seen as a terrible obsession for any prisoner, with fiery slaps, blows, bangs, shackles; the accommodation, sleep, and toilet is all in a narrow, dark space. Most of those who are locked in here for a while will experience edema, scabies due to lack of hygiene and sunlight (Photo collection). Image: vntrip.vn.

3. How to Get to Hoa Lo Prison Museum?

Hoa Lo Prison Museum is located near the French Quarter of Hanoi, just about a 15-minute walk from Hoan Kiem Lake. You can easily reach here by motorbike; taxi or even bus. There are several buses with stop nearby Hoa Lo, including No.2, 9, 40, and 49; then you take a short walk to the museum with the sign “Maison Centrale” at the entrance of a bright yellow building.

Location of Hoa Lo Prison Museum on Google Maps

Location of Hoa Lo Prison Museum on Google Maps.

Your visit to Hoa Lo Prison can combine with a sightseeing tour to other top war sites including the Vietnam Military History Museum or Ngoc Ha Village where part of a downed B-52 has been preserved. In addition, the museum can also be combined with visits to other Hanoi’s top attractions such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, One Pillar Pagoda, or the Temple of Literature.

4. General information & Regulations

Address: No. 1, Hoa Lo Street, Tran Hung Dao Ward, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi.

Opening hours: everyday, 8:00 – 17:00 (including festivals and holidays).

Entrance fee: 30.000 VND (~ US$1.5)/person.

  • Do not touch and move objects in the prison.
  • Notice the instructions on safety guidelines and fire prevention while visiting.
  • You can have emotionally difficult experiences while visiting the Museum.
  • Hoa Lo Prison possesses gruesome displays that are not suitable for children.

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