Hoa Lo Prison Museum was used first by French Colonists for Vietnamese political prisoners and was later used for the US prisoners of the war during the Vietnam War. At this museum, you can walk through the prison cells where at its busiest time, held 2,000 political prisoners.
It is a museum of dark Vietnamese history where many people were mistreated and killed. You can see not only the prison cells, but also an intimidating gigantic guillotine, which was used for the death penalty.
Despite hard lives of Vietnamese political prisoners, you will also learn that many of the Vietnamese people kept in the prison did not give up easily, never lost their will to fight till the end to win the independence for Vietnam.
Dark and sad Vietnamese history of French Colonialism
Hoa Lo Prison Museum is an actual prison, which was used during French Colonialism to detain Vietnamese political prisoners and later the US prisoners of war at the Vietnam War. It was also nicknamed “Hanoi Hilton” by the US prisoners. When you visit Hoa Lo Prison Museum, you are greeted by rather vivid colored yellow buildings, which you might mistake for a different venue unless you knew it was formerly a prison.
Despite such a vivid yellow exterior, when you look up, all around are the prison walls that are fortified by millions of pieces of glass to prevent prisoners from escaping. This helps you to understand right away that this building is not something fun.
The area surrounding the museum is now well developed with a large hotel/condominium right next to what used to be a part of the prison. It is said that people who stay/reside at the hotel have met the ghosts of lost souls from the past.
The intimidating guillotine and the death row cells
Without a doubt, the most intimidating and frightening room of all is where a gigantic guillotine lies. After passing female prison cells, there is even a darker large room where this huge guillotine is set up. This is one of the two guillotines previously used for the death penalty at the prison and with the dim light, it makes the entire room very spooky.
Right next to the guillotine, there are death row cells. These cells were isolated from the rest of the prisons and political prisoners were kept usually a minimum of 10 months before they were executed. The walls were 0.4 meter (1.3 feet) thick with a height of 3 meters (9.8 feet) with an area of 5 square meters. The walls were painted black, giving cold and gloomy feelings.
Just by stepping into this area, it is so dark that you feel uneasy about being there. It must have been a horrible living condition to wait for their execution time for at least 10 months. In spite of this hard living condition, Vietnamese communists did not give up, they fought for their lives and liberation through writing poems, books, and composed materials for broadcasting till the end.
Men and women at Hoa Lo Prison
Hoa Lo Prison was originally intended to hold 450 prisoners, but at its maximum time, it held 2,000 prisoners. In one cell, that was built to hold 40 prisoners, they had as many as 100 prisoners. Because of these poor conditions, some prisoners like the old and sick were given priority to lay next to the door where it had better air circulation, but regardless, the living condition was severe for the prisoners. Going around the prison cells, you can see how prisoners were detained. Besides the size of the cells, you are surprised that within such small area, the prisoner's’ movements were restricted by metal stocks.
At Hoa Lo Prison, there were also cells where female political prisoners were kept. Compared to the number of men, female prisoners were much smaller in number, but at maximum time, there were as many as 200 female prisoners. It was of course a difficult condition for males, but it was even worse for females who happened to give birth at the prison or those who had children with them. Because of these challenges, many females lost their lives at Hoa Lo Prison. It was not only men who were fighting for independence, but strong willed females also fought for the freedom of Vietnam.
American prisoners at the Vietnam War
The prison was first used for the political prisoners of Vietnam, but it was later used for the US prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. From the informational displays, it seems like the conditions for American prisoners of war were not as dire as Vietnamese political prisoners.
This is because there are pictures of American prisoners playing sports as well as there are displays of a guitar and a picture that an American prisoners drew with a happy Santa Claus. Maybe it was just on a surface, but those did not make the prison life to be that devastating like Vietnamese political prisoners despite there are indications of how the quality of prison life was poor at that time.
Dark history of Vietnam at a glance
Knowing that many were mistreated at the Hoa Lo Prison makes it a difficult place to visit; however, it is somewhere you should consider visiting if you are in Hanoi. Despite the hardships described above, many prisoners did not give up, fought for their lives and for Vietnam’s freedom and you can see the remains of water wells, which prisoners used to escape.
Hoa Lo Prison is rich in Vietnamese history, and is an important place to visit for those who wish to be educated about Vietnam, French Colonial history, and the Vietnam War. The area surrounding the museum is now well developed with a large hotel/condominium right next to what used to be a part of the prison. It is said that people who stay/reside at the hotel have met the ghosts of lost souls from the past.
The prison museum is located in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem District near Hoan Kiem Lake and it is open daily from 8:00 am to 5:00. The admission fee is 30,000 VND (1.35 USD) and if you wish to get a guidebook, you pay an extra 30,000 VND (1.35 USD).
Get Trip101 in your inbox