Hoa Lo Prison


Hoa Lo Prison (Vietnamese: [hwa᷉ː lɔ̂]) was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War. During this later period it was known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton. The prison was demolished during the 1990s, although the gatehouse remains as a museum.

French era

The French name "Maison Centrale" above the gate of Hoa Lo

Museum reconstruction of First Indochina War prisoners in Hoa Lo
The name Hoa Lo, commonly translated as "fiery furnace" or even "Hell's hole", also means "stove". The name originated from the street name phố Hỏa Lò, due to the concentration of stores selling wood stoves and coal-fire stoves along the street from pre-colonial times.

The prison was built in Hanoi by the French, in dates ranging from 1886–1889 to 1898 to 1901 when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina. The French called the prison Maison Centrale —literally, Central House-, which is still the designation of prisons for dangerous and/or long sentence detainees in France. It was located near Hanoi's French Quarter. It was intended to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners agitating for independence who were often subject to torture and execution. A 1913 renovation expanded its capacity from 460 inmates to 600. It was nevertheless often overcrowded, holding some 730 prisoners on a given day in 1916, a figure which would rise to 895 in 1922 and 1,430 in 1933. By 1954 it held more than 2000 people;[1] with its inmates held in subhuman conditions, it had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation and of the bitterness of the Vietnamese towards the French.

The central urban location of the prison also became part of its early character. During the 1910s through 1930s, street peddlers made an occupation of passing outside messages in through the jail's windows and tossing tobacco and opium over the walls; letters and packets would be thrown out to the street in the opposite direction. Within the prison itself, communication and ideas passed. Indeed, many of the future leading figures in Communist North Vietnam spent time in Maison Centrale during the 1930s and 1940s.

Democratic Republic of Vietnam, 1954
Following the defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Accords the French left Hanoi and the prison came under the authority of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Thereafter the prison served as an education center for revolutionary doctrine and activity, and it was kept around after the French left to mark its historical significance to the North Vietnamese.

The "Little Vegas" area built for American POWs in 1967, shown in a final inspection in 1973 shortly before the Americans' release.
During the Vietnam War, the first U.S. prisoner to be sent to Hoa Lo was Lieutenant, Junior Grade Everett Alvarez Jr., who was shot down on August 5, 1964. From the beginning, U.S. POWs endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions. The prison complex was sarcastically nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American POWs, in reference to the well-known Hilton Hotel chain. There is some disagreement among the first group of POWs who coined the name but F8D pilot Bob Shumaker. was the first to write it down, carving "Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton" on the handle of a pail to greet the arrival of Air Force Lieutenant Robert Peel.

Beginning in early 1967, a new area of the prison was opened for incoming American POWs; it was dubbed "Little Vegas", and its individual buildings and areas were named after Las Vegas Strip landmarks, such as "Golden Nugget", "Thunderbird", "Stardust", "Riviera", and the "Desert Inn".These names were chosen because many pilots had trained at Nellis Air Force Base, located in proximity to Las Vegas. American pilots were frequently already in bad shape by the time they were captured, injured either during their ejection or in landing on the ground.


Hoa Lo Prison Rules

The Hanoi Hilton was one site used by the North Vietnamese Army to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded "decent and humane treatment" of prisoners of war, severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. When prisoners of war began to be released from this and other North Vietnamese prisons during the Johnson administration, their testimonies revealed widespread and systematic abuse of prisoners of war.
Regarding treatment at Hỏa Lò and other prisons, the communists countered by stating that prisoners were treated well and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. During 1969, they broadcast a series of coerced statements from American prisoners that purported to support this notion. The North Vietnamese would also maintain that their prisons were no worse than prisons for POWs and political prisoners in South Vietnam, such as the one on Côn Sơn Island.[citation needed] Mistreatment of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners and South Vietnamese dissidents in South Vietnam's prisons was indeed frequent, as was North Vietnamese abuse of South Vietnamese prisoners and their own dissidents.

Beginning in late 1969, treatment of the prisoners at Hỏa Lò and other camps became less severe and generally more tolerable. Following the late 1970 attempted rescue operation at Sơn Tây prison camp, most of the POWs at the outlying camps were moved to Hoa Lo, so that the North Vietnamese had fewer camps to protect. This created the "Camp Unity" communal living area at Hỏa Lò, which greatly reduced the isolation of the POWs and improved their morale.

  • Hoa Lo Prison