I’m a bit (a lot) of a history buff, particularly interested in military and war history. Having read quite a bit on Vietnam’s history and of the Vietnam War before travelling to the country itself, I was very keen to get to a few of the more historical sites, one of which being the remains of the notorious Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi.
With a name roughly translating to “stove” or “fiery furnace,” (originating from the name of the street it is located on, where there was a high concentration of stoves for sale), the prison was originally built by the French in the 1880s to imprison Vietnamese political prisoners. You can see in the photo below the entrance as it was while the prison was under French control – “Maison Centrale,” or “central prison.” It was frequently overcrowded – on our self-guided tour, I read that it was intended to hold only around 450 people. Some small extensions were made to increase that figure by a few hundred, but the actual amount of humans detained rose to over 2000 by the mid 1950s, which is an absolutely horrifying thought, having walked through the space that was left and seeing photos and floor plans of the original prison.
The French eventually left Vietnam in 1954 after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and the prison was taken over by the North Vietnamese Army, who used it to house, interrogate and torture American prisoners of war. It was the American prisoners who sarcastically nicknames the prison the “Hanoi Hilton,” in honour of the horrible conditions they faced in there. While it is obviously well known that the Americans suffered just as horribly to the Vietnamese as the Vietnamese did to the French, the exhibits in the museum focus mainly on the torment suffered by the Vietnamese under French control.
In the 1990s, most of the prison was demolished, leaving today only a small part that acts as a museum. There are a heap of displays, from old uniforms and a tattered Vietnamese flag, to hand written letters and photographs of “dissidents.”
While it’s been commercialised a bit for the sake of tourists, the site remains strangely quiet and sombre, considering its central location in such a noisy and busy city. A silent combination of fear, awe, respect, horror, disbelief, injustice and reverence hit all at once as I walked through; it’s one thing to read about it, but to see the photos, the names, the physical pieces of clothing of the human beings who lived through these horrors is something else. It’ll cost you around AUD$1.50 for entrance, and it’s well and truly worth your small change and your time to see the far reaching effects of war; in the words of British philosopher and political activist, “war does not determine who is right, only who is left.”