Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo prison)

Published:  09:32 Wednesday - October 13, 2010

The Hoa Lo Prison, later known to American prisoners of war as the "Hanoi Hilton", was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners and later by North Vietnam for prisoners of war during the Vietnam War.

There's not much left of the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," the prison that once housed captured American servicemen during the Vietnam War, including U.S. Air Force pilot Douglas "Pete" Peterson, the first U.S. ambassador to Hanoi. What does remain, however, is a small section of the old prison, which is now a museum, and the tree under which Do Muoi, the aging former general secretary of the Communist Party, used to sit while writing on the backs of leaves during his imprisonment by the French in the years of Vietminh resistance.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum is a blunt reminder of the horrors of colonialism and wartime imprisonment. Here, through the front gates of the old French Maison Centrale (Central House, or Prison), built in 1896, you can get a handle on what life was like for Vietnamese prisoners held during France's occupation of Vietnam. (The number of prisoners under the French grew from 615 in 1913 to 2,000 in 1953.) In the southern hall, beyond the grisly guillotine and body basket, are cells where death row prisoners, including Hoang Van Thu, Tran Dan Ninh, and Nguyen Van Cu (who escaped and became a powerful early leader of modern Vietnam), were held. These cells are dank, dark, and anything but welcoming.

On exhibit upstairs are Vietnamese propaganda photos of American POWs, including Senator John McCain and former Ambassador Peterson, cheerily shooting pool, cooking, and writing letters. You won't be able to see the building where the American pilots were kept since it has been torn down, as has the cell from which Do Muoi and 100 other prisoners escaped in 1945 through the maze of sewers that ran under the prison, parts of which are on display in the courtyard.

If you're looking for historical detail about the prison, you may be disappointed by the museum's guidebooks, which are far more inclined to talk about the size of the cells than reveal any nuggets about what took place behind the musty yellow walls. Note, too, that there's little information in English at the museum.

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