Hoa Lo Prison – Maison Centrale: A Glimpse into a Dark Chapter of History

History of Hoa Lo Prison: From Fire Earthen Stove to Infamous Incarceration

Hoa Lo Prison, located at 1 Hoa Lo Street in Hanoi, has a rich historical background. Originally, the area was known as Hoa Lo village, renowned for its production of various earthenware and portable stoves. However, as the French occupation of Hanoi began, the village was relocated to make way for the construction of courts and prisons. Due to this displacement, the site became known as “Hoa Lo Prison.”

Construction of Hoa Lo Prison began in 1896 under French rule, earning the name “Central Prison.” Situated on the land previously occupied by Phu Khanh village, the prison encompassed a total area of 12,908 square meters. Designed as a formidable complex, it played a significant role in suppressing anti-colonial movements. Although the original construction was not fully completed, the French hastily opened the prison in 1899 to incarcerate those who opposed their rule. Over the years, the prison underwent several renovations and expansions, including the conversion of a warehouse into a detention area for children in 1912 and the addition of toilets and filtering holes in 1917. Despite its initial capacity for 450 prisoners, the actual number often exceeded 2,000.

After the Geneva Accords of 1954, the prison was renamed the “Hanoi Prisoners Detention Center” and placed under the management of the Hanoi Military Administration. From 1964 to 1973, it gained notoriety as the place of confinement for captured American pilots, earning the moniker “Hanoi Hilton.”

In 1993, a part of Hoa Lo Prison was repurposed for the construction of the “Tower Center,” serving as a hotel and office space. However, the section adjacent to Hoa Lo Street was preserved and transformed into the Hoa Lo Prison Memorial. Recognized as a historical monument by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism in 1997, the memorial stands as a testament to the country’s revolutionary spirit, attracting visitors from both domestic and international spheres.

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Architecture and Structure: Walls, Gates, and Captivity

Hoa Lo Prison spans an expansive area of over 12,000 square meters, consisting of various key elements:

  • Guardhouse: A dedicated structure for the prison guards.
  • Hospital: A building used as a medical facility within the prison.
  • Detention Houses: Seven individual houses specifically designed to hold accused prisoners.
  • Workshops: Spaces dedicated to ironworking, textiles, and leather production.
  • Cells for Dangerous Prisoners: Four cells reserved for inmates with a history of violent behavior and rule violations.

The prison is encircled by a formidable 4-meter-high fortified stone wall, measuring half a meter in thickness. To prevent prisoners from escaping, a high voltage system was installed along the perimeter. Beneath the inner wall lies a 3-meter-wide pathway used by guards for patrol purposes. Four watchtowers positioned at each corner allow for comprehensive surveillance of both the internal patrol route and the exterior surroundings. The iron doors and locking mechanisms were imported from France, further reinforcing the prison’s security measures.

The main entrance features a two-story building designed with rolling arches, showcasing the architectural style prevalent during the 19th century. Throughout the prison grounds, multiple lines of iron gates serve as barriers between different sections, making it challenging for prisoners to escape.

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Upon entering the main gate, visitors are greeted by narrow, dimly lit corridors that lead to the confinement areas. These spaces are divided by solid, towering doors, nearly 4 meters in height, equipped with sturdy iron locks. Within the cells, prisoners were restrained by chains affixed to concrete pedestals. The limited light in these areas filters through small window frames, creating a somber and oppressive atmosphere.

The administrative area for the guards stands in stark contrast to the confinement areas. It consists of two houses: the first floor features a central corridor leading to the endowment station, patrol walkway, clerk’s office, detention room, and night guard quarters. On the left side of the corridor, an aisle path leads to the director’s room. The second floor serves as the guards’ quarters, comprising two porches, a dining room, a living room, and four bedrooms. Additional facilities include an infirmary, kitchen, laundry room, and grocery stores. Separate rooms within the guard’s house were designated for European prisoners, with a male and female infirmary available.

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Other areas within the prison complex consist of single-story structures grouped into three clusters. The right cluster features four detention rooms, along with ancillary buildings for supervisors, a factory, a charity hospital, and a boarding house for women. This area also includes a supervisor’s room with a bathroom and injection room, 12 small rooms for dangerous prisoners, a gendarme station, and a common jail capable of accommodating up to 100 accused individuals. The left cluster contains four cells, a supervisor’s room, a common area for 40 people, and a supervisor’s room. At the end of the prison, there is a section for approximately 20 women, an injection room, a common cell for 80 people, and a supervisor’s room. The prison’s water supply comes from the Hanoi Water Factory.

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Highlights of Hoa Lo Prison: Guillotines and the Hellish Cachot

One notable feature of Hoa Lo Prison is the presence of guillotines. These structures, towering between 2 to 4 meters in height, consist of wooden columns supporting a large blade attached to latches. Two semicircular boards form a circle beneath the blade, specifically designed to accommodate the decapitated heads of deceased prisoners.

Within the prison, there is a section known as Cachot, often referred to as the “hell of hell.” This area was reserved for prisoners who displayed oppositional behaviors or posed significant threats. Cachot was characterized by its extreme darkness, cramped conditions, and lack of ventilation. It served as a nightmarish space where torture, beatings, and other forms of brutal mistreatment occurred. Spending even a short time in Cachot resulted in prisoners experiencing mental instability and physical deterioration.

What to See and Do at Hoa Lo Prison Museum: Captivity and Architecture

When visiting Hoa Lo Prison, visitors have the opportunity to witness the confined existence within the small cells, measuring 1.8 meters by 1.8 meters. These cells were perpetually crowded, with closed windows and prisoners restrained by leg chains, rendering them unable to stand or move freely. Artifacts and photographs on display depict the harsh realities endured by inmates, highlighting the imprisonment, starvation, torture, beatings, and isolation they endured. Through these exhibits, visitors gain insight into the spirit of revolutionary soldiers and the humanitarian policies of the Vietnamese people, particularly towards American pilots held captive during the Vietnam War.

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Apart from the historical significance, Hoa Lo Prison also exhibits unique French architectural styles prevalent during the 19th century. Visitors can appreciate the distinctive design and capture memorable photographs while deepening their understanding of this dark chapter in history.

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How to Get to Hoa Lo Prison: A Convenient Journey

Hoa Lo Prison is situated in the heart of Hanoi, making it easily accessible via various modes of transportation such as taxis, public buses, motorbikes, or bicycles.

If traveling by motorbike, it is a 15-minute journey (approximately 5 kilometers) from Hoan Kiem Lake to the prison.

Public bus lines, with a cost-effective fare of around VND 15,000 per person, offer convenient access to the prison. Several available lines include 02, 09, and 23. Additionally, double-decker bus services in Hanoi cover routes that include Hoa Lo Prison.

Tips for Visiting Hoa Lo Prison: Respectful Exploration

Visitors to Hoa Lo Prison should adhere to safety guidelines and fire prevention instructions. Luggage should be stored in designated areas, and touching or moving objects within the prison is strictly prohibited. Incense burning is allowed in specific areas reserved for such activities.

Although Hoa Lo Prison no longer functions as a place of confinement, it serves as a poignant reminder of the patriotic ideals and sacrifices made by prisoners, as well as an opportunity to appreciate the unique architectural elements of the prison itself.