Although there is not much left of the infamous Hanoi Hilton, the prison is still dreaded, even if only just for the mere mention of its name. Having held captive thousands of inmates over the years, the Hanoi Hilton, also known as the Hoa Lo Prison, still sends chills to many who have known of its once horrific existence.
The name “Hoa Lo” when translated can mean different things. One translation means “Hell’s hole”, the other means “fiery furnace”. It can also mean “stove” in Vietnamese. The name was originally from its street name “Pho Hoa Lo” mainly due to the many lines of stores that were selling coal-fire stoves and wood stoves during the pre-colonial times.
The Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French in Hanoi from 1886 to 1889 and from 1898 to 1901 when the country was part of French Indochina. The French called the prison “Maison Centrale” which was a common euphemism of prisons in France. It was also located near the Hanoi French Quarter. It was originally deliberated to hold Vietnamese prisoners, predominantly those who were agitating for freedom. Those prisoners often had to go through constant tortures and for some, even execution. In 1913, a major renovation expanded the capacity of inmates from 460 to 600. Regardless, it was often so overcrowded that it held 730 prisoners on a given day in 1916. By 1922, prisoners were up to 895 and would continue to rise a year after to 1,430 inmates. By the year 1954, the prison was holding more than 2,000 people captive with often subhuman conditions. The prison had then become a symbol of colonialist exploitation and the bitterness of the Vietnamese people towards the French.
The prison was popularly known by the nickname “Hanoi Hilton”, which was given by the American people during the Second Indochina War. It then became part of the most unjust and cruel prisons of the Vietnamese northern network, which included Hai Phong, Cao Bang, Lai Chau and Son La. Many revolutionaries were incarcerated here during the French colonial period. By 1964 to 1973, the prisoners included numerous captured American pilots such as U.S Senator and previous Presidential candidate John McCain and Douglas Pete Peterson, America’s first Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Most of the original prison was demolished in 1996, to make way for the Hanoi Tower that is now known as the Somerset Grand Hanoi. Fortunately, portions of the walls were retained for historical reasons. The southernmost corner of the prison was preserved and reopened to the public as a Vietnamese gallery and memorial to the revolutionaries who were kept and tortured in terrible conditions. Portions of the prison including its front facade were painted and restored and were eventually turned into a tourist site. Visitors will be able to view the original cells complete with leg-irons. A bilingual English and Vietnamese illustration of the horrors of life in the prison during the French colonial period can also be seen.
The Hanoi Hilton was portrayed in the 1987 Hollywood movie with the same name. In 1999, the famous Hilton chain of hotels built a Hilton Hotel in Hanoi, but it meticulously prefers to be called the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel instead. Despite being built decades after the Vietnam War was over, Hilton continues to carefully avoid being associated with the dreadful name of the historic Hanoi Hilton.