* When did the French people build this museum? What does the name ‘Hoa Lo’ mean? What happened to these villagers?
– Construction project of this museum started in 1896 and finished in 1899

The formal name is Central Prison (or Maison Central in French) as the
French governor expected to build the most solid prison in Indochina

This area used to belongs to a pottery village, which were famous for
their earthen stove. When the French built this prison, a whole village
had to move. And for Vietnamese people, we named this prison after the
informal name of this village: Hoa Lo prison as a memorial

* Why did they build the museum in the centre of Hanoi ?

This prison was build next to the Court of Justice and the Intelligence
Department like a combination against the patriotic movement of the

– This prison was
for the ones who were waiting for appearing before a court, also for
the criminal prisoners, and the political prisoners before they were
beheaded or transferred to other isolated prisons.

* When did this prison move? Where did it move?

After the war time, Vietnamese government still used this prison for
criminal prisoners. In 1993, they decided to move it to the outskirt of
Hanoi and build a high-rise building office and apartment complex
(owned by a Singapore businessman).

Only a few cells of the original building ­were remained and
restored into a prison museum as a memorial of Vietnamese patriots.

* How many sections? Purpose of each section?

The model display the original architecture of this prison: it was a
complex with rooms for criminal prisoners, cells and cachots for
political prisoners, kitchen, yard,

– There are 2 parts of the prison: the outer area and the inner area
  • The
    outer area: consist of a Secretary Office, guards’ camp, sections for
    European prisoners and woman ones, healthcare centre and prisoner
    kitchen (this is where you’re standing – after the movement in 1993, it
    was turned into the prison museum)

  • The
    inner area: consist of 9 separated sections, built with doors made of
    tole and iron and windows made of iron bars and nets. Detention rooms
    were firmly built to be narrow, dark and dirty whist death rows were
    built with cells where the leaders of resistance and hunger strikes in
    the prison were punished.
* The designed capacity and the fact?
– In the original diagram, the prison’s capacity would be 500 prisoners.

Actually, the number of prisoners was much bigger. Under the French
domination, it grew from 615 in 1913 to 2,000 in 1953. Some detention
rooms were so crowded that the prisoners had to request to take the
weaker ones out so that they were not choked
* How long did it take? How strong it was?

The construction project lasted for 3 years and took a lot of money and
labors. The French governor ordered to build an unbreakable prison.
When it completed, it became one of the most solid architecture in

* What’s kind of material of the wall, the door, window, loc made it become a unbreakable museum?
– Bricks and tiles were tailor – made with extra thickness.

The surrounded wall was built by with steel rod and stone, 4m high and
0.5m thick. It topped with pieces of broken glass and bare wire
connected to high-voltage electricity.

– All locks, doors, and windows were imported from France.
– In addition, all jails were careful collected from other prisons, who were infamous for their cruelty.

* Was there any other prisons built by the French governor in Vietnam?
Where were they? How terribly they were?

The first prison was built by the French colonial government in Vietnam
was Con Dao prison in 1861. It was built on an isolated island and
especially for political prisoners. This prison is well known for its
‘tiger cases’ with hundreds kinds of savage tortures.
– In 1908,
their third prison were built at Son La province. This one is also only
for political prisoner but from the North of Vietnam. Its harsh
weather, bad conditions and fatal illnesses made this prison become
another ‘hell on earth’ which confined more than 1000 prisoners between
1930 and 1945.

* What kind of prisoner would be kept in the prison? Where did they go next?

– There were 2 kinds of prisoners would be detained in Hoa Lo:
  • those who were waiting for appearing before a court,
  • those who were sentenced less than 5 years
  • those who were sentenced for death.

If they were sentenced to 5 years upward, or above 20 years of
servitude or life penalty would be transferred to other prisons in Son
La (Northwest of Hanoi) and Con Dao (an island in the South of Vietnam).

* How did prisoner live?
– In shared room:

  • There were about 25-30 of prisoners in one room, they were fettered most of the time and had one shared toilet in this room.
  • Everyday, they had 2meals of rotten rice, stunted vegetables, rotten dried fish and rarely with tough buffalo or old sow meat.
  • Had
    15’ everyday for a walk and a bath. All of them had to stand naked
    around a round tank built in the centre of the yard and to pour water
    very quickly onto their body while the guards and jailers watched them.
– In cachot:
  • Cachot was special cell to punish political prisoners who were leaders of struggles in this prison.
  • The
    punished prisoners would be moved to a single, dark and tiny room,
    their legs were fettered and they have to sit all the time on a sloping
    cements floor. This position is very inconvenience, they couldn’t sleep
    for several days.
their time in this prison, Vietnamese patriots’ public struggle is for
a better condition so as not to be killed little by little. They also
had a secret fighting to develope a Communist movement inside the
prison life.

* Public struggle: How did the Vietnamese patriots fight against the jailer?

They went on a hunger-strike despite the torture of the enemy which
killed some of their comrades and the chief jailer had to accept their
request, stopping feeding the prisoners by rotten rice and vegetables.

– The prisoners requested to be treated as political prisoners, to stop insulting the prisoners.

* Secret fighting:How did they exchange the Communist document and express a newspaper in the prison

The revolutionists made the prison a school where they trained
themselves to the communist ideology, the iron will in their fighting,
and to literacy.

– The first
unit of the Communist Party was formed in this prison in the 1930s. The
unit led and organized various combats in the prison.

– They wrote various documents such as “The Human’s Evolution”, “The Communism in Sketch” and exchange to each other.

The training courses in politics for 15-20 people were run continuously
à different publications namely The Red prison, The Prisoner’s Life
came out.

  • They used pieces of coal and bricks as pens, and cigarette pack and cement floor as notebooks.
  • They
    invented special kinds of ink to write their secret documents. The ink
    was 2 types of medicine namely mercurochrome which had red color, and
    methylene blue: both were taken from the healthcare centre. The diluted
    mercurochrome used as ink made the writing invisible. To read it, the
    prisoners would soak it in the liquid of cooked rice. The jailers were
    surprised and scared when they once discovered kilograms of documents
    and books and newspapers written with tiny letters and hidden
    skillfully in the 4 bare walls of the cells.

  • The documents were hidden at every unexpected corners, like foot of almond trees, waste bin, stone wall…

* The tropical almond tree – the most useful tree in this prison. The prisoners used up every part of this tree
– Young leaves and ripen fruit were healthy food for fragile prisoners.
– Applying heated leaves compresses to reduce pain.
– Tree bark was used one kind of tradition medicine, which can cure cholera
– Small branches was for pen holder or chopticks.


The French believed that they had an unbreakalbe prison. It was quite
true in the first 36 years until the first prison-break happened in
1932 by 7 prisoners. These prisoners pretented to have seriously ill
and had been moved to a hospital, where they successfully fled with
helps from their friends and relatives.

In 1945: in the time of second world war, the French lost and was
replaced by Japanese army in Indochina. Taking advantages of this
disorder, many prisoners escaped:
  • Political
    prisoners mixed with common criminals, then exchange their uniform with
    normal clothes from visitors and walked out of the prison decently.

  • More
    than hundred of them escape by sewer way. They removed the manhole
    cover and follow this dirty sewer system to get out of the prison.

– The most famous jail-break happened in 1951: when 17 prisoners under death sentence organized a escape from sewer tube.

  • When
    they had a out door break (15 minutes everyday), one of them crept into
    a sewer and used a tiny saw which made of a cylinder to saw its iron
    bar, whislt others were singing or speaking loudly to drown the noise
    of this action.

  • On
    the Xmas night 1954, following the broken sewer, the 17 prisoner break
    out of this prison. Unfortunately, when they open sewer door and
    stepped on the street, they met a group of patrolman, there were only 5
    of them survival and escaped successfully.
* Tourture:

When conducting the restoration, the staff here met many Vietnamese
veteran, who spent part of their lifetime in this prison and asked them
to write down what they remember about the prison life. In their
stories, they all called this prison as ‘hell of earth’ by its hundreds
kinds of torture.
  • Hanging prisoners up or down for beating.
  • Electric shock at their head or heart.
  • Beating prisoners with boxing
  • Stuff prisoners’ body with clothes soaked with gasoline and burn
  • Puting prisoners into a empty tank and beat from the outside which made their hearing and nerve seriously damaged.
  • Many other frightened, shameless and savage with both male and female prisoners

* The guillotine
– This is one of two original guillotines which were imported from French when the contruction project completed.

The executions often happened in public in a open yard just in front of
the prison to admonish Hanoian. Sometimes, they brought them to other
prisons to execute Vietnamese patriots and persecuted local people.

Number of Vietnamese revolutionist beheaded by this guillotine is
uncountable. Many of them die since they were very young. The youngest
one is only 19 year old.

* The death row:

Prisoners who sentenced to be death were detained and waited for the
due date. They were fettered on the cement floor all day and night, and
did everything at that one place

* When did the US aircraft bomb Hanoi ? And why did they bomb Hanoi ? Why did they stop?

During the war time, Hanoi was bombed twice seriously. The main
purposes of these bombings is to ‘pushed them back into the Stone Age’.
By destroying Northern infrastructure, the American hope to break off
supporting from the Northern people to the Southern soldiers.

  • The
    first attack – Operation Rolling Thunder – began on March 1965 (?) and
    ran through October 1968. In that period, twice the tonnage of bombs
    was dropped on Vietnam and Laos.

  • The
    second attached lasted for only 12 days in December 1972, the American
    used the B52 to drop bombs from the unreachable heights, for burning
    civilians with chemicals, for supporting any corrupt. A quarter of all
    buildings had been destroyed; tens of thousands of people were dead and
    almost one half of the population evacuated.

However, Vietnamese soldiers were successful in innovating aided
rockets from Soviet Union and used them to shot down several B52, which
was definitely unpredicted by the US strategists. In addition with
pressure from many other foreign governments and struggles in their own
country, after 12 days, they had to stop bombing Hanoi and later on,
signed the Paris agreement, in which they accepted to withdraw US
forces out of Vietnam.

* How many US pilots was captured and kept in Hanoi Hilton? Where did Vietnamese government decided to keep US pilots? Why?
– There were over 300 hundred of US pilots were detained in Hoa Lo from 1665 to 1973.

Actually, the number of captured US pilots was much higher but they
were were kept in several places, not only in this prison. But keeping
US pilots right in the city centre is a strategy of Communist
government to stop US aircraft bombing Hanoi.

* How did they live?

The photos and exhibition shows that the US prisoners had a quite
comfortable situation, they had time for playing, learning and
practising their religions.

However, according to many foreign documents, the exhibited pictures
and room may not show exactly happened to the US pilots, we known some
opposite opinion about how hard it was with the US pilots. Maybe, we
still see every thing in our own side.

But we believe that it was certainly no worse than what Vietnamese
prisoners suffered at the hands of the French. And after all, this is
our country. We did not ask to be attacked by foreign powers.

* Famous prisoners?

The most famous US prisoner is Mr. Pete Peterson. He was detained in
the prison. 20 years later, he came back as the first USA the
ambassador to Vietnam become the first US Ambassador to Vietnam
following the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between two countries
in 1995.

– Mr. John McCain – an
American senator – spent five years in this prison. His plan was shot
down in 1967 and he was fished out of Hanoi’s Truc Bach lake by a
Vietnamese civilian with a broken leg and arms. He was in Hanoi Hilton
until 1973.

Reference: ‘Kể chuyện nhà tù Hỏa Lò’ – Lê Văn Ba – Ethnic Culture Publisher – Hanoi 2006


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