Ha Noi Hilton

Yesterday Mike and I went to visit what we Americans commonly (albeit sarcastically) call the Ha Noi Hilton and what the Vietnamese call Hoa Lo Prison. It was originally built by the French in the late 1880’s during their colonization of Viet Nam and was used at that time primarily for political prisoners, i.e. dissenters of French rule.  Once the French were gone, it was used for American prisoners of war. Most of the prison was demolished in the 1990’s, but the entry and a small portion of prison cells were retained as a museum.

Here is the main entrance ~ Central House ~ apparently a French euphemism for penitentiary.  Before entering though, I took a few pictures of the surrounding walls, all capped with glass shards.  Actually, you see this quite a lot in Viet Nam ~ walls embedded with glass shards on top.  A fairly effective burglar deterrent, I would guess.














Like so many French built structures here, the colors are predominantly yellow ochre and turquoise.  This is the entry area…..

……really sort of beautiful, isn’t it?

This is where there were displays of ceramics.  A little bit of history here:  Hoa Lo was the name of the street on which the prison was built.  Remember a few blog posts ago I wrote about how streets were named for the types of shops that were concentrated on them?  Well, Hoa Lo means ‘fiery furnace’ or even actually “Hell’s Hole” and the products sold were coal and wood fired stoves as well as the ceramics which were fired in them.

Here is a display case and a close up of a vase:





I’m going to go ahead and offer my obligatory apology for my near complete ineptitude with my camera.  I can point and shoot all right, but getting the settings corrected for the lighting……well, I’m not so hot.  The reason I say this is that the tour of the prison takes you inside and out and some of the rooms were very, very dark.  So, I’d try to adjust for one lighting scenario only to be confronted with a completely different one a few minutes later.  Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I was way off, therefore some of the pictures are very blurry.  That said……


….here are some windows in a very, very dark room.  I’d figured out how to adjust for the light a little here.  Anyway, I just think these windows are very pretty.

A preserved doorway.  Beautiful and frightening all at once.

This picture depicts pretty much how dark the room actually was.  There’s Mike looking at a display of some of the ceramics which were produced on the site at one time, such as….

……this piece which was described as “Top of Lightning Rod”.

(Reminder: double click on any picture to get a close up).

Also on display were these prisoner ‘uniforms’ which were made from a rough cotton and the blankets which looked about as soft as burlap…..





….and this picture of women prisoners during French colonization.  There was a “special” section of the prison for women and even for women with children.  The Vietnamese….men and women……have been fighting off invasion and colonization for a long, long…..long time.

Just outside this room were displays of parts of a sewer system through which prisoners sometimes escaped…..can you imagine?







It may not be obvious from these pictures, but the area inside these sewer sections is very tiny.  People crawled blindly through these tunnels for who knows how far to escape.

Back inside……






…..was this startling, eerie, fairly realistic depiction of a roomful of prisoners, all shackled.  It’s almost impossible to put yourself in their place.  It was for me, anyway.  To have to sit/lay on a hard wood surface with extremely limited mobility for hours, days, months….?  Extreme heat.  Injury.  Cold in winter.  Disease and illness.  Hunger.  Despair.  I just can’t imagine it.

Next stop, the Cachot ……literally, the Dungeon……




But first, here’s one of my favorite pictures. There was a spiral staircase in an incredibly dark room.  I love spiral staircases, so I gave it a shot….so to speak….and this is how it turned out.

Anyway, I like it ~ just thought I’d share.  Okay now, on to the dungeon…..the incredibly dark, cramped dungeon……

This was a very narrow ‘hallway’.  The doors did not open, but you could look through tiny openings into the cells.  Wow.  So small, desolate, harsh, barren, isolated……  It’s starting (finally) to get colder here in Ha Noi, so I was imagining someone in there in the middle of winter with minimal clothing and a burlap blanket.  It had to be so cold.  In the summer I imagine it was an oven.  Literally “Hell’s Hole.”



“Window” into a cell →





← Cell door.          Guillotine.  ↓




Maybe it’s because I’ve only seen them in movies before, but I was surprised by how small this seemed to be.  It was pretty narrow (well, I guess heads aren’t that big, after all) and not as tall as I thought it out to be to make a clean, quick cut……maybe they weren’t so concerned about that.

From here I went into a couple of rooms with a weird variety of artifacts, mostly from the Vietnamese/American war and here they are:










Pilot Suit


This bed looks only slightly more uncomfortable than current Vietnamese beds….!  Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, but let’s just say the Vietnamese idea of a mattress and the American idea of a mattress are……two different ideas……


This is a “Begging Flag” which says (in Thai, Chinese, Burmese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Visayan, Malayan, French, Indonesian and Dutch): “I am a citizen of the United States of America.  I do not speak your language.  Misfortune forces me to seek your assistance in obtaining food, shelter and protection.  Please take me to someone who will provide for my safety and see that I am returned to my people.  My government will reward you.”  Pilots carried these.



Here is a picture of a U.S. protest.  It’s comforting to me that, at least, the Vietnamese are aware that many, many Americans were against this war.


These next two pictures are of particular fascination to me.  They show Kham Thiem ~ the street Mike lives on ~ after being bombed.  In fact, it was among the most heavily bombed streets during the war.  Remember the pictures in my Thanksgiving post showing the people zooming by on their motorbikes while we were having our dinner?  This is the exact same street.  It’s just mind-blowing…..

After touring the museum I went out to a courtyard with this work on a huge wall.


As I strolled around the courtyard I found these….




I think at this point I needed something pretty to look at.  War sucks…..

Here, before I sign off, are pics of …..

the “Introduction” to the history of the prison.  It’s an interesting read.  (Double-click and you can read it).



Here are some of the rules for behavior while visiting the museum:  First off, leave your explosives at home.  And if you are looking for a place to frolic, this is not it.  Also, what do they mean by “Toilet in fixed places?”  Does it mean the toilets don’t move around or are they asking you to toilet (verb) in fixed places and not wherever you feel like it?!?  “Anything that is not clear or case of mishap, please observe guidance by service staff”…….got it?

2 thoughts on “Ha Noi Hilton

  1. Great post. So disturbing – eerie, evil, sad…Some of the sculptures remind me of the sculpture that’s outside the last open air slave market – which was in Zanzibar. Haunting reminders of horrible things. Thanks for posting.


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