What to see
Its original name is the MaisonCentrale- the Central Prison. The prison was built in the French colony in 1896. Hoa Lo was the central prison for the two principalities which are now the Northern Vietnam and the Middle Vietnam. As the colonization of the French had intensified the conflict within the Vietnam’s society, the construction of the prison was a concerted effort of the French colonizers to strengthen their ruling power in Indochina.
The official name was the MaisonCentrale. However the more popular name which has come down in history is Hoa Lo meaning the Fire Stove in Vietnamese. This name was affiliated with its location. It was the PhuKhanh village of the VinhXuong district. The village specialized in the trade of pottery so its fire stoves were always fiery red thus the name of Hoa Lo.
During the time and even now, prisons have been usually located outside the reach of residential areas. Hoa Lo is an exception as it is at the heart of the capital. There was a criminal court and a spy agency together with a prison in the Hoa Lo compound making it the unchallengeable stronghold of the French power.
The compound was surrounded by a stone wall with the steel core-4m high and 0.5m thick. The wall was supported by a electrified prick wire system. Four corners were dominated by four watch towers with the view of all of the prisons.
Every steel door and lock was ordered from France. The cells and the dark chambers were tiny and deprived of air and light. Their guards were notorious for their brutal act. Hoa Lo turned into a hell-on-earth.
Its original design aimed at retaining only 500 prisoners. However, the prison was expanded many times. By 1953, Hoa Lo was home to more than 200 inmates. After the liberation from the French colonizer in 1954, the administration of Hoa Lo was in the hand of the communist government. Its name hit the international headlines again and again from 1964-1973 during the Vietnam War. The prison housed the pilots who were shot off the sky in the air attack at Hanoi. The fear of being captured was so enormous that among the American pilots Hoa Lo gained the name of “Hilton Hanoi”. However, the fear was not well-founded as the pilots actually received humane treatment from their captors. The famous inmates include John McCain-American senator and P. Peterson-the first American ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Nowadays, only a small part of Hoa Lo remains while the rest of the lot has been converted to a hi-end office tower.