Maison Centrale, or more commonly Hỏa Lò Prison, was infamously known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ during the Vietnam War. This was because of the atrocious conditions American and South Vietnamese prisoners were subjected to during their imprisonment.
The site now houses a replica of the prison that is a must-stop destination for those looking to explore the history of the Vietnam War in Hanoi. Most of the prison was demolished in the 1990s, and the Gatehouse stands as the museum today.
Touring Maison Centrale
Only a small section of the prison remains today for visitors with entry costing around 30,000 Dong (~$1.50 USD). The museum is open 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM but you only need an hour or two to see most of the museum. Visitors to the site can hire an audio guide for an extra 50,000 Dong ($2.50 USD), which is comprehensive and easy to listen to, offering a better way to understand the exhibits of the museum.
Exhibits at Maison Centrale
The building was originally built by the French during the colonial period in 1896 to imprison those fighting for independence. Exhibits focus on the colonial period and the struggle for Vietnam’s right to self-rule, showing off the methods used to subdue prisoners and a gruesome guillotine for executions.
The museum also features a section about the building’s use from the 1950s onwards during the Vietnam War but it is skewed, if not downright omitting, the torture of western soldiers. The museum has recreated some of the interrogation rooms visited by newly captured prisoners of war.
Although they have been spruced to make them look much more comfortable than they were described by previous occupants.
Information displays at the museum indicate that the prisoners were treated well and that the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ was not an ironic name for savage conditions but actually POWs were so comfortable that they compared the prison to the hotel of the same name. Famous prisoners include John McCain, who was captured in 1967 after being shot down in North Vietnam. His flight suit is still on display as a relic.
Propaganda photos show prisoners playing pool, chess, raising chickens and receiving more food than they can eat, which is greatly at odds with first-hand reports of prison treatment. Thus any visitor to the site must take everything they read with a grain of salt as the museum tries to move on from the past.
Ironically, the museum is now situated close to actual Hilton hotels (both of which have longer names so as not to be associated with the old prison). The museum is a short walk from Ho Hoan Hi Lake (famous for its nearby Water Puppet Theater) in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
The conclusion one may draw after a visit is that the Hoa Lo Prison offers a thought-provoking insight into the way the French enforced their rule over Vietnam and a look at the propaganda narrative of North Vietnam during the war.
Address: 1 Hoả Lò, Trần Hưng Đạo, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000
Phone: +84 24 3934 2253
Season: Year round