There isn’t much left of the old Son La Prison but what has remained is still enough to send chills down the spine. Situated on the summit of Khau Ca Hill and overlooking Son La Town, this former prison is a ghastly reminder of the horrors that were regularly inflicted in the era of French rule.
History of Son La Prison
We have to go back to 1908 to uncover the origins of Son La Prison. It began life as a small penitentiary but, as the years passed by, more and more areas were added as more and more prisoners arrived. Discontent with French rule was snowballing in Vietnam and the numerous political dissidents needed, as far as the French were concerned, to be taught a lesson in the form of a harsh prison sentence.
Son La’s fearsome reputation continued to grow and, soon, it was considered one of the most brutal prisons in the whole of southeast Asia. Notable prisoners housed here included General Secretary Le Duan, famed revolutionary To Hieu (who died of tuberculosis during his incarceration), and commander Van Tien Dung.
Life at Son La was borderline unendurable. Prisoners were subject to brutal punishments such as having to walk for miles on end with heavy chains attached to them and later perform backbreaking labor that same day. The main purpose of Son La Prison was to break the will and fighting spirit of those detained and turn them into obedient supporters of French rule.
One important monument is the peach tree planted by To Hieu. During the last years of his life, he carefully tended to the plant and ensured that it survived long after he was gone. Today, the tree is considered a symbol of Hieu’s unbreakable spirit and fortitude in spite of his grave illness and severe pain.
Son La Prison was decimated by explosives in 1952 as the French sought to erase the brutality and inhumane conditions that had occurred there. This bombardment, along with a further demolition during the American War, left Son La Prison a pile of smoldering ruins.
Son La Prison Museum
The mangled gates and collapsing walls of Son La Prison can be explored with a visit to its prison museum. You’ll find lifelike oil paintings depicting the harsh treatment inflicted on the prisoners and you’ll also be able to traverse through the surviving basement area where solitary confinement cells and tiger cages have been restored.
The museum itself is lined with artifacts from both the recent and distant past – one harrowing exhibit shows the shackles the prisoners were bound in whilst another showcases Vietnamese artifacts from the Bronze Age.
Son La Prison is located in the town of Son La – around seven hours away from Hanoi. Son La Province is located in the north-western region of the country and is known for its rural landscape.
Address: Khau Ca, P. To Hieu, Son La, Vietnam
Season: Year-round | Monday – Friday | Closed Saturday & Sunday
Hours: Monday – Friday (7:30 am – 11:30 am & 1:30 am – 5:30 pm)