Ironically referred to as the “Hanoi Hilton” by its American guests, the Hỏa Lò Prison complex is located in the center of Vietnam’s capital. Today, the prison has been mostly demolished, though the guard house has been left intact and converted into a museum.
Although it earned notoriety under the North Vietnamese, Hỏa Lò Prison was actually a French creation, built during their colonial rule over Vietnam. The name means something akin to “the Fires”, which is a good symbolic fit for a prison (“the fires of hell”), but it has a totally benign origin. Before the construction of the prison, Hỏa Lò had been a thriving neighborhood where wood ovens were made.
Today, the Hỏa Lò is a museum dedicated to the horrors of war. Or if you’re going to blindly accept the story told by the museum’s exhibits, the museum is dedicated to the horrors of war which were perpetrated against the noble Vietnamese soldiers by the French. And after you’ve been appalled by the cruelty of the Western occupiers, you can learn about the courtesy and civility with which North Vietnamese guards treated American POWs. This is a version of events, of course, best taken with a heaping tablespoon of salt.
Despite the mind-numbing propaganda, Hỏa Lò is a fascinating place to visit. You have the chance to peer into dank cells where political prisoners would await their execution, as well as the women’s ward, which looks every bit as awful as the men’s. And the displays are rounded out by miserable mannequins, shackled to the wall, which actually do help you imagine how terrible it would have been to be a prisoner here.
For me, the most interesting section was the upstairs floor which showed just how kind the North Vietnamese were to the captured American soldiers. There’s a photograph of John McCain being pampered by sweetly physicians. There’s one of the US boys cutting a holiday turkey, and enjoying a Christmas party. Here they are playing basketball. To be honest, these snapshots did give me pause. Even if I accept that the photos are staged, the American soldiers do look happy and well-fed. At the very least, they’re in good enough shape to generate convincing smiles for the camera.
North Vietnam has always maintained that they acted in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, despite the unanimous testimony of the American soldiers who had been held in the Hanoi Hilton. And while the museum wasn’t enough to make me accept the Vietnamese version of events, I was forced to think about it. After all, I had swallowed the American version willingly enough. We were slaughtering villages with chemical weapons and supporting a South Vietnamese government which was definitely torturing POWs. Wouldn’t be in our interest to exaggerate the war crimes perpetrated against us by the other side?
Visiting these types of “black” sites, with their legacies of death and despair, isn’t always a lot of fun. But neither should it be avoided. Hỏa Lò is found right in the center of the city, the ticket is cheap, and the prison doesn’t take long to tour. Given the importance of the place, this should be a considered a must-see in Hanoi.
Hỏa Lò Prison Photos