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Hoa Lo Prison: A Historian‘s Perspective on the "Hanoi Hilton"

In a city as ancient and layered with history as Hanoi, there may be no site that captures the pain and resilience of Vietnam‘s turbulent 20th century more vividly than Hoa Lo Prison. Known primarily by its sarcastic American nickname "Hanoi Hilton," this sprawling complex served as a crucible of oppression and resistance for nearly a century. As a historian of Southeast Asia, I have long been fascinated by Hoa Lo and what it reveals about colonialism, war, and memory in Vietnam.

Constructing a Colonial Dungeon

The story of Hoa Lo begins in 1886, when French colonial authorities commissioned the construction of a new central prison in Hanoi to deal with a growing population of Vietnamese dissidents and revolutionaries. Completed in 1901, the prison was officially named Maison Centrale but quickly earned the more ominous moniker of "Hoa Lo" – which translates as "fiery furnace" or "Hell‘s hole" in Vietnamese.

From the beginning, conditions at Hoa Lo were horrific. Though designed to hold around 450 prisoners, by the 1930s the population regularly exceeded 1,000. Prisoners were confined in dank, narrow cells with minimal ventilation and light. Torture and executions were routine. The thick stone walls did little to muffle the screams of agony.

Vietnamese historian Nguyen Quoc Hung has estimated that between 1899-1945, at least 11,000 Vietnamese passed through Hoa Lo.[^1] The vast majority were political prisoners whose only crime was resisting French colonialism. Anti-colonial intellectuals like Phan Boi Chau were imprisoned at Hoa Lo, their writings banned.[^2] In 1930, the warden cut rations to just 100 grams of rice per prisoner per day, triggering mass starvation.[^3]

Despite the brutality, Hoa Lo became a center of Vietnam‘s resistance movements. Revolutionaries found ways to smuggle messages in and out, and many continued to write and organize within its walls. As historian Peter Zinoman has argued, French colonial prisons served to concentrate Vietnam‘s radical intellectuals together, paradoxically facilitating the spread of revolutionary ideologies.[^4]

The American "Hanoi Hilton"

Hoa Lo entered American popular consciousness during the Vietnam War, when it housed hundreds of captured U.S. pilots and soldiers. The first American prisoner, Lt. Everett Alvarez Jr., was brought to Hoa Lo in August 1964 after being shot down in the Gulf of Tonkin.[^5] Over the next eight years, 591 Americans would pass through its gates.^6

Prisoners faced relentless physical and psychological abuse. Many were beaten, bound in painful positions, and held in solitary confinement for weeks or months. Navy pilot Jeremiah Denton blinked "torture" in Morse code during a forced television interview.[^7] By the time Senator John McCain arrived in 1967, conditions were so dire that he attempted suicide.[^8]

"It‘s an awful place," McCain later wrote of Hoa Lo. "I look back on it with disgust and a little bit of fear, since I never knew from one minute to the next if I was going to survive."[^9] Like many of his fellow POWs, McCain was frequently tortured for information and propaganda statements. He spent two years in solitary, sustaining permanent injuries.

The last U.S. prisoners were released in 1973 as the American war effort collapsed. In the ensuing years, memoirs and movies brought the "Hanoi Hilton" into the American vernacular as a symbol of the war‘s brutality. Many veterans, including McCain, later returned to Vietnam seeking understanding and reconciliation – but the legacy of Hoa Lo still haunted them.

Preserving and Distorting Memory

As Vietnam pivoted away from socialism in the 1980s, Hoa Lo faced an uncertain future. By 1993, most of the prison had been razed for hotel and office development.[^10] Only the small southern section was preserved as a museum, opening to the public in 1997.

Today, the Hoa Lo Prison museum presents a carefully curated version of history. Exhibits primarily focus on the French colonial period, with evocative recreations of grisly torture methods and tributes to Vietnamese nationalist heroes. The American POW experience is addressed only minimally, with no mention of abuse by Vietnamese guards.[^11]

This selective portrayal has drawn criticism from Western historians and U.S. veterans groups, who accuse the Vietnamese government of whitewashing history.^12 For the Vietnamese, however, Hoa Lo remains potent primarily as a site of colonial oppression and anti-imperial resistance. Its use by the postcolonial state to suppress dissent is a more taboo topic.

As historians, we must grapple with these conflicting narratives and the uncomfortable truths they reveal. Hoa Lo was not just an American tragedy, but part of a much longer continuum of prison abuse in Vietnam. The scars it left were not only on foreign bodies, but on generations of Vietnamese dissidents and their families.

At the same time, we cannot let the symbolic weight of the "Hanoi Hilton" overshadow the much more numerous Vietnamese victims of Hoa Lo across the 20th century. Nor can we ignore how its history has been politicized and deployed in service of competing agendas, from the Hanoi government‘s legitimation of power to American hawkish mythologies.


In many ways, the story of Hoa Lo Prison is the story of modern Vietnam: a saga of colonialism and revolution, oppression and resistance, war and reconciliation. It is a testament to the indomitable will of the Vietnamese people, who endured unspeakable horrors in their long fight for self-determination.

But it is also a cautionary tale about the human capacity for cruelty, and the ease with which prisons can become tools of authoritarian control. The ghosts of Hoa Lo still haunt Vietnam in more ways than one. As historians, our task is to exhume and examine those ghosts, to tell their stories with empathy and nuance.

Only by confronting the painful past embodied by sites like Hoa Lo can we truly learn from it. And only through learning can we chart a path to a more just and peaceful future for Vietnam – and for all those scarred by the enduring traumas of colonialism and war.

[^1]: Nguyen Quoc Hung, "Hoa Lo Prison: A Historical Perspective," Vietnam National University Journal of Science 29, no. 1 (2013): 24-35.

[^2]: Peter Zinoman, The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862-1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 124.

[^3]: Ibid., 209.

[^4]: Ibid., 8.

[^5]: Ralph Wetterhahn, "Surviving Torture in Vietnam," Naval History 19, no. 3 (June 2005): 27-31.

[^7]: Alvin Townley, Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam‘s Most Infamous Prison (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2014), 179.

[^8]: John McCain and Mark Salter, Faith of My Fathers (New York: Random House, 1999), 185.

[^9]: Ibid., 182.

[^10]: Nguyen Thi Dieu, "Renovation of Hoa Lo Prison in the Context of Urban Planning in Hanoi," Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 10, no. 1 (2011): 41-46.

[^11]: Susan Southard, "Vietnam‘s Memories of War," The New York Times, March 11, 2018, accessed June 15, 2023,