Hoa Lo Prison Museum

The harsh difficulties of French colonization and the Vietnam War are somberly remembered in one of the most brutal prisons in Vietnam.

The Hoa Lo Prison Museum, also known as Maison Centrale, played a significant role in the French colonial expansion of Vietnam. Many of Vietnam’s political prisoners were tortured and killed here. Afterward, during the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese used it to imprison American soldiers.

Established in the late 19th century by the French Colonial administration, the building's faded yellow façade and opal green shutters mask the horrors of imprisonment that occurred behind the walls. Many of Vietnam’s leading revolutionaries were imprisoned here, including five of the Communist Party’s future General Secretaries: Do Muoi, Nguyen Van Cu, Truong Chinh, Le Duan and Nguyen Van Linh. Recall that U.S. Senator John McCain was a captured pilot during the Vietnam War and was imprisoned here for 5 years. A 6-year prisoner, Douglas Peterson, became the first post-war ambassador to Vietnam in 1997.

View the small cells, 6 feet by 6 feet (1.8 meters by 1.8 meters), and see the bed frames and straw mats where prisoners slept. Window shutters were kept closed and the prison was usually overcrowded. In 1916 it had a capacity of 600 people yet there were up to 730 prisoners many days. By 1933, this figure rose to 1,430 and in 1954, over 2,000 people were held captive.

See gruesome leg-irons and other artifacts and photographs of Vietnamese prisoners locked in wooden headlocks with their legs shackled at the ankles so they could not stand or move. Inmates were routinely starved, tortured, beaten and isolated. Read the quote from a prison guard, saying “it is easy to die but hard to live.”

During the Vietnam War, American soldiers sarcastically dubbed the prison the “Hanoi Hilton.” Look for the volleyball net that inmates used to maintain their strength. An area here is dedicated to John McCain.

Information is available in Vietnamese and English. Access Hoa Lo Prison Museum by taxi; it is located near the French Quarter. Open daily, operating hours are from morning until afternoon, with a closure for lunch. An entrance fee is charged.