Hoa Lo Prison is known as a symbol of the indomitable and resilient spirit of the Vietnamese people during their fight for national independence. A visit to Hanoi would be incomplete without exploring this destination to gain a deeper understanding of the nation’s history and the unwavering patriotism of its people.
Once dubbed “Hell on Earth,” Hoa Lo Prison is a historical testament to Vietnam’s war-torn past. The structure is a silent witness amid the bustling capital, making it a must-visit experience for travelers.
Hoa Lo Prison: A Must-Visit Destination in Hanoi
Hoa Lo Prison’s Opening Hours Located at 1 Hoa Lo Street in Hoan Kiem District, Hoa Lo Prison is open for visitors from 8 AM to 5 PM daily, including holidays. This makes it convenient for tourists to plan their visit to the prison at any time.
Attractive evening tours are available from 7 PM to 8:30 PM on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. With a ticket price of only 30,000 VND for adults and a 50% discount for students, visitors will have an authentic experience, as if they were transported back to Hoa Lo Prison.
Getting to Hoa Lo Prison
Situated in the heart of the capital, just 1 km from Hoan Kiem Lake, reaching this historical site is convenient regardless of the mode of transportation. Depending on your starting point, you can choose the most suitable route.
If you come from Hoan Kiem Lake, follow Hai Ba Trung Street. The distance is short enough to walk. Bus routes 32, 38, and 41 also pass by the prison. Alternatively, you can use ride-hailing services or taxis, with prices varying depending on your starting point. The best option is to combine a visit to Hoa Lo Prison with a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.
What’s Inside Hoa Lo Prison?
Exploring Hoa Lo Prison Built in 1896 as Maison Centrale, Hoa Lo Prison was once the largest prison in French Indochina. It primarily housed Vietnamese nationalists and political prisoners. With a total area of 12,908 square meters, the prison consisted of a guardhouse, a workshop, a commissary, two infirmaries, two detention centers for suspects, and five prison blocks. However, today, the preserved area for visitors is only about 2,400 square meters.
The prison’s exterior architecture is formidable, with stone walls laden with barbed wire, broken glass, and watchtowers to prevent prisoners from escaping. Hoa Lo Prison is divided into four sections: A, B, C, and D.
- Section A and B: For suspects under investigation, prisoners with light offenses, or those who violated prison discipline.
- Section C: For French or foreign prisoners.
- Section D: For prisoners with severe offenses awaiting execution.
After purchasing a ticket, visitors are guided inside the prison. Audio guides are available for detailed narration at each location. Hearing first-hand accounts from former prisoners helps visitors truly grasp the cruelty of the colonial era.
The dimly lit, suffocating atmosphere gives visitors a chilling sense of the oppressive conditions endured by prisoners. Tourists can witness and empathize with the harrowing lives and shackled existence of the inmates who once called Hoa Lo Prison home.
The Infamous Hoa Lo Prison Guillotine
The most sinister piece of equipment at Hoa Lo Prison was the massive guillotine used to execute prisoners. The 4-meter-high guillotine featured a razor-sharp blade hanging overhead, with a place for the prisoner to place their head below and a woven basket nearby to catch the body. This device took the lives of countless revolutionaries during that time.
Visitors can feel a chill running down their spine as they approach this area. The haunting sounds of the execution chamber’s iron door opening and the guillotine’s creaking mechanism are recreated through an audio tour. This guillotine was in constant operation, moving between various prisons throughout Northern Vietnam during that era.
Listening to stories recounted by the fearless and steadfast soldiers who faced the guillotine without fear, admiration and gratitude swell within one’s chest.
Dark cells (cachots) were used to incarcerate prisoners who violated internal rules or showed resistance, leaving a deep impression on visitors. These rooms were known as “hell within hell” due to their pitch-black, cramped conditions without light and complete isolation.
In the dark cells, prisoners were shackled at the ankles, eating, sleeping, and using the toilet in the same spot. As a result, prisoners suffered from scabies, edema, and weakness due to poor sanitation and a lack of light.
The cells for female political prisoners were slightly more “humane,” as they were not shackled at the ankles to care for their children. However, torture methods, such as electric shocks generated by a hand-cranked device, were still brutal.
In the women’s political prison section, visitors to Hanoi can hear the story of martyr Nguyen Thi Quang Thai – the first wife of General Vo Nguyen Giap. During her time in this “hell on earth,” she endured relentless torture but remained strong, never revealing any information about the organization. In 1944, she passed away at the age of 29.
The Century-Old Banyan Tree
Within Hoa Lo Prison’s courtyard stands a century-old banyan tree, tall and wide, providing shade over a large area. The imprisoned soldiers nurtured the tree, serving as a resting and relaxing spot. Soldiers used banyan leaves and fruit as medicine, branches for flutes, and chopsticks.
At the secret tunnel entrance, visitors can see a section of iron bars that have been cut. This tells the story of political prisoners’ successful and unsuccessful prison escapes. Visitors can also experience the feeling of escaping prison by walking through a narrow, damp, and dark corridor.
Hoa Lo Prison Night Tour
On weekends (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday), limited-attendance night tours of Hoa Lo captivate visitors. By joining this tour, you will feel as if you have traveled back in time, taking on the role of a political prisoner, experiencing the darkness and suffocation in the cells and execution chambers. This provides the clearest view of the prisoners’ harsh conditions and relentless struggle for freedom.
During the night tour, each stop not only presents historical materials and guides’ explanations but also reenacts the stories of the prison through vivid performances by actors. Visitors feel they have returned to the resistance era, witnessing the enemy’s brutal and heinous acts firsthand.
Overwhelming emotions, heartache, and anger – are just some of the feelings the Hoa Lo Prison night tour evokes in its visitors. There are many more fascinating aspects to explore; nothing compares to experiencing it firsthand. Undoubtedly, a visit to Hoa Lo Prison will deepen your understanding and appreciation of Vietnam’s history and its people.