According to CNN, Hoa Lo Prison in Hanoi tops the five most gruesome destinations in South-East Asia.
The others are the Forensic Museum in Bangkok (Thailand); the Killing Fields (Cambodia); the Penang War Museum (Malaysia); and the memorial for tsunami victims in Thailand.
Hoa Lo Prison was built in Hanoi by the French from 1886–1889 and 1898-1901. The French called it “Maison Centrale” – a traditional euphemism to denote prisons in France. It was intended to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners agitating for independence who were often subject to torture and execution.
A 1913 renovation expanded its capacity from 460 inmates to 600. It was often overcrowded, holding some 730 prisoners on a given day in 1916, a figure which would rise to 895 in 1922 and 1,430 in 1933. By 1954 it held more than 2000 people; with its inmates held in subhuman conditions, it had become a symbol of colonialist exploitation.
Many leading revolutionaries were incarcerated here during the French colonial period, including Phan Boi Chau, Hoang Trong Mau, Luong Van Can, Nguyen Quyen, Nguyen Luong Bang and five future General Secretaries of the Communist Party – Nguyen Van Cu, Le Duan, Truong Chinh, Nguyen Van Linh and Do Muoi.
Between 1964 and 1973 the prison’s inmates included several captured American pilots, notably Senator John McCain and Douglas ‘Pete’ Peterson, America’s first Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The prison is known widely by the nickname ‘Hanoi Hilton’ given to it by the Americans.
Most of the original prison was demolished in 1996 to make way for the Hanoi Towers (now Somerset Grand Hanoi) serviced apartment and office complex, but the southernmost corner has been preserved and reopened to the public as a memorial to the revolutionaries who died there in atrocious conditions.
Visitors can view the original cells, complete with leg irons, along with a selection of bilingual (Vietnamese and English) displays illustrating the horrors of life in the prison during the French colonial period, which was called “A Hell on Earth”.