In Hanoi, Vietnam: One prison, three names

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Opened by the colonial French in the waning days of the 19th century, Maison Centrale would become better known in the 20th century as Hoa Lo Prison or the “Hanoi Hilton.”

By Betty Gordon

© 2016 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Its infamous reputation among Americans dates to the imprisonment of John McCain, Douglas “Pete” Peterson, James Stockdale and several hundred other U.S. servicemen, who spent years as POWs in this building.

But “Maison Centrale,” French for Central House, as the name above the entrance proclaims, was used by the colonial French government long before American prisoners of war arrived and sarcastically nicknamed it the “Hanoi Hilton.”

The tales from the French administration days are as gruesome as from the American era.

Only a small part of the building remains, the rest having been demolished in 1993 to accommodate the high rises built behind it on valuable Hanoi real estate. The prison’s yellow two-story entrance dwarfed by the sparkling skyscrapers make for an incongruous picture. Progress, indeed.

It takes about 60 to 90 minutes to view the exhibit and outdoor memorials, less if you don’t read the politically charged descriptions of what went on at Hoa Lo over the decades. Memorials in the courtyard are dedicated to the Vietnamese “freedom fighters,” and some metal friezes illustrate the horrible conditions in this house of horrors.

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The architectural schematic of Hoa Lo prison, circa 1896.

The prison, classified as a “historical relic” by the Vietnam Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, was built from 1896 to 1899. It unceremoniously displaced what was then Phu Khanh village, a community of 48 households, known chiefly for its production of earthenware pots, kettles and stoves. Hoa Lo translates as “fiery furnace,” a nod to its earlier function, and the building came to be popularly known by its street location name, not Maison Centrale.

Among the remains of the French architectural-style buildings are two of the four watchtowers; imposing sections of 13-foot-high stone walls, electrified, and topped with shards of jagged glass; two sets of “barracks” where men and women were separately housed; the dungeon; and cells where Vietnamese political prisoners awaiting death sentences were held.

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Climbing the electrified, shard-topped walls in an escape attempt would have been a formidable undertaking.

As the propaganda-heavy booklet I bought on site says: “Hoa Lo was ‘notorious’ for detaining and physically and mentally torturing thousands of patriotic and revolutionary Vietnamese.” The French didn’t cotton to the idea that the Vietnamese thought they should be in charge of the administration of their own country.

Most of the barracks areas have been turned into a museum, and the rooms illustrate the inhumane conditions under which poorly clothed and fed prisoners were held. Inadequate ventilation and sanitation, overcrowding and forced labor made matters even worse. Diseases such as beriberi, malaria and typhoid were rampant.

One room illustrates how brutal the inmates’ treatment was. Half-naked, life-size male figures, seated side by side on long raised platforms, legs stretched out in front of them, have their ankles clamped in wooden fetters. Their movements were severely restricted, forcing prisoners to live in their own filth.

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These figures re-create the inhumane conditions under which prisoners were held at Hoa Lo Prison. 

Other rooms display documents and individual iron fetters and fierce implements of torture. A reasonable amount of English translation exists, and it puts heavy spin on valiant Vietnamese resistance.

A guillotine imported by the French in 1894 was transported around North Vietnam and used to carry out executions of said “Vietnamese patriotic and revolutionary fighters” (this wording is repeated often in the booklet) in the countryside and the prison. A picture of it is featured in the booklet, but we did not see the guillotine in the room where it has been housed.

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Torture, overcrowding and disease plagued inmates from every era at Hoa Lo Prison.

Considering the number of political prisoners, it should be no surprise that by the 1930s, a group of communists had banded together to spread their doctrine and “enlighten the masses” of inmates, teaching some to read and write and to speak French and English.

A few successful escapes occurred, including one after the Japanese replaced the French as overseers in the later stages of World War II. The sewers were the conduit for another attempt, in 1951. Portions of sewer are displayed near one of the exterior walls.

The French reimposed their rule after the end of WWII, and it was to take another nine years, after the debacle of Dien Bien Phu, until the Vietnamese were able to expel the French from the country for good.

After 1954, for about a 10-year period, the Vietnamese became the jailers, using the prison to house criminals, the booklet says.

Its incarnation as “hell on earth” for Americans began in August 1964, when the first U.S. pilot to be captured — and the first to be shot down in North Vietnam — Navy Lt. Everett Alvarez Jr., was brought to the prison. He was to become the second-longest-serving POW of the war, marking 8.5 years in captivity.

James Stockdale, commander of a Navy carrier air group, clocked seven years in Hoa Lo. His A-4 was shot down on Sept. 9, 1965. Forced to eject, he broke a bone in his back and dislocated his knee. In his 40s, he was one of the older POWs, and as the highest ranking naval officer in captivity, among the leaders of American resistance. He was to spend four years in solitary confinement, endure beatings and starvation.

A “prize” the Vietnamese thought they could exploit arrived in 1967. On Oct. 27, on his 23rd mission, Navy pilot John McCain’s A-4 was hit by a surface-to-air missile. During his first few days at the “Hanoi Hilton,” his serious injuries, including a broken left arm, right arm broken in three places and a broken right knee, weren’t attended to. Instead, his interrogators beat him.

It wasn’t until they figured out that McCain’s father was a Navy admiral — later commander in chief in the Pacific — that the pilot was given medical treatment, albeit insufficient.

He spent part of his captivity at another prison, known as “the Plantation,” but was brought back to Hoa Lo in late 1969. He would spend much of the rest of his POW years there, before being moved back to “the Plantation,” from where he was released after the Paris Peace Accords were signed.

What is purported to be McCain’s flight suit hangs in a glass case at the far end of a Hoa Lo room with a black-and-white checkered floor.

McCain writes in his autobiography, “Faith of My Fathers,” that when he was captured, his flight suit was cut off. An extremely skilled tailor would have been needed to restore the suit to the condition of the one on display.

The Arizona senator and 2008 Republican nominee for president is convinced it isn’t the uniform he wore. He has revisited the prison several times since his 1973 release.

“Of course it’s not,” he told a reporter from Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, in 2013, noting the plentiful misinformation about what’s on display with regard to the American POWs in the museum.

For example, one of the explanatory plaques says: “… America pilots suffered no revenge once they were captured and detained. Instead, they were well treated with adequate food, clothing and shelter.”

Other photos — the POWs engaged in a game of chess, conducting religious services, playing basketball in the prison yard — make it seem like life in captivity was just a series of small inconveniences. Starvation diets, chronic diarrhea, torture and solitary confinement, which McCain writes about extensively, would argue differently.

Peterson, an Air Force captain and pilot shot down on his 67th mission in September 1966, was a POW for six and a half years. Like McCain, some of his time in captivity was at other prisons. Peterson returned to Vietnam in 1997 as the first U.S. ambassador to the country since 1975. He served in that position until 2001.

Stockdale was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1976 by President Gerald Ford. He retired from the Navy as a vice admiral in 1979, and embarked on an academic career. He was selected by Reform Party presidential candidate H. Ross Perot in 1992 to be the No. 2 man on the ticket. Stockdale died at age 81 in 2005.

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A memorial to the Vietnamese who died at Hoa Lo Prison is in the rear courtyard.

Quick reference: Hoa Lo Prison, corner of Hoa Lo and Hai Ba Trung streets, Hoan Kiem Lake district, Hanoi. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Admission: 15,000 Vietnamese dong (about 66 cents).

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