Hoa Lo Prison, an infamous prison built by French colonists where American POW were kept during Vietnam war.

© alexeys/Getty Images/iStock

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Top choice in Hanoi

This thought-provoking site is all that remains of the former Hoa Lo Prison, ironically nicknamed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by US prisoners of war (POWs) during the American War. Most exhibits relate to the prison’s use up to the mid-1950s, focusing on the Vietnamese struggle for independence from France. A gruesome relic is the ominous French guillotine, used to behead Vietnamese revolutionaries. There are also displays focusing on the American pilots who were incarcerated at Hoa Lo during the American War.

These pilots include Pete Peterson (the first US ambassador to a unified Vietnam in 1995) and Senator John McCain (the Republican nominee for the US presidency in 2008). McCain’s flight suit is displayed, along with a photograph of Hanoi locals rescuing him from Truc Bach Lake after being shot down in 1967.

The vast prison complex was built by the French in 1896. Originally intended to house around 450 inmates, records indicate that by the 1930s there were close to 2000 prisoners. Hoa Lo was never a very successful prison, and hundreds escaped its walls over the years – many squeezing out through sewer grates.

Polyglots might notice that the French signs are watered down compared with the English equivalents.

The name 'Hoa Lo' means' 'stove' or 'furnace'. Most of the prison was demolished in the 1990s and high-rises (including the Somerset Grand Hanoi) and other developments were built upon its land, though the section in a corner of the plot containing the museum survives.

Lonely Planet's must-see attractions

Nearby Hanoi attractions

1. Ambassadors’ Pagoda

0.12 MILES

The official centre of Buddhism in Hanoi, the wonderfully maintained and otherwise peaceful Ambassadors’ Pagoda attracts quite a crowd on holidays. During…

2. St Joseph Cathedral

0.28 MILES

Hanoi's neo-Gothic St Joseph Cathedral was inaugurated in 1886, and has a soaring facade that faces a little plaza that's usually stuffed with selfie…

3. Ngo Cam Chi

0.31 MILES

This narrow lane is packed with local eateries turning out cheap, tasty food for a few dollars. Ngo Cam Chi translates as ‘Forbidden to Point Alley’ and…

4. Vietnamese Women’s Museum

0.34 MILES

This excellent and highly informative museum showcases the roles of women in Vietnamese society and culture. Labelled in English and French, exhibits…

5. Thap Rua

0.42 MILES

Built in 1886, the ramshackle Thap Rua, on a tiny island in Hoan Kiem Lake, is topped with a red star on special occasions and is often used as an emblem…

6. Hoan Kiem Lake

0.46 MILES

Legend claims that, in the mid-15th century, heaven sent Emperor Le Loi a magical sword, which he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After the…

7. Ngoc Son Temple

0.53 MILES

Meaning 'Temple of the Jade Mountain', Hanoi's most visited temple sits on a small island in the northern part of Hoan Kiem Lake, connected to the…

8. Thong Nhat Park

0.58 MILES

This park, formerly known as Lenin Park, is a lovely place to escape the bustle of the Old Quarter and see what the locals do in their downtime. Hint:…