The name Hoa Lo, commonly translated as "fiery furnace" or even "Hell's hole", also means "stove". The name originated from the street name phố Hỏa Lò, due to the concentration of stores selling wood stoves and coal-fire stoves along the street from pre-colonial times.
The prison was built in Hanoi by the French, in dates ranging from 1886–1889 to 1898 to 1901, when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina. The French called the prison Maison Centrale—literally, Central House, a traditional euphemism to denote prisons in France. It was located near Hanoi's French Quarter. 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 nevertheless 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 and of the bitterness of the Vietnamese towards the French.
The central urban location of the prison also became part of its early character. During the 1910s through 1930s, street peddlers made an occupation of passing outside messages in through the jail's windows and tossing tobacco and opium over the walls; letters and packets would be thrown out to the street in the opposite direction. Within the prison itself, communication and ideas passed. Indeed, many of the future leading figures in Communist North Vietnam spent time in Maison Centrale during the 1930s and 1940s.
Following the defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Accords the French left Hanoi and the prison came under the authority of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Thereafter the prison served as an education center for revolutionary doctrine and activity, and it was kept around after the French left to mark its historical significance to the North Vietnamese.
During the Vietnam War, the first U.S. prisoner to be sent to Hỏa Lò was Lieutenant, Junior Grade Everett Alvarez Jr., who was shot down on August 5, 1964. From the beginning, U.S. POWs endured miserable conditions, including poor food and unsanitary conditions. The prison complex was sarcastically nicknamed the "Hanoi Hilton" by the American POWs, in reference to the well-known Hilton Hotel chain. There is some disagreement among the first group of POWs who coined the name but F8D pilot Bob Shumaker was the first to write it down, carving "Welcome to the Hanoi Hilton" on the handle of a pail to greet the arrival of Air Force Lieutenant Robert Peel.
Beginning in early 1967, a new area of the prison was opened for incoming American POWs; it was dubbed "Little Vegas", and its individual buildings and areas were named after Las Vegas Strip landmarks, such as "Golden Nugget", "Thunderbird", "Stardust", "Riviera", and the "Desert Inn". These names were chosen because many pilots had trained at Nellis Air Force Base, located in proximity to Las Vegas. American pilots were frequently already in bad shape by the time they were captured, injured either during their ejection or in landing on the ground.
The Hanoi Hilton was one site used by the North Vietnamese Army to house, torture and interrogate captured servicemen, mostly American pilots shot down during bombing raids. Although North Vietnam was a signatory of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, which demanded "decent and humane treatment" of prisoners of war, severe torture methods were employed, such as rope bindings, irons, beatings, and prolonged solitary confinement. When prisoners of war began to be released from this and other North Vietnamese prisons during the Johnson administration, their testimonies revealed widespread and systematic abuse of prisoners of war.
Regarding treatment at Hỏa Lò and other prisons, Communists countered by stating that prisoners were treated well and in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. During 1969, they broadcast a series of coerced statements from American prisoners that purported to support this notion. The North Vietnamese would also maintain that their prisons were no worse than prisons for POWs and political prisoners in South Vietnam, such as the one on Côn Sơn Island. Mistreatment of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese prisoners and South Vietnamese dissidents in South Vietnam's prisons was indeed frequent, as was North Vietnamese treatment of South Vietnamese prisoners and their own dissidents.
Beginning in late 1969, treatment of the prisoners at Hỏa Lò and other camps became less severe and generally more tolerable. Following the late 1970 attempted rescue operation at Sơn Tây prison camp, most of the POWs at the outlying camps were moved to Hỏa Lò, so that the North Vietnamese had fewer camps to protect. This created the "Camp Unity" communal living area at Hỏa Lò, which greatly reduced the isolation of the POWs and improved their morale.John L. Borling, USAF pilot, POW for 6 1⁄2 years, retired Major General
Charles G. Boyd, USAF pilot, POW for almost 7 years, retired General; the only Vietnam-era POW to reach the four star rank.
George Thomas Coker, US Navy pilot
Bud Day, USAF pilot, Medal of Honor and Air Force Cross recipient, political activist, was cellmates with McCain
Jeremiah Denton, US Navy pilot, Senator (R-AL)
Leon F. "Lee" Ellis, USAF fighter pilot, motivational speaker and author
Norman C. Gaddis, USAF pilot, POW for almost 7 years, retired Brigadier General
Lawrence N. Guarino, U.S. Air Force officer, veteran of three wars and author.
Doug Hegdahl, Inmate who played a fool to memorize all the names, personal information and capture dates of the prisoners there
Sam Johnson, USAF fighter pilot, Representative (R-TX)
Joseph Kittinger, USAF pilot, record-breaking parachutist
William P. Lawrence, US Navy pilot, Chief of Naval Personnel and Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy
John McCain, US Navy pilot, Senator (R-AZ) and 2008 Republican presidential nominee, spent parts of his five and a half years as a POW there
Robinson Risner, USAF fighter pilot, POW from 1965 to 1973. A Lieutenant Colonel when shot down and captured, he was the senior ranking POW, responsible for maintaining chain of command among his fellow prisoners.
Howard Rutledge, US Navy pilot, held there for part of his 7 1⁄2 years of captivity, co-author of In the Presence of Mine Enemies: 1965–1973 – A Prisoner of War with his wife
James Stockdale, US Navy pilot, Medal of Honor recipient, 1992 Vice Presidential candidate. He and Lawrence were the most senior-ranking US Navy POWs.
After the implementation of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, neither the United States nor its allies ever formally charged North Vietnam with the war crimes revealed to have been committed there. In the 2000s, the Vietnamese government has held the position that claims that prisoners were tortured at Hoa Lo and other sites during the war are fabricated, but that Vietnam wants to move past the issue as part of establishing better relations with the U.S. Tran Trong Duyet, a jailer at Hoa Lo beginning in 1968 and its commandant for the last three years of the war, maintained in 2008 that no prisoners were tortured. However, eyewitness accounts by American servicemen present a different account of their captivity.
After the war, Risner wrote the book Passing of the Night detailing his 7 years at the Hanoi Hilton. Indeed, a considerable literature emerged from released POWs after repatriation, depicting Hoa Lo and the other prisons as places where such atrocities as murder; beatings; broken bones, teeth and eardrums; dislocated limbs; starvation; serving of food contaminated with human and animal feces; and medical neglect of infections and tropical disease occurred. These details are revealed in famous accounts by McCain (Faith of My Fathers), Denton, Alvarez, Day, Risner, Stockdale and dozens of others.
In addition, the Hanoi Hilton was depicted in the eponymous 1987 Hollywood movie The Hanoi Hilton.
The prison continued to be in use after the release of the American prisoners. Among the last inmates was dissident poet Nguyễn Chí Thiện, who was reimprisoned in 1979 after attempting to deliver his poems to the British Embassy, and spent the next six years in Hỏa Lò until 1985 when he was transferred to a more modern prison. He mentions the last years of the prison, partly in fictional form, in Hỏa Lò/Hanoi Hilton Stories (2007).
Most of the prison was demolished in the mid-1990s and the site now contains two high-rise buildings, one of them the 25-story Somerset Grand Hanoi serviced apartment building. Other parts have been converted into a commercial complex retaining the original French colonial walls.
Only part of the prison exists today as a museum. The displays mainly show the prison during the French colonial period, including the guillotine room, still with original equipment, and the quarters for male and female Vietnamese political prisoners. Exhibits related to the American prisoners include the interrogation room where many newly captured Americans were questioned (notorious among former prisoners as the "blue room") is now made up to look like a very comfortable, if spartan, barracks-style room. Displays in the room claim that Americans were treated well and not harmed (and even cite the nickname "Hanoi Hilton" as proof that inmates found the accommodations comparable to a hotel's). Propaganda in the museum includes pictures of American POWs playing chess, shooting pool, gardening, raising chickens, and receiving large fish and eggs for food. The museum's claims are contested by former prisoners' published memoirs, and oral histories broadcast on C-SPAN identify the room (and other nearby locales) as the site of numerous acts of torture.