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What Was the Hanoi Hilton?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Hanoi Hilton was an infamous prison used during the Vietnam War by the North Vietnamese to hold captured prisoners of war, primarily downed American pilots and air crews. To the Vietnamese, the prison was known as Hoa Lo; “Hanoi Hilton” was a nickname used by American GIs. There is also a branch of the Hilton Hotel chain in Hanoi, which is scrupulously known as the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel in an attempt to avoid associations with the original “Hanoi Hilton.”

Hoa Lo was located along a major thoroughfare in Hanoi, which put the prison in an interesting position. Passing vendors of food and various products could have contact with the prisoners, and some apparently passed notes of encouragement or offered the often starving prisoners food. They also circulated reports about the grim conditions inside the prison, and brought out news about specific prisoners for concerned friends and family members.

While many Americans associate the Hanoi Hilton with American prisoners of war, the history of the prison is in fact much older. It was built in the late 1800s by the French colonists, who used it to hold political prisoners. A series of renovations expanded the prison well into the 1930s to cope with a growing population, but by all accounts, the prison was extremely crowded, and conditions were very poor. In 1954, when the French left Vietnam, the Maison Centrale, as it was known, was closed, and turned into a museum to commemorate the horrors of colonialism.

In 1964, the first American prisoner of war was brought to the Hanoi Hilton, and he was quickly joined by numerous others, especially after the Vietnamese began closing outlying prison camps. Occupants of the prison were routinely interrogated by the North Vietnamese to gather information, and some were executed, on occasion brutally. After 1973, when the prison was closed, numerous guards and government officials denied claims that prisoners of war had been tortured at the prison, despite ample evidence to the contrary.

Until the mid-1990s, the Hanoi Hilton remained largely intact. Part of it was demolished to make room for a high-rise, and the Vietnamese government decided to restore the remaining portion so that it could be used as a museum. The museum chronicles the use of the site by both the French and North Vietnamese, although some authorities have suggested that some of the information in the museum is not terribly reliable. Visitors to the site today can see restored cells along with personal possessions of notable prisoners such as John McCain, Joseph Kittinger, and Bud Day.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Soulfox — On May 30, 2014

Curious how the facility was first used by the French to torment Vietnamese political prisoners and then used by the Vietnamese to torture American prisoners of war. You would think the Vietnamese would have learned something from the horrible treatment they received at the complex, huh?

Perhaps the French should have burned the place to the ground when they left Vietnam.

By Terrificli — On May 29, 2014

@Vincenzo -- still, shouldn't we try to abide by such international laws as the Geneva Convention? The problems faced when such laws are passed are two-fold -- how can they be enforced against sovereign nations and how can sovereign nations be compelled to even acknowledge such laws if they don't want to do that?

By Vincenzo — On May 28, 2014

The Hanoi Hilton stands as yet another monument at how ineffective trying to come up with universal, international laws can be. The Geneva Convention was put in place on an international scale to protect prisoners of war from being abused by their captors.

That is a noble goal, but how can it be reached when some nations simply will not comply with even those international laws upon which it seems people should agree?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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