Horrors, heroes: night tour of Hanoi prison revisits history

By Ngan Duong   May 28, 2022 | 05:34 am PT
Horrors, heroes: night tour of Hanoi prison revisits history
Visitors experience a night tour inside Hoa Lo Prison Museum in downtown Hanoi, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngan Duong
A night tour of downtown Hanoi’s Hoa Lo Prison museum allows a peek into its horrific history and highlights the resilience and fighting spirit of Vietnamese soldiers.

Tran Xuan Bach, an office worker in Hanoi, recently took a night tour of the Hoa Lo Prison built by the French in 1896.

Bach learnt about the tour from a post on Facebook fan page of the Management Board of Hoa Lo Prison Relic. He and some of his colleagues registered for the tour of what used to be a scary place and called "Hell on Earth." The facility was also famously dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" by American POWs incarcerated there.

Most foreigners visit the prison because of its connections to the Vietnam War. Former U.S. Senator John McCain was one of the prisoners there.

Before starting the tour, each of the visitors were given their own headphones so they could easily follow the instructions.

Following their tour guide, they entered the main gate of the prison and made their way to the men's collective detention camp, the male political prison camp and the dungeon.

The prison space was dark and stuffy, and it was still a frightening and emotional experience.

"Just standing there, I felt suffocated. I really couldn't imagine how Vietnamese soldiers lived and overcame this harshness in the past," Bach said.

The group learnt how Vietnamese soldiers used bang (Indian almond) leaves to make medicine and its branches to make chopsticks and flutes during wartime.

In the area of the underground sluice gates, they heard stories of escape of political prisoners and walked through a narrow, dark and humid corridor that had been used in the past.

"The stories and real experiences made me understand more the steely spirit of Vietnamese soldiers during the war," Bach said.

His emotions were taken to an even higher level when they stopped at the female political prisoner detention area, where they heard the story of General Vo Nguyen Giap's first wife - martyr Nguyen Thi Quang Thai.

In 1942, she was arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison. During her detention, she was regularly tortured but remained steadfast in not disclosing information. In 1944, she fell ill while taking care of patients in the Hoa Lo Prison. She contracted typhoid.

Bach said he was haunted by the sounds of the guillotine and the fates of people on death row. Listening to the stories of loyal, indomitable, fearless soldiers standing in front of the guillotine, he was overcome.

"When I lit incense to commemorate and pay tribute to the heroes and martyrs at the memorial, I finally had some moments of quietness. I had experienced different emotional levels and surely everyone who comes here will feel the same."

After the 45-minute tour, Bach and friends enjoyed a cup of tea processed with bang leaves and received a souvenir.

The Hoa Lo Prison was named after coal-fired stoves once sold in surrounding streets.

In 1990, the prison was shut down and most of its buildings demolished to make room for real estate projects. The remaining part of the facility and the main gate was kept. Today it is a must-visit museum for any visitor to Hanoi.

It is a place that evokes reflections on the brutality of the war and thankfulness that it is over.

The night tour is available on weekends for VND100,000 ($4.31) per person.

Foreign tourists visit Hoa Lo Prison Museum in Hanoi. Video by Thanh Tung, Huong Chi

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