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.