Hanoi’s Old Quarter 2: Hoa Lo Prison and an Old House

Hanoi is a wonderful blend of the past and present. Inhabited since 3000 B.C. it had seen its share of violent history including Chinese domination in more than a thousand years, an attempted Mongol invasion, French colonialization and American bombing raids during the Vietnam War.  Walking down streets and alleyways dating back to the 13th century while passing new shops housed in French colonial buildings, we couldn’t help but reflect about the history of this city and the country.

the old house at Ma May Street
The old house at Ma May Street

Hanoi has been experiencing a construction boom since the late 1990s and modern skyscrapers constructed in new urban areas have radically transformed the city’s landscape. However the government has limited this kind of development in the Old Quarter preserving several historical structures in the process.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum with Maisone Centrale signage
The Hoa Lo Prison Museum: Maisone Centrale, literally meaning central house, is a French expression for prison
Hoa Lo Prison and Hanoi Tower
The Hanoi Tower (background) looks down on a section of the Hoa Lo Prison Museum

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

One of the historical landmarks that intrigued us, the Hoa Lo Prison Museum located east of the southern end of Hoan Kiem Lake, is just a surviving section of the prison built by the French in the late 19th century to house political prisoners. Most of the old prison was torn down to make way for the Hanoi Towers and the remaining gatehouse – with its Maisone Centrale signage – was turned into the present day memorial and museum.

figures of prisoners shackled in sitting position
Figures of prisoners shackled in sitting position

The French used the prison to incarcerate Vietnamese firebrands clamoring for independence, shackling their feet in a seating position and brutally beating them. The sculptured figures and wall murals tell their silent tale.

wall murals at Hoa Lo Prison Museum
Wall murals at Hoa Lo

Although the prison’s capacity was only 600, as many as 2,000 were crammed inside the stockades by the 1950’s at the height of the war for independence against the French. Exhibits at Hoa Lo dramatize this struggle of Vietnamese revolutionaries against their colonizers.

exhibits, Hoa Lo Prison Museum
bronze wall mural with a section of the sewer that some of the prisoners used to escape Hoa Lo
Bronze wall mural with a section of the sewer that some of the prisoners used to escape Hoa Lo

Hoa Lo Prison, despite its infamy, was no Alcatraz, however. Many inmates succeeded in escaping under the noses of their guards. One revolutionary whose interview is shown on a video at the museum relates how they sneaked through the underground sewers to escape. A section of the sewer is preserved at the museum beside a bronze mural.

Ho Chi Minh sandals and bronze mural showing treatment of prisoners
LEFT: Ho Chi Minh Sandals; RIGHT: Bronze mural showing treatment of prisoners

Also preserved is the guillotine used to execute some of the prisoners (there are gruesome photos of the poor victims at the exhibits). Another interesting exhibit is a huge replica of the iconic Ho Chi Minh Sandals (the name given to them by American GIs; they were called dép lốp by the Vietnamese), the distinctive footwear of North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong guerillas made from recycled tires during the Vietnam War.

exhibit showing Hilton Hanoi

The Vietnam War brought a different dynamic to Hoa Lo. It became a prison for American pilots who were shot down in missions over North Vietnam. The prison was sarcastically given the name Hanoi Hilton by its American guests. The American POWs are presented at the exhibits as clean and well-fed but you’ll have to read the personal accounts of these downed fliers elsewhere to see the view from the other side of the hill.

Sen. John McCain visits Hoa Lo Prison; his flight suit on display
LEFT: John McCain’s US Navy flight suit; TOP PHOTO, RIGHT: Sen. McCain during a visit to Hoa Lo Prison

Among the most notable prisoners here is the late Senator and former US Navy pilot John McCain whose flight suit forms part of the exhibit. McCain later fought for normalizing relations with Vietnam – achieved in 1995. The Vietnamese paid tribute to him when he passed away last year. Another was Douglas Brian “Pete” Peterson, a US Air Force pilot who became the first post-war ambassador to Vietnam in 1997.

second story of Ma May Ancient House showing balcony

Ma May Ancient House

In the middle of a busy line of shops and cafes along Mã Mây street is a late 19th century house. Due to the crowded surroundings and the narrow frontage of residences and many commercial establishments in Hanoi (also true for other large Vietnamese cities), one can easily miss this place.

cross-sectional view of the old house showing the second floor
Cross-sectional view of the old house showing the second floor

The ancient house isn’t really that ancient but it does give the visitor a glimpse of how life was in Hanoi in the late 1800s. The house is composed of two sections, with a yard at the center dividing them. From the yard one can get a good view of the cross-section of the structure; the yard is actually an excellent solution towards providing the house with air and sunlight.

old furniture, Ma May Ancient House
Old furniture with china
yellow walls and furniture at the Ancient House
Yellow walls and more wooden furniture

Yellow walls surrounding antique furniture is typical for Vietnamese homes of this period. A wood-fired kitchen reminded us about a way of cooking dating back to our grandparents’ time. There are several things about this house that are both familiar and different. Thinking about similar residences in Taal, Batangas and Vigan, Ilocos Sur in the Philippines, it is interesting to realize how structures during those times reflected both native preferences and colonial influences.

wood-fired stoves at the Ancient House's kitchen

There were several more interesting historical sites around Hanoi we had looked forward to visiting but the time came to also explore a bit of the area far beyond the city. The sight of motorbikes and cyclos on a crowded Hanoi street would soon give way to speeding cars and trucks on the main highway going north. Coming next.

cyclo on a busy Hanoi street
A cyclo on a Hanoi street

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