Located in downtown Hanoi, the infamous Hoa Lo Prison was built by the French admin i- stration in 1896. Originally intended to hold around 450 prisoners, by the 1930s the number of detainees had soared to almost 2,000, the majority of them being poli tical prisoners. During the Vietnam War, Hoa Lo Prison achieved noto- riety as a place of incar ceration for downed US pilots, who ironi- cally nick named it the Hanoi Hilton. Named Maison Centrale during the French rule – the original sign still hangs over the entrance – most of the prison complex was demol ished in 1997 in order to make way for the Hanoi Towers buildings. However, the architects pre- served enough of the old prison to create the Hoa Lo Prison Museum.
The majority of the exhibits here include a horrifying array of shackles, whips, and other instruments of torture, as well as tiny solitary confinement cells, which date from the French- colonial period. Also on display is part of the old, narrow sewer system through which more than 100 prisoners escaped in August 1945. A small section of the museum is devoted to the American period, contriving to show how well US prisoners (including US senator John McCain) supposedly fared in contrast to the brutality shown to the Vietnamese by the French. At the back of the museum is a guillotine, a surprisingly simple yet terrifyingly efficient killing machine.