The French simply called it Maison Centrale, and apparently razed one of the local outlying craft villages when they picked out the site for this, the largest of the French Indochinese prisons.
Construction was completed in 1896, and the city has grown around it to such an extent that it is now located near the town centre.
The Hanoi Hilton's original purpose was to function as the end of the assembly line for the colonial system of jurisprudence, detaining Vietnamese 'criminals'. More often than not, this meant anti-colonial revolutionaries, otherwise known to the Vietnamese as 'revered heroes and martyrs'. It was the inmates who dubbed it Hoa Lo, which means 'fiery furnace'.
Surviving Hoa Lo — or better yet, escaping from it — gave a Viet Minh cadre powerful credentials, and more than a few of those who did went on to become central figures in the Communist Party. The museum's curators focus primarily on this period of the prison's history, but after the French were ousted in 1954 it was used to incarcerate a new set of Vietnamese 'criminals': counter-revolutionaries opposed to the growing influence of the party.
Then, during the American War, yet another new group of 'liberators' — uh, that is, despicable imperialist 'bandits' — were detained in the form of downed American pilots. It was when Hoa Lo served as a prisoner of war camp that it once again received a new, unofficial name: the Hanoi Hilton. The Vietnamese still maintain that American prisoners were well-treated, but published memoirs by former inmates speak of torture, murder, medical neglect, and being fed food contaminated with faeces. The treatment was so bad here that some observers still maintain it constitutes a war crime. The Hanoi Hilton name became so resonant in popular culture that when the Hilton Corporation finally opened a hotel in Hanoi 1999, they had to give it the awkward name 'The Hilton Hanoi Opera' to avoid tapping into any dark associations.
For some Americans, surviving the Hanoi Hilton boosted their credentials, as it did their Viet Minh predecessors. One former prisoner became the first US ambassador to Vietnam and another was US Senator and one-time presidential hopeful John McCain. A highlight for many visitors is in one of the last galleries, which displays McCain's flight suit and parachute, and a picture of locals pulling him out of the water after he crashed his plane in Truc Bach Lake. Photos also show him years later revisiting the prison, where he reports being so mercilessly tortured he tried to commit suicide on several occasions.
After 1975, it was once again used to jail Vietnamese who spoke out against the Communist government. This continued until at least the early 1990s when the government realised they were wasting a prime piece of downtown real estate on a prison that was easy to escape from. Most of it was destroyed and sold to developers to create the Hanoi Towers, and a small portion was preserved as a memorial.
Today the site mostly memorialises the suffering of Vietnamese revolutionary martyrs before 1954, and glosses over the other periods. Still, the prison is absolutely worth seeing. Be prepared for some fairly grim sights, including dank, dismal cells, iron stocks, upsetting photographs and, in the last 'gallery', the chilling presence of a guillotine used to execute some untold number of inmates.
A few of the cells feature relatively life-like, slightly creepy renderings of suffering prisoners. Other displays show the narrow sewer grates that a large number of prisoners squeezed through to escape. One propaganda-filled room is devoted to the POW period during the American War, so if you're looking for an unvarnished account of how the prison was used from the American War onward, don't expect to come away well educated.