The Hoa Lo Prison Camp

During the Vietnam war many U.S. soldiers became prisoners of war (POWs). Some of those
prisoners ended up in prisons such as the Hoa Lo prison. The Hoa Lo prison, located in the middle of the
city of Hanoi, was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. It got this nickname because the building was formally the
old Hotel Metropole. The prison was North Vietnam’s main penitentiary, and the Administrative
headquarters for the country’s entire prison system. There were approximately one hundred and forty
Americans without passports or portfolios locked up in Hoa Lo Prison Camp. Hoa Lo was designed as a
prison—makeshift jail.
One of prisoner wrote of his trip to Hoa Lo. He described being blindfolded during the trip and
thrown into a truck. In each city they stopped, the blindfold was removed, and he was pushed at the feet of
the villagers and photographed. The villagers would hold up his ropes and pretend they had captured him.
The prisoner was then taken to Hoa Lo suffering from pneumonia and fever and thrown into a torture
chamber. The POWs would later refer to this place as the "New Guy Village" because all new prisoners
were interrogated there. The prisoner was subjected to five days with neither food nor water. In addition,
no sleep was allowed and the questions and beatings continued (Colvin 6).
Prisoners were beaten for a variety of reasons; for example, a prisoner would be told to sign a
paper and if he refused, he was beaten. The papers were usually statements or words quoted from Bobby
Kennedy or Senator William Fulbright. The POWs learned to sign the papers using fictitious names; such
as, "Ima Bullshitter." The communists didn’t like it, but it was better than not signing it at all (Colvin).
Escape, although always on the minds of the prisoners, was highly unlikely. The prison grounds
were surrounded by a concrete wall approximately sixteen feet high and six feet thick. The wall was also
covered by glass—shards of curved and jagged glass, some from the French champagne bottles, protruded
by the thousands from the top of the wall. Some of the shards were at least six inches high; most were
green with a some of the glass colored red. Therefore, the prison was somewhat appealing to the eye; that
is, of course, unless you were one who had hopes of escaping. Because the Vietnamese thought that was
not enough, barbed wire strands stretched low so no one could crawl under and high so no one could jump
over it. Last of all, there were guard towers mounted atop the walls at the prisoner’s four corners.
The prisoners had to adhere to a tight schedule. A gong was used to signal events during the day.
At approximately 6 AM there was a get-up gong; at about 10 AM a chow gong, for breakfast; at about
11AM a siesta gong; at about 2 PM a get-up gong; at about 4 PM another chow gong, for dinner; and the
last gong for the day at about 9 PM, a go-to-bed gong, (Hubbell 97).
Food was something the prisoners definitely hated. The prisoner’s diet usually consisted of
cabbage or pumpkin soup and a hard roll. They were given water to drink. The bowls and other utensils
used for the food were usually not clean. One example of the filthy utensils was about two prisoners
receiving their meals:
When they were finally delivered, the famished prisoners found only a few scattered pieces of cabbage leaf
floating in the water, and these had not been cleansed of the human excrement the Vietnamese use for
fertilizer (Hubbell 114).
The prisoners ate it anyway, thinking maybe the feces would provide more protein.
Some prisoners were held in solitary confinement. Those stuck in solitary confinement were said to be in
Heartbreak Hotel. If a prisoner was caught talking to another, he was severely punished. Because of this,
the POWs were forced to come up with another way to communicate without talking. They would tap on
the walls of the cells—similar to Morse code. The letters of the alphabet were arranged in rows of five so it
was A-E, F-J, etc… One tap meant the letter was in the first row, so that would be in the A-E row, the next
tap or series