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The Hỏa Lò Prison: Background information when reading The Three-Nine Line

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The Three-Nine Line

by David Freed

The Three-Nine Line by David Freed X
The Three-Nine Line by David Freed
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2015, 272 pages
    Aug 2015, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick
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The Hỏa Lò Prison

This article relates to The Three-Nine Line

Print Review

Who would have ever guessed that Hỏa Lò, the notorious Vietnamese prison compound derisively dubbed the "Hanoi Hilton" would become a tourist attraction? But that's what's happened, and the ironic, even troubling transition from a place of torture to a ticket-selling tourist trap provides the backdrop for David Freed's mystery novel, The Three-Nine Line.

Hỏa Lò Prison in Hanoi The official name of the facility, built by French colonists in the 1890s to house Vietnamese political prisoners, is the Hỏa Lò (which translates as "Fiery Furnace") Prison, and though much of the original prison complex was destroyed in the 1990s to make room for luxury high-rises, the gatehouse has been converted into a museum and some of the detention cells are still intact.

"The Hanoi Hilton was now a glorified tourist trap," says Cordell Logan, the former secret ops agent at the center of Freed's novel, "mostly dedicated to heralding the story of how the Vietnamese were abused by their colonial French masters, rather than how the Vietnamese brutalized didn't need to be clairvoyant to feel the spirits that haunted the building, or to hear their anguished screams."

There have been a number of books and articles by and about the POWs who languished in the dank, concrete boxes that comprised the prison, with many of the accounts offering sober recreations of the sadistic interrogations by the prison's guards (who were often given nicknames by the POWs such as Sweet Pea, Madman, or in the case of Freed's novel, Mr. Wonderful). Some of it is pretty hard to read.

"I could recall nothing from military survival training that explained the use of a meat hook suspended from the ceiling. It would hang above you in the torture room like a sadistic tease," wrote U.S. Representative Sam Johnson in a response to presidential candidate Donald Trump's stating that Senator John McCain, one of the Hanoi Hilton's most famous former residents, was not a "hero." Johnson, who spent seven years at the facility himself, stated that the Hanoi Hilton was no Trump hotel.

Senator McCain spent more than five years there. In 1973, shortly after being released, he narrated an account of his captivity, starting with his arrival there after ejecting from his plane and being beaten by a mob:

For the next three or four days, I lapsed from conscious to unconsciousness. During this time, I was taken out to interrogation—which we called a "quiz"—several times. That's when I was hit with all sorts of war-criminal charges. This started on the first day. I refused to give them anything except my name, rank, serial number and date of birth. They beat me around a little bit. I was in such bad shape that when they hit me it would knock me unconscious. They kept saying, `You will not receive any medical treatment until you talk.'

Despite the macabre nature of the place – or because of it – Hỏa Lò prison remains a popular destination. Frommer's travel guides give the prison two out of three stars, noting "For sheer gruesome atmosphere alone, this ranks near the top of the must-see list."

Picture of the Hỏa Lò Prison from

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by James Broderick

This article relates to The Three-Nine Line. It first ran in the September 16, 2015 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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