Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi
While several Vietnam museums chronicle the twentieth-century wars with France and the United States (which the Vietnamese call the First and Second Indochina Wars), there are a number of other respected museums in Vietnam that showcase the long and rich history, art, and culture of the nation. One of these is the National Museum of Vietnamese History located in Hanoi. It houses an exhaustive collection of relics and artifacts, including beautiful Dong Son drums, Buddhist statues, and ancient pottery. The architecture of the museum itself (built in 1932) dates to the French colonial period, and is quite lovely. There is not a great deal of English translation on the exhibits, so unless you have booked vacation packages that come equipped with a guide, it’s recommended that you book individual tours with one.
Another notable example of these kinds of Vietnam museums can be found in the city of Da Nang at the Museum of Cham Sculpture. It was founded during the French colonial era in 1915. You will find pieces of Cham sculpture in Hanoi museums and museums in Ho Chi Minh City, but the one in Da Nang contains the world’s largest collection of sculpture from the Champa Kingdom. This kingdom, strongly influenced by India, covered the entire southern half of what is now Vietnam from sometime during the 600s until 1832. Its capital city was Idrapura (today’s Da Nang), center of the culture that adopted Sanskrit as its written language and Hinduism as its primary religion. Its sculpture, including that on its Hindu temples, is quite similar to what you see in India, including many of the same gods. You can also find some archeological sites with Champa ruins. One major site is located near Mui Ne Beach in the far south of the country. There are also several impressive Cham towers near Phan Rang on the eastern coast as well as impressive ruins near Hoi An.
There is more than one Ho Chi Minh Museum in the country. Most are located in the larger cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, but many smaller towns and villages will have at least a memorial. In Hanoi, the largest and most comprehensive Ho Chi Minh Museum is dedicated to the man who was the revered leader of North Vietnam during both the French and American Vietnam Wars. Tours of this museum are often combined with a visit to the leader’s body in the nearby mausoleum. He was born in 1890, and the museum chronicles his entire life, with an emphasis on the struggles against foreign occupiers and invaders.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is located in the picturesque warren of streets alleys known as the Old Quarter of Hanoi, with some of the best shopping opportunities in the city as well as a number of temples and pagodas. The beautiful Buddhist One Pillar Pagoda is located behind the museum. Other Vietnam museums in Hanoi include the Hanoi Contemporary Arts Center and what is left of the infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the prison where Senator John McCain spent a portion of his time as a prisoner of war during the American Vietnam War. A large portion of the former prison was torn down in the 1990s, but barracks and interrogation rooms are being developed as a permanent museum. One of the Hanoi hotels is a Hilton (opened in 1999) that took pains to name itself the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel, after the nearby Opera House in the elegant French Quarter, in order to avoid comparison to the infamous prisoner of war camp.
Some of the best museums in Vietnam will be found in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. The Museum of Vietnamese History includes collections on the different ethnic groups in the country, pottery and other artifacts from throughout the country’s history, a large statue of the Buddha, and a garden full of antique cannons. The Reunification Palace, one of several palaces, is a fascinating snapshot of the era before the fall of Saigon to the victorious north, and the City Museum is located in a beautiful nineteenth-century French colonial building.
Other museums in Vietnam include the Can Tho Museum with its traditional tea house, and the Hue Museum of Royal Fine Arts that showcases the great imperial dynasties when the city was the capital.