Set behind the Temple of Literature, this is a sight that's not usually on the tour group route, but should be.
While not world-class, it's one of the best in Vietnam and a visit will provide good insight into Vietnamese culture and history.
The main building is a large, three-storey colonial-style building -- a work of art in itself -- which contains the permanent exhibits, arranged chronologically from bottom to top.
As you enter, the first room contains some archaeological finds that are up to 10,000 years old. Many are just old bits and pieces, such as axe and spear heads and small figurative pieces, but they are impressively old and fascinatingly intricate in design. The 'rubbings' of drum heads are uninspiring and it's better to view the actual drums at the History Museum.
Continuing to the right is a very good overview of Vietnamese art before 1800, and the offerings become much more interesting as you complete the first floor circuit. Exhibits are generally well-captioned, though look closely as some works are reproductions (and not very good ones at that). They are labelled as such.
Gallery five in the back houses some exquisite offerings from the Le dynasties, including two large renderings of the Bodhisattva and the 'thousand-eyed, thousand armed' goddess Guan Yin . These are stock figures at many Buddhist temples, but the ones here represent the apogee of the form in Vietnam, and are mind-bogglingly intricate in design. There is also a 'Buddha Entering Nirvana' or 'Reclining Buddha' made of lacquered wood that is so sensuously feminine in design, one wonders if the artist were really trying to communicate the bliss of nirvana or some other kind of bliss.
The second-to-last stop on the first floor -- gallery seven -- houses some of the best art Vietnam has produced. The Tay Son dynasty didn't last long, towards the end of the 1700s, but the realistic, figurative sculpture from this period is outstanding. Larger than life and made of lacquered wood, each has an eerie presence and a strong personality. They are all meant to be monks, but it's suspected that the artists of the period were using the pretext of religious art to express something about human nature and the plight of the common people.
The visual arts are more heavily represented on the upper floors than are the plastic arts, but some war related bronze sculptures are positioned here and there. Much of it seems to imitate European trends, though there’s plenty more Asian-orientated work on display, in a variety of media, including drawings inspired by traditional woodcut pictures. By the time the Communist era begins, all bets are off as socialist realism takes over, and the art becomes about as meaningful as a mailbox (though, some of it shows considerable technique and is pretty to look at).
The three-storey annex to the left as you enter houses four distinct galleries: the top floor is home to “Applied Decorative Arts”, a display of costumes and other arts from the ethnic minorities; the first floor is folk art; the basement is ceramics and the ground floor hosts temporary exhibitions.A free guide is available for large groups.
A store on premises sells reproductions and some of the contemporary art on display can be purchased by special arrangement.
By Sarah Turner.
Last updated on 26th February, 2017.
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