The Vietnam Fine Arts Museum has one of the best and most diverse art collections in the country, and a visit here will provide some good insight into Vietnamese culture and history.
The museum is set in a stunning three-storey, 1930s-era building, originally ordered built by the French to house the daughters of the colonial elite, who travelled from all over Indochina to Hanoi to study. After a renovation in the 1960s, during which some traditional architectural elements of Vietnamese communal houses were added, the museum was opened in 1966.
Some 3,000 permanent exhibits are on display, including sculptures, paintings and lacquerworks, arranged chronologically from bottom to top. While some information is provided in English, to get a real sense of the meaning of the works and how they relate to Vietnamese history, we'd advise either hiring a guide here—though we didn't try one so can't say how good they might be—or hopping on to one of Sophie's Art Tours. No audio guide is available.
Exhibits throughout are generally well-captioned. An attempt is made to put each room into a larger context, but the text is not always comprehensible and tends to spout the government's perspective—you won't read how the government forced artists to switch from their French-, then Japanese-enforced styles to socialist realism.
Look closely too as some works are reproductions (and not very good ones at that). They may be labelled as such, but sometimes Vietnamese artists made several copies of their own work—as was the Vietnamese way—and it's not always clear even to experts today which ones are the original or the final works intended for display by the artist. Many artworks were also destroyed during the American War and some have not been maintained well enough to display.
On the ground floor, you'll find a very good overview of Vietnamese art before 1800. Highlights include 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.
The visual arts are more heavily represented on the upper floors, but some war-related bronze sculptures are positioned here and there. Much of it imitates European trends, thanks to French colonialism, 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. It still however shows considerable technique and is pretty to look at, and it also demonstrates what happens to art under a repressive government. Eventually you see the emergency of a distinctively Vietnamese school of art in the final rooms.
A three-storey annex to the left as you enter the main building 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. It's all worth a look.
A small store on premises sells reproductions and some of the contemporary art on display can be purchased by special arrangement.
Allow at least an hour or two to explore the museum. It's located near the Temple of Literature, so it makes sense to tie in a visit there with a stop here. Near the temple you'll find KOTO Van Mieu; plan on lunch at this excellent youth training restaurant.
By Samantha Brown.
Last updated on 15th March, 2017.
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