Looking at the massive white lotus-shaped structure that houses the Ho Chi Minh Museum's collection, one might wonder how so much real estate could be dedicated to one man.
You'll pass through airport-style security to gain access, then go straight up the stairs to the first level of exhibits. On our last visit there were two ‘special’ exhibitions on, but we couldn’t see that they differed much from the usual display, and they looked like they were there for the long-term.
Both exhibitions are primarily black and white photos, interspersed with books, letters, copies of speeches and the like. Captions are brief but informative, in English and Vietnamese, although there’s a certain randomness about it all; you'll find a black and white photo of the tank breaking down the gates at Independence Palace one pillar away from a colour photo of the first successful organ implant in Vietnam in 2004.
On the next floor, you'll be greeted by a massive gilded statue of the man of the hour. It’s awarded its own room, and what a room at that: high ceilings, tiled walls and intricate inlays abound.
Proceed up the steps to the right to begin a tour of the upper gallery, and prepare to be surprised. While the first level is standard Vietnamese museum fare, here the visitor is led through a series of exhibits, which aren't really museum exhibits at all: they're more art installations, 1970s-era style.
Themes covered include human hope and achievement versus the degradations of fascism, and you'll see Ho Chi Minh's hideout in Cao Bang Cave rendered as a human brain. It's post-modernism influenced by pop art, with a heavy dose of socialist realism. And in the tradition of Soviet collectivist art, none of the creators are credited by name.
The whole thing is sort of mind-blowing; you'll have to see it to believe it. It's hard to imagine what contemporary Vietnamese who visit here make of the place. If you bring small children, they may suffer from confusing dreams for years to come.
The explanation for how this odd museum came into being is quite simple. After the war with the US ended in 1975, the art world was well into the post-modernist era. The museum was made possible by Vietnam's strongest post-war ally, the then-Soviet Union, with its own history of artistic expression and take on modernity. Planning began in 1977, though construction only got underway in 1985, and the museum opened in 1990 on the anniversary of Ho Chi Minh's birth. The museum is a synthesis of various revolutionary and anarchistic artistic movements that would require an advanced degree in modern art to properly unravel, and all of which were dead and buried by the time the museum actually opened.
Strewn throughout the exhibits are rather prosaic if historically important documents and photos preserved in plexi-glass flip books to be perused by visitors. We saw no serious perusing going on during our visit; perhaps people were distracted by, oh, maybe the giant pineapple surrounded by massive apples and bananas.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi is not just uniquely Vietnamese: it's flat out unique.
By Sarah Turner.
Last updated on 25th February, 2017.
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