The National Museum of Vietnamese History is spread across two sites; Site One is set in a stunning colonial-era building and houses some simply beautiful historically important exhibits, while Site Two (on Tran Quang Khai), which was formerly known as the Vietnam Museum of Revolution, is less compelling, but still worth a spin through.
The star of the two locations is Site One, which until a few years ago was what the National Museum of Vietnamese History referred to alone. Covering Vietnam's prehistory through to the Nguyen dynasty in 1945, it's set in a magnificent example of Indochinese architecture, which was until 1910 the French consulate and residence of the governor general.
The building was also home to the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient (EFEO), during which time it became a museum to exhibit EFEO finds. Over time the building deteriorated, and it was not until the early 1930s, following a seven-year renovation, that what you can see now was realised. The entrance gives on to an impressive two-storey rotunda with exhibits all around and in many galleries to the rear.
As of 2017, the main permanent exhibition is 18 pieces dating from the seventh to 20th centuries and selected by Vietnam's prime minister to be "national treasures". They included bronze drums, Champa stellae, a Tran dynasty-era bell and Ho Chi Minh's prison diary; we particularly loved the "Statue of a panpipe-playing couple piggybacking", from the Dong Son era (circa 2,500 BC), and selected as a treasure in 2012.
Aside from the permanent exhibition, the ground floor traces Vietnam's ancient history, from the first Neolithic finds through to those of the 15th century. Some items date back as far as 10,000 BC and exhibits feature more than just the requisite pottery shards and axe heads.
The jewellery, tools and household items archaeologists have unearthed—along with human and animal remains—paint a compelling picture of the people who inhabited the region long ago, and provide a sense of how they are tied to Vietnam's modern inhabitants. (We loved the jewellery. Sometimes it's the little details that bring history home, like imagining a woman wearing a necklack 4,000 years ago that's not too far off what a woman might wear today.)
The upstairs of the rotunda has a small though impressive collection of Champa pieces—if you missed the Champa Museum in Da Nang, now is your chance. The exhibition features some 50 pieces of stone carvings dating from the seventh to 13th centuries, including statues, reliefs and inscriptions from the central provinces of Quang Binh, Quang Nam, Binh Dinh and Phu Yen.
There's a darkened wing dedicated to Buddhist and Hindu figurines from the Oc Eo period, which runs from the 7th to 5th centuries BC, with some stunning pieces.
The rest of the second floor goes from the 15th century up to the 20th and you'll see here some fascinating objects, such as a 15th century Vinh Lang stele, printing blocks of Buddhist prayer books and a 17th century statue of Kuan Yin.
Site One is a pleasant change from the focus of Vietnam's more recent struggles, which is what you'll find in many other museums in Hanoi. A free audio tour is available, but the table offering headsets was not obvious to us and we didn't realise we could have done the tour till we were quite a way through the exhibits. Keep an eye out for it. We have seen some average reviews of how it is set up, but it's free, so you can always return it if it's not working appropriately for you.
Site Two is just across the road, and your ticket is valid for entry here too. Here we see a return to form. Room One for instance covers "The Vietnamese People's Resistance War Against the French Invasion in the Second Half of the 19th Century" and Two "The Vietnamese People's Movement to Resist the French Colonialists in the Early 20th Century". And so on.
Having said that, it's still interesting to spin through the rooms at this site, which is mostly photographs, documents, maps, flags and some exhibits that are generally less dazzling than Site One but will still be intriguing to some interested in history. Think for instance, wooden fetters used to chain prisoners in Buon Ma Thuot in 1935 by the French and the guillotine used by the French in Hoa Lo Prison (though the prison also claims to present this guillotine—maybe there were two?).
The rooms covering Vietnam's blossoming into the modern area are intriguing showcasing industrially produced items such as carpets, tires, batteries and other items deemed necessary in a socialist utopia. The last section covers doi moi, Vietnam's period of economic liberalisation that began from 1986. Rice cookers, sewing machines, clocks, televisions... They're all here. Again while it's not the most exciting collection, the fact of these exhibits very existence is instructive of the kind of government the Vietnamese live under.
We rate Site One as one of Hanoi's better museums—we'd certainly include it if we were exploring the city in a couple of days, whether we were history buffs or not—but to save time you could easily skip Site Two, particularly if you're weary of government propaganda and the military angle on history.
Address: 1 Trang Tien St and 216 Tran Quang Khai St, Hanoi
T: (04) 3825 2853;
Coordinates (for GPS): 105º51'35.28" E, 21º1'28.2" N
See position in Apple or Google Maps: Apple Maps | Google Maps
Admission: 40,000 dong for access to both sites
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on Travelfish.org, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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