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.
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 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. There's also an excellent selection of bronze drums dating back as far as 500 BC. Ancient military history is also touched on and special exhibitions are occasionally housed at the front; it's a pleasant change from the focus of recent struggles you'll find in many other museums in Hanoi.
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 rest of the second floor goes from the 15th century up to the 20th.
Other interesting exhibits include bronze sculptures depicting countryside life scenes and printing blocks for Buddhist prayer books. A sculpture garden on the west side of the building features some old pieces left to suffer the ravages of acid rain. Check out those on the other side as well – stellae from the fifth century appear all but forgotten among the rubbish and cars.
According to the rules posted outside, if you want to take photos you need to send a letter of recommendation in advance, but they didn’t seem to be stopping anyone snapping away. Guided tours are available on request.
A couple of cafes are located in the courtyard too, if you need a break.
By Sarah Turner
Last updated on 26th September, 2013.