When a museum is good, it’s very, very good, but when it’s bad, it’s horrible. We’ve all been to a disappointing museum before, a mausoleum of glass-encased stuff and things without a soul or a story in sight, and the experience can be enough to put you off museum-going for a long time. A good museum should always be busy and just a little noisy, a building full of dead things needs the noise of the living, but more than anything, a good museum should tell great stories. Hanoi has no shortage of museums that fit the bill, and below are five of the best.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum, Hanoi
The remains of Hoa Lo Prison, a penitentiary ironically known by the American soldiers held captive there during the American-Vietnamese War as the ‘Hanoi Hilton,’ was turned into a museum in the ’90s chronicling the experiences of prisoners of war in Vietnam. Primarily a memorial to Vietnamese revolutionary martyrs who endured horrible suffering at the hands of the French colonialists, Hoa Lo’s most captivating display is of a macabre French guillotine. The remaining chilly, damp cells and rusted iron stocks used in the torture of prisoners give a disturbing glimpse of life as a prisoner in Vietnam’s most notorious prison, but the most intriguing award has to go to an exhibition dedicated to the experience of American POWs held at Hoa Lo. The exhibition features John McCain’s flight suit and parachute. That’s the same John McCain who admitted to attempting suicide numerous times during his stay at Hoa Lo, but judging by the shameless propaganda on the walls of this exhibition, he and the other US captives thoroughly enjoyed their time there.
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi
Housed in a gorgeous French Colonial building formerly used by the French Ministry of Information, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum is a real treasure trove of traditional, religious, modern and contemporary Vietnamese art. The museum can sometimes be completely empty, a remarkable detail considering the quality of the work on display and the low-cost of entry. Chronologically organized, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum offers an easy lesson in the history of Vietnamese art and features ancient Champa carvings, 20th-century folk paintings, and 21st-century abstract works. The museum is so large and densely packed with artworks that you might want to make more than one visit to take it all in and be sure to take a moment to view the sublime effigies of Guan Yin, the 1,000-armed and 1,000-eyed goddess of compassion.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum, Hanoi
Even if you have visited hundreds of museums all over the world, you will be impressed by the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. A gem of an attraction, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum features a fascinating costume-heavy display on the many ethnic minorities of Vietnam, a hard-hitting exhibition on women’s role in wartime and an exploration of the much-neglected subject of family life and maternity. The display on the ‘Heroic Mothers of Vietnam’ that memorializes women who lost children during Vietnam’s many years of warfare is particularly moving, and space is reserved on the top floor of the museum for an impressive schedule of temporary exhibitions.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is a captivating exploration of the 54 ethnic minorities of Vietnam. Vietnam’s capital city has undergone a rapid transformation in the last 20 years, and its streets are a chaotic, scooter-filled clash of old and new where you’re unlikely to see any of Vietnam’s traditional ethnic culture in action. Within the Museum of Ethnology, however, you can get as close as any tourist can to the religious and cultural ceremonies and everyday rituals of the many different people of Vietnam. Located a little way out-of-town, a visit to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is worth the extra taxi fare.
Ho Chi Minh Museum, Hanoi
Visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi may be one of the strangest yet most fascinating experiences you will ever have. Combine a visit to see Uncle Ho himself with a few hours in the museum dedicated to his life and legacy at the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi. While the majority of the museum delivers precisely what you would expect from a monument to Ho Chi Minh, the revolutionary leader of the Democratic Republic of North Vietnam, including a chronological account of his life, exhibitions on his military accomplishments and a huge, gilded sculpture in his image, the upper level of the museum is a surprise to say the least. Interspersed with historical documents and photographs are a number of ’70s-era artworks that, as a whole, can be vaguely described as postmodernist, pop art, Soviet social realist-inspired installation art. Brilliantly bizarre, the Ho Chi Minh Museum is intriguing, informative and just plain weird.