This is one of those rare medium-size national museums that is as intriguing from the outside as it is from within.
The building was the invention of Ernest Hebard who attempted to combine Vietnamese and French designs in the refurbishment between 1925 and 1932 of a structure originally built in 1910 to house the Ècole Française d’Extréme Orient (French School of the Far East). Hence the intriguing edifice. The government acquired the building in 1958.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the collection, but I knew there were specific areas of Vietnamese history that I was interested in; the enigmatic Oc Eo culture of Southern Vietnam, the fascinating Dong Son culture of Northern Vietnam and the early fifteenth century. Was that too much of a tall order? I was not at all disappointed by the impressive collection on the two floors of artefacts in a multitude of mediums; stone, wood, metal, ceramic, mother-of-pearl and of various sizes. In fact, I learnt much more about the two cultures then I ever did from reading a handful of Southeast Asian history books. The lighting was good, though reflections off the glass cases made for a reduced experience.
I grew up with the Vietnam War as daily news for much of my childhood and I do remember the distressing sight of naked children running after a napalm attack at the end of that war and that iconic helicopter evacuation on my black and white TV. The end of that war was a relief to be sure, if only because of its constant newsfeed. But personally, the visit to this museum recalled a story of a region divided into two cultural zones, northern and southern, who were at loggerheads for thousands of years. Could this unified state which has become an economic miracle really have a peaceful future? The historic voices of the country, north and south, the coast and the inland mountains are all represented in the museum. The fact that the national museum chose to cover such a diverse history is reflective of its intentions and the future of Vietnam does look hopeful.
The English signage is not perfect, and I would suggest that potential visitors read at least a brief tourist guide to Vietnamese history so that they are armed with a timeline and some idea of the differing localities. The lunch break is strictly adhered to and I found I needed more time. I had to come back in the afternoon and buy another ticket. Depending on your interest I would suggest one to two hours for the visit.Museum Information: www.baotanglichsu.vn