80. One, Two, Three: Museums of Hanoi

Three institutions in the nation’s capital offer carefully sculpted perspectives on the history of Vietnam.

A macabre sculpture — shackled skin and bone on granite — covers an outer wall of the Hoa Lo prison “relic.” (JGA photo)

They called it the Hanoi Hilton. According to U.S. prisoners of war who experienced its “hospitality,” it was anything but a luxury hotel. But the Americans who suffered its indignities were lucky compared to the Vietnamese revolutionaries who preceded them.

Today, the Hỏa Lò Prison Historical Relic is one of many Hanoi museums that recall a not-too-long-ago era when conflict was a way of life in Vietnam. It was one of several that I visited during my most recent visit to Vietnam’s capital city. Still more museums were closed, leaving me a list of wanna-sees for my next trip north to Hanoi.

In this blog, I talk about three collections: the Hỏa Lò Prison, the Vietnam National Museum of History, and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

The original entrance to the French-built Hoa Lo prison still welcomes visitors. (JGA photo)

Taking prisoners

Hỏa Lò was built by the French in 1896 to incarcerate Asian patriots who challenged their rule. It remained a hell on earth for the Vietnamese until the fall of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954. A blood-stained guillotine that severed more than a few heads remains on display today, a grisly reminder of tortures of the past.

The “relic” standing today is but a fragment of the original Maison Centrale (“Central House”) prison on Hỏa Lò (“Fiery Furnace”) street, so named because stoves were sold here in pre-colonial times. Much of it was razed in 1993 to make room for adjacent high-rise construction, but the core was kept as a museum. The surviving structures include three two-story stone buildings with men’s and women’s sleeping quarters, dungeons and watchtowers, and part of the thick, high stone wall that surrounded the jail.

Revolutionary women, some of whom gave birth in this cell, had private quarters but did not escape torture. (JGA photo)

Constructed to house between 450 and 500 inmates, Hỏa Lò was notoriously overcrowded, as the French sovereigns was quick to squash any signs of dissent among independence-minded Vietnamese. There were as many as 2,000 prisoners here in the 1930s, and most were forced to sleep in ankle chains on hard stone floors. Beatings were frequent and vicious; mental torture included solitary confinement and withholding food. Today the prison’s effectively dim lighting emphasizes the hardships the Viet nationalists endured.

For the decade after the French withdrawal, Hỏa Lò saw smaller numbers of domestic prisoners. But between 1964 and 1973, it was used to hold more than 700 American pilots who had been shot down and captured in the country.

A museum photo shows U.S. pilot John McCain captured in an urban lake in 1967 after his plane was shot down over Hanoi.

Among them were John McCain, who became a U.S. senator and the Republican nominee for American president in 2008, and Douglas “Pete” Peterson, later the first U.S. ambassador to Vietnam after the countries reestablished diplomatic relations in 1995. Prison exhibits depict the “humane” treatment afforded these American prisoners, quite in contrast to reports of torture expressed by the inmates. Decades later McCain himself, who was a prisoner for 5½ years after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 (a photo shows him being rescued from Trúc Bạch lake), called the museum an “excellent propaganda establishment” after a visit.

Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating bit of history to glimpse. Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission 30,000 dong (US$1.30). Address: 1 Hỏa Lò at Hai Bà Trung.

The Vietnam National Museum of History was built in the 1920s combining French and Chinese design. (JGA photo)

House of history

The Vietnam National Museum of History was built between 1925 and 1932 as the École Française d’Extrême Orient (French School of the Far East). Architect Ernest Hebrard designed a structure that combined both French and Chinese features, one of the first to do so. Today the collection has outgrown the building, so that elements of more recent history — including the French colonial occupation, the emergence of the Communist party and the American War — have been relocated to an annex across the street. That section was closed during my visit.

A Bronze Age artifact of the Dong Son culture illustrates a reverence for sex and fertility. (JGA photo)

Vietnamese history may be traced back nearly 5,000 years to a Bronze Age culture known as the Dong Son. Its people, rice farmers in the fertile lowlands of the Red River valley of the north, established the first independent state around 2800 B.C. The National Museum displays several examples of the bronze drums and gongs for which it was famed, along with other bronze crafts — several of which demonstrate the Dong Son reverence for sex and fertility. Most of the artifacts presented are from the Third Century B.C. to the Third A.D.

Chinese hegemony imprinted upon Vietnam’s north for the first millennium of what the West knew as the Christian era. A stifling Confucianist philosophy, freely accented by Taoist superstition, may be seen in artifacts from this period. It wasn’t until 938 A.D. that Vietnam’s native Kinh people succeeded in deposing the Han invaders. A warlord named Ngô Quyền led his forces to victory against the Chinese navy in the battle of the Bạch Đằng river; a stirring painting recalls the triumph.

A highlight of the history museum is this commissioned painting of the ancient battle of the Bach Dang river.

A highlight of the history museum is this commissioned painting of the ancient battle of the Bach Dang river.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s central coast, from Huế to Vũng Tàu, was the homeland of the kingdom of Champa from the 2nd to the 15th centuries. Its sandstone icons of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha and other Hindu deities are largely showcased in their own gallery that rings the museum’s second-floor rotunda.

As independent Vietnam matured, it became truly unified for the first time. Ethnic Vietnamese supplanted a Khmer realm in the Mekong Delta region of the south. By the 18th century, the powerful Nguyên family had overrun the international trade port of Faifoo (Hội An) near Đà Nẵng,

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The imperial library of the Nguyen dynasty had scores of hand-written books. (JGA photo)

In 1802, Nguyên Anh established himself as Emperor Gia Long in 1802 and established an imperial capital at Hué. Soon thereafter, he recaptured Hanoi from the Chinese, thus uniting all of Vietnam under the Nguyên dynasty. Priceless jewelry, hand-scribed books and other imperial relics are indicative of this era of Vietnamese history.

Near the ground-floor entrance, a temporary exhibit represents the symbolism of the zodiacal year of the tiger. I imagine it will be replaced by representations of the rabbit by early 2023. Open daily (except Monday) 8 a.m. to noon and 2:30 to 5 p.m.; admission 40,000 dong (US$1.75). Address: 216 Trần Quang Khải at Hang Tiên.

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Nguyen Thi MInh Khai was a Communist party hero of the pre-World War II era. (JGA photo)

In honor of women

Among the leading figures in Vietnam’s folkloric history are two warrior sisters, the Hai Bà Trưng, who about 2,000 years ago led an insurrection against the Chinese and sacrificed their lives to the cause. They set an example for outspoken modern women, who are exalted in exhibits at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum.

This four-story museum, only a few blocks from Hoàn Kiếm lake, highlights the roles that women play in society and culture — not least of all in their wartime activities.

Indeed, if every city in Vietnam has a street named Hai Bà Trưng, so does it also have an avenue honoring Nguyễn Thi Minh Khai (1910-1941). Her story of fervent nationalistic passion, which led to her execution by the French, is one of many told on interpretive plaques on the museum’s walls.

Nearby are hung dozens of propaganda posters from the American War epoch. Many are blatantly violent, as one promising a “payback in blood” to U.S. President Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, the peak years of the conflict.

Other rooms are far less politically motivated. I was impressed by a chamber that displayed beautifully designed costumes and basketry from some of the country’s multitude of ethnic minority groups. Its content, in three languages (including English and French), describes matrilineal societal structures. Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; admission 30,000 dong (US$1.30). Address: 36 Lý Thường Kiệt.

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In a propaganda poster from the early 1970s, Vietnamese women vowed “payback” upon U.S. President Richard Nixon. (JGA photo)
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Bound together both physically and ideologically, Vietnamese prisoners comfort one another in a modern prison model. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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