The Most Fascinating Museums in Hanoi, Vietnam

Like the many compelling museums in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Womens Museum offers insights into Vietnamese society
Like the many compelling museums in Hanoi, the Vietnamese Women's Museum offers insights into Vietnamese society | © David Harding / Alamy
Rhonda Carrier

Hanoi is home to a variety of museums, covering a wide range of subjects from prehistory and anthropology to, quite naturally, war. So take some time to investigate the rich cultural history of Vietnam, and explore at least one of these spots when you visit.

As the country’s capital, Hanoi packs the lion’s share of Vietnam’s major museums and cultural institutions into its noisy, chaotic, colourful streets. You may be surprised to find out just how many there are here and the array on topics they cover between them. Here are some of the best to discover as you visit Hanoi.

1. Hỏa Lò Prison Museum

Memorial, Museum

Everyday life in Vietnam
© Valery Sharifulin / Getty Images
The remains of this penitentiary, ironically dubbed the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ by US soldiers who were held captive here during the Vietnam War, chronicles the experiences of prisoners of war in Vietnam, from Vietnamese revolutionary martyrs who suffered at the hands of French colonialists to American POWs. Displays include a French guillotine, chilly cells with rusted iron stocks and the flight suit and parachute of John McCain, war vet and later US Senator and Republican presidential nominee.

2. Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum

Museum, Art Gallery

National Museum of Fine Arts, Painting from 1996, Hanoi, Vietnam
© Bjanka Kadic / Alamy

In a gorgeous colonial building once used by the French Ministry of Information, this is a treasure trove of traditional, religious, modern and contemporary Vietnamese art. Think everything from ancient Champa carvings to 20th-century folk paintings and 21st-century abstract artworks.

4. Vietnam Museum of Ethnology

Museum

Traditional water puppet show at the Performing Arts Revival Theatre at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Vietnamese water puppetry was originated in the villages of the Red River Delta area of northern Vietnam a thousand years ago. Hanoi, northern Vietnam
© Blaine Harrington III / Getty Images
Located a half-hour taxi ride from the Old Quarter, this captivating exploration of the 54 ethnic minorities of Vietnam bears witness to the religious and cultural ceremonies and everyday rituals of the country’s many different peoples in a city where old and new clash. The highlight is the open-air exhibition of actual houses from various regions, which you can go into and explore. Not to be confused with the one-room Museum of Anthropology in the University of Social Science and Humanity.

5. Vietnam Military History Museum

Museum

HANOI, VIETNAM - JANUARY 09, 2016: Soviet aircraft IL-14 close-up. Vietnam Museum of Military History
© Viktor Karasev / Alamy

Outdoor displays of tanks, captured aircraft including rusting US jets, helicopters and artillery pieces make this a good bet if you’re in Hanoi with kids, while inside the three buildings you can see everything from further weaponry to war propaganda, photographs and documents. Together, they cover not only the Vietnam (American) War but the wars against China and France. Climb the flag tower for wide-ranging city views. Military buffs may also want to make time for the Vietnam People’s Air Force Museum on a disused airfield on the outskirts of the city, with MiGs, helicopters, army trucks, radar, artillery pieces and more.

6. Hanoi Police Museum – Museum of People's Public Security

Museum

Hanoi, Vietnam. 22nd Aug, 2015. Photo taken on Aug. 22, 2015 shows the peoples public security forces uniforms in various times and positions exihibted in Vietnamese Peoples Public Security Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam, Aug. 22, 2015. The museum, with more
© Xinhua / Alamy

Small but interesting (and free), this place has welcoming staff who speak English well and are happy to talk you through the displays covering the history of the Vietnamese police force from French colonial times to today – although the signage is good if you just want to drift around by yourself. Displays on costumes, drug smuggling, fake goods, kidnappings, scam rings and the like all combine to give a broader picture of Vietnam’s society through the ages.

7. Ho Chi Minh Museum

Museum

Ho Chi Minh Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam, Indochina, Southeast Asia, Asia
© Yadid Levy / Alamy Stock Photo
This museum and mausoleum of the man who changed the face of modern Vietnam won’t detain you for a huge amount of time due to the propagandist vibe and lack of decent signage and overall context to the exhibits – hire a private guide for the best experience. But it’s still well worth a visit, for the surreal way it combines displays on his military accomplishments with ’70s-era pieces of installation art inspired by Soviet Social Realism. The triumphalist concrete museum and mausoleum buildings are worth a visit in their own right, too, and the gardens they are set in are lovely for a stroll.

8. Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum

Museum

Off the beaten track, necessitating a taxi ride outside the city and hence often overlooked, this venue offers a unique insight into the logistical military supply routes than ran from Communist North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam – and to the incredible effort and determination that went into keeping them running in the fact of constant bombardment. This is another good one with kids – as well as two floors of exhibits, a short movie and various vehicles, there are re-created tunnels to clamber through in the lush gardens.

9. Nguyen Van Huyen Museum

Museum

A museum charting the life and career of Vietnam’s longest-serving Minister of Education might not grab you by the throat as a must-see, but this is a little wonder, with tours of the four floors of photos and documents and the pretty garden given by the professor’s granddaughter-in-law – a delightful personal touch (she serves guests tea, too). The life and family history of this outstanding scholar, ethnologist and patriot (the first Vietnamese person to earn a PhD at the Sorbonne) provide compelling insight into Vietnam’s history and transformation through the 20th century. The museum is about a 30-minute taxi ride from central Hanoi – combine it with a visit to the nearby Lai Xa Photography Museum and a wander about this small semi-rural town itself.

This is a rewrite of an original article by Toni Marie Ford.

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