Looking at the massive white lotus-shaped structure that houses the Ho Chi Minh Museum’s collection, one might wonder how so much real estate could be dedicated to one man.
You’ll pass through airport-style security to gain access, and the first layer of exhibits is much what you’d expect: a photo-history of Uncle Ho’s life with brief but informative captions in French, English and Vietnamese. From there, nothing is left to do but wander up to the fourth floor, where one is greeted by a gilded statue of the man of the hour. Then come some signs that this is not a typical Vietnamese museum: like, what is that huge cloud-shaped thingy doing behind Ho Chi Minh, and why is his head encircled by the sun-like a halo? It makes sense, in a way, but isn’t it all a little over-the-top, even for Vietnam?
As you proceed up the steps to the right to begin a tour of the upper gallery, the situation doesn’t become any clearer. The visitor is led through a series of exhibits, which aren’t really museum exhibits at all: They’re art installations, in the tradition of the 1970s art scene.
Back then, they might have called them ‘happenings,’ and it’s startling (if slightly embarrassing) to find a place in Vietnam where they are actually still happening. Some of the exhibits are just plain incomprehensible: The tram-line, human-powered funicular display, even after carefully studying the adjacent explanatory texts, is still a mystery to us.
Each exhibit focuses on one of eight themes: human hope and achievement versus the degradations of fascism, or Ho Chi Minh’s hideout in Cao Bang Cave rendered as a human brain. It’s post-modernism influenced by pop art, with a heavy dose of socialist realism. And in the tradition of Soviet collectivist art, none of the creators are credited by name.
The whole thing is utterly anachronistic, and sort of mind-blowing, which is to say, something you absolutely must see to believe. It’s hard to imagine what contemporary Vietnamese who visit here would make of the place. Small children may subsequently suffer from very confusing dreams for years to come.
The explanation for how this odd museum came into being is quite simple. After the war with the US ended in 1975, the art world was well into the post-modernist era. The museum was made possible by Vietnam’s strongest post-war ally, the then-Soviet Union, with its own history of artistic expression and its own take on modernity. Planning began in 1977, though construction only got under way in 1985, and the museum opened in 1990 on the anniversary of Ho Chi Minh’s birth. The museum is actually a synthesis of various revolutionary and anarchistic artistic movements that would require an advanced degree in modern art to properly unravel, and all of which were dead and buried by the time the museum actually opened.
Strewn throughout the exhibits, as if the surrounding art actually provided meaningful context, are rather prosaic if historically important documents preserved in plexi-glass flip books to be perused by visitors. Most of the documents are in French and we saw no serious perusing going on during our visit. People were distracted by, oh, maybe the giant pineapple surrounded by yet-more-massive bananas.
So, definitely stop in to the happening in progress while you’re in Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi is not uniquely Vietnamese: It’s flat out unique.
Go visiting Ho Chi Minh Museum:
19 Ngoc Ha, Ba Dinh, South of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum
Opening Hours: Daily: 08:00-11:30, 14:00-16:00 (closed Mondays and Friday afternoons)