While visiting temples and ruins bores me to ears, I really love visiting museums when I’m in a city. The Vietnamese capital city of Hanoi has more than its fair share of museums, so whether you want to learn about the ancient history of the country, about the various hill tribes and ethnic groups, or about Ho Chi Minh, you will have plenty of choice. So put down the sun cream, it’s time for some air conditioned learnin’.

Hoa Lo Prison

When I arrived at Hoa Lo prison, I knew that I had arrived at the right place because of the lettering over the entrance, but I was still confused because this place does not look like a prison at all. The building was built during the French occupation, and it’s so typical of the French to create a ridiculously beautiful building with incredible ornate detail, even when that building is a prison. The prison was built towards the end of the 19th century with the intention of holding prisoners (obvs) but political prisoners for the most part. As you explore the area of the prison, which now serves as a museum about the prison, you find out about all of the grizzly details of the prisoners lives and their execution. Even though the prison looks beautiful from the outside, inside that is not the case, and the prisoners lived in brutal conditions. The good old Vietnamese still held strong to their political convictions during their confinement, created political magazines, and held meetings while staying in the prison, and some even managed to escape through the sewers.

hoa lo prison

And then, during the Vietnam war in the 1960s and 1970s, the north of Vietnam took control of the prison and imprisoned members of the US military, including John McCain. The US prisoners nicknamed the prison the Hanoi Hilton, and the museum now goes to great lengths to show how well the Vietnamese treated the American soldiers. I have noticed that all the museums here really engage in chest beating for everything Vietnamese, so it’s hard to detect what the reality of the situation really was. hoa lo prison 1

The Museum of Ethnology

Vietnam is home to 54 separate ethnic groups and the Museum of Ethnology is dedicated to better understanding those 54 groups that comprise the Vietnamese population. It covers everything from dress, to wedding ceremonies, through to housing, and agriculture – and the whole museum has been put together incredibly well. Everything within the museum walls was interesting and I was never bored. But the best part of the museum is undoubtedly an outside area where they have built houses from the various tribes, which can be explored by going inside – really cool. At particular times, the museum also hosts traditional water puppet shows and I was lucky enough to catch one. Well, I say lucky – I bloody love puppetry and I’ve even performed in a couple of puppet shows myself, but I found the show a little on the dull side. museum of ethnology

The fishing traps that are used by many ethnic groups in Vietnam. water puppetry hanoi

Kids enjoying the water puppetry. Maybe.

Vietnamese Women’s Museum

I am a feminist through and through so the Vietnamese Women’s Museum was 100% top of my list of places to visit in the city. All of the displays in this museum are so well executed with a really great mix of artifacts, written explanations, and video content as well. Learning about the important role that women play in various ethnic groups in Vietnam was fascinating and I was particularly encouraged to learn about a large number of matrilineal societies that venerate older female figures, and that have preference for daughters over sons. The museum covers everything from the role of women  at markets, working in the rice fields, cooking in homes, and also as contemporary entrepreneurs. Great great stuff. vietnamese womens museum

Which is your favourite museum in Hanoi?

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