Best Saigon Museums for Absorbing the History of Vietnam
The best Saigon museums provide a crash course in the history of Vietnam, an education that will well equip you for your travels in the country, providing context that will enable you to better connect with locals.
The best Saigon museums give travellers are chance to absorb the history of Ho Chi Minh City – as the city still fondly called Saigon by locals is officially called – and Vietnam and Southern Vietnam in particular, something that’s essential if you’re travelling around Vietnam and neighbouring Cambodia.
I had the best intentions of posting this guide to the best Saison museums on 18 May, International Museum Day, which is all about celebrating museums as spaces for cultural enrichment and exchange, and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples. But unfortunately my own travels got in the way.
Museums are best visited as soon as you arrive in a place for an introduction to its history, culture and context. When my parents took my sister and I travelling around Australia as kids, the first thing we’d do when we arrived in a new city would be to hit a museum. As art lovers, the state galleries came first, followed by the natural history museum with its dinosaurs and dioramas.
Living in Sydney for many years, Terence and I would often spend a few hours on a weekend at a museum – the MCA, Powerhouse, and Art Gallery of New South Wales for its Australian Galleries were favourites – and we’d think nothing of driving to Canberra for a new exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.
When we first started travelling overseas, museums topped our list of things to do. In Mexico City we visited every museum, studio and home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, along with the superb archaeological museums. My first stop in Madrid was the Prado, in London the British Museum, and in Paris, we naturally made a beeline for The Louvre.
As a lover of local travel, nothing beats exploring local neighbourhoods, connecting with locals, and doing the things that locals do. But museums still have their place, providing context and insights into history, culture and society that you’re not going to get from casual conversations.
These are the best Saigon museums for learning about Vietnamese history as far as we’re concerned. We’d also love to hear which are the best Saigon museums for you in the comments below.
Best Saigon Museums for Absorbing the History of Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam
Museum of Vietnamese History
If, like me, you like to start at the beginning and get your history lessons in chronological order, make a beeline for the Museum of Vietnamese History. While it won’t top most travellers’ list of things to do in Ho Chi Minh City, it’s easily one of the best Saigon museums with 15 airy rooms – thanks to high ceilings and big open windows – holding a precious collection of relics showcasing 4,000 years of history. Exhibits cover the Prehistoric period and Bronze Age Dong Son civilisation through to the Funan, Cham and Khmer empires, to modern Vietnam. Aside from the lovely Sino-French colonial era building, which is reason enough to visit – it was built in 1929 by the Société des Études Indochinoises, hence the Oriental touches – highlights include statues from Angkor archaeological sites in Cambodia, a collection of Buddha statues from across Asia, a well preserved mummy of a Vietnamese woman who died in 1869, excavated in Saigon’s District 5, and ethnic minority textiles, costumes, baskets, and household objects from the Nguyen dynasty (1802–1945). Families travelling with children should ask what time the traditional water puppet performance is on when buying tickets. It’s worth planning your visit around. Unfortunately English labelling is poor, so you may find yourself Googling. Allow time to amble through the adjoining botanical gardens, home to Saigon Zoo, which provide respite from Saigon’s chaotic streets.
25/2 Nguyen Binh Khiem Street, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1, Tues-Sun 8-11.30am, 1.30-4.30pm, 15,000d
Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts
Opened in 1987 and set in yet another handsome French colonial building – this one dating to 1929 and boasting Saigon’s first elevator – the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts is arguably of the best Saigon museums with a wonderful collection of Vietnamese art and international works dating from the 4th century through to the early 20th century. A visit to the Fine Arts Museum not only provides an insight into the evolution of the arts in Vietnam, but also tells us much about the country’s history depicted in the works. Along with painting and sculpture, there are also exhibits of woodcarving, pottery and textiles. Once again, the building itself is a real delight to gawk at as much as explore, with its breezy corridors, pretty wrought-iron balconies, shutters, courtyards, exuberant colonial-era tiles, and stained glass. Highlights from the early collections include Funan and Cham sculptures while the history of Vietnamese art covers everything from artists who trained at the colonial-era Ecole de Beaux-Arts d’Indochine and sketches from battlefield trenches, to the romantic landscapes of the post-Doi Moi painters. One criticism of the collection is that aside from the abstract artist Ta Ty and the contemporary artists known as the Group of 10, the museum largely ignores the post-colonial Vietnamese artists from the country’s South, particularly those working from 1954–75. The gift shop sells prints, postcards and guidebooks.
97A Pho Duc Chinh Street, District 1, Tues-Sun 9-4.30pm, adult/child 10,000/3,000d
Independence Palace / Reunification Palace
For architecture buffs and fans of mid-century modernism, the modernist Independence Palace, also known as the Reunification Palace, is easily one of the best Saigon museums. Associated with the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975, when a North Vietnamese army tank rammed the main gates of the palace and a soldier hung the VC flag from its balcony, for the Vietnamese, the palace is a symbol of victory over the USA. It marked the end of the Vietnam War – which the Vietnamese call the American War – and re-unified the country. The grounds were once the location of the former French governor-general of Cochin China’s residence, built in 1868, which became Norodom Palace, home to South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, who was killed in 1963. It was then named Independence Palace, housing his successor, Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam’s president during the American War. Designed by Paris-trained architect Ngo Viet Thu, the sleek building is a Sixties time capsule and I love the retro interiors as much as the surrounding shady parkland. Highlights include a warren of basement rooms and tunnels, grand reception spaces, a ‘games room’ with round leather banquette and a barrel-shaped bar, a cinema and rooftop nightclub. You can wander around at your own pace or do a guided tour; free, every 15 minutes.
135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1, daily 7.30am-11am, 1-4pm, adult/child 40,000/20,000d www.dinhdoclap.gov.vn
The War Remnants Museum
Undoubtedly one of the best Saigon museums for fans of photojournalism, the War Remnants Museum tops most travellers’ itineraries and for many is the only Ho Chi Minh City museum that they’ll visit. It’s a sobering experience. Its former title, the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, should provide a hint as to what’s inside. North American visitors can be quick to criticise the exhibitions of often-graphic photographs illustrating the horrific effects of napalm, Agent Orange and unexploded ordinance, the horrendous atrocities committed by US soldiers, and the gruesome My Lai Massacre, as lacking balance and one-sided, if not as outright propaganda. However, it’s worth noting that much of the documentary evidence includes testimonies by other US soldiers present at the time, as well as investigative stories and images by some of the world’s most respected war reporters and photojournalists. Some photos, such as that of a smiling US soldier holding up the decapitated head of a Viet Cong (VC) guerrilla, which speak for themselves, were taken by those on the same side – in the same sicken way that the US soldiers who systematically tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq took photos of themselves with their victims. Rather than question the authenticity, post-museum time might be better spent reflecting on the cruelty of mankind during wartime, the importance of remembering, and how we can do our bit to prevent such brutality in the future. Don’t miss the Requiem Exhibition of images by celebrated war photographers Tim Page, Robert Capa and Larry Burrows. Don’t plan on heading straight to lunch; best take a stroll through the nearby park instead. There’s a good little bookshop on the ground level and armoured vehicles and weapons on display outside.
28 Ð Vo Van Tan, District 1, daily 7.30am-noon, 1.30-5pm, 15,000d warremnantsmuseum.com
Have you been to Vietnam’s southern capital? What do you think are the best Saigon museums?
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