Museums and galleries of Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Museum

There are so many museums in Hanoi that getting round them all may seem daunting, but the astute visitor will realise that the key to the city’s history and culture is revealed within their walls.

So it’s worth seeing as many as possible – though not too many in a day or you’ll suffer from information overload. Here we’ve listed them more or less in order of popularity, though priorities necessarily depend on individual taste. Of course there are plenty of guided tours of the city which will take in many of these Hanoi museums, but it can be fun to pick and choice your favourites on your own.

Museum of Ethnography

This is Hanoi’s best-designed museum plus one of its newest, and is a must for anyone curious about Vietnam’s minority groups such as the different Hmong tribes.

Vietnam is currently home to more than 50 different ethnic groups, each with a distinct way of dress, language and house design. Many of these live in the hills northwest of Hanoi, and this museum displays many of their everyday objects, as well as showing videos of festivals and other ceremonies.

Out back are examples of the groups’ various houses, among which the towering communal homes of the Jarai in the Central Highlands stand out. Open: 08:30-17:30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission: adults/25,000D, children/5,000DNguyen Van Huyen St, Western Hanoi, tel: +84 437 562 192.

Museum of History

Vietnam’s history is extremely complex and some visitors to Hanoi perhaps prefer to give it a miss, but they’d be missing out on one of the epic tales of human history. This museum, set in a wonderful colonial mansion that was the former home of the French governor general, makes a brave attempt to sum up the country’s history from thousands of years ago to the present day.

As is to be expected, there is a strong patriotic tone to the exhibits connected with repelling invaders from China, France and the USA. However, it is a pleasure to wander the airy hallways, pausing to ponder a tapestry depicting the 1945 Declaration of Independence and photos of a young Ho Chi Minh. Open: 08:00-11:30, 13.30-16.30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission: 20,000D; 1 P Trang Tien, tel: +84 4 825 3518.

Army Museum

This is the one that kids love to visit, as the wreckage of planes and tanks in the grounds around the building looks like a set from a Hollywood movie. The interior is quite fascinating too, cataloguing the almost endless list of military clashes between Vietnam and its would-be conquerors. Exhibits are in the form of dioramas of battle scenes and collections of weapons used in the various conflicts.

If your main interest in Vietnamese history is the period of the Vietnam War (aka the American War, 1959-1975), this is a must, though you might want to skip the first display rooms. Beside the museum is one of Hanoi’s most distinctive landmarks – the 59-metre Flag Tower. Open: 08:00-11:30, 13:00-16:30 (closed on Monday, Friday); Admission: 30,000D (additional 20,000D to take pictures); Dien Bien Phu St.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum

This prison, originally built by the French, functioned for years as a place of incarceration for Hanoi criminals. It then became infamously dubbed ‘the Hanoi Hilton’ during the Vietnam War, when American prisoners-of-war were kept here and their images were broadcast across the globe.

When the area was redeveloped in the 1990s, a huge edifice, Hanoi Towers, was built on the site, though a small section of the prison was retained and turned into a museum. The exhibits are from both Indochina Wars, and include a guillotine and some gruesome instruments of torture. Open: 08:00-11:30,13:30-16:30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission: 5,000D; 1 P Hoa Lo, cnr P Hai Ba Trung, tel: +84 4 3824 6358.

Ho Chi Minh Museum

After the strongly patriotic tone of the History Museum and Army Museum, you’d be forgiven for expecting that the Ho Chi Minh Museum produced more of the same.

But you’d be terribly wrong, as this museum is more about art than history, and very contemporary, challenging art at that. It does begin with captioned images of Ho Chi Minh’s life, but the rest of the exhibits are completely off the wall, including a striking 1950s car that appears to be crashing through the wall.

Many of the displays are puzzling and not clearly explained, but isn’t the point of art to make the viewer ponder imponderables? Hanoi’s most surprising museum, by a long way. Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex. Open: 08:00-11:30, 14:00-16:30 (closed Monday, Friday afternoons); Admission: 25,000D; 9 Ngoc Ha St, Ba Dinh, tel: +84 4 3846 3572.