It’s the rainy season in Vietnam, so Poor John and I have visited four museums in our first week here.
By far the best has been the Museum of Vietnamese History. Designed in the 1920s by French architect, Auguste Delaval, the colonial structure displays a combination of Indochinese and French architectural styles.
The building and its gardens are located within Ho Chi Minh City’s picturesque Saigon Zoo and Botanical Gardens. The museum itself is home to about 30,000 artefacts dating from the early Vietnamese kingdoms to the present day. It represents all of Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups, and also showcases ancient art from surrounding Asian countries.
There are plenty of Buddhas, including the most elegant, haunting and unusual Buddha statue I have ever seen (shown at top). It’s from the Mekong Delta, is about 1600 years old, almost three metres tall and made of sao wood. This divine statue was declared a national treasure in 2013.
A year before that, another Buddha statue was declared a national treasure. The Amitabha Buddha is from the Hanoi region and was carved in 1057. It is the largest, most ancient and most intact stone Buddha in existence. It is typical of the Ly dynasty’s culture and art. The museum displays a replica.
Many other statues caught my eye. One was a jade image of a Kṣitigarbha. That’s a bodhisattva, or someone on the path to Buddhahood. A Kṣitigarbha is usually depicted as a Buddhist monk. Another was Tianhou, who became a popular Mother Goddess. She is worshipped in temples throughout the south of the country. We also liked the googly-eyed Buddha from Cambodia.
There’s also a plump, stylised lion from the 12th or 13th century and a head of the mythical bird, Garuda, from the 10th century. Both are carved from sandstone.
But the museum is way more than statues. In fact, it’s been on the receiving end of two important collections. Vuong Hong Sen was a famous researcher of culture and antiquities in South Vietnam. He donated his entire collection of about 800 items dating from the 10th to the 19th century. Likewise, the entire collection of Professor Duong Minh Thoi and his wife, Ha Thi Ngoc, was donated to the city by their daughter after both had died. These collections include pieces from the everyday to the elaborate.
There’s also household goods, tombhouse statues, coins, ancient tools, musical instruments, dioramas of ancient battle scenes, cannons and other weapons, stelae, drums, columns, and clothing. There’s even an unusual base of a lamp stand.
A timber door from the Pho Minh pagoda in the Red River Delta in northeast Vietnam dates from 1262. The door is carved with dragons, waves, foliage and geometric patterns. The museum displays a replica.
Overall, Poor John and I were impressed by the breadth of the exhibits, as well as the organisation and signage. Most items are explained in three languages—Vietnamese, English and French. A central exhibit area was being updated when we were there and, other than an overpowering smell of glue, the work was progressing quickly and professionally.