I’ve always seen museums as the best place for a crash course. Like, say, you don’t know much about a person, place, or incident, (and you don’t feel like going through tons of narrative or listening to a lecturer go on for hours about it), then GO TO A MUSEUM. I’d be honest, though, and say that museum visits are low on my list of things to do, especially when visiting a new place. But curiosity wins out in the end, and this one in particular was conveniently located, so I thought it made sense to check out Ho Chi Minh Museum.
If you are for hitting more than two places at one time, then you’ll be happy to know that, if you are visiting the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, there are more than a couple of other notable places to check out in the area. They are pretty much a stone’s throw away from each other, which means you can pack four sites in the area in one morning.
I’m talking about Ho Chi Minh’s House-on-Stilts and the Presidential Palace, of course, as I talked about it also on my previous post. And then, after you’ve gone out the exit, you’ll immediately find yourself a few steps away from a couple other places: the One Pillar Pagoda and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
Exit, and you’ll see people filing towards one direction, which is likely to be the One Pillar Pagoda.
The One-Pillar Pagoda
The One-Pillar Pagoda was built in 1049, after Emperor Ly Thai Tong, who did not have an heir yet at the time, was visited by the Goddess of Mercy Phat Ba Quan Am in his dreams. In that dream, she handed him a baby boy on a lotus flower.
Not long after, he married and had a son and, as a way to show his gratitude to the Goddess, he had the small temple built on the same place where the goddess handed him the baby in his dream. Thus, the One-Pillar Pagoda is dedicated to Phat Ba Quan Am.
Today, this is one of the most iconic temples in the country, and definitely one of the most revered ones. In fact, it is seen as one of the places most symbolic of Hanoi.
I was surprised at how small it is; it is only three square meters. And it is made out of mostly wood. I suppose over the centuries and decades they added some other materials to reinforce it. In fact, the concrete pillar holding it up right now is the rebuilt version, after the original was destroyed by the French in 1954.
I know nothing about architecture, but the design of the pagoda supposedly mimics that of a lotus flower. First, the lotus flower is the symbol of enlightenment in Buddhism. Second, it is in honor of Quan Am.
Taking a look at the inside of the Pagoda is free. But there was a queue of the faithful, and I felt like it was disrespectful to join the queue and hold up those who came to pray just so I could see what’s inside and take photos. So I made do with a view from the outside.
Supposedly, inside is a gilded statue of the Goddess.
If I were Buddhist, I’d probably find this place more significant. Like, if I am truly aware of what the place represents.
From a regular tourist’s standpoint, however, I was underwhelmed. I suppose, since it is often described as “iconic”, I was expecting something more spectacular? Maybe my lack of knowledge in architecture is also to blame, but I was not as impressed as, say, when I visited other temples or pagodas in the past.
I did, however, sense an air of reverence, as if the prayers of those who visited the area were wafting and floating around. (Or, wait, that must be the scent from the incense being burnt? *shrugs*)
I think the fact that there was a crowd also didn’t help any. From what I’ve read so far, praying in this pagoda brings about “blessings of fertility and health”. Hmm.
There were several structures nearby for those looking for that temple aesthetic. Like this other pagoda inside a courtyard. I didn’t see any English signs, but I am assuming this is the Dien Huu Pagoda.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum
Again, if the general movement of the crowd doesn’t clue you in to the fact that the Bao Tang Ho Chi Minh, or the Ho Chi Minh Museum is nearby, you only have to crane your neck a bit and see the structure from afar. Trust me, you won’t miss it.
To say that the building is imposing would be an understatement, because it is. However, it has none of that austerity and, shall we say, depressing (?) feel that one would normally get from looking at the Mausoleum.
Construction of the Ho Chi Minh Museum coincided with that of the Mausoleum. It took 20 years, from 1969, until the Museum was finally inaugurated and opened to the public on 1990, which also happened to be the 100th birthday of Ho Chi Minh.
Admission fee is 40,000 VND (USD 1.77 or PhP 88.00) per person, and it will grant you access to view the more than 120,000 documents, films, objects and other relics about Ho Chi Minh.
The displays inside the Museum are divided into 8 special exhibitions, which basically tackle Ho Chi Minh’s life in chronological order. All the exhibitions are strategically arranged in the two-level structure.
The first exhibition on the lower level showed Ho Chi Minh and the younger generation, but it was actually an exhibition about his youth, specifically his birth, hometown, family, upbringing and his years growing up.
Aside from relics of writings and writing implements, the displays were comprised mostly of old photographs and clippings enclosed in panels, with translations to cater to non-Vietnamese-speaking tourists.
If you have all the time in the world, they all make for an interesting read. The captions, the narratives, the essays and the quotes were thought-provoking, and gives you a glimpse into the mind of a youth whose observations of a chaotic and not completely ideal world are shaping what he will soon become as a man.
And then there were also exhibitions of his travels and long stops in various countries and cities around the world, where he got to learn a thing or two about freedom, and how he can free his country from the clutches of colonialism.
According to Ho Chi Minh, “Youth is the owner of the country. It is true that being weak or being a powerful country is partially decided by the youth. To be a real owner of the future, the young generation must train themselves both physically and spiritually, and prepare well for that future.”
(Now, do you see why I see so much parallels with the Philippines’ own Jose Rizal?)
The second level led to what I’d like to describe as the “heavier and grittier stuff”. This is where things get real and more serious.
When you climb up the stairs, you will be welcomed by the statue of the man himself.
It is at the second level where you will find the exhibitions spanning the topics on (1) how Ho Chi Minh was influenced by Marxism and Leninism, (2) how he founded the Vietnamese Communist Party, and (3) how he led the quest for independence.
This one below is a display to represent the place where Ho Chi Minh was born and lived in, and where his sense of patriotism and love for his countrymen took root, grew and was nurtured.
This area showed artifacts symbolic of the life of feudalists and imperialists, and their collusion when they occupied Vietnam. It’s a low-key representation of the plight of the people during that time.
(Gawd, I kept shaking my head at how similar most of these threads of stories and histories are with the Philippines.)
This area was an exhibition showing how Ho Chi Minh took a lead role in the movement for national liberation, through communist principles. The one below, if I remember correctly, is supposed to represent a volcanic eruption.
The last 2 exhibitions mostly focused on his political life until he passed away.
One thing is for sure: this man led such a full life, and has definitely made an impact not just on the people of a country, but on the generations that are yet to come.
Personally, I do not think that the 45 minutes I spent wandering around the exhibitions and displays inside the Ho Chi Minh Museum introduced me to this great man of Vietnam. I never really expected it would. Well, heck, I don’t even know a lot about my own country’s national hero!
But this was quite a fascinating visit, affording me a sneak peek at an equally fascinating figure of history. I do know that, if it weren’t for him, there is a possibility that I would not have been able to set foot in Vietnam, much less experience it.
Although this visit did not necessarily push “museums” higher on my ranking of must-see places, it’s definitely one of those museum visits where I felt like I actually learned something once I stepped out, instead of just had my eyes’ fill. Even if you are not a huge fan of museums, and historical museums, at that, you should consider adding this on your Hanoi itinerary in the future.