When you’re in Vietnam it’s fairly easy to forget you are in a technically communist country (except for the fact that Facebook is blocked!).
A good way to be reminded, and to learn about the history of Vietnam and how the war affected it (over there they call it the American War), is to visit a few museums.
A must-see is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is part of a larger complex. Not only does the mausoleum house Uncle Ho’s remains, but you can actually see his embalmed, preserved body. For real. It’s all very respectful of course, with a long, slow line of visitors filing past his body, which is flanked by guards. Naturally, there are no pictures allowed inside–in fact you turn over your camera and bag before entering.
The hours are brief (8:00-11:00 a.m. Tuesday-Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, last entry usually 10:15 a.m.) and it’s only open December-September because they send him off to Russia (you know, the professionals at preserving dead leaders) for upkeep October-November. The whole thing is fascinating, especially when you find out Uncle Ho actually requested to be cremated…
The surrounding complex contains the One Pillar Pagoda temple and some other sites, as well as an enthrallingly bizarre museum dedicated to…I’m not sure. Well, officially it’s to the life of Ho Chi Minh, but the museum is so all over the place, with communist undertones (overtones?) alive and well. The propagandic nature of the explanations really jumped out at us.
There are weird art displays accompanied by placards explaining their significance to the Vietnamese people, like a gigantic abstract table with produce on it that somehow symbolizes the Vietnamese people collectively farming to feed their families, as well as a Ford Edsel protruding from one wall, to symbolize the weakness of capitalism.
All these items share space with historical documents from Ho Chi Minh’s life, paraphernalia captured from American soldiers, and personal items that belonged to Ho.
We also managed to make it to the Vietnam Women’s Museum, which is fascinating and much more focused (and has much better placards in three languages). The museum focuses on women’s role in society, and has exhibits on everything from fashion, their role in the war, and their roles as mother and family provider. The fashion section has outfits from all of Vietnam’s various ethnic groups, detailing everything from wedding outfits to everyday clothing.
The section on women soldiers is very informative and eye-opening, and while it still has propagandic undertones, it also manages to be very relatable. There is also an exhibit detailing how women from different ethnic groups collect and prepare food and care for their families–spoiler alert: it’s super difficult and time consuming work!
Museums in Hanoi are certainly eye- and mind-opening and an excellent way to learn about Vietnam’s culture. Coming from the West, this helped us begin to understand the cultural and political climate that has shaped Vietnam these past few decades. Of course we felt weird being there, as Americans, but outside of the slightly uncomfortable museums, all the actual Vietnamese people we met were very friendly and talkative with us, and they seemed happy to have us in their country–as guests.