Ho Chi Minh

Museum of Vietnamese History — Walk Through Time in Ho Chi Minh City

The Museum of Vietnamese History (Vietnamese spelling: Bảo tàng lịch sử Việt Nam) in Ho Chi Minh City has one of the best historical collections in the country. Additionally, it was the first museum in South Vietnam during the French colonial occupation.

Currently, the museum has over 40 000 objects on display from different countries. The many contributors over the years include both French and Vietnamese antique collections.

How the Museum of Vietnamese History Came About

How the Museum of Vietnamese History Came About
[ image from Baotanglichsutphcm.com ]

In 1927, Victor Thomas Holbé passed away leaving behind a highly valuable antique collection. He was a member of the French navy and the Vice President of the South Vietnamese Colonial Council.

Later that year, the now-defunct Société des Etudes Indochinoises raised public money to buy the collection. In exchange, the society gifted the entire collection to the government of the day.

Afterward, Blanchard de la Brosse signed a directive to establish a museum for the collection, named after himself nonetheless. He was the Governor of South Vietnam under Cochinchina from 1926 to 1929. In 1929, the Blanchard de la Brosse Museum officially opened under the French School of the Far East (EFEO).

In 1956, it became the Vietnam National Museum under the South Vietnamese Government. After the Reunification, in 1979, it officially became the History Museum of Ho Chi Minh City its current official name. It’s different from the Vietnam National Museum of History in Hanoi and the Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Architecture of the Museum of Vietnamese History

Architecture of the Museum of Vietnamese History
[ image from Baotanglichsutphcm.com ]

The Museum of Vietnamese History used to be in a large garden which later became the Saigon Zoo in 1864. Covering 2 100 m2, the museum was in the typical  Indochinese style of French architect Auguste Delaval.

The building is one of the few French colonial structures in Vietnam that has stayed true to its original design purpose. In 2012, the museum became a National Architectural Heritage Site.

Indicative of ancient Chinese influence, in the mid structure is an octagon resembling the Bagua in Taoism. Its roof has two layers and each corner of the octagon has a dragon relief carving. Furthermore, on the top is a pointy tower of 4 spheres from big to small.

In 1970, architect Nguyễn Bá Lăng added an u-shaped block to accentuate the main building. In the center is an open garden with a pond so all the exhibition rooms have natural sunlight.

Nguyen Ba Lang was also in charge of expanding the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang. Furthermore, he took part in the restoration of structures on Hoan Kiem Lake and the iconic One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi.

Timeline of Vietnamese History in the Museum

For perspective, Vietnam is on the southeastern edge of the Asian continent in the Northern Hemisphere. Its territory includes an S-shaped landmass and around 3000 islands. The total area is 331 720 km2 and the climate is tropical monsoon.

Room 1: Prehistoric Period (Circa 500 000 Years Ago – 2 879 BC)

Prehistoric Period in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

The geography of Vietnam formed between the Pre-Cambrian and Late Mesozoic Eras. This was 570 to 65 million years ago. Climate changes 1.6 to 0.7 million years ago, during the Pleistocene Epoch, benefited the development of life on earth.

The existence of aboriginals in Vietnam appeared as early as the Paleolithic period circa 500 000 years ago. Related discoveries were Homo erectus teeth and knapped stone tools in caves and mountains of northern Vietnam.

During the Neolithic Period, several cultures developed in Vietnam. One was the Hoa Binh Culture (văn hoá Hoà Bình, 12 000 – 10 000 BC). Another was the Bac Son Culture (văn hoá Bắc Sơn, 10 000 BC – 8 000 BC). The Quynh Van Culture (văn hoá Quỳnh Văn, 8000 – 6000 BC) was also an important development.

These cultures take their names from the locations where archeological objects were found. Some of these are on display in the Museum of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City. Finely crafted stone tools and pieces of coarse pottery on show indicate the transition from gathering to producing food.

Room 2: The First Period of Foundation (2 879 BC – 938 CE)

First Period in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

During the Holocene Epoch, areas inhabited by aboriginals expanded to develop economy and culture. Then, creativity gave birth to metallurgy and rice farming using cattle like buffaloes and cows.

Consequently, the increase in quality of life led to the economic and social development of the first civilizations. In turn, three early Vietnamese states formed. This was from the end of the Bronze Age to the end of the Iron Age (8th – 2nd centuries BC).

The First Kingdoms in Vietnam

In northern Vietnam, the Van Lang (Văn Lang) and Au Lac (Âu Lạc) Kingdoms arose. These were formed on the basis of Dong Son Culture (văn hoá Đông Sơn, 800 – 200 BC). Today, you can still visit the remains of Au Lac Kingdom’s Co Loa Citadel in Hanoi.

Van Lang and Au Lac monarchs are Hung Kings (Hùng Vương). They are believed to be the founding fathers of Vietnamese territory. Nowadays, there are still many places of worship for them across the country. This includes the Hung Kings Temple managed by the Museum of Vietnamese History.

In Central Vietnam, the Sa Huynh Culture (văn hoá Sa Huỳnh, 1000 BC – 200 CE ) led to Lam Ap Kingdom (Vương quốc Lâm Ấp, 192 – 605). This was the first kingdom of the Champa Empire (Vương quốc Chăm Pa, 192 – 1832).

The Phu Nam Kingdom (Vương quốc Phù Nam, 12th century BC) was in southern Vietnam. It stemmed from the Dong Nai (văn hoá Đồng Nai, 500 BC – 0) and Oc Eo (văn hoá Óc Eo, 1 – 630) Cultures.

These states turned a new page in the history of Vietnam. It was the first period of defensive nation-building. To this day, each respective culture can still be seen in the diversity of Vietnam. For example, some aspects of the Oc Eo Culture still exist in the Mekong Delta region.

The First Struggles for Independence

In 179 BC, An Dương Vương — king of Au Lac — lost the war against Zhao Tuo (Triệu Đà – 趙佗) — a Chinese Qin Dynasty general. This led to over 1000 years of Vietnam under Chinese rule or Bắc thuộc.

Consequently, this period resulted in major cultural impositions. During those years, the people continuously fermented revolutions to regain independence, but to no avail.

Room 3: Ngo – Dinh – Early Le Dynasties (939 – 1009)

Ngo-Dinh-Early Le Dynasties
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

The victorious Battle of Bach Dang (trận Bạch Đằng, 938) ended the 1000 years of Vietnam under Chinese rule. Ngô Quyền established the Ngo Dynasty (nhà Ngô, 939-968) and rebuilt the country. However, his death resulted in the first major civil war — ‘The Anarchy of the Twelve Warlords’ (Loạn 12 sứ quân).

In 968, Đinh Bộ Lĩnh reunified the country under the Dinh Dynasty (nhà Đinh, 968 – 981). He then became King Đinh Tiên Hoàng and renamed the country into Đại Cồ Việt. The remains of his Hoa Lu Ancient Capital (Cố đô Hoa Lư) in Ninh Binh Province is still open for visitors today.

The succeeding Early Le Dynasty (nhà Tiền Lê, 981 – 1009) successfully fended off the Chinese Song Dynasty. Exhibits in the Museum of Vietnamese History include the copper coins of these dynasties.

Room 4: Ly Dynasty (1009 – 1225)

Ly Dynasty in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

The Ly Dynasty (nhà Lý) was the first largely encompassing rule of Vietnam. It achieved remarkable developments from culture to religion, law, economy, and politics. The artistic development, especially hand craftsmanship, can be seen in the pottery displayed at the Museum of Vietnamese History.

The Ly Dynasty capital is partially preserved in the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long (Hoàng thành Thăng Long). The Temple of Literature – Imperial Academy (Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám) is another structure from this dynasty you can visit in Hanoi.

Room 5: Tran – Ho Dynasties (1225 – 1407)

Tran-Ho Dynasties in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

In 1225, the Tran Dynasty (nhà Trần, 1225 – 1400) succeeded the Ly Dynasty and further strengthen Đại Việt. Military, agriculture, trade, educational structures, and the political system were bolstered. These achievements contributed to fending off the formidable Mongol Empire. The first victory was in 1258, again in 1285, and also in 1288.

Arts bloomed with many classic literary and impressive architectural works. You can see pottery dishes and jars from this time at the Museum of Vietnamese History.

This was also the time when chữ Nôm was used in literature. It’s a logographic writing system using Chinese characters to represent Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary.

Afterward, Hồ Quý Ly dethroned the Tran and founded the Ho Dynasty (1400 – 1407) in 1400. However, in 1407, his successor lost the war against the Ming Dynasty and Vietnam once again fell under Chinese rule.

Nonetheless, a chain of revolutionary struggles followed immediately after that. Consequently, the Lam Son Uprising (khởi nghĩa Lam Sơn, 1418 – 1427) led by Lê Lợi defeated the Ming thus regaining independence once again.

Room 9: Later Le – Mac – Revival Le Dynasties (1428 – 1788)

Later Le - Mac - Revival Le Dynasties
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

In 1428, Le Loi — King Lê Thái Tổ — reestablished the Le Dynasty (Later Le Dynasty in historical records). Thanks to a number of innovative policies, the Dai Viet entered a new stage of development. The Museum of Vietnamese History displays a number of intricate objects from this time like lampstands, incense urns, and kettles.

When Mạc Đăng Dung took the throne and founded the Mac Dynasty (1527 – 1677), the Dai Viet monarchy fell into a total crisis. Additionally, the Trinh Lords (chúa Trịnh) era began with Trịnh Kiểm — an official of the Revival Le Dynasty (1533 – 1788).

The two civil wars of Le – Mac (1527 – 1592) and Trinh – Nguyen (1627 -1672) divided the nation. Furthermore, the people also revolted against the oppressive monarchy.

Also during this time period, Dai Viet people accomplished the southern reclamation and made first contact with Westerners. This also led to the creation of the modern Vietnamese script.

Room 10: Tay Son Dynasty (1771 – 1802)

Tay Son Dynasty
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

In the 18th century, commoners continuously revolted against the two factions dividing the country. The Trinh Lords and the Le Dynasty ruled the North while the Nguyen Lords (chúa Nguyễn) governed the South.

Its peak was the Tay Son Uprising (khởi nghĩa Tây Sơn) at Quy Nhon (Quy Nhơn) city in 1771. Led by the three Tay Son Brothers — Nguyễn Nhạc, Nguyễn Lữ, Nguyễn Huệ, it comprised people of all statuses.

The Tay Son Uprising grew rapidly and made remarkable gains in liberating and unifying the nation. They succeeded in overthrowing the Nguyen Lords, Trinh Lords, and the Le Dynasty. Furthermore, they defeated the Siamese (present-day Thailand) army and the Chinese Qing army.

Nguyen Nhac established the Tay Son Dynasty in 1778. Then, Nguyen Hue succeeded the throne as Emperor Quang Trung in 1788. The Tay Son attempted many progressive reforms to build a stronger Dai Viet. Different copper coins from this time are on display in the Museum of Vietnamese History.

Room 12: Nguyen Dynasty (1802 – 1945)

Nguyen Dynasty in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ image from Baotanglichsutphcm.com ]

In 1802, Nguyễn Ánh, a descendant of the Nguyen Lords, overthrew the Tay Son. He established the Nguyen Dynasty and renamed the country Việt Nam. Furthermore, he moved the capital to Hue and rebuilt the Hue Citadel.

However, the recalcitrant Nguyen Dynasty failed to modernize in the face of rising Western powers and technologies. Under the Confucius rule of Emperor Minh Mang, Vietnam did, however, finally subjugate the last of the Champa kingdoms.

From 1883, Emperor Tu Duc conceded a partitioned Vietnam to the French. Vietnamese people, however, fought on many fronts to preserve their culture. They imbued knowledge from foreign countries and fought to regain independence from colonialists and neo-colonial capitalists.

In 1930, the Indochinese Communist Party was founded (Đảng Cộng sản Đông Dương) with the correct direction for revolution. It led to the August Revolution in 1945 which overthrew the colonial and feudal governments. Hence, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Việt Nam Dân chủ Cộng hòa) was established in light of a new era.

Antiques from the Nguyen Dynasty

In 1838, Emperor Minh Mạng issued the casting of 33 copper containers for ritual worship in temples. These are engraved with Confucius aphorisms reflecting the Emperor’s ideology. At the Museum of Vietnamese History, you can find 12 of them including vases, cups, and trays.

Outdoor Exhibit: Canons

The outdoor exhibit at the Museum of Vietnamese History showcases different canons from the 18th to the 19th centuries. Invented during 14th century Europe, the canon went through many innovations to improve design and effectiveness.

Cultures of Southern Vietnam and Other Asian Countries

The Museum of Vietnamese History also preserves engaging exhibits of cultural influences on Vietnam, especially in the south. Highlights include 12 National Treasures relating to Buddhist and Hindu arts from Oc Eo and Champa Cultures.

Room 6: Champa Culture (2nd – 17th Centuries)

Champa Culture in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

As mentioned above, the Champa Kingdom contributed much to the cultural legacy of Vietnam. According to historical records, it flourished during the early centuries CE along Vietnam’s central and southern coast.

Remaining Champa structures reveal a strong connection to Buddhism and Hinduism. These include the My Son Sanctuary near Danang and the Ponagar Tower in Nha Trang.

The Museum of Vietnamese History has one of the largest Cham collections in the world. A highlight is a unique statue of goddess Devi. The museum also displays relief carvings and silver accessories of the Cham Culture.

Room 7: Oc Eo Culture (1st – 7th centuries)

Oc Eo Culture in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

As stated above, aspects of Oc Eo Culture can still be found in the Mekong Delta, southern Vietnam. Its archeological data is one of the indicators of Southeast Asia’s connection to countries like China and India.

This connection was established mainly through trade. Southeast Asia was known for wood, metal, textile, spices, honey, beeswax, and more. On the other hand, Buddhist and Hindu statues from this time betray early religious influences in Vietnam.

Exhibits of the Oc Eo culture show uniqueness in their tools made of stone, terracotta, and metal. Artefacts also show intricacy in gold and crystal accessories. Some of these are objects on display at the Museum of Vietnamese History.

Room 8: Cambodian Stone Carvings (9th – 13th Centuries)

Cambodian Stone Carvings in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

The Cambodian stone carvings in the Museum of Vietnamese History include relief carvings and worshipable statues. They belong to the 9th to the 13th centuries when the Khmer Empire capital, Angkor, thrived. Buddhist and Brahmanist figurines encapsulate the essence of their refined skills.

Room 13: Duong Ha Collection

Duong Ha Collection in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ image from Baotanglichsutphcm.com ]

The Duong Ha Collection is named after their owners Dương Minh Thới and Hà Thị Ngọc. It includes artifacts of all shapes, materials, and sizes from prehistoric times to the early 20th century. During the 1930s and 40s, it played an important role in the antique collecting wave in southern Vietnam.

Room 14: Asian Ceramics

Asian Ceramics in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ image from Baotanglichsutphcm.com ]

The Museum of Vietnamese History displays ceramics from other Asian countries. These include Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Japan, and China. The exhibits detail the development of ceramics as well as cultural aspects of the respective country.

The earliest ceramics were pottery objects made from clay from around 10 000 years ago. Through the course of history, ceramics grew to encompass all shapes, decorative patterns, and usages. This is the reason why they have been recognized as cultural artifacts and valuable artworks.

Room 15: Mummified Body of Xom Cai

Mummified Body of Xom Cai
[ image from Baotanglichsutphcm.com ]

In 1994, a mummified body was discovered in an old barrow in Xóm Cải, District 5, Ho Chi Minh City. The grave was built from mortar and the stele was simply carved with ‘year of the snake’ in Chinese characters.

The mummy was identified as a 60-year-old female named Trần Thị Hiệu who passed away around 1869. She was estimated to be an aristocrat of the Kinh ethnic group.

The body was buried in a traditional Vietnamese style — inside a sarcophagus within a coffin. Its shroud and entombed paraphernalia were all soaked in a red solution. This discovery helped immensely in understanding the historical background of Saigon.

Room 16: Vuong Hong Sen Collection

Vuong Hong Sen Collection in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

Vương Hồng Sển was a well-known antique collector and researcher in southern Vietnam. He played a significant role in identifying a number of ceramic artifacts and instructing new collectors. Upon his passing, he bequeathed his collection of over 800 antiques and books to the government.

Exhibits in this museum collection include objects from the 10th – 19th centuries Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Japan, Thailand, and France. The collection stands out for its blue-and-white ceramics from the 18th to the 19th centuries.

Room 17: Cultures in Southern Vietnam

Southern Cultures in Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

Room 17 displays everyday objects and ceremonial pieces of ethnic groups in southern Vietnam. Vietnam has a total of 54 ethnic groups. The ones in the south are mainly Austroasiatic and Austronesian peoples.

Additionally, the Hoa ethnic group originates from Chinese traders who came to southern Vietnam in the 16th century. Furthermore, some northern Vietnamese ethnic groups also moved to the south after the Reunification in 1975.

Room 18: Buddhist Statues of Asian Countries

Buddhist Statues of Asian Countries
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

The Museum of Vietnamese History has Buddhist statues from across Asia. These include wooden and metal figures of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, Arhats, and also monks. Buddhism dates to the 6th century BC in northern India.

Theravada Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka, South and Southeast Asia via the Silk Road. It was once prominent in southern Vietnam. Meanwhile, Mahayana Buddhism spread from Tibet into China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.

Temporary Exhibits of the Museum of Vietnamese History

Temporary Exhibits of the Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

Temporary exhibits at the Museum of Vietnamese History are comparatively equally engaging. Past exhibits have included ‘Vietnamese Banknotes through the Ages’, ‘Twelve Zodiac Signs in Asian Cultures’, and more.

As of 2021, the ongoing exhibit is ‘Vietnamese Folk Paintings’. The theme revolves around two folk painting schools, Đông Hồ and Hàng Trống.

On another note, the online exhibits of the Museum of Vietnamese History cover more distinct aspects of its collections. However, they are currently only available in Vietnamese.

Educational Activities of the Museum of Vietnamese History

Educational Activities of the Museum of Vietnamese History
[ image from Baotanglichsutphcm.com ]

As a preserve of Vietnamese History, the museum holds frequent educational programs with schools across the country. One of the most engaging activities is the drawing contest after a field trip to the museum. Usually, the topics revolve around art exhibits in the museum.

Visiting the Museum of Vietnamese History

Visiting the Museum of Vietnamese History
[ by An Vu from Tripadago ]

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The Museum of Vietnamese History in Ho Chi Minh City is well worth a couple of hours. The exhibits have good English / Vietnamese explanations. It’s easy to understand everything despite the absence of guides. The museum also has a gift shop selling its published works and a small coffee shop.

Thanks to its convenient location, you can combine it with other highlights in central Ho Chi Minh City. Not to mention, the museum shares the same address as the Saigon Zoo and the Hung Kings Temple. Furthermore, full-day tours around downtown Saigon may include a Vietnamese traditional water puppet show in the museum.

  • Entrance ticket: 30 000 VND per adult ; 15 000 VND per child below 16 years old.
  • Opening hours: 8:00 – 11:30 ; 13:00 – 17:00.

Hung Kings Temple at the Museum of Vietnamese History

Hung Kings Temple at the Museum of Vietnamese History
[ image from Baotanglichsutphcm.com ]

The Museum of Vietnamese History has managed the Hung Kings Temple (Đền thờ vua Hùng) in Ho Chi Minh City since 1975. Built in 1926, the building was originally dedicated to French-recruited Vietnamese soldiers lost in WW I.

The temple is not only the place of worship for the Hung Kings, but also Vietnamese ancestors and renowned officials. Every year on March 10th on the Lunar Calendar, it holds a celebratory ceremony for Hung Kings’ Day.

Hung Kings Temple follows royal Nguyen Dynasty architecture similar to the Minh Mang Tomb in Hue. Typical features include dragon relief statues on the roof and stair as well as decorative golden reliefs on the walls.

  • Entrance fee: None.
  • Opening hours: 9 AM – 5 PM, Tuesday – Sunday.
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