Saigon’s history has been short but packed with incident, and the trail of cultural influences can sometimes seem confusing. That’s when it’s time to pay a visit to one of the city’s many museums, where you can learn about various elements of the city’s growth and its role in the development of modern Vietnam. This learning process is not always a pleasant experience, as the exhibits are often calculated to shock, but at least you will acquire a deeper understanding of this fascinating city that was the focus of the world’s attention during the latter stages of the American War.
War Remnants Museum
Of all the museums in Vietnam that chronicle the gruesome events of the wars with France and the USA during the 20th century, this is the hardest hitting. As such it’s the one must-see museum in Saigon, but with the proviso that it is not for the squeamish. The display of war planes, tanks and exploded ordnance outside is dramatic enough, but the photographs and jars of deformed foetuses on display inside make it clear what a nightmare this country experienced during the war years.
At the back of the museum is a reconstruction of the ‘tiger cages’ that were built on Con Dao Island by the French to imprison and torture the Viet Minh. Of course, these were late used by the South Vietnamese army to do the same despicable thing with the Viet Cong.
As you might expect, there’s a patriotic tone to the display, though the final gallery focuses on the anti-war movement and leaves visitors wishing these conflicts could have been avoided. Open: 07:30-12:00, 13:30-17:00, last admission 16:30 (daily); Admission: 15,000D; 28 Vo Van Tan Street, tel: +84 8 930 2112, +84 8 930 6325, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ho Chi Minh City Museum
Even if you don’t set foot inside this museum, it’s worth a visit to feast your eyes on one of the grandest examples of colonial architecture that the French erected in Vietnam. Originally called the Gia Long Palace, it was built in 1886 to house the governor of Cochinchina, and later in the 1960s it was a base for President Diem of South Vietnam. In the grounds around the battleship-grey structure are two jets, a helicopter and an anti-aircraft gun.
On the ground floor of the museum, the development of Saigon from a fishing village is traced, though the upstairs rooms are more intriguing. Here you can see a false-bottomed boat once used to smuggle guns and a motorbike with innertubes that carried vital documents. There is also a diorama of the Cu Chi Tunnels which gives a good idea of their effectiveness. Open: 08:00-17:00 (daily); Admission: foreigners/15,000D, pupils/2,000D; 65 Ly Tu Trong, Ben Nghe ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh city, tel: +84 8 3829 9741, +84 8 3829 8250, email: email@example.com, website: www.hcmc-museum.edu.vn.
Housed in a striking colonial building with many oriental touches, this museum presents a comprehensive overview of Vietnam’s complex history in its 15 galleries. It’s probably a bit much for the average tourist, who might quit before seeing everything, but history buffs should prepare themselves for a full-day visit to take in its many treasures. Be prepared for a journey from pre-history through to reunification of the country in 1975.
There are some interesting dioramas of key battles in the country’s past, some fabulous ceramics from Japan and Thailand, as well as examples of Khmer and Cham sculpture. When you’re done, rest your weary legs while watching a short performance of water puppets that take place in the museum hourly, or sit on a bench in the neighbouring Botanical Gardens. Open: 08:00-11:00, 13:30-16:30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission: 15,000D; 2 Nguyen Binh Khiem, tel: +84 8 3829 8146, +84 8 3829 0268, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.baotanglichsuvn.com.
Fine Arts Museum
The Vietnamese have earned a reputation for being a people with an artistic bent, and there’s plenty of evidence to support this idea at this museum, which like many of Saigon’s museums is housed in a colonial-style building full of character.
The first floor is used for temporary exhibitions, offering the chance to view the work of contemporary artists, while out the back are a few small, commercial galleries where you might find a good example of new artistic talent at an affordable price. This sort of art makes great gifts for family and friends back home and so it is well worth taking some time to browse.
The second floor of the museum is dedicated to revolutionary art, and the third floor contains some fine examples of artefacts and statues from Cham and Oc Eo culture. Open: 09:00-16:30 (Tuesday-Sunday); Admission: 10,000D; 97A Pho Duc Chin, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, District 1, tel: +84 8 3829 4441, email: email@example.com.
Ho Chi Minh Museum
This museum, located just south of the city centre and not to be confused with the ‘City’ museum, is housed in an impressive mansion. Unfortunately, the exhibits–which include a pair of his sandals, a walking stick and suitcase–do not reflect the powerful character who is Vietnam’s biggest hero. There are lots of photos of Ho at official receptions and maps of his wanderings round the world, but the display lacks the imagination of somewhere like the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Hanoi. Open: 07:30-12:00, 13:30-17:00 (daily); Admission: foreigners/10,000D; 1 Duong Nguyen Tat Thanh, District 4, Ho Chi Minh city, tel: +84 8 3840 0647.
Ton Duc Thang Museum
Ton Duc Thang (1888-1980), a native of the Mekong Delta, succeeded Ho Chi Minh as president of Vietnam, so is fondly remembered by his people, and has a small museum dedicated to him along the riverfront. Few foreigners visit to view the photos and memorabilia of this man who suffered imprisonment on Con Dao Island before helping to liberate his people, but if you are in the area, it’s worth dropping by to learn a little about another Vietnamese hero. Open: 07:30-11:30, 13:30-17:00 (daily); Admission: free; 5 Ton Duc Thang street, Ben Nghe Ward, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, tel: +84 8 3829 7542, fax: +84 8 3829 4651, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.baotangtonducthang.com.