From snowy Scotland to Hanoi’s heat

At the end of May I had the privilege to visit colleagues in some of Vietnam’s museums. Having decided to take my holiday in SE Asia I booked a flight to Hanoi, in northern Vietnam, and then contacted a colleague there to say I would be passing through. I am not sure how but this very quickly escalated into my giving a talk to the Vietnamese museum network.

I arrived in a very hot Hanoi, where even the locals were complaining of the heat. It was a bit of a shock to the system after leaving Scotland where the Glennshee pass was blocked with snow.

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I agreed to meet my colleagues, Dzungkim Nguyen and  Dr Le Thi Minh Ly, at the Vietnam women’s museum. I spent the morning looking round the museum which is great, really giving a sense of the role of women in Vietnamese society today but also what they did during the Vietnam/American war. There was a whole room dedicated to the war with some great photos of women guerrilla fighters and some poignant propoganda posters.

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The photos of the women who had lost children were extremely moving. They were given the title of ‘heroines of the state’ but their grief could be seen in their faces.

One of the most memorable exhibits was a film of the women street vendors of Hanoi. It was made very recently and interviews the women about their daily life and who they support through their work. It certainly changed my attitude to the women I passed in the street and meant I did not haggle over that banana.

I met Dzungkim and  Dr Le Thi Minh Ly, from the Department of Culture, for lunch in the recently added museum cafe, in which the Vietnamese government is a partner. The cafe was packed and the food was fab. Dr Le Thi Minh Ly gave me a briefing for the talk and it was great to see Dzung again, who is involved in supporting Vietnam’s intangible cultural heritage. They wanted me to go to the military museum in the morning for a tour, critiquing the displays with the directors before doing the talk in the afternoon. I wanted to see the museum so I was happy to spend the day with them. I spent my afternoon trying to visit other museums – however, most close on a Monday and Friday afternoon. I did mange to get to the Fine Art Museum which has some good works, although they are obviously struggling with an old colonial building and the air conditioning was creaking at the seams.

Although much of the work does relate to ‘the heroic soldier’ and the war, I did find this beautiful lacquer work amongst the collection.

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The next morning my hotel despatched me to the museum on a motor scooter taxi. I closed my eyes and prayed. There must be traffic rules and there are lights but everyone ignores them. As a pedestrian it is terrifying; as a passenger it was even more so!

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After that experience I was ready to face anything!

The Vietnam Military Museum is a national museum. There is also one in Ho Chi Min city but the one in Hanoi is considered to be the principal war museum. There is also a network of 26 other national museums.

I was met by Ms Le Hong Van, Deputy Director; Ms Nguyen Anh Thu, Museum Guide; and my translator, Ms NguyenThi Thu Huong, who were to take me on the tour.

With tanks and planes outside this was again a colonial building that was not originally designed to be a museum but they are stuck with it for a few more years. They informed me that they are planning to build a new museum on a new site just outside Hanoi but this is a massive 10 year project with a budget that I had to get them to write down as I did not believe the number of noughts in it! My job for the morning was to give them my thoughts on their displays, how they could improve them in the short term but also provide ideas for interpretation for the new museum.

This was a pretty tall order as my knowledge of Vietnamese military history is confined to childhood memories of media images of the Vietnam war. I was willing to give it a go but was in unchartered territory.

Overall, the museum maintains a dignified tone throughout and tells the story of Vietnamese military history from a Vietnamese perspective. It charts famous early military strategists from the 12th and 13th centuries and then quickly jumps to the 19th and 20th century and the guerrilla resistance to French colonialism. The interpretation is minimal and text is in capitals which makes it harder to read – if I had not had my guides I would have missed many of the stories.

Despite this I quickly got a real sense of how the Vietnamese population was gradually mobalised to resist the French and how this gathered momentum after the second war when fighting both the Japanese and the French.

There was a large diorama and film devoted to the rise of Ho Chi Min which started with a tiny army of 34 men in 1945 and gradually gathered supporters to become an army that defeated the French in a decisive battle in 1954. The displays on the war with the US have small sections on key events such as battles and bombings rather than graphic photographs. The museum does a good job of leaving you with a real sense of what huge odds the Vietnamese people were up against and overcame in order to win the right to determine their own future.

My guides were incredibly knowledgeable about their history, constantly asking for ideas on how to redisplay and showing me where they have put in new interpretation.

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So, after a very intense morning it was time for a quick lunch and then onto the presentation. I had expected a few museums but Dr Le Thi Minh Ly informed me that this was the first major event of the museum network, which has about 130 museums, so there would be at least 50 people. We were in a small hall and lots of people had turned up from the museums of Hanoi. In fact, even the vice minister for tourism, along with the press and television cameras, attended.

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I spoke for about an hour (including the translation) telling the audience about the National Strategy Delivery Plan and the challenges we are facing as a sector in Scotland. I then gave examples of large capital projects that are planned or have recently been completed in Scotland, as there seems to be plans to develop the museums in Vietnam. We then moved onto questions from the audience – including the vice minster and directors of museums through to eduction officers. It is always great when your audience engages and they certainly did with questions around skills development and the challenges they face. I was also able to discuss with them the impressions I had of their museums. The talk was filmed and has been promoted through the Network’s Facebook page.

After the talk I gave a quick interview to Vietnamese TV and then back into the museum for a debrief and questions from the director. We discussed the benefits of getting out and about and visiting as many museum and gallery projects as possible to inform thinking – and Scotland is on their list to visit if possible. So we can hopefully look forward to welcoming a delegation from Vietnam in the near future to learn from our museums.

I certainly want to return to Vietnam having been so impressed by their enthusiasm for culture and plans for their museums service.

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