On Ly Thuong Kiet, sleepy morning commuters easily overlook No.67 — just another building dressed in Hanoi’s iconic yellow. For tourists wandering Hang Bac in the Old Quarter, a set of darkened wood doors serve as nothing more than a pause to an endless string of faceless storefronts. The addresses, however, are hardly afterthoughts. Indeed, they are modest museums tucked into unremarkable corners of the city. Hanoi is littered with them.
The world’s best-known museums are that way for some obvious reasons: extensive collections, tastefully edited exhibits, compelling content, buildings steeped in historical sentiment, good marketing. But what about museums that no one knows about, the ones buried in tombs of stone, ivy and exhaust fumes?
Do they have treasures, too? Do they deserve a second thought, a second look? I explored those questions over several days — using social media forums and word-of-mouth, and spending hours roaming Hanoi’s far right lane.
At 2pm on a stifling Friday afternoon, I arrived at an empty No.67. A plaque with the words, bao tang (museum), encouraged entrance. I had been there a few times before. Once I arrived during an International Children’s Day party. Another afternoon was spent Google translating with Giang, the museum secretary, seeking police approval. The third time proved a charm.
Respect My Authority
Initially I thought that the Hanoi Police Museum would reflect its obscure existence. Peeking through pane glass doors on a previous visit, I had seen just two halls of picture frames. It surprised me that once actually inside, the museum was much larger than expected. Though not a word of English is to be found, the museum finds ways to communicate through images, wax figurines, flashing lights, air machines and uniformed mannequins. The well-kept rooms chronologically detail the police and army’s historic challenges and the heroes, and a few heroines, who rose to the occasion.
An entire wall is devoted to Nguyen Thi Loi, a rare female spy martyred in 1950 when she blew up the French D’Inville battleship via a smuggled suitcase of explosives disguised as opium. It’s hard to say what’s more striking: celebrating the fatal event or appreciating France’s once permissive opium trade.
Built in 2008, the Police Museum houses around 1,000 documents and photographs. The haphazardly chosen photos feel like a large family album: elders shaking hands over historic treaties, police chiefs attempting humour, officers’ newborn babies framed next to crime scenes.
“The museum was built to serve police officers and for people to come and visit,” Giang told me. “It’s a place to teach officers about the tradition of the department and also to honour their achievements.”
Though access requires police approval — we arranged this through our area manager in our office — they are open to anyone genuinely interested. If some wall hangings raise an eyebrow or two, remember, as with all families, we tend to see past our imperfections. It’s not a moment to judge, but rather a rare opportunity to glimpse how the police really see themselves. As the supervised visit came to an end, I heard echoes of ping-pong rallies and the squeak of sneakers. Two retired officers and a ping-pong table filled the museum foyer. They quickly wrapped up, stuffed their sweaty clothes in gym bags, and quietly shook hands. It was a fitting end to the often empty No.67.
A Silver Lining
After the odyssey to the police museum, I wanted something more accessible. Hiding in plain sight on an overly trafficked lane in the Old Quarter, the Dinh Kim Ngan Jewellery Communal House’s long name has quite the tale behind it. Rather than play host to a collection of artefacts or oil paintings, the building’s story of birth, decline and restoration is the main attraction.
Hanoi or Thang Long — the on-and-off capital of Vietnam — has had many names. But the city has always been defined by its mercantile character. The Dinh (communal house) emerged in the 15th century out of mercantile necessity. Serving three functions — administrative, cultural and religious — the Dinh sought to centralise and therefore foster the three components of a craft. The Dinh Kim Ngan on Hang Bac traded silver bullion, taught metallurgy and built a temple for the community to worship their craft’s patron spirit. It is unclear when the building was constructed, but through the years it has served all three purposes and then some — education, nursing, military training. In 2009, the building was crumbling under the weight of its history and 25 occupying families. With the help of the city of Toulouse, France and Hanoi officials, the Dinh was carefully restored so as to once again serve its goal of fostering cultural and religious exchange.
On certain days the temple doors stay open past sunset to lure in a straggler or two with trance-inducing incense and baying musical notes. In the inner chamber, raised upon an altar like an offering to the shrine, Master Bach Van and fellow musicians sing poems of royal love and loss. Ca tru, a traditional form of sung poetry laid over three hauntingly minimalistic instruments, is just one of the ways the communal house reaches through the ages. One can even play a few strings and chat with musicians after the performance. I resisted leaving for as long as I could, hesitant to rejoin modern Hang Bac Street whose foreign consonants, horns, and lights were unthinkable at the building’s birth. Good museums are ones that transform — Dinh Kim Ngan is no exception.
For another nostalgic step back in time, the Hanoi University of Science delivers with its 1904 French architecture. Located on the upper floor, the Zoological Museum sits above a dome of mosaic tiles flanked by dizzying two-storey tall glass doors. I’d go to just watch students hang about windowsills and daydream, but I continued up the set of stairs with the elephant skeleton looking on from above to find Vu Ngoc Thanh. Museum curator, professor, conservationist, primatologist and an international foundation director, Thanh’s a small but industriously sturdy man whose charming smile betrays an inexhaustible intelligence.
Like all dedicated scientists, Thanh is meticulous, process-orientated and excited by questions. He begins the tour in his office, taking the trouble to unlock the old wooden door even though the glass pane directly above the knob is missing. The room looks like it’s caught in the middle of a moment: trays of tools, folded newspapers and jars of glistening scales in formaldehyde. Without any bravado, Thanh talks about the museum’s stages of disrepair, cutting back on museum visits and sometimes working so hard he’d camp out in the office. He’s a realist so he doesn’t beat about the bush, but there’s no soliciting here. When asked how he balances his other work with running the museum he quickly replies, “Research comes first.” In other words, the animals come first.
The tour moves on at a leisurely pace. The other rooms are stockpiled with taxidermied bears, pickled reptiles and birds gripping perches with prehistoric claws. The specimens have either been collected by Thanh himself or gifted to the museum over the last century; they all have interesting stories to tell. I’d suggest asking Thanh about the two large penguins gifted by the Russians, or the lizard caught by the Crown Prince of Japan who supposedly spent time in Vietnam pursuing a hobby in conservation research.
Thanh left me with some interesting thoughts about educational, cultural and law enforcement barriers to habitat and species protection in Vietnam. It’s one of the world’s most biologically diverse countries, strong environmental protections are on the books and yet 20 percent of the world’s critically endangered primate species are in Vietnam. The museum and its loving steward spoke volumes about the tension between Vietnam’s past, present and future. It’s a museum that deserves repeated visits.
In my journey to find out just what these hidden museums are all about I signed a new lease on Hanoi. The feeling of trespassing upon a memory lends a new aura to a museum’s offerings. These museums don’t serve art, culture and history on a silver platter, ready for easy consumption. They ask visitors to engage with the temporal tensions that exist within and beyond the museum walls, in the soul of the nation’s capital, be it Thang Long or Hanoi.
Dinh Kim Ngan
Jewellery Communal House
42 Hang Bac, Hoan Kiem, Tel: 0913 544876
Open every day until 5pm. Free admission. Ca tru performances are on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 8pm. The cost is VND200,000.
Hanoi Zoological Museum
No. 19 Le Thanh Tong, Hoan Kiem
Hanoi Police Museum
67 Ly Thuong Kiet, Hoan Kiem
Open Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8.30am to 11am and 1.30pm to 4pm. Free admission. Ask for Ms. Giang in person to request a visit. Turnaround time should be just a day.