When you think of wax museums the place that comes to mind is Madame Tussauds. Though the recently opened museum in Saigon is not affiliated with the famous brand, Nguyen Thi Dien of the Tuong Sap Viet Company, is hoping that the attraction will become a destination for visitors to Ho Chi Minh City looking to learn something about Vietnam. She is also confident that the uncanny quality of the waxworks matches those seen in London. Indeed, the idea to open the museum came from a trip to the UK capital over a decade ago.
“At first the idea came after my husband visited Madame Tussauds in London,” she says. “He was impressed at how well made the sculptures were and how they looked like real people. We researched how to make them, but we weren’t very serious.”
The idea stayed with them until the first waxwork museum opened in Thailand a few years ago. They felt a twinge of national shame that there was a sculpture of Ho Chi Minh, but he was not in his home country.
“Ho Chi Minh is a symbol of Vietnam, so we felt like we needed to finally open our own museum,” says Dien. “He shouldn’t be in another country. So we started to seriously research it.”
The couple began to explore which materials they would need as well as learning the process behind the making of the waxworks. They were previously owners of a factory that produced plastic fruits for displays, but building a human being was in a different league.
“In Vietnam, we didn’t have anyone who can build these, so we had to learn ourselves. Slowly, we made a sculpture of each other — it took three years.”
When building a sculpture, they begin by taking the measurements of the person as well as photos of every facial detail from multiple angles. Then, after the head and the body parts are completed, they attach them together to create an accurate representation of the model’s proportions. Real hair is used, and the celebrities donate their actual clothes for their models to wear.
All the models in the museum are of Vietnamese people who have made some sort of cultural mark during the 20th and 21st centuries, and they are a mixture of artists, musicians, comedians, actors and singers. The museum has over 100 different waxworks.
All those chosen for a waxwork give their prior approval, and Dien has been happy with the responses once they see the finished product. Celebrities are perhaps tough to please, and Vietnamese pop star and TV celebrity Dam Vinh Hung jokingly told a newspaper that he would destroy the waxwork if he was not happy with it.
“One artist [Ut Bach Lan] was worried when we asked her if we could make her sculpture,” say Dien. “When the sculpture was finished we invited her to see it and she cried because it was so well made. She had cancer and sadly she died shortly after.”
Next to each waxwork is a biography in Vietnamese and English describing the subject. From Van Cao, the songwriter who wrote the Vietnamese national anthem, to Mac Can, a popular comedian, to Thuy Nga, a famous singer and sketch show comic; there is a diverse cast of characters to learn about.
One waxwork that stands out is of two brothers and circus performers, Giang Quoc Nghiep and Giang Quoc Co, who earlier this year broke the Guinness World Record for most consecutive stairs climbed while balancing a person on the head. No mean feat, and the prospect of making their wax sculpture was similarly gravitationally challenging, as like the two brothers, they have to balance.
The staff at the museum double up as musicians, and there are regular performances of traditional instruments as you look around. Spending a couple of hours here is something a little different, and it provides a Vietnamese history lesson with a twist.
The museum is located at Hoa Binh Theatre, 199 Ba Thang Hai, Q10, HCMC. Tickets are priced at VND120,000 per adult, and VND50,000 per child. For more information, visit tuongsapviet.vn
Photos by Mike Palumbo