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History Museum of Ho Chi Minh City


Located on the western edge of the city zoo, the Ho Chi Minh City History Museum is really a history of Vietnam. From the crenellated roof to the numerous coins and amphora of the centuries collected within its walls, it is an interesting stroll from the original Dong Son cultures of the early period of Vietnamese history through the most recent imperial rulers, the Nguyen Dynasty.


As the price of a ticket was less than a dollar and a half, I figured I'd take a few minutes of a muggy morning to wander its halls. This after spending a long morning reading--my neighbor woke me up at two thirty and I gave up trying to sleep again a little after three--and some time spent in everyone's favorite Vietnamese cafe writing (Highlands), I walked down the street and hit the Bảo Tạng Lịch Sử Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh.


Early cultures in the Red River valley in what is now north Vietnam, are known for their drums. Bronze and other metals (I don't remember precisely from my reading, maybe copper) but sufficiently advanced that they withstood the millenia and ended up in the beginning stages of the history museum in Saigon.


This, of course, after a room full of Buddhas. But as the largest, most impressive features were largely replicas, I chose not to take a picture. But these drums are impressive for the fine patterns on their batter heads. Probably copper judging from the greenish hue of the largest of the group.


From the Ly Dynasty, which gave rise to a large number of vases and pots and coins, I moved to the Tran Dynasty, in the thirteenth century, and the reign of Tran Nhan Tong, my favorite emperor. He not only defused tensions with the kingdom of Champa to the south by offering his sister as a bride rather than seeking conflict, he defeated the Mongol invaders three times. Most notable with the generalship of Tran Hung Dao at the Battle of Bach Dang.


The Mongol ships came up the river from the Gulf of Tonkin and sought to attack the capital of Dai Viet. But General Tran set large hardwood pikes in the river's bed during low tide and trapped the Mongol invader's ships so they couldn't escape from the Vietnamese bombardments from the shore.


Much like other repetitive mistakes made by great powers in Vietnam in later centuries, this was the second or third time this maneuver had been used successfully against foreign invaders and, like would later happen, the Mongol's failed to learn from history and thus, fell to the doom of its repetition.


Tran Nhan Tong is special in another sense beyond his leadership as emperor of the kingdom, at the time, it was customary for the emperor to abdicate in favor of his heir prior to his death and devote himself to Buddhist studies. Tran Nhan Tong developed a brand of Buddhism that is the only sect unique to Vietnam's history, the Truc Lam sect. Though it was popular for a century or more, it fell out of favor when Le Thanh Tong Confucianized the court and turned the country towards a more Chinese model of administration and faith.


The Le Dynasty had some impressive brickwork and steles, but what struck me next came from the Nguyen Dynasty in the display of the robes of the emperor. The Nguyen Dynasty was the last dynasty of Vietnam's emperors and, thus, the only one recent enough for the practical preservation of textile materials. The robes were symbolic of each member of the royal court and the emperor was the only one who wore a robe adorned with a dragon on its breast.


As with any good museum of history, the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of History comes complete with its own mummy. The Xóm Cải mummy was discovered in 1994 in Chinatown, or Cho Lon, in Ho Chi Minh City. It is believed to be a woman from the 1860s who was buried in a rather large barrow, possibly of Chinese descent.


Other highlights of the museum involved linga (which I decided not to take a picture of despite my affinity for the appendage) and other burial monuments. In the southern cultures room which focused on some of the minority cultures of southern Vietnam, a collection of grave monuments stood in the corner, a memorial of the individuals where were likely worshiped by their descendants with offerings in order to prevent them from returning as angry ghosts.


Finally, across the causeway of the zoo's entrance stood the Hung King's Temple. Though originally erected in the 1920s to recognize the nearly 100,000 Vietnamese soldiers who served in Europe during World War I, it was repurposed under subsequent regimes to stand as a memorial to the original kings of ancient Vietnam. A slightly odd thing, though, considering the Hung Kings were located in the north, but then they also have a temple there too. We celebrated Hung King's Day this week as one of the traditional national days of Vietnam.


I didn't spend much time in the museum, I was already sweating from the humidity and the cheap ticket didn't lend itself to a required lengthy examination of all the available artifacts. It was a useful excursion, however, as the last time I visited was over ten years ago and I enjoyed the reminders of some of the historical events of Vietnam's storied history. My summaries and commentary should not be taken too seriously as they are more a note on the pictures rather than a detailed explanation of Vietnam's past.

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