By Andrew Kolasinski
I hired Kimly to drive me around Ho Chi Minh City on her motorcycle taxi. I had never seen a woman taxi driver anywhere in Asia, but Vietnam’s socialist economic system made no gender distinctions.
After arranging to pick me up in two hours, Kimly told me, “Everything to know about Vietnam, history and people, is here in the Saigon Museum.”
In District One near the Bin Thahn Market, the museum (also called Ho Chi Minh City Museum) is housed in a French colonial era mansion, itself a relic worthy of display. It was built in 1885 by architect Alfred Foulhoux. The mansion was originally the French colonial Governor’s Palace, later serving as the Japanese Governor’s home and it was also once the home of Vietnam’s last King Bao Dai. It became a museum 20 years after the vanquished Americans left Saigon in 1975.
Other than the ticket vendors I had the place to myself, so it was easy to imagine the pampered lives that once enjoyed the stately home.
The natural history of Vietnam and particularly of the Saigon and Mekong River estuary was presented through a billiard table-sized three dimension map. The great variety of ecological zones around Ho Chi Minh City was apparent from this display; however the interactive lights that were supposed to show the locations of various wildlife habitats were not working. Among the creatures living in the Vietnamese jungle are crocodiles, cobras, giant pythons, tigers, and monkeys.
Human pre-history is shown through artifacts like 10,000 year old stone chopping tools, ancient pottery and farm implements. Items from the more recent past include a remarkably well preserved wooden boat dating back to the 13th century found buried in the mud of the Saigon River. It looked very similar to the boats used today by Vietnam’s river people.
The dynastic kingdoms that once ruled the land were illustrated through paintings and busts of Vietnamese Kings. Ceramics, wedding garments and household items represented the lives of ordinary Saigon residents of the period.
The Chinese influence on Vietnam was illustrated through artifacts that focused on Chinese herbal medicines and also the role of Chinese merchants in turning Saigon into an international trading port.
The French colonial period was one of great changes in Vietnam. Most of the cities were rebuilt in the French style of architecture. Furnishing, fashions, technology and social order were modeled after the colonial overlords, and examples of these styles were on display.
The period of underground resistance to occupation by the French and then American forces were presented through artifacts of the warriors: a typewriter used to write secret communiqués, pistols carried by messengers, home-made bombs, swords and spears, etc. These primitive armaments when seen beside photos of French and American military power made a clear statement about a brave and determined underdog.
The war displays were followed by a look at the calm, productive and happy existence that followed victory over the foreign occupiers. The displays of communist propaganda, social realism-style posters and murals looked like extreme kitsch, the colors luridly bright, and the tonal range flat, in crude contrast. Heroic figures celebrating brave deeds depicted in cartoon style: muscular men, smiling women, and red cheeked children eager to learn their lessons.
This was near the end of exhibits, and it was almost time to meet Kimly, my moto-taxi driver. As I was preparing to leave, the solitude I had enjoyed at the museum ended. Two dozen uniformed school girls invaded the exhibition hall. They looking nothing like the cartoon children depicted in the displayed propaganda. Giggling, they posed in front of the brightly painted communist murals, taking “selfies” with their smart phones. Vietnam’s future seemed to find its past amusing.
Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, specialists in providing tours to Vietnam and throughout Southeast Asia.