Yesterday my wife and kids let me loose for a few hours to go stare at old stuff. Being a responsible husband and father I really tried to find a four-wheel taxi or bus to improve my chances of survival for the trip. But I ended up on what the locals call a "Honda embrace", a moped taxi, weaving crazily through the throng on my way to the Historical museum. Yet I live.
Hanoi's historical museum is a proud saffron architectural hybrid of the early 20th century, unashamedly colonial and in excellent repair. The displays cover palaeontology, archaeology and recent craftsmanship, from Homo Erectus teeth to mementoes of colonial period rebels. The exhibition philosophy is old-school apart from a few cave-dweller dioramas, with entire site inventories displayed down to the last cutmarked rhino vertebra. Good for me, boring for the casual visitor. But the cases are enlivened by panoramas of landscapes and excavations plus a lot of photographed excavation sections. The latest additions to the cases represent excavations only a few years ago.
The Neolithic pottery is very nice, but things really pick up with the Bronze Age which is absurdly rich, this being south-east Asia. 170 bronzes in one log-coffin burial, you get the idea. A dozen Dong son culture drums offer wonderfully alien stylised imagery of birds, bird-men and warlike boat crews, the latter actually much like coeval rock carvings in southern Sweden. (Look for the miniature bonking taking place on the lid of a particularly huge bronze urn!) Then comes the Han dynasty Chinese cultural juggernaut and transforms everything. A selection of beautiful Champa sculpture is also offered, the melon-bosomed Hindu dancing girls you always see in Indian art portrayed here with unmistakeable Vietnamese faces and big grins.
The museum clearly caters primarily to the locals, as the many texts and maps are mostly in Vietnamese. Shorter but informative labels in English and French also abound. Confusingly, there is a consistent 2000 year discrepancy between the dates given in English and French respectively. As far as I can tell, correct French dates avant notre ère (BC) have been translated into English by someone who believes that notre ère means "today". A francophone visitor with some grasp of European chronology thus realises correctly that Northern Europe was pretty much a cultural backwater during Prehistory, while an Anglo gets the opposite impression.
[More blog entries about archaeology, Vietnam; arkeologi, Vietnam.]