Elephant No. 23: Hanoi, Vietnam

This particular elephant comes from a special temporary exhibition entitled “Mythical Creatures” at the National Museum of Vietnamese History in Hanoi. We happened by complete coincidence to arrive at the museum on the opening morning of the exhibition – a fact it took us a while to realise as it dawned on us that there were far too many film cameras and tv presenters inside the exhibition for this to be a normal day. Most of the museums on this trip in Asia have been filled with people walking irritatingly slowly through the galleries, painstakingly taking a photo of each object with their smartphones, but not actually looking at the object in question except through their smartphone screen. I have never understood this practice: sure, take a photo of a couple of your favourite exhibits to remember them, but what are you going to do with many hundreds and hundreds of pictures from a museum? I really doubt that you are going to look at them much in the future. What’s more, it prevents you from looking at the objects with your own eyes and anyway many museums have websites with high-quality images of their objects if you really wanted to look at them again after! 

In any case, this gallery had its fair share of the photo-snapping-dawdlers, but also clearly a number of television crews. We had just begun to enjoy the exhibition (which was a nice collection of various artefacts depicting mythical creatures in various forms – apparently the elephant here counts as “mythical”) when we were pulled over by a shy lady in a yellow jumper for an interview. I found this a little annoying as her English wasn’t good enough to explain why she wanted us to follow her (it was only later we worked out it was the exhibition opening) and then she dumped us in front of a camera without saying what on earth it was for or why she was filming us. Clearly my grumpiness at the situation showed too much as after about ten seconds they communicated to us that they wanted to interview Alex alone. However I had the last laugh as he was all ready to show off in front of the camera but was then very disappointed when the most complex question demanded of him was “what is your favourite mythical animal?”. We spent the rest of our morning in the museum being followed round by various cameramen trying to get that perfect shot of “tourists looking at exhibits with interested faces” so I had some fun in frustrating them as I dislike being stalked by cameramen pretending they aren’t taking a photo of me when really they are.

To be honest though the rest of the museum – outside of the “mythical creatures” exhibition which included this fine vase-carrying elephant among other nice creatures  – was disappointing. It was poorly laid-out and labelled and I don’t think it increased my understand of Vietnamese history by one jot. Miles better by far was the fascinating Vietnamese Women’s Museum round the corner with excellent galleries on the different ethnographic customs concerning women in Vietnam, women’s role in the resistance against the French and the Americans and on the front line, and famous female individuals that have played a role in Vietnamese history. The objects, photos, videos, signs and overall layout were all clear and thought-provoking, and I would very much recommend it to anyone visiting Hanoi!

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