Anywhere you look in Hanoi, you’re likely to see several women walking down the street, sometimes in pairs, and sometimes alone. These women carry baskets across their shoulders, brimming with everything from fresh fruit to full kitchens (pot of boiling water, cutting boards, knives, ingredients and all). The baskets are heavy. And who are these women? Where do they come from? What are their struggles? In order to truly understand modern Hanoi, and the rest of present-day Vietnam, one must understand the people within it, their stories, their backgrounds, their strife, and their resilience. To gain a deeper look at over half of the people driving Vietnamese society, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum is a great place to start.
A telling side of history
Spanning three full floors, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, on the edge of Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district, takes the visitor on a whirlwind tour of Vietnam’s history. However, this isn’t any old history museum; this one focuses on the roles played by women through Vietnam’s tumultuous past. Visitors explore the female soldiers’ pivotal efforts in wars throughout the centuries, starting with the rebellion led by the Trung sisters in the year 40 AD to overthrow Vietnam’s Chinese overlords. Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were the first documented Vietnamese women, though certainly not the last, to take a leadership role in Vietnam’s long fight for independence, and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum takes visitors through the stories of many women warriors who fought for Vietnam.
The role of women in Vietnam’s many ethnic groups
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Vietnamese Women’s Museum is the attention given to maternal roles and matriarchy in Vietnamese culture. While much of Vietnam (and, crucially, the Viet ethnicity, which comprises the vast majority of the country) is a patriarchal society, visitors to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum might be surprised to learn that matriarchal societies do exist within Vietnam. Further, even within patriarchal societies, aspects of women’s culture remain exceptionally rich. The Vietnamese Women’s Museum has an excellent exhibit detailing women’s rituals in various Vietnamese ethnic groups, including the Hmong, the Tai, and the Viet, from birth to marriage to death. With stunning photography from across the country (and across many decades!), beautiful costumes and jewelry on display, and deep insight into the customs of Vietnam’s ethnic groups, the museum pays great homage to the traditions of women.
Women in Vietnam today
Beyond its attention to history and tradition, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum provides insight into the role of women in various pockets of Vietnamese society today. In one corner of the museum, an eye-opening video takes visitors through the days and weeks of Vietnamese dong anh tre, those who carry heavy baskets down Hanoi’s crowded streets day in and day out. Their stories are heartbreaking, and demonstrative of the huge income inequalities in modern Vietnamese culture; it’s important that we, as visitors to Vietnam, open our eyes to stories like these. Another moving exhibit is a photo gallery of Vietnamese mothers who lost sons and husbands in the American War.
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An important look at Vietnamese history through the eyes of women
Leaving the museum, visitors will feel heavy-hearted, but uplifted. The museum isn’t large, but its collection is varied; about an hour or two of exploration will give visitors a good look at the many roles of women throughout Vietnamese society and history. And, at only 30,000 VND (approximately 1.50 USD) for a ticket, the visit is more than worth it. Unlike many of Vietnam’s museums (though all indeed remarkable), which focus on Vietnam’s war-torn past, whether on specific historical events or on Vietnam’s history as a whole, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum prods into every area of Vietnamese life and culture, past and present. Through visually-stunning exhibits, a logical floorplan, and thought-provoking photography, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum does beautiful work of portraying the struggles and successes of Vietnamese women.
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