According to a Vietnam tourism site, the Vietnamese Women’s Museum is “one of Hanoi’s most overlooked museums and is also one of its best.” I have to agree. The museum was originally established in 1987, but has undergone a number of renovations since that time and had existed in its current state since 2010.
It’s run by the Vietnamese Women’s Union and its purpose is to provide knowledge on the history and culture of Vietnamese women, including their role in the country’s past, present, and future. The union as a whole also seeks to promote gender equality.
When you arrive, there is a large open courtyard. To the left is the ticketing office, further up to the left is a special temporary display area/large room for the museum, and to the right is motorbike parking and a cafe/restaurant. Straight ahead is the main part of the museum. Pictured below: view of courtyard from somewhere inside the museum.
During the time we visited (March 2016), the first building on the left focused on women’s role in disaster relief and was pretty interesting! I think the exhibit may have been temporary but I’m glad we got to see it. The area provides information on recent natural disasters in Vietnam and how disasters affect men and women differently.
One board told us that (according to a study by the London School of Economics), as a result of inequality, women and children are 14 times more likely to be injured or killed during a disaster. It provided examples such as the 2010 Pakistan floods (seventy percent of the 18 million affected were women and children).
The study found that disasters have greater long-term impact on the health, learning, and livelihood of women. In a recent cyclone in Myanmar, over half of those killed were women and almost all women lost their primary income source. The large room also provided examples of how they manage with what they have, such as making lamps out of beverage cans.
Though I don’t remember hearing about them on the news, there were two Typhoons in 2013 which were pretty devastating for the people of Central Vietnam. Additionally, in January of this year (2016), Northern Vietnam experienced a record breaking cold-wave which killed thousands of livestock and crops. It also impacted forest there. Obviously climate change is mentioned as a likely culprit.
As of late, there has been funded training for women to learn to deal with such disasters. Many Vietnamese don’t know how to swim and the training provides/provided them assistance in learning how to swim, administer first aid, and more. It left many of the women feeling more confident and the education appears to have been very helpful. One woman was quoted as having told others in a certain area to change their crops from rice to lotus which more than quadrupled their profits.
At the time we visited (March 2016) they had another interesting temporary exhibition as well: a Comic and Cartoon contest.
This one was just outside of the main museum building. The theme was “Gender Equality: Picture it!” and the contest was organized jointly by Belgium and the UN Women Viet Nam and was originally launched November 25 2015 (International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women) with the 40 winners displayed March 1-10, 2016. It was a really neat display and while I would like to post all/most of the comics, I will just limit it to a few.
The sign which provided the information on the contest also contained some facts about gender (in)equality in Vietnam. Over half of ever-married Vietnamese women experience some form of violence from their partner in their life, but only one percent of these cases lead to a conviction.
Nearly ninety percent of women have experienced public harassment in public places. Of course, unfortunately, these numbers are not terribly far off from the rest of the world. In fact, according to this article, 100 percent of women in France say they are harassed using public transportation alone.
You can find more on street harassment statistics here, and, if you would like to compare, you can also check out the 2010 CDC report on Intimate Partner Violence in the US which reports on violence experienced by both men and women.
The poster also mentioned that a significant sex ratio imbalance in Vietnam (favoring males) has presented itself in recent years which is problematic and is likely responsible for more human trafficking and forced marriages. One in ten girls in Vietnam experiences child marriage.
There has also been a recent decline in the political representation of women in Vietnam. One problem in Vietnam is the very deep-seated corruption at every level. We have some issues in the US with corruption, but it is not quite like Vietnam. There is also a growing problem with alcoholism in Vietnam which tends to be associated with abuse. You can see this featured in some of the displays.
Now to the main building! The main building of the museum is five stories tall and needless to say, we ended up spending quite a bit more time there than we originally anticipated. Honestly, we could have spent even more time examining the exhibits better if not for us getting so tired and hungry and my toe hurting.
There are three primary themes/galleries: Women in History, Women in Family, and Women’s Fashion. I wasn’t really aware of this going in and didn’t think that all of the exhibits were tied strongly to one of these categories, but we also saw a couple of other exhibits which may have been temporary as well.
The categories are also divided further – such as by time period. All exhibits provide text in Vietnamese, French, and English. Through exploring the museum, we learned about women in Vietnam and their roles over time. We learned about family life in Vietnam, including interesting aspects of marriage, childbirth, surnames, customs and traditions, and more over time and among different ethnic groups.
For example, the Viet, Yao, Bru-Van Keiru, Ma, Hoa, and a few other populations are patrilineal meaning men are more important and privileged. There are also some matrilineal societies, though, including the Ede, Jarai, Churu, and Raglai, among others.
Among these groups the wife’s name is taken, girls inherit wealth (with the youngest girl being the “most privileged”), and the oldest woman in a family has a “decisive role in family affairs.” Girls are preferred as children.
In the past, families were sometimes polygamous, but now monogamy is the norm. One board on marriage (hon nhan) reads: “Wife and husband are as inseparable as a pair of chopsticks.” Marriage used to be arranged, but today people have more freedom in choosing a partner.
When it comes time for marriage, there are a number of rituals which sometime includes consulting fortune tellers in order to determine the best days for their engagement and wedding rituals. The Viets look for the “most auspicious timing” for a wedding date.
The couple get married in the groom’s house and then live there afterwards. Among one ethnic group – the Sinhmun – the couples would have a first ceremony and then stay with the bride’s family and have a second ceremony eight or nine years later over at the groom’s family – pretty different!
Among the Taoi, people were required to file their top 6 teeth prior to getting married. We also learned about gift-giving and other customs. Don’t worry, there is plenty more to read about if you go there.
In addition to their familial roles, we learned about women’s role in work and war. We had learned some about the significant role of Vietnamese women in war efforts from our visits to the Cu Chi Tunnels, the War Remnants Museum, and the Hanoi Hilton / Hoa Lo Prison but learned a little more here as well.
In one area we found a tool the women used to grind rice and flour. We struggled with it a bit. These two older American men who we think may have been veterans (also possibly a couple) encouraged me when I was struggling with it.
They asked where we were from and seemed disappointed when we said Florida. They were from the northeast. We wished we had engaged them more but were just a bit shocked / excited to find someone else from the US. Almost everyone else we had heard / encountered at this point seemed to be French with a few Brits, Australians, and other Europeans mixed in.
The fashion section was quite large – an entire floor. We saw jewelry and clothing, both special and regular wear, from different ethnic groups and different time periods. We enjoyed looking at all of it and learning the purpose of the clothing.
The top floor was closed when we visited and I’m not sure what was inside. But other exhibits we saw were on topics such as music and religion.
One area displayed information on mother goddess worship (the oldest religion in Vietnam). One board read:
“In the mother Goddess worship, women are the centre of the universe, looking after all four regions: heaven, earth, water and mountains and forests. Unlike other religious beliefs, worshippers find their expected desires and happiness right here in their current life. By following the Mother Goddess, their spiritual needs are satisfied.”
There were a few areas throughout which also contained films/videos to watch (worth watching).
In the gift shop we bought one of our first souvenirs while traveling (a cat picture)! They also have old propaganda posters and things of that nature if you’re interested. We didn’t try out the cafe because I didn’t see any vegetarian food.
But, as we were starving from staying much longer than we anticipated, we did look for a place to eat after we were done. And what do you know, we found a Loving hut – a vegan restaurant with locations worldwide – right across the street from the museum. Visit and you will learn not only about the women, but also about Vietnamese culture and history.
36 Ly Thuong Kiet Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi, Vietnam (see: http://baotangphunu.org.vn/Vi-tri-bao-tang/)
8am-5pm Tuesday through Sunday (closed on Mondays)
30,000 VND (~$1.34)