If you have an afternoon to spare, it is worth wandering around this charming old museum full of century old preserved animals. Not into stuffed or pickled animals? There are lots of other things to do in Hanoi.
This blog post contains affiliate links - if you click on them and buy something we make a little bit of coffee money. For more info please read our legal stuff.
Let’s face it, Hanoi isn’t a city where you are going to find yourself short of things to do. There’s spectacular temples and churches, water puppet shows, prison tours, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, a plethora of coffee shops where you can just sit and watch the world go by (and there is plenty happening on the streets of Hanoi to keep you entertained) and, a wide range of museums covering everything from fine arts to ethnology.
But on this trip we fancied doing something different. We wanted to experience the Hanoi of old. The Hanoi that was hinted at in the broad tree lined streets, elegant colonial architecture and in the crepes and delicious pastries served in many cafes.
Enter the Hanoi Zoological Museum.
Located on the second floor of the Hanoi University science building, this museum houses an incredible French-colonial era collection. Visits to the museum are by appointment only - so I contacted Mr Nguyen Thanh Nam, Head of the Department of Zoology and Conservation by email asking if Vincent and I could visit during our trip.
I had found the email address for the museum on TripAdvisor and read that most people were granted a visit within a few days but I was still a bit nervous that I wouldn’t receive a response in time. We’d elected to visit the museum on our last full day in Hanoi and so I was cutting the timing rather fine.
Luckily, Mr Nam was very responsive and an email soon pinged into my inbox saying that we could indeed visit on a Wednesday morning and that the curator of the collection would be available to show us around.
The Zoological Museum is very easy to find and turned out to be walking distance from Hanoi Train Street (we found our way there aided by trusty old Google maps). You’ll certainly know that you are in the right place as you will be greeted by a mammoth skeleton at the top of the stairs (I associate most large animal skeletons with some sort of museum visit!)
The curator unlocked the large doors to the museum and they opened with a creak - revealing an absolute treasure trove of preserved specimens. Within just a few minutes it became abundantly clear that this museum was definitely worth the visit - we were essentially getting a private tour of the whole collection (when does that ever happen?!) which consisted of three rooms containing birds, reptiles, lizards, amphibians and mammals.
There were dusty cabinets and jars everywhere, filled with all sorts of animals, each carefully tagged and classified with yellowing, fading labels. I was really surprised that the collection was so extensive (after all, a museum consisting of just three rooms doesn’t sound like very much) and it actually took us over an hour to walk around the whole thing. Everywhere we turned, there seemed to be another animal pickled in a jar and preserved for posterity, demanding our attention and a photograph.
The whole place made me feel like I had somehow stepped back in time: I could just imagine a bespectacled old French curator shuffling around the rooms, totally engrossed in his work of identifying and classifying some new animal specimen that had just been discovered and sent to the museum. (A stark contrast to the young, hip, female curator who actually showed us around!)
You might not think it, but wandering around a museum full of stuffed dead animals also turned out to be surprisingly entertaining, mainly due to the many examples of taxidermy-gone-wrong that feature in the collection.
I always think that taxidermy is something that is hard to get right even with the most skilled animal-stuffer on the case: something about the eyes always tells you that it isn’t even close to being real. But second-rate taxidermy is definitely something else.
Some of the exhibits at the museum made us laugh out loud mainly because the person in charge of stuffing and embalming the animals had given them comical and very anthropomorphic expressions in the process.
Whilst awful and undeniably hilarious, it is also worth remembering that some of the specimens in the museum were stuffed and preserved by the French in the early 1900s and so are over 100 years old - and there ain’t no face cream or botox available in the world that is going to help a centenarian stuffed animal look…well normal.
Cue some one eyed monkeys, crumbling rodents, a penguin with a wing attached by a piece of sellotape, a cross-eyed leopard and a variety of other scowling animals.
A visit to the Hanoi Zoological Museum is a chance to step into a bygone era and experience something of Vietnam’s colonial past. Small, antiquated but beautifully preserved, this atmospheric place is definitely worth a visit if you have a spare morning or afternoon in Hanoi.
Have you ever been to any quirky museums? Let us know in the comments below!
Like this post? Pin it!