The Hanoi Museum, Vietnam's largest museum built at a cost of VND2.8 trillion (US$133 million). Many areas of the museum, opened in 2010, are still unused and the number of visitors has been less than expected.
Recent stories describing the apparent determination of the Ministry of Construction to build a new Museum of National History in Hanoi point to a serious problem that has implications for the future of Vietnam.
In the nearly ten years that I have been a contented expatriate resident of this beautiful and peaceful country, it has gone from being described as one of the Asian Tigers to a stagnating pond of missed opportunities. I am unable to explain the rationale for this but the results are apparent.
A major point in the referenced articles has been the previous construction of the Hanoi Museum that was rushed to completion for the Hanoi Millennium Celebration in 2011 at a reported cost of US$133 million. The museum, from most accounts, seems to consist of a rather unattractive building with a few static exhibits and even fewer visitors. It does not sound like the people got much bang for their buck in this instance, and sadly, this is not an isolated instance.
A few tourist acquaintances recently stopped in Nha Trang on their way south and I asked if they had visited this museum and they said they thought they had. They had been taken to a large and boring looking building with few exhibits near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. They assumed it was the place in question.
The newly planned History Museum will gobble up another $500 million at a time when cash is very tight. The picture of the proposed building suggests the architect may have been inspired by the US museum for the attack at Pearl Harbor that sits atop the sunken battleship Arizona in the Honolulu Harbor.
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While obviously derivative, it may be an improvement over the Hanoi Museum, but what will it exhibit and how compelling will they be? Previous critics have pointed out the stark absence of Vietnamese trained in curating museums.
This is analogous with the plans announced several years ago by the Ministry of Education (during the Asian Tiger period) to develop a "World Class" university for Vietnam. Some knowledgeable educators pointed out that Vietnam lacked a sufficient number of qualified "professorial level" faculties to enable each of the existing universities to have even one such person per school.
Why does the government insist on putting the cart before the horse at every juncture?
Others have already pointed out the obvious, that rather than spend these large sums on such static and limited facilities as museums, the nation should be looking at why it is losing ground in the economic race and what needs to be done.
One obvious problem is transportation. Vietnam is a long narrow country with over 3,000 miles of shoreline. Presently, materials and finished goods move in rail cars on a single track that involves frequent side-tracking for trains to pass in opposite directions and one horrible excuse for a National highway, Route 1 from Hanoi to Saigon, with nearly all the roadways being of two lanes and limited width. When increasing numbers of buses, trucks, cars, motorbikes and oxcart traffic have to use the same road, the consequences can be disastrous.
Talk of widening the road always seems to get bogged down in the argument that there is no land available to construct a parallel route. The government owns all of the land so that does not make sense. A wider road will bring prosperity to every village along its route. Some people will not like it at first, but they will come around. The people, like the government, must look to the future instead of looking for instant payback.
Recent references I have seen (in English language publications, anyway) about improved rail services invariably deal with a high speed passenger line. The aim, it appears, is to look as advanced as China, but should that be Vietnam's criteria? Another parallel track for freight trains and upgrading the condition of existing passenger trains will be more useful and realistic.
With the long shoreline, the potential for transporting goods by ships will surely grab attention. Here again, recent plans are to build ports of sufficient depth to accommodate huge ocean going container ships. Another ill thought out misadventure. The proposed locations have shown no consideration of the existing transportation infrastructure that will be critical to getting goods to the port. In addition, it is not necessary to have multiple deep water ports. Goods can be transported on coastal ships and transferred to the container giants at two main ports in Saigon and Hai Phong. There are already plenty of shallow ports along the coast that can be improved, gradually.
The government should have learned this lesson years ago when, in an effort to placate the leaders of each province, they approved the establishment of industrial parks along the length and breadth of the country. Most of these parks neither have workers living near enough nor sufficient access to transportation. So they sit empty.
It is impossible to address the question of government projects and planning without raising the question of how much of the money finds its way into pockets other than workers and the suppliers of materials that actually end up in the road or building. Articles about the rapid deterioration of new streets, etc. built as part of the Millennium celebrations, skirted around this, but another expatriate wrote recently, attempting to excuse the corruption in Vietnam as being no worse than any other country.
I come from one of the most corrupt countries in the world, the good old United States of America, but the corruption is of a more limited nature and quite frankly, the US can afford it, Vietnam cannot. Vietnam needs to get its money's worth on everything it does.
Finally, on the subject of the museum, if there are artifacts demonstrating the country's long and colorful history that need a home, why not spend a little of the money to improve the Hanoi Museum and dedicate part of the empty space to display the vestiges?
By George R. Mckenzie
The writer is the former Vice Chancellor of the Board of Governors of Illinois State Colleges and Universities. He currently lives in Nha Trang. The opinions expressed here are his own
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