A rainy day in Hanoi is always a good time to meander around a museum and receive my annual injection of culture, and the Sparkling Exhibition at the Vietnam National Museum of History was the drawcard for this particular jaunt.
With promises of gold lacquered objects hundreds of years old, I was prepared to be amazed at the craftsmanship, and inspired by the religious significance of the artefacts. I stopped by the information desk for a brochure, with no luck. There wasn’t one. I was on my own.
For the history buffs among us, lacquered wood first made its appearance in Vietnam more than 2,000 years ago during the Dong Son period, with the craft reaching its zenith during the Le and Nguyen dynasties between 300 and 100 years ago. Intricate carvings and decorations, usually associated with royalty or temples, were painted crimson and then lacquered in gold or silver. The carvings represented the sacred beliefs of the Vietnamese people, but were also infused with the minutiae of everyday life, as well as motifs of significant animals and plants. This exhibition showcases key pieces from the 17th to the early 20th century.
Not the Real Deal
I was disappointed that one of the aforementioned key pieces, a many-armed Buddha was in fact a large print of the original carving. Carved in 1656 during the Le Dynasty by artist Truong, the Kwan Yin Avalokitesvara statue is almost four metres in height and over two metres wide. Sporting 11 heads, 42 large hands and 952 small hands, the statue is carved in crimson wood and gilded, and was declared a national treasure in 2012.
Yet I was impressed with the ornate, sacred palanquin occupying the foyer of the museum. Under a lofty ceiling lit by a crystal chandelier, the piece was undeniably beautiful. Carved in the 18th century, it had lost none of its allure. The palanquin’s use was primarily ceremonial, and it was used to carry statues or tablets from one village in the north of Vietnam to another.
Less is More
For me, the exhibition shone when it came to the smaller pieces. Yes, there were screens and altars and beds and ceremonial spears, but I was drawn to smaller statues of lions and nghe, carved in the 18th and 19th centuries. The nghe can be compared to unicorns or dragons and symbolise strength, purity and intelligence. Usually seen on guard at temples, nghe are also carved into knife handles, roof beams and other items. Intricate and detailed, with the gold worn thin in places, I could appreciate the level of skill needed to create these gorgeous artefacts. Of course, the same level of skill was evident in the larger pieces, but there was a sense of whimsy associated with lions and nghe that I thought delightful.
The truth is that — overall — I found this exhibition seriously underwhelming. I expected to be dazzled by countless artefacts dripping in gold — like an Aladdin’s Cave of sorts — but there seemed to be only a small number of pieces on show, although the publicity surrounding the exhibition promised 100. I expected more.
The Sparkling Exhibition is on display until Nov. 30 at the Vietnam National Museum of History, 1 Trang Tien, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
Photos by Julie Vola