The building, formerly the Louis-Finot Museum, was associated with l’Ecole d’Extreme Orient, a scholarly organization concerned with archeological, historical and ethnological research. During the French period, this organization fought to preserve and in some cases to restore Vietnamese temples and pagodas, as well as Việt Nam’s archeological heritage in form of the brick Chàm temples and stone sculpture in the south.
The museum was the masterpiece of architect Ernest Hebrard, winner of the Prix de Rome in 1904, who was responsible for several fine buildings during the colonial era, borrowing from the repertoire of Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer architecture. Here he adopted a whimsical mixture of classical French, Vietnamese community house (đình) and pagoda (chùa), the Asian architecture features in keeping with the building’s original use and now, its current function.
Hebrard, more than any other architect, created what has come to be known as the eclectic Indochinese style architecture.
The center core of the building, which rather resembles a pagoda, is octagonal, from which the gallery branch out like streets from a roundabout. The wide, overhanging two-tier, tiled roofs over the external galleries from the dominant feature, echoing domestic architecture, the deep eaves providing shades for the rooms within. The criss-crossed supporting beams in the style of temple architecture, give the galleries the impression that the roofs are actually floating. Along the galleries, by employing slim, round, double columns to resemble wooden posts. Hebrard was able to use brick and plaster in a way common to vernacular architecture.
Charles Batteur, architect and professor at l’Ecole des Beaux Arts, took charge of the detail of the numerous drawings and acted as site manager. Held up by over-running its budget, the building was not completed finally until 1931.
Exhibits inside the History Museum are arranged chronologically, starting on the ground floor, working up through Bronze Age drums of the Đông Sơn culture through Chàm pottery and sculpture, lacquered Buddhist statues, pale green celadon ceramics and a few of the wooden stakes from the thirteenth-century battle victory sword defeated the Chinese.
Upstairs, the exhibits relate to the last feudal dynasty, the Nguyễn, who abdicated as recently as 1945: embroidered silks, gilt and inlaid ivory furniture, watercolors of Việt Nam’s last imperial court and photograph of Huế’s citadel in 1932.
To see the building that Hebrard used as his artistic laboratory, his first in Hà Nội, we need to have a look at the University of Indochina, nearby.