Housed in a rambling concrete pagodalike structure, the museum presents a clear picture of Vietnamese history, with a focus on the south. There’s an excellent selection of Cham sculpture and the best collection of ancient ceramics in Vietnam, although some of the artifacts are being held together by Scotch tape. Weaponry from the 14th century onward is on display; one yard is nothing but cannons. Room 4 (left of the main entrance) has a fascinating, slightly creepy display of an embalmed body in remarkable shape that dates back to 1869. One wing is dedicated to ethnic minorities of the south, including photographs, costumes, and household implements. Nguyen dynasty (1700-1945) clothing and housewares are also on display. There are archaeological artifacts from prehistoric Saigon. Its 19th- and early-20th-century histories are shown using photos and, curiously, a female corpse unearthed as construction teams broke ground for a recent housing project. There are even some general background explanations in English, something missing from most Vietnamese museums.
A small three-row theater inside the museum shows regular water puppet performances. It’s an intimate venue, and the performance is more clever and witty than the for-the-tourists water puppet show in Hanoi. Tickets are just 32,000 VND, and performances are held every hour between 9 and 11am and 2 and 4pm Tuesday through Sunday.
Also adjacent to the History Museum is the Ho Chi Minh City Campaign Museum, the first address on Le Duan Street, which originates just across from the entrance to the botanical garden and zoo. In the large courtyard outside the museum, you’ll find another collection of war detritus similar to what you’ll see at the War Remnants Museum and the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, but here you can see the crumpled remains of an American reconnaissance plane shot down, as well as more utilitarian vehicles, troop carriers, and the construction equipment from the U.S. defoliation campaign. The museum has little in the way of English explanations — it’s more or less a place for Vietnamese school field trips (there’s a long block of classrooms attached) — but Vietnam War enthusiasts can find some weaponry and tools not displayed in other museums in town.