Volume 11 Number 4
December 31, 1995
In Review: The Vietnamese Air Force Museum

While spending a year teaching English in Bangkok, Thailand, I visited aviation museums from Thailand to Japan. One of the most interesting was the Air Force Museum in Hanoi, Vietnam. The museum’s displays, photos and artifacts describe the birth of the North Vietnamese Air Force in 1954 through to the united country’s air force and general aviation today. The main emphasis is on the years from 1963 to 1975 during the war with the U.S. and South Vietnam. It is a fascinating account of the aerial war seen from the North Vietnamese standpoint.

Outside on wide grounds stand jet fighters, helicopters, trainers and ground support vehicles such as radar trucks and bulldozers. Signs posted on various aircraft and vehicles state the locations and dates they saw action. Aircraft such as MiG fighter planes that saw combat have signs explaining the aircraft and sometimes the pilot who flew it. Kills are indicated by red stars painted near the cockpit. The MiG-17, MiG-19 and MiG-21 fighters are on the grounds outside. Rocket pods, Atoll air-to-air missiles and bombs are still mounted on the airframes. In addition to the fighters are several helicopters, a Soviet MI-4 used to transport the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, and a gargantuan MI-6 used in transporting heavy cargo loads. One photograph showed a MiG-21 slung under the belly of the huge chopper en route to an airfield. Several other helicopters as well as jet and prop trainers rounded out the Soviet collection. A second series of aircraft consisted of equipment captured from the former South Vietnamese Air Force after war’s end in 1975. These are an A-37 Dragonfly, Northrop F-5 and an U-17 trainer.

Inside the museum the displays range from a mix of U.S. and Soviet aircraft equipment to photographs, documents and artifacts. There are photos of North Vietnamese “Top Guns,” ground crews, support units, air defense units and so on. Mixed in with these are many political photographs (actual caption: “Prime Minister Pham Van Dong & Mr. Van Tien Dung came to air force headquarter to control & encourage airmen while B52 hysterically attacking Hanoi”). Although some are interesting, the majority of shots with politicians and bureaucrats have little relevance to an American visitor.

The artifact collection ranges from the interesting to the devastating. Gunsights and control sticks from victorious MiG fighters are mounted with captions explaining their significance. Detailed drawn and painted maps as well as scale landscape models show famous air battles with US planes. Stills from gun camera footage from MiGs show F-4s and F-105s in their final moments. Other pictures show smoke trails of falling aircraft hit by SAM missiles or flak. Nearby in a glass display case were possessions taken from Colonel Norman Gadix, USAF, a pilot who according to the display sign was shot down on May 12, 1967 and captured. Other photos of captured U.S. pilots are also displayed.

Besides the photos of shot down U.S. aircraft, there are piles of debris from fallen aircraft both inside and outside. There are jet engines, fuselage parts, metal chunks, etc. I recognized the tail boom of a Huey chopper in one pile of scrap. In one corner there is a fully intact Sidewinder air-to-air missile inside the museum hall. The only historical fact I really wanted to know about this exhibit was if it had been disarmed or not! Other ordnance (both spent and questionable) is on display inside. For any Top Gun daydreamers there is a nose section from a MiG-21 fighter complete with preserved cockpit. Visitors are encouraged to climb in and have their picture taken. But sorry, you’ll have to bring your own flight gear.

This museum is seldom seen by tourists despite its fascinating array of exhibits. It’s dusty inside the museum halls and worn looking. Every aircraft and vehicle outside exhibits some sort of damage from the tropical weather: corrosion, rust, fading paint, glazed and cracked glass, and flat tires. It was no help that just before the 20th anniversary celebrations of the end of the war every aircraft outside received a fresh coat of paint, some in hideous colors and patterns. My questions about the historic value of the aircraft there went unanswered. I could not find anyone who could speak English with me about the displays and my Vietnamese is pretty poor.

Bicycle parking is free at the museum. The operating hours are unknown at this time, but the doors close from 12 to 2 pm for lunch like most other businesses and institutions. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the history of the Vietnam air war or just aviation itself to pay this museum a visit. It’s an experience in Vietnamese aviation in war and peace.

Michael Mullen, TIGHAR #1410C, has been a member since his junior year of college. Following his graduation in 1994, he took a position teaching English in a secondary school in Bangkok, Thailand. Using his time wisely, he spent vacations visiting air museums throughout southeast Asia. Mike now lives in Boca Raton, Florida.

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