The country’s biggest ethnic group may be the Viets – around 86% of the population. To understand more about the rest of the ethnic group, you would need to visit the furthest corners of Vietnam. Or, you could simply head to the Museum of Ethnology.
A proposal to set up the museum was first approved on the 14th of December 1987. Constructed continued for a little under eight years, when on the 12th of November 1997, it opened its doors to the public.
Sitting on a 10-acre property, about 8 km outside Hanoi, the exhibition building, in the shape of a Dong Son drum, was designed by Ha Duc Linh, a member of the Tay ethnic group. The interior architecture was designed by Veronique Dollfus.
Exploring the museum
The museum is divided into three distinct parts and focuses on the 54 different ethnic groups that are found throughout Vietnam. It also preserves their cultural heritage and promotes socio-cultural diversity. The collection features tribal art, artefacts and everyday objects that have been patiently collected from around the country. Traditional villages homes have been constructed to lend authenticity to the museum.
Trong Dong Building
The main section features exhibits arranged according the ethnicity. Packed with information, it details every aspect of the ethnic groups’ way of life – from religious practice to symbolic rituals. With more than 15,000 artefacts on display, it makes for a rich culture melting pot.
If you have the patience, then take your time exploring a variety of items on display, from clothes and jewellery, to even everyday ordinary objects like pipes, knives and baskets. The building also houses a research center, library and auditorium.
Garden of Architecture
The second is out in the open, in a large garden filled with well-crafted examples of traditional houses from ethnic minority groups.
There are several traditional homes that have been reconstructed in actual size, with attention being paid to the different architectural styles. For example, a Tay stilt home sits close to a Viet home, only separated by a small stream and linked by bridges. Each of these sections have their own vegetation that is indigenous to that region. Artefacts specific to an indigenous group further add authenticity to the surroundings.
There is also a longhouse, done in the style prevalent in the Central Highlands. While another communal home done in the Ba Na style was built by the villagers themselves.
If you are feeling a bit too overwhelmed with all this information, then it might be time to lighten up a bit, and perhaps have a laugh too. Head to the Giarai people’s tomb. There are many totems that have been carved out in, well, extremely sexually suggestive poses. Meant to symbolise fertility, this part of the outdoor museum is refreshingly different, and manages to lighten up the moment.
The grounds around the museum are also very popular among prospective brides and grooms. They often come here for their wedding album. Walk around and you may also get to see a pre-wedding photoshoot session in progress. Many of them, dressed in their finest, listen to instructions from a professional photographer, while the crew adjust the lady’s wedding gown, or adjust her hair.
Canh Dieu Building
This is a new building only opened in 2008. It features a collection of Southeast Asian handicraft collection. Unfortunately, this section wasn’t complete when I visited many years ago.
Water puppet show
Time your visit to the museum well, and you can see one of the highlights – a water puppet show. Yes, there are regular shows held near Hoan Kiem lake in the Old Quarter. But why give up on experiencing it here. Besides, this is how it was traditionally presented.
It’s unique among the Viet people along the Red River Delta. What makes it interesting is that a bamboo puppet theatre, consisting of a stage and a backstage area, is built on a pond. The body of water in front is used as the performing stage, while puppeteers stand behind curtains, maneuvering puppets with the help of strings on poles. A troupe of musicians and character artists add the relevant sound effects and vocals to the characters.
On a side note, no one is allowed backstage to see the puppeteers when a performance is on. It’s supposed to be a traditional rule to keep a professional secret.
Information you can use
The Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 8:30am to 5:30pm. However, plan accordingly as Saturdays and Sundays can get very crowded. Entry fee to the museum is VND 40,000 per person. If you wish to watch the water puppet show, then the fee is VND 90,000 per adult and VND 70,000 per child.
To get to the museum, it is best to hail a metered taxi. Expect to pay around VND 200,000 per trip. However, if prefer travelling by bus, then head to the east side of Hoan Kiem lake in the city. From there, catch bus 14. It will drop you a couple of blocks from the museum. Cost to hop onto the bus is around VND 4,000 per person.