Where do you go in Vietnam to see all the tribes in one place? The somewhat inconveniently located (but worth the trip) Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi.
Some cities you visit because of the wealth of cultural attractions and interesting sites. Few people would put Hanoi in that category. It’s a great place to visit for a lot of other good reasons instead: a historic quarter good for strolling and photos near a pretty lake, French Colonial buildings in another area, great food, and bargain prices for nearly everything. It’s also a great hopping-off base for exploring the north.
Before we got to Vietnam, a friend who used to live there said if we had a child with us, this museum should be at the top of the list. My guidebook concurred, though when we visited, there were surprisingly few foreigners there, especially compared to how many were in the crazy long line in the 38C/100F heat to see embalmed Ho Chi Minh looking waxy in his tomb.
Family, couple, or single though, it’s worth paying a few bucks for a taxi ride to this part of town to see the beautifully presented items from the 54 ethnic groups living within the country’s borders. If you head up north toward Sapa you see people from the Tay, Hmong, or Yao groups, but most visitors encounter only a fraction of the ethnic diversity. It it would be hard to catch them wearing some of the outfits on display too since some are just brought out during festivals.
The inside displays are arranged by ethnicity, generally including what’s unique about that culture’s customs, apparel, or utensils. Musical instruments and farming implements make appearances and some displays replicate the living quarters of a family. A favorite of mine was a Mekong Delta fisherman’s bicycle loaded up with more than 200 fish traps and baskets. Other displays include backpacks made from reeds and bamboo, ritual dolls, and a willow-looking tree loaded with messages to the ancestors.
There’s a whole separate outdoor section that’s more hands-on and—good for the kids—involves some climbing. The house at the very top is a traditional longhouse copied from one in the central highlands. The steps can be pulled up at night. Another communal house modeled after that of the Bahnar people was built on site here by 42 villagers from the central highlands. It stands 19 meters high and requires a steep hike up notched logs to walk around inside.
In the interest of keeping my site from getting blocked by libraries, I’ll pass on posting another naughty photo of the Giarai people’s tomb, which is surrounded by sexually explicit carvings meant to be symbols of fertility. Here’s a corner that’s tame, follow this link for one that’s not.
Of course we went to see the water puppets show by the old quarter of Hanoi, but if you time it right, they sometimes run the shows here as well. This is how the water puppets were traditionally presented, with the puppeteers standing in the hut part (in the water) behind curtains, the puppets extending out on rods.
The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology is one of the best screaming bargains I came across in my return to Southeast Asia this past summer. Admission is only $1.25 for adults and 25 cents for kids in the local currency. For more info, go to vme.org.vn. To get there, take a taxi to Nguyen Van Huyen Road, Cau Giay District. It’s about 10-20 minutes from most Hanoi hotels.
Note that another section is under construction that will cover ethnic groups in all of Southeast Asia, not just Vietnam. So by the time you visit, that may be open as well.