Normally, I avoid museums. No matter how revealing the dishes, weapons and other elements of a past civilization are, looking into little plexiglas cases does not excite me. I am definitely interested in how people of the past lived, worked and spent their time, but a hands-on exhibition is more my style. That’s why I loved Hanoi’s Ethnology and War Museums. At the Ethnology Museum, I admit we skipped the indoor exhibits (in plexiglas cases) for a chance to wander around the recreated villages outside.
Some notes about three of the houses. The communal house is 19 meters in height including 3 meter stilts. Its floor area is more than 90 square meters.
A team of 40 Bahnar people came from Kon Rbang Village in Kontum City, in the Central Highlands, to build this house. It was modeled after the village’s early 1920’s communal house. The most important tool in its construction is the axe, which is used to cut the wood and carve the trunks. The axe can also be used as a chisel to mortise the columns.
The high roof is supported by eight massive pillars, four of which are 60cm in diameter. The structure is composed of many other posts and beams arranged horizontally, vertically or diagonally at different heights. They serve to both connect and support the house. The longitudinal beams and purlins are 14 to 15m long. The sloping and curved roof is rounded at its lower part. It is not only attractive, but also helpful for wind resistance. This curve brings lightness, elegance, and the impression of a greater height.
Role of the communal house
The communal house has a significant meaning in villages. It is the largest and the most spectacular architecture, showing the power and talent of the community.
Traditionally, the communal house was used for social and ceremonial activities. It was a place for guests to be received, for men to be together during their free time, for the elderly to transmit knowledge to younger generations, for old villagers to deal with village affairs, and for villagers to concentrate together in community events. Collective rituals were also held at the communal house. In the past, the youth were on duty here to prepare for fights or to defend the village. Young bachelors and widowers also spent nights in the communal house. Women did not usually enter this house.
Heads of sacrificed buffalos and hunted animals are often hung in the communal house. These are the trophies and pride of the community. Other ritual objects and protecting talismans of the villages are also preserved in the communal house.
The long house is 42.5 meters long and 6 meters wide and sits on one meter high stilts. It was reconstructed at the Museum in 2000. It was originally built in 1967 and belonged to Mrs. HDiah Eban’s family (Ede Kpa) in Ky Village, Buon Ma Thuot city, Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands.
The house is oriented in a north-south direction according to Ede tradition. The north side is the front with the main entrance. The south end was where families lived. As a house of a powerful family, it was built with big columns and beams, on which many decorations were carefully carved. Its original staircase, over one meter wide, was carved from one large wooden board.
Traditionally, extended matrilineal families lived in long houses. The more people who lived in a house, the longer it was. Some houses were 200m long. In the 1970s, there were still houses 50m to 60m in length. Since the 1980s, extended families have split into nuclear ones that live in smaller houses.
The tomb house was built in 1998 by five Giarai Arap men from Mrong Ngo Village, ChuPa District, Gia Lai Province.
About thirty dead people can be burried in this large tomb house in the village. The decorated sculptures are carved from tree trunks using axes, chisels, and knives. Statues of men and women showing off their secret parts, and pregnant women symbolise fertility and birth. The wooden roof is covered with plaited bamboo planks on which designs are painted with natural red pigments. Figures on the roof depict activities of the tomb abandoning ritual.
It is thought that the tomb house is for the dead in the afterlife. Broken dishes, bottles, cups and trays, and wooden models of tools are put inside the tomb to provide necessities to the deceased in their other world. After the ritual, the tomb is abandoned.
The War Museum
This was our biggest surprise. I didn’t expect to like it, but the exhibits were extremely well done, with actual tanks and shot-down U.S. planes, as well as recreated scenes indoors of wars throughout Vietnam’s history. Check out the exhibit of a battlefield with men crawling through tunnels below. Also a bicycle equipped with a rocket launcher. The country was constantly fighting off invaders.