A haven for the arts and the preservation of ethnic minority culture, the Muong Cultural Museum is a three-hour drive from Hanoi. Words by Douglas Pyper. Photos by Aaron Joel Santos
In modern day Vietnam, the cultural diversity of the country’s 54 ethnic minorities isn’t often celebrated. Sure, there is the excellent Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi, and another more run down version in Thai Nguyen, but on the whole, trying to find out about the many cultures that make up today’s Vietnam isn’t always easy or exciting.
One place that bucks the trend is the Muong Cultural Museum just outside of Hoa Binh City. Stretching up a hillside off a quiet country road, the museum is much more than a museum. Forget any drab collocations that the word may have, this place is a living environment, a vibrant cultural showcase, an art space and a great spot for a picnic.
The site was set up by Muong-o-phile Vu Duc Hieu back in 2007. Hieu is actually of the majority Kinh ethnicity but spent his formative teenage years outside of Hoa Binh in a Muong community. After making his name in Hanoi as an accomplished artist, he established the Muong Museum as an effort to preserve a society that he perceived to be fading. As a collector of Muong artifacts such as tools, musical instruments, handicrafts and clothes, Hieu had begun to notice that these were becoming rarer and rarer as Vietnam’s breakneck development rendered them obsolete in the face of factory goods.
The result of Hieu’s good work is a fascinating space in which to understand a little known culture. All of the staff in the museum are of Muong ethnicity and more than happy to explain the fine points of Muong culture to visitors. On a guided tour, guests are shown around the four forms of communal house common in Muong culture, each one particular to the four stratas of Muong society. Guides will happily explain Muong social hierarchy, gender roles, cooking habits and anything else you’d care to know.
While all this is undoubtedly very interesting, the real highlight for visitors is a walk around the hilly grounds. The five hectares of hillside that make up the museum are dotted with contemporary sculptures hidden among trees and made mostly out of natural materials. At the very top of the hill there is even a pond for swimming filled with water from a clean nearby stream. Just watch out for the giant goldfish lurking in the deep end.
These sculptures are a representation of another important aspect of the museum, which is as an artists’ retreat. Workshops are regularly held in the peaceful surroundings, with buses full of Hanoi-based painters and sculptures a common sight. The biggest event the space has hosted to date was October 2012’s Art Under the Roof when an unprecedented 70 artists from 15 countries descended on the museum for 10 days of collaboration, creation and cultural sharing. The workshop was completely open, meaning the local Muong people were free to come and watch the artists at work. The purpose was to cultivate a better understanding of contemporary art among locals, allow Vietnamese artists to interact directly with foreign ones, and allow those artists from other nations to learn about the relative micro-culture of Muong society.
Preservation Outside of Stasis
Sitting on a sunny veranda outside the onsite studio where he lives and works, Hieu talks in a gentle whisper between hits on his water pipe. The prominent sounds threatening to drown out Hieu’s whispy voice are croaking frogs and distant roosters. Talking about the exhibition, Hieu explains that the biggest success of the event was raising artistic awareness in people outside of Vietnam’s major cities. It’s no secret that artistic awareness is generally low, a point illustrated in the frequency with which you can hear people say “I don’t understand this painting.” To Hieu and other artists, understanding is necessary in order to cultivate the domestic appreciation which Vietnamese arts so desperately need.
Inevitably, that holds true, too, for Muong culture. Without knowing the complexities and fine points of Muong society, the ethnic group’s achievements can’t be appreciated by those outside of it. In that light, The Muong Cultural Museum, via its cooking classes, guided tours and other hands-on learning experiences is providing a vital educational service.
Yet, to call it a museum does the place a bit of an injustice. It’s very much a living environment that is protecting, celebrating and developing cultures. It’s a place where an artistic understanding and maturity is being instilled in Muong traditional culture, but also where Kinh and foreign nationals are learning about an intrinsic part of Vietnam. Perhaps also, it’s a place that allows Muong people themselves to see the value in their own culture and the corresponding need to both preserve and develop it.
The Muong Cultural Museum is at 202 Duong Tay Tien, Phuong Thai Binh, Hoa Binh City. Tel: 0913 553937.
Guests can stay at one of the three nha san which are on the property. All of the buildings have dorm accommodation from VND100,000 or private rooms for VND400,000.
Take the Lang-Hoa Lac Highway all the way to Hoa Lac, and follow the left hand turn towards Xuan Mai. At the crossroads in Xuan Mai turn right towards Hoa Binh. Follow the road through the town and on towards Son La, about 7km outside of town you will see a sign at a crossroads for the museum. Turn right here onto Duong Tay Tien. The Museum is well signposted at number 202.