The Faces of Viet Nam
Tuyet A.Tran ©2003

On the surface, the faces of Viet Nam illuminate the vibrant interlacing of fifty-four ethnic threads woven through numerous centuries of peace and war. The diverse cultural and racial heritage of Viet Nam reverberates in the daily lives, customs, and traditional practices of contemporary people. This unique ethnic echo is heard in Vietnamese musical sounds, and seen in an impressive array of musical instruments. I am particularly proud that Viettouch has heard this echo and displays our musical heritage and diversity. Our audience is encouraged to visit the heart of Viettouch, the Music Forum and Sounds Library collection One of our missions is to share cultural features of Viet Nam with our audience.

In the same spirit, Viettouch Forum proudly presents an exclusive series of conversations with Vietnamese and American scholars to discuss Vietnamese ethnic diversity that reflects in the arts. It took a great deal of persistent diplomatic persuasion and long months of preparation before Viettouch could bring these dialogues to fruition. We are delighted to share with you a peek inside the apparently mystifying world of Vietnamese cultures. These scholars talked to us from their locations across well over ten thousand miles of land mass and several oceans.

Two of these scholars are long-term colleagues and friends, Dr. Nguyen Van Huy, Director of Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology and Dr. Laurel Kendall, Curator Asian Ethnographic Collections, the American Museum of Natural History. Their collaboration has resulted in a book publication and the Vietnamese Ethnic Arts exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York City that opens on March 15, 2003. The third member of this wonderful dialogue is Dr. Khong Dien, Director of the Institute of Anthropology, and a board member of the Viet Nam Social Sciences Journal of Hanoi, Viet Nam.

Viettouch brings its own unique voice to the Forum in that we are Vietnamese Americans whose ethnic heritage embodies the broad range of cultures starting from the southern tip coursing through central region to the northern reach of Viet Nam. To some extent, we mirror the complex socio-cultural fabric of the Vietnamese people within and without Viet Nam.

The audience are invited to share our experience and occasional frustrations as we enter into conversations. Some questions have been met with answers that compellingly prompt others, while other questions remain transparent, or less tangible in their responses. Many questions remain unanswered at this time.

We believe that our patient efforts are necessary to engage in meaningful, cultural dialogues that de-mystify and re-cover Viet Nam and her people.

To date, we are encouraged by the results of our outreach program in the United States and Viet Nam. One of our colleagues recently traveled to Viet Nam to promote further connections with Vietnamese musicians. We learn, along with our audience, that there is a great deal of work ahead in promoting cultural and educational exchanges with Viet Nam.

We hope you will be intrigued by these interviews presented in a series of individual virtual encounters. Our first conversation begins when we meet Dr. Nguyen Van Huy whose busy schedule required Viettouch to literally track him down in Viet Nam. It was equally complex for us to garner an interview with Dr. Laurel Kendall in New York. On the other hand, we were particularly delighted with Dr. Khong Dien who enthusiastically welcomed our contacting his office in Hanoi.

Enjoy your travel.

I. Views from Viet Nam

Tuyet A. Tran: Welcome to Viettouch, we are delighted that you agree to talk to us. How long have you been Director of the Museum of Ethnology?

Dr. Nguyen Van Huy (NVH): I have been Director of the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology since November 1995, when the Government decided to establish the Museum. I was also Deputy Director of the Institute of Ethnology, which had a Department of Museology with only 3 or 4 staff members. After the establishment of the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology, eighteen people transferred from the Institute of Ethnology to the new institution, forming the core staff for the Museum.

Viettouch: Since Viet Nam has been subjected to numerous wars and foreign occupations throughout her history, was it difficult for you and your colleagues to document and trace the variety of ethnic groups' cultural and social activities throughout several centuries?

NVH: Viet Nam has a long history and a variety of multiethnic peoples and that each group has its own historical context. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to document and collect ethnographic objects. The further in the past we want to document, the fewer objects we can obtain. By the time the Museum was established, we had almost no objects. For that reason, our priorities have been to study and collect contemporary artifacts to tell contemporary stories. It is this approach that makes our museum unique and brings a new life to the field of museology in our country.

Viettouch: Are there any ethnic Vietnamese scholars and/or students currently working with you in the Museum?

NVH: At present, we have seven minority people working at different departments of the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology. Dr. La Cong Y, a Tay minority from Thai Nguyen province, is Head of the Department of Research and Collection of the North as well as a researcher on Tay culture. Dr. Vi Van An, a Thai minority from Nghe An province, is the Deputy Head of this Department. He studies the culture of the Thai and that of the peoples speaking Mon-Khmer languages. Ms. Hoang Thi To Quyen, a White Thai from Son La province, who has a bachelor degree in museology, is also working at the VME. In addition, a renowned expert, Mr. Cam Trong, who has done valuable research on Thai culture, worked at our museum since its foundation. He has just retired. Finally, Prof. Dr. Be Viet Dang, a Tay minority, Former Director of the Institute of Ethnology, also moved to work at the museum until he passed away four years ago.

Viettouch: Who provides the translation for the variety of languages, on documents, and/or oral history for your collections?

NVH: Translating documents and oral history of ethnic groups is a complicated issue. Ethnologists usually collect documents while doing fieldwork at the field sites. Many collaborators who speak the Kinh (Vietnamese) language, often translate or explain historical stories directly to us. In many cases when the collaborators do not know Vietnamese, we ask local people to help with the communication. If the documents are related to Thai language, Mr. Cam Trong is responsible for the translation.

Viettouch: In light of the upcoming Viet Nam Arts Exhibition that will take place in the United States with significant contributions by the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology, would you share your perspectives on what this Exhibit means for Viet Nam?

NVH: Through this exhibition, we hope that visitors will have a better and deeper understanding of the life and culture of contemporary Viet Nam. It is a nation with a diversity of cultures and peoples that are renovating, developing and moving forward.

Viettouch: What do you and your colleagues hope to demonstrate to the American public from your selection of these artifacts? Would you explain your reasons for choosing particular items that will highlight Vietnamese cultural heritage?

NVH: We would like to introduce the diverse culture of Viet Nam to American audience through selected artifacts. Although these objects are used in everyday life, they deeply express the past, the continuation of cultural heritage, and today’s living culture.

Viettouch: Would you describe the hands-on involvement by the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology that has made possible this US-VN cultural event?

NVH: We hope this exhibition will educate people in the US about contemporary Viet Nam. The exhibition is organized by two museums, the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology (VME) and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). We and our colleagues at the AMNH have collaborated in every aspect of the exhibition, from the conversation on the concept, to the selection of objects, topics and stories, to the display of each exhibit in the gallery.

Viettouch: How was the theme chosen for the US exhibit?

NVH: The exhibition’s theme is "Viet Nam: Journeys of Body, Mind and Spirit". The theme of the "Journey" allows the curators a multidimensional approach to present Viet Nam, her peoples and cultures. For example, a spatial journey from the North to the South, a temporal journey from the present to the past, journeys in real life and metaphorical journeys in the netherworld, or other symbolic journeys embedded in peoples’ spiritual and religious life.

Viettouch: Did your Museum provide background materials and authentication of artifacts for the exhibit in the US?

NVH: This exhibit uses about 300 artifacts from both AMNH and VME. The artifacts were made by different peoples in Viet Nam that were collected in recent years.

Viettouch: How long did it take you to educate your American colleagues about the multiple layers of Vietnamese culture? How receptive were these scholars? I am thinking especially of how they might have preconceived notions about Viet Nam and her people, tainted by whatever views they might have regarding the Viet Nam war.

NVH: Diversity is one of the most prominent features of our culture. American and Vietnamese scholars have learned and continued to learn from each other. We research and present the diversity of our culture, and we have been received with open minds.

Viettouch: What was the experience like for you and your colleagues? How would you describe your relationship with your US colleagues?

NVH: We have some experiences in introducing cultural diversity. For example, we present the ethnic houses in an open-door museum by using old houses purchased from ethnic Vietnamese people. We invited the original owners to Hanoi to build and decorate the houses. Each house has its own vitality and spirit. In our indoor permanent exhibition, there are different ways of worshipping ancestors and organizing funerals of the Viet, the Muong, the Thai, and the Jarai. The Viet always live with their ancestors, burning incense whenever they are happy or sad. The Jarai organize a ceremony in which a tomb is built, then abandoned to complete all obligations to their ancestors, and to mark the end of their worshipping period. Though different in form, in nature, these peoples have similar emotions and opinions about their ancestors, and express similar condolence and gratefulness to those who gave birth to them. Thus, along with our collaborators at the AMNH, we are very careful in choosing artifacts and themes in order to help visitors gain a full sense of the diversity of Vietnamese culture.

Viettouch: How long did you and your colleagues worked with Laurel Kendall, from the American Museum of History, to send the Vietnamese collection to the US?

NVH: We have been working with Dr. Laurel Kendall for many years. I first met Dr. Kendall in 1990 during my visit to the AMNH with Dr. Frank Proschan, a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution, to talk about the preparation for a museum of ethnology in Hanoi, and to express our interest to establish the relationship and scientific exchanges between the two institutions. At the time, I was still working at the Institute of Ethnology. Dr. Kendall made several visits to Hanoi to discuss with us the ideas, the themes of the exhibit, and selection of artifacts and documents. We visited some museums in America together to borrow objects for this exhibition. We discussed, wrote and edited exhibit labels. Working and cooperating with Dr. Kendall is really wonderful. There was no difficulty that we could not overcome. Through our experience of working together, we understand that the most important thing is that we have to be frank and straightforward in raising and discussing issues, and to respect each other because each person comes from his/her own context.

Viettouch: I have a nagging question about the way in which American scholars have continually misspelled Viet Nam, a fall-out error from the press coverage since the Viet Nam war. Why do you think the American museum and its scholarly staff insist on using "Vietnam " instead of respecting the correct way of addressing Viet Nam? Did you or anyone ever discuss this inaccuracy with any American cultural exchange program?

NVH: We use three languages: Vietnamese, English and French in our exhibition in Hanoi to help visitors access the exhibit easily. Regarding English and French, we use their standard languages to make it easier for them to understand our exhibit.

Viettouch: As a scholar in Ethnology, how would you characterize the value of music and musical instruments in the daily life of ethnic Vietnamese and Vietnamese throughout history?

NVH: Music is a part of any people’s spirit and a need of human being. The music of the Kinh or that of other ethnic groups in Viet Nam exists and develops in close connection with the features of each historical period, and of particular and general context of the peoples from each region.

Viettouch: Viet Nam has had a long musical tradition from "Ngham Tho" Intoning Poetry to the rich Vietnamese minstrel and operatic music history, for example, "Hat Cheo", "Ru Con" and others. Ethnic Vietnamese such as, the Bahnar, Jarai, Ede and Vietnamese made a great amount of musical instruments, for example, K'long Put, Sao, Dang Tranh, Trong Ba Bong, Trong Ba Cau, to name a few. Does the Museum of Ethnology study and document Vietnamese musical heritage at this time?

NVH: Since the foundation of our museum, collecting music and musical instruments from all peoples, especially from ethnic minorities has been one of our priorities. However, at that time, we did not have a music specialist, which limited us. At present, many organizations in Viet Nam do research and collect music, especially the Institute of Musicology, the Conservatories in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). They have many interests and experiences in this field. Our museum recently recruited a music specialist who is experienced in doing research and collecting, so in the future, this field will be promoted in our museum.

Viettouch: As a follow-up from the above point, does the Museum of Ethnology collect any musical instruments?

NVH: We collect all kinds of musical instruments that are being used by ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, it is still not enough.

Viettouch: As a scholar, can you and your colleagues provide any insight as to the reasons why American curators and others seem to undermine this particularly important feature of Vietnamese culture in their studies?

NVH: Though our museum is very young, established in 1995 and opened to the public at the end of 1997, it has contributed a great deal to museum work in Viet Nam. We especially encourage the development of collecting and organizing ethnographic exhibits in local museums, where attention has been paid only to archaeological or historical revolutionary displays, not to the daily life and the culture of the local peoples, majority and minorities alike, in both the city and the countryside. We are trying to make the museum more involved in redressing and resolving burning issues, and the challenges of contemporary life.

Viettouch: Was it true that in the 18th - 19th centuries, the traveling Viet musical minstrels were responsible for bringing news to the rural villages throughout Viet Nam?

NVH: The 18th and 19th centuries witnessed many changes but are not studied much, especially ethnologically. It is regrettable that we have not done any research on traveling musical minstrels and their role in Vietnamese society.

Viettouch: What are your future plans for the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology in reaching out to the global community? Do you plan additional cultural exchanges with other countries?

NVH: Now we are planning to expand our museum in scale as well as in content. We would like to collect and exhibit at our museum not only Vietnamese culture, but also the culture of the neighboring Southeast Asian countries. We would like our visitors to understand Vietnamese culture in relation to our neighbors. In order to do this, we must collaborate with museums of other countries. For example, we will invite museums of Southeast Asian countries to present their cultures at our museum. This year, beside the exhibition in New York, we also have an exhibit at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, Austria.

Viettouch: What would you like to say to our global audience about the importance of promoting cultural exchange with Viet Nam?

NVH: In the past, the world had limited opportunities to learn and understand completely the diversity of contemporary Viet Nam, her people and culture. In recent years, there are more opportunities to promote international integration and communication. On the one hand, audiences can approach varied sources of information about different features of Vietnamese culture. On the other hand, the peoples of Viet Nam are able to introduce their own cultures to the world. The Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology, with its many activities, aims to create multidimensional opportunities to promote cultural exchange and understanding.

Viettouch: We thank you for visiting Viettouch. We extend our best wishes to Dr. Huy and others for their valuable contributions to re-cover Viet Nam. We hope our viewers will join us in our next Forum discussion.
Acknowledgement: Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology (VME) Hanoi, Viet Nam.
Viet Nam Museum of Fine Arts, Hanoi, Viet Nam
The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH).
The author appreciates S.J. Bailes for her valuable conmments.

The Faces of Viet Nam
series is dedicated to the memory of the author's parents and brothers. Tuyet A. Tran © 2003 All Rights Reserved. USA

Any reproduction or dissemination in all formats without a written permission from is strictly prohibited.