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Preserving culture

Did you know that two-thirds of Hoa Binh province’s population belongs to the Muong ethnic group? So what’s an ethnic minority in Vietnam is therefore actually the ethnic majority in Hoa Binh province!

During French colonial times, Hoa Binh was called Tinh Muong, which meant simply the province of Muong people. Today driving from the capital city into this province you will see little by way of this old culture besides the odd stilt-house and the sudden appearance of an old woman wearing a long black skirt, white headband.


Although in this part of Vietnam it’s a Muong creation, Ruou can – the rice liquor drunk through a jar with bamboo straws – is now a trade mainly controlled by Kinh people, the country’s largest ethnic group.


But away from the main road, by a mountain side in Thai Binh ward of Hoa Binh city, a mini-Muong hamlet emerges from under the shadow of trees. The clear sounds of a small spring murmur through turning bamboo water-wheels. Suddenly I’m in the countryside.


It’s late in the afternoon. Smoke wafts over the roof of the four old stilt-houses. Each house is surrounded by a small vegetable garden where chickens wander in blithely unawares of their ultimate fate.


When I enter the stilt-house, a group of men and women are huddled around a tray of food. Food is cooked over firewood and the smoke is thick and aromatic.

This seems like the true and authentic heartland of the Muong people. But I am in actual fact visiting a museum. The first such museum to showcase the Muong ethnic group’s cultural habits.


The museum’s founder, Vu Duc Hieu is a painter and just 31 years old this year. This two-hectare-wide hamlet is a living museum. He has collected over 1,000 objects which reflect the old ways of the Muong people in a simple but heartfelt way.

“The four stilt-houses will revive the lives of the four main classes of the Muong society from the old days, including lang (the aristocrats), au and tao (the middle classes), and no (the lower class). These houses have been installed by Muong people in the traditional fashion with out a single nail! “ explains Hieu.


The ‘aristocratic’ house was bought from a 108-year-old Muong woman living in the Tan Lac district of Hoa Binh province, which was once the centre of the Muong civilisation.

The woman said the house had been passed down through five generations of her family and is around 300 years old.


Modern life, excluding a few neon lights, is not apparent. On the ground floor, you can see weaving and farming tools. While some of these items are actually new, they have been designed and crafted by Muong people.


Muong families live here in the stilt houses to look after the museum as well as ensure authenticity. They live and work here as a normal Muong farming family would, even though the museum subsidizes their life here with a base salary.

Bui Van Chi, a 40-year-old Muong man from Tan Lac district, says even without this allowance his family could live well here.


“I can grow rice, maize, sweet potato, taro, vegetables and fruit here. I can raise buffaloes, chickens and pigs to make a living,” he says.


His family will also cater for tourists by producing and selling small souvenirs and cooking traditional Muong food and drink if you should be staying overnight.


There are also three brick-houses showcasing musical instruments, hunting and fishing tools, a complete production chain for making a weaved item, and how a typical funeral in a well-off Muong family would be performed

These showrooms highlight different Muong groups so one can draw comparisons on the diversity of the Muong culture. Currently Hieu is training two female guides to show visitors around and offer a deeper insight into the life of the Muong people.


While he’s showing me around, we happen upon a stack of copper gongs. Each one has a different sound.


“Muong people believe that a gong has its own soul,” explains Hieu. “The sound of this one for example, can be heard from a few kilometres away. It would have been used to gather all the Muong people in a region for large events.”

There’s also a room with over 2,000 books on the Muong culture and a display of fine arts, where you can find scholarly works by Madelen Colani from the French School of Extreme Orient, and renowned Vietnamese ethnologists, such as Nguyen Tu Chi and Bui Chi.

Around the houses and showrooms, Hieu has created an easy going, bucolic atmosphere with a small spring, ponds, and small decorative exhibits of Muong people fishing and farming.


Through visiting this unique living-museum, Hieu hopes people can get a sense of the gentle and hospitable nature of Muong people as well as discover their skilled craftsmanship and rich culinary arts!


This culture is fading fast and his pursuit is without question a noble one.

“Displaying things is my profession,” says Hieu, adding that Hoa Binh Province’s Museum owns a number of Muong items or antiques but it fails to reflect the more casual side of Muong people’s lives.


Currently, his application to open this private museum in Hoa Binh province is awaiting approval but the opening ceremony is scheduled for December 16. He claims the museum will be free of charge but admits it will be a challenge to sustain its operations.

“I have spent a lot on making the museum a reality. But as you know, combining culture and business is tough. Possibly I will run the museum as a branch of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology based in Hanoi,” says Hieu, before making his excuses and heading for bed. He has an early start tomorrow, 5.30am to be exact, and you have to make hay while the sun shines.
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