Putting the Graphic into Ethnographic

9 Jun

As you can probably tell from the picture the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnography in Hanoi offers infinitely more fun than the rather cumbersome title would suggest. (It’s slightly shorter in Vietnamese. But not much.)

sexual wood carving of man and woman on tribal tomb, Museum of Ethnography, Hanoi, Vietnam.

'Your wife, you say? No, no, sir, that is definitely not your wife.'

This depicts, believe it or not, a traditional tribal tomb.

Can you imagine what the funeral was like?! I mean, seriously.

Z’s dad, who visited with us, thought it childish of me to preserve this immortal — albeit definitively (ethno)graphic — image. Despite having sniggered audibly himself.

The phrase, “Be Confucian”, came up, a handy catchall I would recommend to any parent, which S introduced after unschooling on Confucius . (Believe you me, as a parent you learn a lot more by unschooling with your child than you ever would by following the Year 4 primary syllabus.)

Anywise, we have learnt from the museum of ethnography that the tribes of Vietnam are about as Confucian as the tribes elsewhere in the region (though the ones Z and I have met have consumed their lethal rice spirit from large plastic jerry cans rather than charming ceramic jars).

Take the Han-hi. They propitiate the harvest spirits with a lengthy round of drinking games involving a seesaw and a wobbly bamboo balancoire.

Fall off. Drink. Fall off again. Repeat until you all fall down.

They have both seesaw and balancoire at the museum, outside the lovingly built traditional house, complete with granary and stables. Great fun for Z. Who, I should add, was totally sober. Although possibly not quite as fun as the 18m-high men’s house with stairs to match.

Traditional Vietnamese water puppetry at the Museum of Ethnography, hanoi, Vietnam.

Water puppeteers work up to their waists in water behind the bamboo screen.

We caught a water puppet show at the museum, too. Another traditional Vietnamese entertainment which one can imagine working just beautifully performed al fresco in its original setting of a flooded paddy field, with a lot of baying, booing, gasping and rice hooch. Though, to be honest, it’s pretty cool simply in the tranquil garden of the museum, surrounded by the infinite varieties of traditional tribal houses.

The puppets tell simple morality tales, enlivened by excitements such as firework-spouting water dragons or predatory tigers climbing trees above the water, the better to bounce on cute baby ducks, in stints of about five minutes each. It’s really fun.

The puppeteers? They work waist deep in that murky water, behind the green bamboo screen, emerging for the curtain call sporting quite fabulous gold silk robes which, I couldn’t help thinking, must be an absolute bugger to wash.

Anywise. Tomorrow, or, rather, today, since it is 30-ish during the nights, and my spawn, even when not super-heated, has the irritating habit of saving up about two hours’ worth of chatter and insights until some way past bedtime then filibustering like a pork barrel politician, is our last day in Hanoi.

We are taking the night train to Lao Cai, high up in the cool (yay!) hills near the Chinese border, spending the day in Sapa, admiring the landscape and the colourful costumes the wholly assimilated tribespeople in those parts don for the crowds, then making our way to Dien Bien Phu, the scene, in 1954, of a spectacular French military collapse unparalleled since …. ooh! … 1940 or thereabouts, and for our purposes the last stop before crossing the border into Laos.

In Laos we will trek, stay with some rather less assimilated hill tribes, and possibly (roads permitting) spend a couple of days in a treehouse reached by zipwires watching the gibbons.

Hanoi has been wonderful. But, as ever, when we leave a city for the last time on this journey, I’m beginning to itemise what we haven’t done.

Here, we have managed to miss not only the Vietnamese State Circus in Lenin Park — I lost my credit card an hour before we were about to go on Sunday (DOH!), and they have no shows Monday and Tuesday (double DOH!) — but the mausoleum complex of Ho Chi Minh. Where the founding father of Vietnamese nationalism (and Communism), who specified in his will that he wanted to be cremated and his followers should not “do a Lenin” and embalm him, is preserved, in perpetuity, Vladimir Ilyich-style.

Z had rather been looking forward to this, as had I. As he remarked, before we learnt that the museum is open on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays only, “I’d like to see a human body preserved in formaldehyde… I think when I’m a grownup I will be buried in an airtight vacuum coffin so my body doesn’t rot.”

Today, I think, we will go to the Women’s Museum to learn about women soldiers.

Z, however, thinks otherwise. “A women’s museum?” he said. “Why can’t we go to a men’s museum? Or the arcade? Or the waterpark?”

I guess we’ll have to see how well my feminist educational urges stand up to the heat…

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6 Responses to “Putting the Graphic into Ethnographic”

  1. Anne-Marie June 9, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

    I think I’ll bet on the waterpark..

    • MummyT June 9, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

      Worse than that, sadly! We have picked up Z’s duly mended laptop which was our raison d’etre ici, and are hiding in an aircon cafe while sir reacquaints himself with it… Hanoi has been fantastic, and completely transformed my view of ‘Nam, but I think we are both looking forward to sleeping on the train — remarkably cool, if it’s anything like the Reunification Express — then spending some time in the mountains.

  2. Madeline June 10, 2010 at 8:24 am #

    Such interesting stuff — And I love the title you chose for this post!! 🙂

  3. nicole curry June 10, 2010 at 8:38 am #

    What a great picture! Will have to check it out when were up there!

  4. reflectivedoc June 11, 2010 at 3:31 pm #


    this is amazing, your son must be getting such a good grasp of other cultures and travelling – and when so young!

    it reminds me of the travel writer Dervla Murphy’s adventures with her daughter 🙂

    good luck with living somewhere Spanish at the end of the journey – being bilingual is a good skill to have


    • MummyT June 11, 2010 at 5:04 pm #

      Do you know, I still haven’t read Eight Legs in the Andes? It’s been on my list for a while. Glad you liked the post…

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