The expression of this wooden sculpture is an iconic image that I saw quite a lot of during my travels in Vietnam. I’d come to think of him as the “Home Alone Kid”. You know the famous scene in the movie Home Alone, right? McCaulay Culkin slaps his cheeks in the universal expression of “Oh, my!” and pretty much everyone relates. Yeah, this kid sure got around; his image was everywhere.
While staying in Ha Noi I was insistent about visiting some of the cultural museums in town. Ha Noi is the cultural capitol of Vietnam and has more than a dozen museums and cultural centers throughout the city, so if you’re visiting the country make sure that you see at least one museum while in Ha Noi. They’re world-class, inexpensive and wonderful snapshots (as are all museums) of the culture.
In particular I really wanted to see the Museum of Ethnology, which has not only a terrific indoor exhibition space but also a very interesting outdoor village showing architecture and archeological demonstrations. It costs only $1.25 to enter—really, you can’t beat that—and they’ve got a cute little museum store with very reasonably priced goodies. I picked up some terrific buffalo horn spoons there for about $0.50 each.
Anyhow … let me give you a quick glimpse of my fave points of interest.
We looked at lots of architectural styles and technologies such as roof types. Here we’ve got a thatch roof, one of five different styles that include everything from double-insulated models to styles that were almost two feet thick. We also looked at clay tiles, wood and even bamboo roofing. As a former architecture student I found this whole area fascinating. The thatched roof styles are especially common in Western Vietnam along the borders of Cambodia and Laos where the climate is intensely tropical and wet. And they’re still commonly used today. They’re inexpensive, easy to maintain and very, very effective. They’re also 100% ecologically green.
A rice grinder. Still used today. Worked then. Works now.
The common household kitchen. I spent a lot of time looking at this kitchen. Interestingly enough it looks a lot like the kitchens that I visited in many, many Viet country homes. City kitchens look pretty much like our modern kitchens in the U.S. except they’re probably a little smaller, but otherwise they’re fairly similar. I will probably do a whole post about kitchens in the near future. They’re cultural evolution is so intriguing to me. Really, they haven’t changed much over the past several thousand years … hmmm. Food for thought, eh? (Ha! No pun intended there. Just a happy coincidence!)
Anyway, moving on …
Ah, the brick walk way. The brick walkway in front of a home in the southwest region of the country has cultural significance. When you got married the new husband brings bricks to his new home in order to build a walkway for his bride. This is done out of respect for her and her family so that they will not have to walk in mud. There are obviously all kinds of other symbolism that can be drawn, but you get the idea. Kind of nice, don’t you think?
Yeah, I thought so too.
The ancient art of printmaking. Carving wooden blocks, painting them with black ink and then stamping the image on fine rice paper. Then filling in the lines with color. Hmm. I think we pretty much do the same thing today, but instead of carving wood, we carve rubber, metal and plastic. But basically, it’s the same.
My mom ended up buying a bunch of prints from this demonstration fella. The haggling that went down was probably done in exactly the same way they did it 1000 years ago as well. Lots of insulting offers, walking away and talk of robbing rice from one’s family. In the end, they both walked away happy having settled on a price right in the middle.
Gorgeous embroideries that looked like paintings.
The detail work is unbelievable. I wondered if they got carpal tunnel.
Architectural design that deals with heavy rain (aka floods) and instant rivers. Boy, the rises on these steps were huge even for a tall gal like me. Building codes were obviously not in effect yet. Actually, building codes are not in effect in most places. So even that hasn’t changed.
And then we came to one of my favorite sections: tombs.
This was the first tomb that I came across and its collection of perimeter statues definitely caught my eye.
Huh. Hey, look. The Home Alone Kid!
And there were lots of statues of pregnant ladies and uh, couples intent on … you know what.
Through my Sherlock-Holmes steel trap mind I concluded that there must be a theme. Ya think?
Well, turns out that they symbolize fertility and rebirth, which is an important hope for someone moving to the afterlife. You want them to have prosperity and “life” in whichever form that may be.
Inside the tomb the walls are lined with tools and goods that the deceased can use in their next life. We want them to have access to all that they might need to be be well. Reminds me of the Egyptian pyramids for the pharaohs but with a lot less gold and a lot more rattan.
Here’s another one. But without the fertility symbols.
But we do have lots of Home Alone Kids. That Home Alone Kid sure is popular. He shows up everywhere.
These tombs reminded me very much of the memorial pagoda and cemetery for my grandparents. There are symbolic images, little statues and offerings. In fact, it also reminded me of many of the mausoleums in Europe.
So what I realized, yet again, was that things haven’t really changed much in the past 1000 years. We still have families, cook, grow food, build ag-oriented shelters, bury our dead and create art much in the same way.
Oh, yeah. And we still make war.
But that’s the topic of another museum and another post.