Old culture, war's legacy get first exhibit in America

— Vietnam is portrayed as tranquil and alluring in a new exhibit that blends colorful folklore and ancient traditions with telling references to the war.

"Vietnam: Journeys of Body, Mind & Spirit," which opens Saturday at the American Museum of Natural History, presents everyday life and customs through videos, handicrafts and costumes collected by the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi for this groundbreaking display.

It's billed as the most comprehensive look at Vietnamese life ever presented in the United States, but political themes and social problems in the communist-ruled nation aren't broached.

Vietnam still evokes uneasy feelings among many Americans, nearly 30 years after the fall of Saigon. Trade relations were normalized last year, diplomacy has been restored and tourism is on the upswing.

Still, Vietnam seems a relic of the Cold War, one of only five nations still ruled by communists.

Wall texts provide key facts about Vietnam's 2,000-year history, its lush and varied geography and 80 million citizens from 54 ethnic groups. Left unstated are harsher realities of Vietnamese society, including pervasive controls, human rights complaints and poverty.

Reconciling Vietnam and the United States after a traumatic war is the goal of the $1.5 million exhibit, which was supported by U.S. philanthropic foundations and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ellen V. Futter, the museum president, summed it up as "the journey away from war to reconciliation and healing."

"It is our profound hope that for many this exhibition will serve as a reintroduction to this highly diverse and vibrant culture," she said.

Nguyen Van Huy, director of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography, called it a "landmark in the academic collaboration and cultural exchange between scholars and peoples of the two nations."

The exhibit presents a panorama of 400 ceremonial and everyday objects produced and used in Vietnam, in eight installations focusing on such themes as gods and ancestors, weddings and funerals, village festivals, and ethnic costumes

A large altar from a family residence, a sturdy bicycle used to transport large earthen jars to market in Hanoi, a life-size votive horse, papier-mâche masks and tin toys and photos of a wedding are among the displays.

The legacy of the destructive war is evoked in several wall texts and a moving memorial for the dead -- a vitrine holding a rectangular burial urn on a pedestal, with two vases holding joss sticks and artificial roses.

"This space is our offering to all wandering ghosts, military and civilian, Vietnamese and foreign, who lost their lives in the armed struggles and wars that engulfed Vietnam in the 20th Century," says an accompanying text.

One of Vietnam's "most poignant problems," it notes, is the effort by families to recover the remains of "thousands of soldiers from north and south who died in battle and were never properly buried."

Another highlight is a Vietnamese market with six stalls offering clothing, straw sun hats, toys, books, handcrafted sculptures of animals and other traditional goods. A 70-foot paper dragon hangs overhead. Cafe Pho features a menu of more than 40 items of authentic Vietnamese food.

The exhibit lasts through Jan. 4. Three other U.S. cities -- none yet named -- will host the show before it returns to Hanoi in 2005, museum officials said.


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