Administratively, Southeast Asia in the early 21st century includes eleven countries: Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and East Timor, together comprising a population of nearly 600 million. However, from an ethnological perspective, Southeast Asia also includes south of China and a part of northeast India.
This is a multi-ethnic area with hundreds of ethnic groups that are divided into the five following language families:
- Austro-Asiatic (sometimes called Mon - Khmer): These are the indigenous people of mainland Southeast Asia. Today they comprise many ethnic groups. In some nations, their languages have been used as the national tongue, for example Vietnamese and Khmer.
- Austronesian: Distributed mainly across maritime Southeast Asia, Malaysia, the Central Highlands of Vietnam, and the coastal areas of Thailand and Myanmar.
- Tai - Kadai: Includes ethnic groups residing in Laos, Thailand, southern China, mountainous areas of Myanmar, Vietnam, and even Assam in India.
- Hmong - Yao: Distributed in the mountains of southern China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.
- Sino - Tibetan: Including the Sino and Tibetan-Burmese group. Han people reside mainly in big cities in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, ethnic peoples of the Tibetan-Burmese language live everywhere except for island Southeast Asian and Malaysia. Karen people living in Myanmar and in the frontier of Thailand are classified as people speaking the Tibetan-Burmese language.
Living in a tropical monsoon area, Southeast Asian inhabitants have created cultures with diverse local nuances. People have been living on rice with two cultivation forms, wet rice cultivation and Swidden cultivation. Buffalo, one of the most important animals, has been domesticated to pull the plough and figures importantly in rituals. In some places a buffalo sacrifice ceremony is still held. The house on stilts is a popular architectural form found throughout the region. Sophisticated handicrafts have been widely developed. The ikat fabrics of Indonesia and Cambodia, and the batik cloth of Java and Hmong/Miao people are well-known. The Hmong people are considered to have possibly been responsible for the spread of the batik technique to the Han people. Lacquerware, especially bamboo lacquer, is the pride of Myanmar.
Southeast Asia is very rich in performances such as dances, mask performances, shadow puppets, string puppets, orchestras and musical traditions. Most of these performance forms are based on two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. They are often closely connected to religious rituals. Religions in Southeast Asian are diverse. Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Catholicism have developed and often incorporated indigenous beliefs based on ancestor worship and animism. Shamanism is also popular in Southeast Asia.
Due to the influence of Indian, Chinese, Arabian and European civilizations, indigenous cultures in Southeast Asia have changed since the old days. However, general features and similarities among inhabitants in the area have continued to create dominant identity of the Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asia is one of the richest ethnic and cultural areas in the world. Many peoples and linguistic families are distributed throughout this region. With the idea of connecting cultures of peoples in Vietnam with those in neighbouring countries and to give the public an overview of the region, in recent years the museum has sent its researchers to all countries of the region to conduct field surveys and collect objects. At present, thousands of items have been acquired and audio-visual materials have been greatly enriched. Everywhere, the museum staffs have received support and assistance from museums and national or regional cultural institutions as well as collaboration with scholars, collectors, and most importantly, villagers – the true conservators of these cultures.
Through the work of museum specialists, especially the team of the Department of Southeast Asian Studies and with the important partnership of French experts Ms. Christine Hemmet, curator at the Musée du Quai Branly, Ms. Veronique Dollfus, architect and museographer, and Mr. Patrick Hoarau, graphic designer, the cultural wealth of Southeast Asia is presented scientifically and artistically. These exhibitions have also been supported by friends of the museum, in particular Ms. Nicole Maillard and Dr. Margaret B. Bodemer for help with the French and English editing, respectively.
Through many objects, photographs, videos and texts presented at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the public now can discover not only Vietnam’s rich culture but also those of neighboring countries. These new exhibits highlight the identity of Southeast Asia and reveal its unity and diversity.
Through this work, the museum endeavors to contribute to the preservation of cultural heritage and its dissemination in the region. The museum is a place of discovery for the public and a meeting ground for regional and international specialists.
Objects of the exhibit are introduced in the following themes: