The Very, Very Precious Heritage Museum
Our last day in Hoi An (we will be back), we visited The Precious Heritage Museum and Art Gallery. It was on the Ancient Hoi An list, so we got our tickets out, but was then informed by the lovely assistant that the Museum was free. Oh my, what a place!
As soon as we reached the Precious Heritage Museum, I immediately fell in love with the large photos standing outside; iconic, you might recognise them.
The Museum is a permanent exhibition by Réhahn, a French photographer who has now moved here in Hoi An with his family.
Not only were there close up photos of young and old, but also of him with them. Many of the images epitomise the best of human nature – love, a deep sense of connection and joy. And that was my immediate impression of this man. It even gave me quite a lump in my throat.
We read that his philosophy as a photographer is to take time with people and get to know them and their stories. With his love and respect for people and his insatiable curiosity to discover and learn about the cultural traditions and diversity of Vietnam, this led him to create this incredible place.
Réhahn had this dream to travel on his motorbike and connect with ethnic groups around Vietnam. This dream took him to remote locations, through harsh muddy terrains, over mountains, river crossings, getting lost. When finally discovering a village, all his frustrations would evaporate in the wind. The result is that after nearly nine years travelling around; he finally managed to meet the last of the 54 officially recognised ethnic groups in Vietnam – the Chuts.
They were discovered living in a cave near the Laos border in 1959 and since then were resettled but to a restricted area challenging to access in the Quảng Bình province. It must have been such a special and emotional occasion for Réhahn, finally reaching them and being the final tribe to meet.
The culmination of meeting the 54 groups and capturing stunning portraits was his unique Precious Heritage Museum, which he opened in 2017. With over 100 photos, a small percentage of his thousands of portraitures and more than 60 traditional costumes, these are exhibited beautifully in the five rooms of a 19th-century French-styled building.
As well as wandering around in awe of the photos, we learnt about many of the ethnic groups. Some have nearly a million people, whereas others have just 300. It is in the Northern regions of Vietnam where you are most likely to find villagers still wearing their traditional costumes. What a shame we didn’t visit there, we needed some warmth after coming down through Russia, Mongolia and China!
We watched a few interesting videos of women growing hemp, weaving and making cloth and then colouring it in natural dye they make from roots and leaves of plants.
The knowledge and skill of making many of these traditional costumes are sadly getting lost. One of my favourite, yet poignant stories that Réhahn shares are of the Co Tu group. For centuries, they wore clothes made from tree bark. They removed the bark and beat this thoroughly to make it firmer. How weird, I would have thought this would make it more flexible. It is then soaked in water and spices for about ten days and dried for a month. The spices help protect the wearer from insects – I need one!
When Réhahn opened the Museum, he invited many from the villages. Bhriu Liac arrived, representing the Co Tu villages. We read that he was so stunned and thrilled that a foreigner was willing to preserve the heritage of Vietnamese ethnic groups that he offered a bark costume.
A week later Réhahn discovered that this was the last one available. What a unique and invaluable gift for the Museum. Now, only Mr Clau Nam in the photo, who is 87 years old, is the last person with the expertise to produce one, this being passed down by his father – all that will be lost.
Not only has Réhahn set up this Museum, but he also has a Giving Back Project. I read on his website that Karma is essential to him. “What starts as a smile and a click of a camera often leads to the communication of souls”.
Once he has captured a moment, the photo is chosen for a book or a product. That is not the end of the story for him. Réhahn returns to the village and finds the individual. Not only will he present them perhaps with one of his books, but he will also give what is needed; this may be medical care, education or something for their trade, such as a boat.
Mrs Bui Thi Xong, born in 1937, takes tourists up and down the Tho Bon River, here in Hoi An. After jumping in her boat one day and asking if he could take her photo, to both their surprise, this has become one of the most iconic images of Vietnam in the world.
Réhahn later gifted her with a new boat and the seed of the Giving Back Project was planted. He “closes the circle of karma”. Wow!
What an incredible man, what an astonishing place which “stands as a testament to the connection, appreciation and importance Réhahn feels for these remarkable tribes.”
Please do have a look at his website - his work really is remarkable.