Ethnic minorities come alive during Hanoi photo exhibit

Visitors to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology will be able to learn more about the daily lives of the Pa Then ethnic minority people in a new photo exhibition. Entitled The Voice of Pa Then, the exhibition features 80 photographs taken by Frenchman Sebastien Laval in March 2005 and October 2006.

Nguyen Nga, director of the Asian Ethnic Association, which co-sponsored the exhibition, last year led a study group to Ha Giang Province to learn more about the Pa Then, which numbers around 4,300.

"We came to five Pa Then hamlets – Nam Bo, My Bac, Dong Tien, Mai Thuong and Nam Su – and lived with them to understand more about their way of life and to listen to their voice," said Nga.

"It was a great pleasure to see how they lived," said Sebastien. "When we first came, they hurried to put o­n their traditional costumes as if they wanted to prove to us they were real Pa Then people. It was so moving: they are so proud of their ethnicity, their cultural and their traditional values."

The photographer added that next year a film will be made about the Pa Then people and a book published about their "lives, culture and habits."

Museum director Nguyen Van Huy said a series of strange coincidences led up to the exhibition.

"Some years ago, Nguyen Nga, a Vietnamese-French woman and some of her friends, photographer Sebastien Laval and Daniel Roussel, visited the museum and expressed their wish to present Vietnamese culture through the inhabitants’ voice and with professional photos. Their plan to honour the country’s cultural values amazingly coincided with what the museum had been doing over the past years," said Huy.

He said it was also a surprise that shortly after being approached by Laval and Roussel with their exhibition proposal, he received a letter from a woman living in Ha Giang, who turned out to be Pa Then.

She wanted the museum to do more to represent her culture and her people. "I was so moved by her wish to preserve the beautiful cultural values of her ethnic group, as well as the country’s," said Huy.

"When I visited the museum, the o­nly objects o­n display to do with my ethnic group were a traditional costume and a chicken coop," said Phu Thi Thien, the author of the letter to the museum director, who was subsequently invited to attend the exhibition’s opening ceremony.

"I want to do everything I can to keep our cultural traditions alive, so that they don’t sink into oblivion. We should do something for the Pa Then and other ethnic minorities in the country so we don’t lose our precious cultural heritage."