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Hanoi Museum Remembers the Poor Old Days


A Hanoi museum exhibit recalling the hardships of life under the communist command economy is proving a hit. Through this rare expose of life before Vietnam embraced the free market 20 years ago, Vietnamese are re-living the poor old days that they, or their parents, went through.

It is called "Thoi Bao Cap" (the "subsidized economy period") the years of poverty between 1975 and 1986, when a Soviet-style command economy reigned throughout Vietnam.

The country was isolated, the planned economy stagnant. Everything from rice to fabric was rationed. A family might sacrifice everything for a prized possession like a sewing machine or a pig.

A recording of a pig is part of an installation recreating a middle-class Hanoi apartment of the early 1980s. Four generations of Dr. Pham Trang's family lived in the tiny apartment. The pigs lived in the bathroom.

The installation is part of a hit exhibit on the subsidized period at Hanoi's Museum of Ethnology. It draws 900 visitors a day, more than double the museum's normal numbers.

Display cases are filled with souvenirs of the hard years. One glass case holds a rock with the name "Mai Hai" and the number 127 painted on it. Museum curator Pham Van Duong explains.

Duong says the rock was the marker that Mr. Hai used to hold his place in line during the long wait for rice rations.

Another section focuses on ordinary people's creativity in hard times. Curator Nguyen Thi Tuan Linh points to a display of handmade dolls, and a sweater knitted from nylon factory scraps.

Linh says state salaries were too low to live on. People invented so-called "left-hand jobs" to survive, often selling homemade goods on the black market.

Video screens show average people recalling their struggles and aspirations. One man interviewed said he remembers wanting an electric fan so much he used to see it in his dreams.

This kind of honest, open exhibit is unusual in Vietnam, where most museums replay state propaganda in static, un-changing displays.

The Museum of Ethnology is different. It was founded in 1995 to present Vietnam's traditional cultures, especially those of its many ethnic minorities. Professor Nguyen Van Huy is the museum's director.

Huy says the Ethnology Museum does not have to stick to minorities and tradition. It can mount exhibits on any aspect of contemporary life.

Huy has been steeped in ethnology since childhood. His father, who trained in France in the 1930s, was the founding figure of Vietnamese ethnology. Huy has also been influenced by collaborations with foreign museums, such as Paris's Museum of Man and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.

Huy still remembers an exhibit he saw at the Smithsonian. A railroad passenger car, with separate sections for whites and blacks, showed the stark reality of the racial segregation practiced in some U.S. states until the late 1960s.

The "subsidized period" exhibit in Vietnam takes a similarly frank approach. Most state versions of the recent past blame any hardships on the aftermath of war with the United States and the French. This exhibit blames the state-run economy, which it calls a "sluggish and inefficient production system" that "stifled" people's creativity.

Starting in the late 1980's, Vietnam began liberalizing its economy, allowing private commerce. It also began opening up to the rest of the world, including its old enemy, the United States. The country, while still poor, now has the world's second fastest-growing economy after China. Today's Hanoi is a city of new houses, motorbikes and mobile phones, a far cry from the old days.

Nguyen Duc Khoi, 76, came to re-live his memories.

Khoi says he raised a pig in his tiny apartment too, cooking its food and taking out its manure.

For university students Nguyen Thanh Tung and Tran Thi Ky Ha, that life is unthinkably remote. Tung says they learned about the exhibit online.

"I heard about this exhibition from my friend, a blogger," he said.

His friend Ha said her parents do not talk about the old days as much as they used to. What she found striking was the whole idea of a museum exhibit about something so recent and so real.

"Because in Vietnam, we often have exhibits for art, the war, and history. But something very close to life, we haven't had it yet and this is one of a kind," she said.

The exhibit ends with a bit of propaganda, congratulating the government for its free-market economic policies over the last 20 years. But that is not the main point. What has made the Ethnology Museum's show on the poor old days a hit are the voices of average people, telling today's blogging generation what it was like to raise a pig in your bathroom.

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