How a New York pediatrician and former health commissioner for New York under Ed Koch ended up as a foremost authority on the artifacts of ethnic minority groups in Vietnam could be a long story. But Mark Rapoport says it was quite simple. Once his kids were finished with high school, the family took a vote. “We had traveled to a lot of places,” he says. “And Hanoi won the vote.” In the years since then he has established 54 Traditions, the only gallery in Vietnam dedicated to the arts and crafts of the country’s 54 ethnic minorities and become a self-appointed Hanoi cheerleader. He even published a small book on the 101 Things We Love about Hanoi that he hands out to anyone who enters his gallery. On the list: Bun cha (A vinegary cold broth with cucumbers, a bowl of rice noodles and tiny bits of pork), Bao Khanh Street (a street of music, pubs and young people), the roses (fresh from the farm, bicycled in by the women who grow them) and Vietnamese ice cream.
In June and July of 1969, I spent two months in Danang, working as a medical student volunteer in the civilian charity hospital with an A.M.A. program and doing some medical work in ethnic minority villages. While walking in one of the villages, my eye lingered for a moment on an elegant rice basket. The owner noted my attention, dumped the rice out of it and offered it to me for about one dollar. Now, forty-five years and 15,000 objects later, it still is precious to me. I have it in my bedroom still.
I moved here in 2001. My wife (also an American and a public-sector administrator) had visited Hanoi a number of times during the 1990s, one of those times accompanied by our two children. We all fell in love with the city. When our younger child went off to college, we felt able to relocate outside of the U.S. for a change of pace. We both had positions in medical work. Mine was setting up an NIH-supported study on agent orange and birth defects. I spent my spare time collecting objects from the many ethnic minorities in Vietnam. When my grant ended in 2005, my wife had wanted to remain in Hanoi. She suggested, strongly, that since I had 15,000 objects in my collection, had no job, and was 60 years old, it might be a good idea to open a gallery to share my treasures with the rest of the world. We had donated many objects to museums in both the U.S. and the world, but I still had more than any one person (or 150 people) could possibly need. 54 Traditions Gallery was born.
There have been many, but one stands out. I am especially interested in the objects used by the shamans in the northern mountains. Among the many elegant and fascinating objects they use is a “power rattle”, which is a sword-like object, about 14 inches long, that has antique coins on it and makes a sound to keep the attention of the spirit world during a ceremony. I was offered one that was an elegant recycling of a 2,000-year-old sword (also used in rituals) that had been found in a rice field after one of the periodic severe floods that have plagued northern Vietnam for millennia (until recently built dams put an end to them). I doubt that the shaman knew about the archaeology of the object, or the fact that it had been used for rituals in its “first life.” Nevertheless, he felt it should be brought into his spiritual “kit”, and then later passed on to me. It speaks to me of the continuity of culture here in Vietnam and the universality of the need of people to develop rituals around a search for an understanding of life and all that surrounds us.
I might mention two. One was attending a part of a six-day long funeral in the northern mountains. Invited by a local shaman for twenty-four hours a day, we were immersed in a round of ceremonies, song, chanting, divination, animal sacrifices, bonfires and much more.
The second was much shorter and simpler. I spent a few days in Mai Chau, a tribal area just three hours drive west of Hanoi. Early in the morning, the owner of the stilt house in which I was staying opened the shutters and I woke up gazing at the most beautiful possible landscape of terraces of young rice, huge karst boulders, and kids on buffalo, all set in a lovely valley. Shangri-la, but much warmer and easier to find.
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