Located within the same leafy grounds as Bao Dai Villa, the Ethnographic Museum is a great resource for those visiting Buon Ma Thuot and the Central Highlands.
If you are travelling the Central Highlands independently, an hour or two in the museum is an essential primer about the region and it will give you insight to what you will most likely see in the villages. The museum also preserves special traditions and rituals that are fading fast.
Three exhibitions tell an important narrative about what shaped Dak Lak province: people and immigration, biodiversity, and history, from prehistoric to present day. Though the focus is Dak Lak and its three indigenous people, the Ede, Mnong and Jarai, the information is relevant to the entire region, as immigration has resulted in many of the ethnic minorities sharing characteristics and beliefs. Signs explain everything from funeral rituals, to the significance of jars, rice wine, gongs and house architecture. There’s even archival video of a water buffalo sacrifice, a ritual that is rarely held these days.
We’re not sure why other guides are so down about the museum – perhaps their research is out of date or no one actually stepped into the museum. The information, professionally presented in three languages – English, French and Vietnamese – is concise and well written (although there is slight bias in word choice when it comes to war history and modern politics). Facts and figures given are relatively recent data from 2009. The one-hour investment here illuminated our jaunts through villages around Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku and especially Kon Tum, where rules about exploring independently are far more relaxed.
As a footnote, located on the same grounds across from the museum is Biet dien Bao Dai or Bao Dai’s holiday villa, one of the last emperor’s many, many holiday homes in the Central Highlands. It initially served as the French headquarters for the Central Highlands and later, Bao Dai used it when he came to Dak Lak for hunting before he self-exiled to France in 1954. The building is empty except for black and white photos with captions in Vietnamese. Save 20,000 dong and skip it.
By Cindy Fan.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.