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Open house- Nha Rong
Open house- Nha Rong. Home, guesthouse, men's club, training centre, committee room and religious space - there are many uses for the soaring Bahnar communal house being built at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi Dr. Claire Sutherland reports.

Opened in June of this year, the Bahnar communal house tells a story of international co-operation to rescue a traditional feature of Vietnam's Central Highlands from oblivion. Only painstaking ethnographic research based on old photographs and folk memory, coupled with joint funding from the museum and the German government, made reconstruction in the traditional style possible.

The sharply angled building stands a breathtaking 17 meters high, making it an attention-grabbing centrepiece for the museum's outdoor collection of ethnic minority houses. Built by a team of 29 artisans under the expert guidance of museum ethnologists, it is a unique testimony to traditional Bahnar building styles, all but wiped out by the tribulations of history and a modernising drive. Today's Bahnar communities are likely to have a communal house of cement and corrugated iron in the village centre, if at all.

The reason for the house's extraordinaiy shape remains unclear, adding an aura of mystery to the surprising structure. Perhaps the ritual poles in the foreground, planted to form a bridge between the earthly and the spiritual worlds, hold a clue to the house's symbolic meaning. It is certainly awe-inspiring, as befits the traditional power centre of Bahnar communities.

At the same time, the house represents a haven for the Bahnar boys who live in it before their marriage to acquire the knowledge and skills required for their adult life. Village elders teach the arts of hunting, basket-weaving and music. They pass down the moral code, the history and folklore of their forefathers. The communal house truly constitutes a centre of village activity, where guests enjoy Bahnar hospitality, important decisions are taken and religious rituals conducted. Although usually a male preserve during and after construction, women traditionally had the job of gathering thalch for the roof. All share in the ritual feasts held inside the house.

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