“Vietnam’s culture captivates me, and the best way to delve into it is through its objects. With 54 ethnic groups, each having their own unique items and perspective on the world, Vietnam offers a treasure trove for collectors,” states Mark Rapoport, a dedicated collector and connoisseur of Vietnamese ethnic cultures.

Mark, who has spent 20 years in Vietnam, has amassed a remarkable collection of over 10,000 objects representing the ethnic minorities in the northern and Central Highlands regions of Vietnam. For Mark, these antiques are not merely decorative items but windows to the history and culture of the country.

Mark’s love affair with Vietnamese culture began during his time as a medical student in Vietnam in 1969. Working as a medical volunteer in Da Nang City and Quang Ngai province, he was enchanted by a basket used by a local ethnic woman to hold cooked rice. That basket was the first of many antiques that Mark would go on to collect.

Mark eventually returned to New York to pursue a career as a pediatrician. After several years of living in Manhattan, he and his wife, Jane Hughes, decided to embark on a new adventure and travel around the world. Their journeys took them to more than 70 countries before bringing them to Hanoi in 2001, where they decided to settle.

Mark’s time in Vietnam only deepened his passion for collecting objects, particularly those belonging to Vietnam’s ethnic groups. “Out of all the things I’ve collected in my life, it’s the everyday objects that capture my imagination the most. They offer insights into the people who made and used them, providing a unique window into their culture,” says Mark.

As his collection grew to over 10,000 objects, Mark joined forces with his business partner Nguyen Thi Nhung to open the “54 Traditions Gallery” in downtown Hanoi. The gallery showcases Mark’s extensive collection, giving visitors a glimpse into the diverse culture of Vietnam through objects from the northern mountains, Central Highlands, and ancient civilizations.

One room in the gallery is dedicated to shamanism, an integral part of many ethnic minority groups in Vietnam. Shamanism, which exists worldwide, allows humans to connect with the spirit world and influence spirits through trance and rituals. The collection of shamanic objects in the gallery provides an intriguing insight into this ancient practice.

A Shamanic hat

Mark’s collection is diverse and covers various categories, including the Central Highlands, tribal textiles, functional objects, water puppets, ornaments, labor tools, and stone and bronze antiques. Each object tells a story and represents a particular historical period or cultural practice.

Rice cutters used by different ethnic minorities in Vietnam

Mark’s dedication to collecting antiques also extends to promoting Vietnamese culture. He has generously contributed many items from his collection to museums in Vietnam and the United States, allowing more people to appreciate the beauty and rich heritage of the country. Through his collection, Mark has become an ambassador for Vietnamese culture, helping to change misconceptions and showcase the artistic achievements of the Vietnamese people.

A collection of ornaments of Vietnam’s ethnic women

One particular aspect of Vietnamese culture that Mark finds captivating is the tradition of crafting special hats for babies. In many villages, it is believed that hats help protect babies from evil spirits. These hats, often adorned with coins and amulets, reflect the deep love and care that mothers and grandmothers have for their children.

Children’s caps, traditionally made by the grandmother or the mother, the caps have special patterns, silver coins and amulets to protect the child from evil spirits

Mark’s collection is not just a personal passion; it is also a way for him to give back to the communities that have enriched his life. Along with his wife, Mark has distributed thousands of pairs of reading glasses to elderly women in remote mountainous areas. These glasses not only help improve their vision but also enable them to continue their embroidery work and enhance their livelihoods.

At 76 years old, Mark continues his quest to find good homes for his treasures, ensuring that Vietnamese culture and history live on. His passion for collecting antiques has not only enriched his own life but has also become a bridge connecting people from different cultures and fostering a deeper appreciation for Vietnam’s rich heritage.