The proposal for the museum was officially approved on 14 December 1987. Construction lasted from 1987 to 1995, and it was opened to the public on 12 November 1997. The budget for construction of the museum was $1.9 million USD, with an additional $285,000 USD allocated for acquisition of artifacts.
The exhibition building was designed by the architect Ha Duc Linh, a member of the Tày ethnic group, in the shape of a Đông Sơn drum, and the interior architecture was designed by the French architect Véronique Dollfus.
Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi offers an insight into the 54 different ethnic groups of Vietnam in an effort to preserve cultural heritage and promote socio-cultural diversity within the country. Visitors are welcome to browse some of the vast research on offer at this public museum which is also a centre for ethnographic research.
The museum is packed full of information detailing traditional Vietnamese ways of life, from religious events to the symbolic rituals of all the Vietnamese ethnic groups, providing a rich tapestry of the culture melting pot existing in Vietnam. The exhibition hall features everyday objects representing each group, a research centre, library and auditorium. The outdoor display area exhibits a variety of Vietnamese homes as full-scale replicas, with great attention paid to the varying architectural styles set within the authentic and tranquil gardens. In addition, there are also leisure pursuits on display including traditional water puppet theatre and calligraphy. The future aim of the museum is to also showcase the many cultural practices and civilisations across Southeast Asia.
The museum has over 15,000 artefacts including photographs and other multi-media such as audiotapes. Its indoor exhibition space can be viewed via a virtual tour which includes the Viet, Muong, Tho, Chut, Tav, Thai, Ka Dai, H’Mong-Dao, Tang, San Dui, Ngai, Mon-Khmer, Nam-Dao, Cham, Hoa and Khmer ethnic groups. There are priceless antiques on display alongside everyday objects such as pipes, baskets and knives. Expect to see a wide range of interesting items on display at the museum with clothes, jewellery and items relating to weddings, funeral ceremonies and other spiritual rituals also exhibited across the 54 communities offering an incomparable glimpse of their history, heritage and cultural identity.
The outdoor area presents a range of traditional homes including a Tay stilt house and a Viet house complete with indigenous foliage, each separated by a small stream and reached via little bridges. One of the main features of the museum is to present the artefacts in a simple manner so that visitors can enjoy them without being overwhelmed by detail. The museum is suitable for children and all documents and display signs throughout have been translated into French and English.