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At Da Lat's Biological Museum, a Demented Homage to Vietnam's Vanishing Wildlife

Sometimes when traveling, you come across something so utterly odd that you simply don't know what to make of it.

The word taxidermy is derived from two Greek words, taxis (arrangement) and derma (skin), so the literal meaning is "arrangement of skin," which sounds like a bad description of the plot of The Silence of the Lambs.

This practice dates back centuries, but it wasn't until the 1800s that it became widely known and more realistic in its representation of animals. An English ornithologist named John Hancock — evidently not the same John Hancock who scrawled across the US Declaration of Independence — is considered the father of modern taxidermy thanks to his work with birds that he shot.

Through the 20th century, techniques improved further and renderings of animal anatomy became more exact, and now there is hardly a natural history museum in the world that doesn't have a cornucopia of beasts on display.

Enter the Tay Nguyen Biological Museum (Bảo Tàng Sinh Học Đà Lạt), set in a magnificent stone building atop a pine-clad hill 20 minutes from downtown Da Lat. It's part of the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology.

The monastery

I haven't been able to find much information about this place, but according to a VnExpress article from last April, the imposing structure was a Redemptorist monastery but has been used for research since 1975. It was completed in 1952 and was, so the news source says, just the second stone building in all of Vietnam, after a church in Ninh Binh Province.

The religious origins of the museum are still clear, as a large cross adorns the roof above the main entrance, along with a Latin phrase meaning "With Him is Plentiful Redemption."

On the day of our visit, the apparent main entrance was actually a film set, with an old European police car parked outside as if it had been beamed in from another universe. We later learned that the Trịnh Công Sơn biopic was filming there as a stand-in for France.

That setting makes sense, as the surroundings certainly don't call Vietnam to mind. Once you climb a small staircase to the second floor, however, you enter a bizarre, totally unexplained world of aggressively aging taxidermy. (The other floors above it are completely deserted, and every door is locked.)

The animals

Museums with limited, or no, information about their exhibits are something of a specialty in Vietnam. Take the Geological Museum in Saigon, for example. It makes one wonder about the intention of certain museum curators here: were they forced into the job and are therefore doing the bare minimum? Are they rebelling against the very concept of a museum? Do they just love a minimalist aesthetic and don't want to clutter walls with needlessly wordy descriptions? Or perhaps they want to foster self-learning?

Whatever the case, the Tay Nguyen Biological Museum is a prime example of curatorial withholding: about a dozen rooms on the second floor are packed with all types of taxidermy mammals, insects, reptiles, and arachnids, yet you will find nary a scrap of information other than the species name in both Vietnamese and Latin.

That's it.

Would you like to know more about the completely blazed-looking khỉ mặt đỏ, or Macaca arctoides (stump-tailed macaque in English)? Too bad! That information will have to come from your own independent research.

It's not even clear which of the animals are actually endemic to Vietnam. This dearth of details is certainly noteworthy, but the most eye-catching aspect of the museum is the sorry state of the taxidermy. It's unclear when any of this work was done, or who did the taxidermy, but these animals are long past due for a refresher.

From the melting peacock and the goat with a shattered ankle to the one-eyed owl and the googly-eyed tiger, the animals are almost uniformly creepy and, often, just sad. 

Was the goat already injured when its body was received? We will never know.

Unfortunately, this may be the closest you will come to seeing an actual tiger in Vietnam, outside of a zoo.

With no provided information, how is one to understand the significance of the baby elephant and its black, gaping maw, or the jungle cat with bulging eyes and a distended face?

In dire need of some TLC.

And why on earth is there a grotesque two-faced piglet submerged in formaldehyde in a case next to a sea turtle? Oh, and I haven't even mentioned the room full of unlabeled skeletons in glass cases.

House of horrors.

Initially, I was amused by these and other questions... sorry, one more: what is the point of the two giant satellite dishes visible in the photo at the top of this page? They didn't even have a scientific name displayed!

But, as I thought more about the displays, I came to feel a darker emotion: despair. The walls in the single, long hallway feature aged World Wildlife Fund and Vietnamese government posters depicting Vietnam's incredibly unique biodiversity and the benefits that forests provide — topics I also write about frequently for work outside of Saigoneer.

Much of this "natural precious heritage" has been lost in recent decades.

And yet, many of the country's forests are in poor health, while several species on the posters, such as the tiger and saola, are functionally (if not completely) extinct in Vietnam. Others — the pangolin, the Asian elephant, numerous primates — face dire threats from poaching, urbanization, and habitat loss. There isn't even a Javan rhino, previously one of Vietnam's largest mammal species, on display at the museum; maybe researchers were unable to get hold of a body before poachers killed the last one in 2010?

Perhaps, then, the shoddy taxidermy is actually appropriate: if we can't take care of wild animals while they're alive, why would we treat them any better when they're dead?

Now, if one is able to set all that aside, the museum is a wonderfully strange place to visit. For some reason, there is an artisanal chocolate shop in one part of the building, and a gaggle of cute dogs was romping around the grounds as well. The lush surroundings are beautiful, and the building itself is an impressive sight. There is ample unused space inside for something unique and interesting if someone were to take the time and money to create it.

I can't, in good faith, recommend the museum for intellectual edification, but if you're into the wacky and bizarre — or if you want to see rare, poorly maintained wildlife — it's as good a place as any in Da Lat to spend an hour or two, all for the price of VND15,000.

Tay Nguyen Biological Museum | 116 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh, Ward 7, Da Lat

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