Overview of Vietnam Culture & Traditional

Vietnam has a unique, long-standing culture associated with the history of the formation and development of the nation. Despite such profound changes, traditional Vietnam culture has not only survived but has also, in many respects, prospered.

Historians agree on one point: Vietnam has a fairly large cultural community that was formed around the first half of the first millennium BC and flourished in the mid-millennium BC.

That is the Dong Son cultural community. This cultural community is highly developed compared to other contemporary cultures in the region, has its own unique features but still has many characteristics of the culture of Southeast Asia, because of the common South Asian origin ( Southern Mongoloid) and wet rice civilization.

The Dong Son Culture (Vietnam Culture)
The Dong Son Culture forms part of Vietnam culture
The Dong Son was a prehistoric Bronze Age culture in Viet Nam which was centered in the Red River Basin in the north. Its influence has also been found in other parts of Southeast Asia, including the Indo-Malayan Archipelago, from about 1,000 BC to 1 BC. It is most well-known and prized antique is the Dong Son bronze drum.

Different development paths of indigenous culture in different regions (Red river basin, Ma river, Ca river, etc.) have converged together, forming Dong Son culture.

This was also the period when the first “embryonic” state of Vietnam was born in the form of inter-village and super-village communities (to fight against the enemy and to build dikes to grow rice), from which primitive tribes developed intonation.

Cultural period of Van Lang – Au Lac State

(from nearly 3000 to the end of the 1st millennium BC) in the early Bronze Age, which spent 18 Hung kings, is considered the first peak of cultural history. Vietnam, with the typical creation of Dong Son bronze drum and stable wet rice cultivation techniques.

After the anti-North colonial period was characterized mainly by the coexistence of two trends of Han Chineseization and anti-Sinicization, the Dai Viet period (from the 10th to 15th centuries) was the second peak of Vietnam culture.

Through the independent feudal state dynasties, especially with the two milestones of the Ly – Tran and Le dynasties, Vietnam culture was comprehensively rebuilt and sublimated quickly with the absorption of the great influence of Buddhism and Confucianism.

After the chaotic period of Le – Mac and Trinh – Nguyen divided the country, and from the premise of Tay Son unification of the country and territory, the Nguyen tried to revive a culture based on Confucianism, but at that time Confucianism was decline and Western culture began to invade our country.

Lasting until the end of the French colonial regime was the intersection of culture between the two trends of Europeanization and anti-Europeanization, the struggle between patriotic culture and colonial culture.

The modern Vietnamese cultural period was formed in the 20-30s of this century, under the banner of patriotism and Marxism-Leninism. With the increasingly deep integration into modern world civilization, while preserving and promoting the national identity, Vietnamese culture promises a new historical peak.

It can be said that throughout the entire history of Vietnam, there have been three overlapping cultural layers: the indigenous culture layer, the cultural layer exchanging with China and the region, the cultural layer exchanging with the West.

But the main characteristic of Vietnam is that thanks to its solid indigenous cultural origin, it was not affected by the assimilation of foreign cultures. On the contrary, it was known to use and Vietnameseize those influences to enrich the national culture.

Vietnam culture arose from a specific living environment: a hot country, many rivers, the meeting place of many great civilizations. Natural conditions (heat, humidity, monsoons, rivers, wet-rice agriculture …) have a great impact on the cultural, material, and spiritual life of the nation, personality, and psychology of the Vietnamese people.

However, social and historical conditions are factors that greatly influence the culture and psychology of the nation. So being a resident of the wet rice-growing area, there are cultural differences between Vietnam and Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, India, etc.

Same Southeast Asian cultural origin, but due to the domination. long term of the Han (China), along with the imposition of Han culture, Vietnamese culture was transformed in the direction of bringing more East Asian cultural features.

The Vietnamese nation was formed early and always had to do wars to keep the country, thereby creating an outstanding cultural characteristic: patriotic ideology penetrates deeply and covers all fields.

The community elements originating from the original were soon consolidated, becoming the basis for the development of patriotism and national consciousness.

The constant warfare, that is also the main reason why the history of social development in Vietnam is unusual, all socio-economic structures are often interrupted by war, difficult to reach their peak of development.

Also because of the destructive war, Vietnam rarely has massive cultural and artistic works, or if any, cannot be preserved intact.

Vietnam consists of 54 ethnic groups living together in the territory, each with its own unique characteristics, so the Vietnam culture is a unity in diversity.

54 ethnic groups of vietnam
Credit: on image.

In addition to the typical Vietnamese-Muong culture, there are other unique cultural groups such as Tay – Nung, Thai, Cham, Hoa – Ngai, Mon – Khome, H’Mong – Dao; especially the culture of the ethnic groups in the Central Highlands still retains the rich and comprehensive traditions of a purely agricultural society associated with natural mountain forests. Here is an overview of key cultural domains:

Philosophy and thought

At first, it was just primitive natural elements about materialism and dialectic, Vietnamese ideology mixed with beliefs.

However, starting from the agricultural cultural origin, different from the nomadic cultural origin in that the emphasis is “static” rather than “dynamic”, it is much related to natural phenomena, so Vietnamese philosophical thought special attention is paid to relationships where the typical product is the Five Elements theory of yin and yang (not quite like China) and the most obvious manifestation of is a balanced lifestyle towards harmony.

After that, many ideological influences of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism were merged and Vietnameseized, contributing to the development of society and culture in Vietnam.

Especially the Tran Zen scholars thought and understood most of the philosophical problems posed by Buddhism (Mind-Buddha, No-Yes, Life-Death …) in a unique and separate way.

Although Confucianism later prospered, many Vietnamese grapes did not study Confucius-Mencius blindly, but they accepted the spirit of Buddhism; Laozi – Zhuangzi, so their thought is somewhat elegant, liberal, closer to the people, and more in harmony with nature.

In bureaucratic autocratic dynasties, feudalism heavily suppressed peasants and bound women, but village democracy, primitive communityism survived on the basis of self-sufficient agricultural economy. sufficiency.

Deeply rooted in Vietnam’s agricultural society is the peasant ideology with many positive features and typical of the traditional Vietnamese people. They are the core against foreign invasions through the resistance wars and rebellions.

They produced many talented generals, insurgent leaders, culminating in the cloth hero Quang Trung-Nguyen Hue in the late 18th century.

The policy of respecting agriculture, mainly under the Nguyen dynasty, slowed down urban awareness. In the past, Vietnam valued the most as being a second-time farmer or first-time farmer, traders were despised, and other professions were often considered secondary occupations, including cultural activities.

In the 19th century, domestic feudalism declined, Chinese civilization declined, then Western culture began to invade Vietnam under the barrel of a colonial gun.

The Working-class formed in the early 20th century according to the program of colonial exploitation. Marxist-Leninist thought was introduced into Vietnam in the years 20-30, combined with patriotism to become the driving force for historical change to move the country toward independence, democracy, and socialism.

Typical for this era are Ho Chi Minh, a national hero, thinker, and an internationally recognized cultural celebrity. The weak national bourgeoisie only carried out a few partial reforms in the first half of the 20th century.

Ho Chi Minh’s views on social progress are of philosophical importance because they are a set of ideas combining Marxist philosophy of social progress and experience in actual Vietnamese revolutionary activities and the world’s views on social progress together. 

As such, Vietnam does not have its own system of philosophical and ideological reasoning and lacks a world-class philosopher. But that does not mean that there is no philosophy of life and ideologies that are suitable for our people.

Agricultural society is characterized by the village community with many long-lasting primitive remnants that create the unique character of Vietnamese people.

It is a dualism, a specific way of thinking that is more about the emotional experience than rationality, imagery over concepts, but flexible, easy to adapt, and adaptable.

It is a way of life that is heavy of gratitude, solidarity with relatives, village water (because the water dries, the house dissipates, floods flood the village).

It is a way of acting according to the tendency to settle harmoniously, to balance, to rely on relationships, at the same time, to be skillful in improvisation, having been known many times to take the need to win, to take the weak against strong in history.

On the path of industrialization, modernization, and world integration, a number of weaknesses in traditional culture will have to be overcome; poor logical thinking and technical science; patriarchal, conservative, local, narrow-minded; average thought; individual negative tendencies, personality flattening; veneration and sanctification; bad habits, weak organization, and practice …

Customs and habits

Vietnamese people are practical and prefer “eat well, wear durable”. The first is to eat, “a hungry belly has no ears”. The eating structure is biased towards plants, the main vegetable is rice plus seafood.

Boiling is a unique Vietnamese cooking style. But the way of processing the dish is rich in synthesis, combining many ingredients and spices. Today there is a lot of meat and fish, Vietnamese people still do not forget the pickles.

Vietnam cuisine
The cooking in Vietnam is done with minimal use of oil and dairy and relies more on the light, fresh flavours of herbs and vegetables. As a result, Vietnamese cuisine is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.

Vietnamese people often use fabrics of vegetable origin, thin, light, airy, suitable for a hot country, with brown, indigo, and black colors. Men’s clothing developed from bare looms to blouses and trousers (modified Chinese pants).

Women in the past popularly wore overalls, skirts, and quadruple shirts, which later changed into modern ao dai. In general, Vietnamese women make a delicate and discreet beauty in a “streak that beat beauty”. Old clothes also pay attention to towels, hats, belts.

Old Vietnamese houses associated with river and water environment (house on stilts, curved roof). Then there is thatched cottage, thatched roof, the main material is bamboo and wood, not too high to prevent storm winds, most importantly, the direction of the house often turns south to prevent heat and cold.

The house is not too large to give way to the yard, pond, or garden. Besides, Vietnamese people think that a “wide house is not equal to a wide stomach”. The superficial ancient architectures often hide and blend with nature.

Traditional means of transport are mainly waterways. Boats of all kinds are familiar images of the geographical – humanistic landscape of Vietnam, along with rivers and water terminals.

Vietnam Traditional Lunar New Year
Tết Nguyên Đán, more commonly known by its shortened name Tết, is the most important and popular holiday and festival in Vietnam. It is the Vietnamese New Year marking the arrival of spring based on the Lunar calendar. The name Tết Nguyên Đán is Sino-Vietnamese for Feast of the First Morning.

The Vietnamese customs of marriage, funerals, Tet, and festivals are all associated with the village community. Old marriage is not only a need for couples but also has to meet the interests of the family, family, and village, so they are very picky, choose good days, go through many ceremonies to be officially recognized as members of families and villages.

Funeral rituals are also very meticulous, showing mercy and seeing off relatives to the other side of the world, not only by the family’s care but also by the neighbors who are wholeheartedly helping out.

Vietnam is a country of year-round festivals, especially in the springtime, leisure time. The main festivals are the Lunar New Year, the Full Moon Festival in January (15/1), the Han Thuc festival (3/3), the Dragon Festival (5/5), the Full Moon Festival in July (15/7), the Mid-Autumn Festival (15/8)…

Each region often has its own festival, the most important is the agricultural festival ( pray for rain, go to the field, new rice …), career festivals (bronze casting, forging, firecrackers, boat racing …).

In addition, there are festivals celebrating heroes who made merit to the country, and religious and cultural festivals (pagodas). The festival has 2 parts: the ceremony is meant to pray and give thanks, the festival is a community cultural activity including many games, folk competitions.

Belief and religion

Vietnamese folk beliefs since ancient times have included:

Traditional fertility beliefs, the cult of nature, and beliefs that worship people. Humans need to multiply, crops need to be healthy to maintain and develop life, so traditional fertility beliefs arose.

In Vietnam, that belief exists for a long time, under two manifestations: worship of male and female vitality (unlike India which only worships male vitality) and worshiping mating behavior (human and animal, even There are also few peoples in Southeast Asia worshiping this.)

The above vestiges are left in many relics of stone statues and pillars, in the decoration of Tay Nguyen tombs, in a number of customs and dances, most clearly in the shape and pattern of ancient bronze drums.

Wet rice agriculture is dependent on many natural factors that led to the cult of nature. In Vietnam, it is a polytheism and respectful goddesses, worshiping both animals and plants.

A research book (published in 1984) has listed 75 goddesses, mainly mothers, the Mothers (not only God but also the Goddess, in addition to the Mother Goddess of Highland, the Queen of the River, etc ..).

The most revered plant is Rice, then Banyan, Areca, Strawberry, and Gourd. Regarding animals, it is inclined to worship gentle animals such as deer, toads, not to worship wild animals like the nomadic culture, especially worshiping popular animals in river areas such as water birds, snakes, crocodiles.

Vietnamese people claim to belong to the Hong Bang family, like Tien Rong (Hong Bang is the name of a large waterbird, Tien is the abstraction of a spawning bird, Dragon the abstraction of snakes, crocodiles).

Rong – Dragons born from the water flying up into the sky are a unique and meaningful symbol of the Vietnamese nation.

In human worship, the most popular is ancestor worship, which has almost become a Vietnamese religion (called Dao Ong Ba in the South). In Vietnam, the date of death is more of an anniversary than the date of birth.

Every house worships Tho Cong, which is the god that looks after the house, preserves the blessings of the whole family. Every village worships Thanh Hoang as the god that protects the whole village (often honoring those who openly establish a career for villagers or national heroes who have died or died in the village).

The whole country worships the ancestor king, there is a common death anniversary (Hung King Temple Festival). In particular, the worship of the Four Immortal Saints is to worship the very beautiful values ​​of the nation: Thanh Tan Vien (against floods), Thanh Giong (against foreign invasion), Chu Dong Tu, Mother Chua Lieu Hanh (the princess of God abandoned Heaven to come to earth as a woman who yearns for normal happiness).

Although there are cases that lead to superstitions, folk beliefs persist and mixed with mainstream religions.

Buddhism (Theravada) may have been introduced directly from India by sea into Vietnam around the 2nd century AD. Vietnamese Buddhism did not go into the world but entered the world, associated with mantras, praying for fortune, and longevity rather than practicing the world.

When Buddhism (Mahayana) came to our country from China, Vietnamese monks went deeper into Buddhism, but gradually formed their own sects such as Zen Zong Truc Lam promoting Buddha at the heart.

During the Ly – Tran dynasty, Buddhism was at its peak but still welcomed Confucianism and Taoism, creating a cultural face with the character of “Three religions coexisting” (all three religions coexisted).

Through many ups and downs, Buddhism became close to Vietnamese people, statistics in 1993 showed that there were still 3 million followers and about 10 million people regularly worshiping Buddhist temples.

During the Northern colonial period, Confucianism had no place in Vietnamese society, until 1070 Ly Thai To established Van Mieu to worship Chu Cong-Confucius that could be considered officially accepted.

In the 15th century, due to the need to build a unified country, centralized government, orderly society, Confucianism replaced Buddhism as the state religion under the Le dynasty.

Confucianism, mainly the Song Confucianism, adhered firmly to the socio-political mechanism, entered the academic study regime, entered the Confucian class, gradually took over the spiritual and social life.

But Confucianism is also only absorbed in Vietnam individually – especially in politics – morality, not intact the whole system.

Taoism entered Vietnam around the end of the second century. Due to the concept of nonviolence with the idea of ​​protesting against the rulers, it was used by the people as weapons against the Northern feudalism.

It has many magical and mystical elements, so it is suitable for the human subconscious and primitive beliefs. Many old Confucians had the tendency to prefer the serenity of Laozi – Zhuangzi. But Taoism as a religion did not exist for a long time, leaving only a legacy in folk beliefs.

Christianity came to Vietnam in the 17th century as a mediating stage of Western culture and colonialism. It took advantage of favorable opportunities: feudalism crisis, degrading Buddhism, Confucian stalemate, to become a spiritual comfort for a part of the population, but for a long time it was not in harmony with Vietnamese culture.

On the contrary, it is imperative that parishioners set up altars in their homes. Only when the gospel was reconciled in a nation could it stand in Vietnam. In 1993 there were about 5 million Catholics and nearly half a million Protestants.

The external religions imported into Vietnam did not lose the indigenous folk beliefs, but mixed together, making both sides have certain metamorphosis.

For example, Confucianism does not lower the role of a woman, the worship of Mother in Vietnam is still very popular. Polytheism, democracy, and community are reflected in the collective worship of the ancestors, worshiping many pairs of gods, entering a temple not only worshiping Buddha but also worshiping many other gods, holy spirits but real people also.

And perhaps it is only in Vietnam that the toads sue God, as well as the kind of mortal people who marry elves in fairy tales. These are the distinctive features of Vietnamese beliefs.

Language

Regarding the origin of Vietnamese, there are many theories. The most persuasive theory is that the Vietnamese language belongs to the Mon-Khmer lineage of the Southeast Asian linguistic family, then changed into Vietnamese-Muong (or ancient Vietnamese) and then separated.

In modern Vietnamese, there are many words that are proven to have Mon-Khmer origin and are phonetic and semantical when compared with the Muong language.

Over a thousand years under the Northern domination, and under feudal dynasties, the official language was Chinese characters, but it was also the time when Vietnamese showed the vitality of fighting for self-preservation and development.

Chinese characters are read in the Vietnamese way, called Sino-Vietnamese reading. And is Vietnameseized in many ways to create many common Vietnamese words.

The rich development of Vietnamese led to the introduction of a writing system to record Vietnamese on the basis of the Chinese script in the 13th century, which was Nôm.

During the French colonial period, Chinese characters were gradually removed and replaced with French used in the language of administration, education and diplomacy.

But thanks to Quoc Ngu (national language) script, which has the simple advantage of structure, writing, reading, and modern Vietnamese prose really formed and favorably received the positive influences of Western cultural language.

The script of the national language is the product of some Western clergy, including Alexandre de Rhodes who cooperated with a number of Vietnamese who relied on the Latin alphabet to record Vietnamese for missionary use in the 17th century.

The language has been gradually improved, universalized, and become an important cultural tool. In the late 19th century, there were books and newspapers published in the national language.

After the 1945 August Revolution, Vietnamese language and national language gained a unique position, developed abundantly, being a versatile language used in all fields, at all levels, reflecting all realities of life. Today, thanks to the revolution, some ethnic minorities in Vietnam also have their own script.

Characteristics of Vietnamese: monosyllabic but specific vocabulary, rich in visual tones, balanced expressions, rhythmic, vivid, easy to convert, symbolic, expressive … very convenient for creative literary art. Vietnamese dictionary published in 1997 includes 38410 entries.

Literature

Parallel development, profound interaction: Vietnamese literature appeared quite early, with two components: folk literature and written literature.

Folklore occupies an important position in Vietnam, has great merit in preserving the development of the national language, nurturing the people’s soul. Folk compositions include myths, epics, legends, tales, jokes, puzzles, proverbs,… with many colors of ethnic groups in Vietnam.

Written literature was born around the 10th century. Until the early 20th century, there were also two parallel parts: Chinese characters (with poetry, prose, expressing Vietnamese soul, reality, so it was still Vietnamese) and Nôm (almost only poetry, handed down many great works).

From the 20s of the 20th century, the written literature was mainly composed in Vietnamese through the national script, with a profound innovation in genres such as novels, new poems, short stories, plays … and the diversity of artistic trends and at the same time developing at a rapid speed, especially after the August Revolution following the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam, towards the life, fighting, and labor of people.

It can be said that in Vietnam, almost the entire nation is poetic, loves poetry, writes poems – from the king, the general, the monk, the scholar to the later many revolutionary cadres – and a transplant worker, an old the boatman, a warrior soldier all memorized a set of hexagonal poetry, tried a song.

In terms of content, the mainstream is indomitable patriotic literature against foreign aggression in all periods and anti-feudal literature often through the woman’s status. Criticizing the bad habits of society is also an important topic. The great national poets are all great humanitarianists.

Modern Vietnamese literature has developed from romance to reality, from the resonance of heroism in the war, which is shifting to a comprehensive expansion of life, into everyday life, looking for the true values of people.

Art

Vietnam has about 50 ethnic musical instruments, of which percussion is the most popular, the most diverse and the oldest originating (bronze drums, gongs, rock instruments…).

Vietnamese folk songs and genres are abundant throughout the Central, South, and North: from reciting poems, lullabies, Quan ho Bac Ninh folk song,…

Traditional theater art has Chèo (is a form of generally satirical musical theatre, often encompassing dance, traditionally…) and Tuồng (is a form of Vietnamese theatre).

Water puppetry is also a unique traditional theatrical form dating back to the Ly dynasty. In the early 20th century, there appeared Cai Luong in the South with old aspirations.

Vietnamese vocal arts in general are all symbolic, expressive, using conventional methods, rich in lyrical qualities. The traditional theater is intimately interacting with viewers and synthesizing all kinds of music and dance. Vietnamese dance has few strong movements but soft curves, closed legs, hand dance is the main thing.

In Vietnam, the art of carving stone, bronze, and terracotta pottery was born very early, dating back to 10,000 years BC. Later on, enameled ceramics, wooden statues, inlays of pearls, lacquerware, silk paintings and paper paintings developed to a high artistic level.

Vietnam plastic art focuses on expressing the interior but reducing the form, using many stylized techniques, emphasizing.

There have been 2014 cultural and historical relics recognized by the State and two internationally recognized monuments, Hue and Ha Long Bay. The remaining ancient architecture is mainly a number of pagodas – towers of the Ly – Tran dynasty; Palace-stele in Le dynasty, the communal house in 18th century, citadel – the tomb of Nguyen dynasty and Cham towers.

In the 20th century, exposed to Western culture, especially after the independence of the country, new types of arts such as theater, photography, cinema, music and modern arts were born and developed. , obtained great achievements with content reflecting the reality of life and revolution.

So by the middle of 1997, 44 people working in culture and arts had received the Ho Chi Minh Prize, 130 people were awarded the title of People’s Artist, and 1011 people were awarded the title of Outstanding Artist.

In particular, there are two recipients of international music awards, Dang Thai Son (Chopin Music Award) and Ton Nu Nguyet Minh (Tchaikovski Music Award).

As of early 1997, the country had 191 professional art groups and 26 studios and studios, including central and local. 28 feature films, 49 news – documentary and scientific films have received international awards in many countries.

The traditional national culture is now facing the industrialization and modernization, facing the tough challenges of the market economy and globalization trend.

Many cultural and artistic branches are somewhat slowing down, finding their way, and self-reforming. More than ever, it poses the problem of preserving and developing the national culture, choosing old values, building new values. Conservation but still an open culture. Modern but not far from the nation. Cultural renewal is continuing …

Notes:

  • đàn bầu: (Vietnamese: [ɗàːn.ɓə̀w]; “gourd zither”; chữ Nôm: 彈匏), also called độc huyền cầm (獨絃琴, “one-string zither”) is a Vietnamese stringed instrument, in the form of a monochord (one-string) zither.
  • đàn đáy: a Vietnamese plucked lute with three strings, a trapezoidal wooden body, and a very long wooden neck with ten raised frets. Players formerly used silk strings, but since the late 20th century have generally used nylon.
  • quan họ singing: is a Vietnamese folk music style characterized both by its antiphonal nature, with alternating groups of female and male singers issuing musical challenges and responses. Quan họ is common in rituals and festivals, and a common theme in many songs is love and sentimentality as experienced by young adults. Quan họ was recognised as a UNESCO Intanginble Cultural Heritage practice in 2009.
  • trống quân singing : a response folk song of Vietnam. It is often found in festivals and performed as alternating singing between boys and girls. The male and female singer groups make responses to the song through words, instead of counterpoint singing. As such it is less sophisticated and more open to popular participation than Quan họ response singing which requires some degree of musical training. Trống quân songs are often sung by children at village festivals.
  • hát xoan: a genre of Vietnamese folk music performed in spring during the first two months of the lunar new year (Tết) in Phú Thọ Province
  • chèo: a form of generally satirical musical theatre, often encompassing dance, traditionally performed by Vietnamese peasants in northern Vietnam. It is usually performed outdoors by semi-amateur touring groups, stereotypically in a village square or the courtyard of a public building, although it is today increasingly also performed indoors and by professional performers. Chèo stage art is one of the great cultural heritage of the Vietnamese folk treasure.
  • tuồng: Hát tuồng or hát bội is a form of Vietnamese theatre. Hát tuồng is often referred to as classical “Vietnamese opera” influenced by Chinese opera. Tuồng is distinct from the older hát chèo genre of Vietnamese theatre which combines dance, song and poetry, and the more modern cải lương folk musical.

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