Vietnamese Culture

Literature

Folk Literature

Since coming into existence, Vietnamese literature has been rich in folklore and proverbs; tales that have been handed down from generation to generation, gradually becoming valuable treasures.

Folk literature grows during the processes of activity, labour, construction and struggle of the people. It is the soul and vital power of the nation. At the present time, all kinds of artistic and folk literature from each ethnic group are being collected and maintained.

The Muong ethnic group in northern Trung Bo has an epic poem called “de dat, de nuoc” (giving birth to the earth and water), whie the Thai ethnic group in the north-west has “xong chu xon xao” (seeing off and instructing the loving heart). This list could go on for quite some time.

Modern Literature

Vietnamese literary tradition has evolved through the multiple events that have marked the country’s history. New literary movements can usually be observed every ten years but in the last century, Vietnamese literature underwent several literary transitions.

A revolutionary campaign occurred at the beginning of Romanized Vietnamese literature, in an attempt to standardize its styles such as prose, poetry, and criticism. All the writings produced had one thing in common: the authors were using a powerful and flexible style to update events and trends and therefore predict social events.

For more than a half century the Vietnamese people fought two wars of resistance, and at the present time, are in a period of construction, industrialization and modernization. In this situation, in Vietnamese literature, movement and vital force currently exist.

Clothing

Vietnamese clothing is very diverse. Every ethnic group in Vietnam has its own style of clothing. Festivals are the occasion for all to wear their favourite clothes. Among the ethnic Vietnamese majority, (Kinh people), traditional costumes are unique to each region.

The costumes of the Northern people: (Áo Tứ Thân)

The Ao Tu Than (Áo Tứ Thân) or “Four-flapped dress” worn by the northern women. It is a predecessor to the Áo Dài and is a four part flowing tunic, worn with a long skirt and an Ao Yem (Áo Yếm) underneath. Áo Yếm is worn by the Vietnamese women as the undergarment since the ancient time.

The costumes of the Central people: (Áo Dài)

Áo Dài is the most popular and recognised Vietnamese national costume. It was originally worn by the royal and upper-class women. It’s famous for bringing out the fabulous female-body curves yet still keeps its classiness. Since then, Áo Dài has gained its popularity and become the Vietnamese national costume. Áo Dài consists of a long gown with a slit on both sides, worn over silk pants. The long gown is made from expensive soft fabrics (unique to the owner’s desire) with special decorations on the gown. Many people have believed that Áo Dài is similar to the Chinese Cheongsam (Qipao); however, it’s uniquely different from the Chinese Cheongsam. The Chinese Cheongsam consists of the slit on both sides, but the slit only goes up to mid-thight wheareas the slit in Áo Dài goes all the way to the waist. Besides, Áo Dài must be worn with the silk pants wheareas the Chinese Cheongsam does not.

This Vietnamese national dress is made compulsory in many high schools (& sometimes in many middle schools) and some colleges in Vietnam. Some female office workers (e.g. receptionists, secretaries, tour guides) are also required to wear Ao Dai. Sometimes, Áo Dài in the male form is sometimes wear by the Vietnamese men during wedding, funeral, or new year, etc. Owing to its popularity, the dress has become a national symbol, representing cultural values of Vietnam. Khan Dong is the popular head-wear of both Vietnamese women and men. Khan Dong is made different for both genders. It is often worn with Ao Dai (both females and males) during New Year, Wedding, or other special Vietnamese festivals.

The costumes of the Southern people: (Ao Ba Ba)

Ao Ba Ba is the popular costume that is worn by the Vietnamese Southern people, usually in brown or black.

In feudal times, there were strict dress codes. Ordinary people were not allowed to wear clothes with dyes other than black, brown or white. Monarchs had the exclusive right to wear the colour gold, nobles wore red or purple. There are also strict rules concerning the diverse types of clothing worn by royalty and aristocracy, which could change dynasty by dynasty.

In the mountain areas, people live in houses built on stilts, wear trousers or skirts and indigo vests with design motifs imitating wild flowers and beasts. In the northern uplands and the Central Highlands, the young women have made skirts and vests with beautiful and coulourful decoration in a style convenient for farm work in terraced fields and to travel on hilly slopes and mountain gorges.

In daily life, the traditional Vietnamese styles are now replaced by Western styles. Traditional clothing or costume is worn instead on special occasions, with the exception of the Ao Dai for females.

Architecture

Vietnamese architecture arises from the Kings Hung dynasty. Before the 10th century, villages and hamlets appeared in this period according to several tales of Linh Nam. The ancient Vietnamese used wood to build houses to protect themselves from tigers and wolves. Two kinds of houses were depicted on the bronze drums; one in the shape of a boat and the other in a shape similar to a turtle shell.

Due to dense lakes, swamps, rivers, and highly humid tropical climate, the most appropriate building material is bamboo and wood to set up houses on low stilts. At the end of the 19th century, houses on stilts remained in mountainous areas, midlands, and plains throughout the country.

In order to be suitable with the rugged terrain, Co Loa Citadel was made out of clay during Thuc Phan Dynasty in the 3rd century BC. The architecture during the Chinese sovereignty, from the 2nd century BC to the 9th century, consisted of various structures like ramparts, royal tombs, citadels, folk-houses, and pagodas.

Nguyen Dynasty

The development of Bac Ha region at the beginning of the 19th century was slowed down, after the capital was moved to Hue by the Nguyen Dynasty. At the same time, development in Thang Long increased and citadels, cultural structures, temples, and new residential areas were built. The centre of the significant development was in Hue where imposing citadels, palaces, and tombs were built. The Vietnamese culture in was influenced by the gardened-type houses which is quite different from the tubular type of houses in Hanoi. Hue’s architecture was considered as a collection of traditional influences which relied on flat surfaces, citadel and urban centres, interior decoration and scenery structures.

Ly Dynasty

During the 11th century while a united-feudal state was developing, the Ly Dynasty initiated a new phase in architectural development. Generally, the architecture of Ly Dynasty, 11th and 12th centuries, had five orthodox styles: citadels, palaces, castles, pagodas and houses. Thang Long Citadel had a complex of palaces, many of which were 3-4 floor temples. At that time, the Thang Long culture deeply reflected the cultural characteristic of the tower-pagoda. The architectural characteristics of the Ly Dynasty were residential complexes, more ornamental roofs, doors, door-steps, banisters, and rounded statues, all in a suitable design for the climate and traditional customs of Vietnam. Streets, markets, ground and stilt houses in popular architectural design developed simultaneously as royal palaces.

Le Dynasty

In the turn of the 15th century, under Le Dynasty, orthodox architecture had two dominant styles: the imperial palace and the royal tomb. From the 16th to 17th century, religious architecture gained a lot of popularity in architectural development. But Thap Pagoda in Bac Ninh is famous for its structure and for the techniques used to build the tower and carve and paint the statues. When feudalism lost popularity, folk-art continued to be reflected in carvings and paintings describing active scenes of rowing, hunting, sloughing, wrestling, and cutting. The pagoda and temple construction techniques achieved progress during the 18th century.

Tran Dynasty

Under the Tran Dynasty, the dominant architecture models were the royal palace, pagoda, house, temple, and citadel. These styles were deeply and significantly illustrated in the Bin Son Tower in Vinh Phu Province, the Pho Minh Pagoda in Nam Dinh Province, and the Thai Lac Pagoda in Hung Yen Province. The complexity and structure of Pho Minh Pagoda is an outstanding example of the architectural style of the Tran Dynasty period and of the following centuries. The structure was designed in 3 main sections: the lobby, main hall, and sanctuary. The inside yard, or interior garden, played an important role in the traditional architectural style and reflected the concept of oriental space. The contemporary architecture of royal palaces was designed with upper floors and systems of consecutive corridors in an open-air space, which was very convenient for living in a warm climate. In spite of the crowded development, the majority of construction materials were still bamboo and wood. Even though the Ho Dynasty lasted for only 7 years, it left an outstanding architectural heritage such as the Tay Do Citadel in Thanh Hoa Province. The splendid doors of the citadel still remain.

Modern & Contemporary Architecture

At the end of the 19th century, architectural characteristics were influenced by new construction style brought by European urban planning and the interaction between French and Oriental cultures. Since the reunification in 1975, Vietnam’s architecture has been impressively developing. Many new urban and residential areas, industrial zones, and new villages with major architectural works have brought high artistic value to regional development. Nowadays, architectural development consists of 5 main domains: interior design, architectural design, environmental design, urban planning, and regional planning. Also, issues on spontaneous development of urban area, protection of architectural relics, and house-building strategies are problems that need urgent solutions.

The Performing Arts

Music

Vietnamese music has had a rather long history. Since ancient times, the Vietnamese have had a strong inclination for music. For the Vietnamese, music is considered to be an essential need; therefore, numerous musical instruments and genres intended for various purposes have been developed. Vietnamese people use music to express their innermost feelings, to encourage themselves while working and fighting, to educate their children in good traditions and national sentiment, to communicate with the invisible, and to sublimate their aspirations for a happy life.

The simple and primitive instruments, as well as the more sophisticated ones, have been preserved to form a rich musical treasure. Numerous forms of songs and music have also been created and retained. They include lullabies, children’s songs, ritual songs, festivity songs, various work songs, courtship songs, riddle songs, melodies, and poem narration. There are also songs and music for groups, as well as for traditional theatre.

Vietnamese traditional music is diverse due to the various genres that took shape during different periods of history. Songs of the same genre often differ very much in melody and expression from ethnicity to ethnicity. As a result, lullabies, for example, of the Kinh differ from those of the Muong.

Traditional music has played an important role in the lives of the Vietnamese. Currently, music still occupies a considerable position in the spiritual lives of the Vietnamese. Some genres of music still exist in rural areas, while others were brought to the stage to meet the demands of the population.

Dances

Religious dance may sound similar to the also-mentioned religious belief category of dance, but is more structured to the three main organised religions of Buddhism, Catholicism and Brahmanism. They are not numerous, but still occupy enough cultural space to form this peculiar category.

Religious belief dance is closely connected to ceremonies, beliefs and customs of Vietnamese nationalities. It has been given the strange title of religious belief dance, due to the reflected spiritual features displayed. The dances often worship spirits and genies, facilitate prayer or pay homage to the deceased.

Vietnamese modern dance started developing around 1945. It consists of a combination of materials; some from the folk dance period and others from the new era. Some of the dance styles which were derived from the folk dance period include the umbrella dance, khen dancing, the Cham dance, and the peacock dance. In recent years, the Vietnamese modern dance has absorbed international and European classical influences, especially in dances to accompany popular music.

Stage/Theater

Water Puppetry: Vietnamese water puppetry has a long history. An inscription on a stone stele in Doi Pagoda, Duy Tien District, Nam Ha Province, relates a water puppet show staged in the year 1121 to mark a birthday of King Ly Nhan Tong in 4036 words. Puppets are made of wood and coated with waterproof paint. Each puppet is handmade, has its own posture and expresses a certain character. The most outstanding puppet is known as chu teu which has a round face and a humorous and optimistic smile. The show starts with chu teu, dressed in an odd costume, offering joyful laughter.

The pond and lakes of the northern plains, where crowds gathered during festival and galas, become the lively stages for the water puppet shows. At a water puppet show, the audience watches boat races, buffalo fights, fox hunts and other rustic scenes amidst the beating of drums and gongs. The characters plough, plant rice seedlings, fish in a pond with a rod and line, scoop water with a bamboo basket hung from a tripod, etc. The show is interspersed with such items as a Dance by the Four Mythical Animals: Dragon, Unicorn, Tortoise, and and Dance by the Eight Fairies, in which supernatural beings enjoy festivities alongside people of this world. In water puppet shows there is a very effective combination of visual effects provided by fire, water, and the movements of the marionettes. The whole control system of the show is under the surface of the water, concealed from the audience. When fairy figures appear to sing and dance, it is calm and serene; then the water is agitated by stormy waves in scenes of battle, with the participation of fire-spitting dragons.

There are many contributing factors to the art of water puppetry, including such handicrafts as wood sculpture and lacquer work. The factors all work together to bring out charming glimpses of the Vietnamese psyche, as well as typical landscapes of Vietnam.

Cheo/ Popular Vietnamese Theatre: Cheo is a form of stage performance that originated in the northern countryside. The word cheo means “lyrics of folk ballads, proverbs”. Traditionally, cheo was composed orally by anonymous authors. Today’s playwrights compose cheo along traditional lines. The characters in the plays sing time-tested popular melodies with words suited to modern circumstances. Human rights and the battle of good against evil are common themes. The joyfulness and optimism of cheo is expressed through humor and wit.

In cheo performances, there is always an exchange between the audience and the performers. The performers, dao (actress), kep (actor), lao (old man), mu (female character) and he (buffoon). At present cheo is an integral part of Vietnamese theatre and is well liked by people in both the country and in towns, and by foreign spectators as well.

The buffoon is a familiar character in cheo, in which there is often a blend of the tragic and the comic. He speaks the language of the people and shoots shafts of satire at evil-doers, such as ignorant witchdoctors, greedy landlords, or arrogant mandarins. He may wear a short coat, the garment of the commoner or a long robe, an article of clothing favoured by members of the upper classes in the old society. A couple of buffoons may appear on stage, including the master in a flowing gown and his servant in a short coat and carrying a stick, each speaking the language and behaving the ways of his class. The buffoon may make his entry right at the beginning of a play, carrying a torch or a megaphone and provoking wild laughter from the audience.

Cheo is now undergoing a strong revival. It is particularly relished by foreigners by overseas Vietnamese visiting the country.

Cai Luong: Cai luong is a kind of folk music that developed in the early 20th century. It was first played by amateurs in the south. Thanks to their soft voices, southerners sing cai luong very romantically. The performance includes dances, songs, and music; the music originally drew its influences from southern folk music. Since then, the music of cai luong has been enriched with hundreds of new tunes. A cai luong orchestra consists mainly of guitars with concave frets and danakim.

Over time, cai luong has experienced a number of changes to become a highly appreciated type of stage performance.

Tuong/ Classical Opera: Tuong, also called hat boi in the south, is a stage performance that came about during the Ly-Tran dynasties and that became very popular nationwide during the following centuries. During the Nguyen dynasty, 19th century, tuong occupied a good position in the cultural lives of the royals. In tuong, space and time are captured by songs, dancing, and simple music. In the past, tuong did not require any elaborate stage accessories; now, however backdrops and make-up are more elaborate and sophisticated.

Fine Arts

Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups, each of which has its own traditional culture. The diversity of the ethnic groups is apparent in the many traditional and cultural Vietnamese treasures. These treasures include the various works of art found throughout the country, including sculpture, ceramic, painting, and casting, made from materials such as clay, stone, bronze, steel, wood, and paper.

Preserved vestiges testify that the Vietnamese people have a long history of traditional fine arts. For example, the picture carvings on the walls of the caves in Hoa Binh date back to 10,000 years; a bronze ladle found in Haiphong and bronze tools found in Thanh Hoa are from 4th century BC. The traditional fine art of Vietnam is comprised of many forms. The art works are diverse and come from many different time periods.

Folk Paintings

Folk paintings are a combination of traditional cultural values with ancient artistic methods that have been created through the labor of past generations. There are two types of Vietnamese folk paintings, Tet (Lunar New Year Festival) paintings and worshiping paintings. The Vietnamese believe in ancestor worship and the deification of natural phenomena, both of which are reflected in the paintings.

Due to their historical popularity, the folk paintings were produced in large quantities. This high demand was met through the use of the woodblock carving printing technique, which has been practiced by the Vietnamese for many centuries. During the Ly Dynasty (12th century), there were many families who specialised in woodblock carving. By the end of the Tran Dynasty, they were also printing paper money. At the beginning of the Le So Dynasty, the Chinese technique of carving printing boards was adopted and improved. The History Museum and the Fine Art Museum in Hanoi still keep old printing boards as archives.

During the Mac Dynasty (16th century), folk paintings developed quite extensively and were popular among the aristocracy in Thang Long. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the art of folk painting was stable and highly developed. Depending on artistic style, drawing-printing technique, and the materials used, folk paintings are classified into painting trends according to the name of their place of production.

Each style of painting is different. However, in all the styles, shapes are created based on the concept of don tuyen binh do (single line-simple designs), which uses lines to bend the coloured shapes and to make a border for the picture. Another method used is thuan tay hay mat (easy to draw and to see). With this design form, the folk paintings do not depend on the rules of perspective. The deities are large and take the upper positions, while the ordinary people are drawn on a smaller scale and the size of the animals and the natural scenery depicted depends on their relationship to the sentiment or story being expressed. These unique characteristics make the paintings profoundly impressive.

As a result of cultural exchange, Vietnamese folk paintings have retained and developed certain traditional aspects. As well, the paintings have been influenced and enriched by the genius of other painting styles. One exception is Dong Ho paintings, which continue to exist unchanged against the challenges of time.

Traditional Sculpture

In the realm of traditional art, Vietnamese sculpture has had a significant history of development. Vietnamese sculpture has been heavily influenced by the three traditional religions, Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, which come from neighboring countries, China and India. Examples of early Vietnamese sculpture can be found in common houses, temples and pagodas.

Traditional Pottery and Ceramics

Pottery has taken form early in Vietnam. According to ancient document, pottery appears in Vietnam ten thousand years ago. Following information is general outline of pottery and ceramics appearance through historic development.

In prehistoric times, ceramic products were understandably coarse as most were mixed by women from sand and other materials. Most of the designs on the surface of the ceramics were created with sticks while the products were still wet. All of the pottery products from this era had useful applications for household duties and cooking.

Most of the pottery products from the Bronze Age were formed on turn tables and had diverse styles. As well as cooking utensils, there were also artistic ceramics and products for tool production. The diverse products were decorated with carved images and covered by a different coloured layer of an enamel-like substance. The adornment of pottery products from this period was performed using bronze tools.

Iron Age pottery products developed in all regions of the country. These products were produced at low temperatures using somewhat rudimentary techniques. The form and ornamentation of the Iron Age pottery products was quite unique to this period. This craft developed from traditional experience, and from the influence of the Chinese. Architectural pottery, including bricks and tiles, also originated during this time and small simple statues of animals, such as pigs and oxen, were introduced.

After more than ten centuries of Chinese domination, the Ly and Tran dynasties saw the re-establishment of national independence. During this period, pottery experienced splendid achievements in quality and diversity through large-scale production. Basic elements, including the form, decorations, and coloured enamel, were employed to create beautiful products. The painted decorations were simple, but incredibly attractive. Unique carving characteristics developed and various kinds of enamel were applied. Since the 15th century, ceramic started to bear white enamel with blue designs and fabrication techniques improved.

Nowadays, some localities are still specialized in producing ceramics, including Bac Ninh Province, Thanh Hoa Province, Nam Dinh Province, and Hanoi.

Traditional Festivals

Traditional festivals constitute a form of cultural activities, a spiritual product which the people have created and developed during the course of history. From generation to generation, the Vietnamese people preserve the fine tradition of “remembering the source while drinking water.” Festivals are events which represent this tradition of the community as well as honour the holy figures named as “gods” – the real persons in national history or legendary persons. The images of gods converge the noble characteristics of mankind. They are national heroes who fought against foreign invaders, reclaimed new lands, treated people, fought against natural calamities, or those legendary characters who affect the earthly life. Festivals are events when people pay tribute to divinities that rendered merits to the community and the nation.

Festivals are occasions when people come back to either their natural or national roots, which form a sacred part in their mind. They represent the strength of the commune or village, the local region or even the whole nation. Worshipping the same god, the people unite in solidarity to overcome difficulties, striving for a happy and wealthy life.

In addition, festivals display the demand for creativity and enjoyment of spiritual and material cultural values of all social strata. They become a form of education under which fine traditional moral values can be handed from one generation to the next in a unique way of combining spiritual characters with competition and entertainment games.

Festivals are also the time people can express their sadness and worries in a wish that gods might bestow favour on them to help them strive for a better life.

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