In Viet Nam’s traditional society, a typical family has three or four generations living under the same roof. With the view of “more children, more fortunes”, many families want to have lots of children and grandchildren. Influenced by Confucianism and the feudal view of male preference, men play the most important roles in family and always have final say. Feudal ethics shape women around “three obedience’s, four virtues” (three obedience’s: obedience to their fathers during childhood, to their husbands when married and to their sons in widowhood; four virtues: diligence, good manner, proper speech, and morality)
Since reunification, the State of Viet Nam has adopted a number of legal documents, notably Law on Marriage and Family, in order to make family relations more equal. Different measures have also been taken to raise the awareness of the public and change the obsolete attitude, ensure gender equality and fight for the legitimate rights of women.
Today, Vietnamese family size tends to be narrowed down to two or three generations. Most couples have only two children. The advocacy for men’s superiority over women is weakening and gradually being eliminated. However, the time-honoured tradition of “respect for the elderly and love for the children” has been maintained and advocated in each and every Vietnamese family.
Most ethnic groups in Viet Nam have their own costumes that reflect their unique cultural identities. Most of these costumes are decorated with vivid patterns in contrast colours: black-white, black-red, green-red or green-white and made of natural fibre such as ramie, silk, pineapple yarn or cotton. These materials are fine, durable and sweat-absorbing, suitable for tropical climate.
The traditional costume of Vietnamese men was white pants, brown tops with scarf and ordinary sandals or wooden clogs called “guoc”. The official costume for men includes velvet or cotton long dress and turban. For women, costumes are more complicated and colourful with black skirt, white brassieres, four-panel dress with “crow-beak” scarf and pergularia-like belt. The official costume includes three layers of dress. The first one is the velvet four-panel dress in dark colour or light brown, then a light yellow dress underneath and a lotus-coloured one. Wearing this costume, the woman only fastens the buttons below her underarms, and the upper part is opened to show the three colours of their dresses. Beneath these three dresses is a red brassiere. They wear a special large conical hat called “non”, which gives them an elegant look and makes Vietnamese women more graceful.
Today, the official costumes of the Vietnamese people have changed. Suits have replaced the traditional costume of Vietnamese men. The long dress or Ao Dai, which was first worn under Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s regime, has been modified to better suit Vietnamese women and is used in many important ceremonies of the year. The modern Ao Dai is a tunic slit to the waist with the two loose panels falling down to mid shin. This dress, which is really suitable to the small build of a Vietnamese woman, reveals the hidden beautiful curves of her body.
Currently, with increasing exchanges among different cultures, Vietnamese clothing becomes more diverse and fashionable, reflecting a higher level of integration, especially that of urban youth.
Festivals are typical folklore cultural activities in all regions of Viet Nam. Such festivals bring peace to the heart and mind of the Vietnamese people, wipe out their pressures from daily life, and bring them closer to nature and the motherland. As an agricultural country, most Vietnamese festivals are held during “leisure times”, which are spring and autumn. There are also national festivals for all Vietnamese people, including the Lunar New Year (Tet Nguyen Dan), July Full-Moon, August Full-Moon or Hung Kings Festival.
Lunar New Year (Tet Nguyen Dan-usually in late January or early February): Lunar New Year is the biggest one among Vietnam’s traditional festivals. This is the time for family to get together and enjoy traditional food, visit relatives, friends and colleagues and wish them a happy new year. As perceived by all people, Tet is the end of the old year, the wrap-up of misfortunes to open up a new year of good opportunities. The New Year Eve is the most sacred moment when all family members worship and pay tribute to gods and ancestors. Apart from the New Year Eve worshiping, other traditional rites such as “the first visitor of the Year”, “buds picking” and “lucky money” are still practiced today.
Vu Lan Festival (July Full-Moon Festival): Vu Lan Festival is dedicated to the deceased parents, grandparents, and ancestors – an honoured tradition that reflects the “when eating fruit, remember who planted the tree”. According to Buddhism, on this day, spirits of the dead come to the living world to enjoy offerings. Most families hold worshiping rites for ancestors. Upon the end of the rite, votive papers are burnt for spirits of the dead. July Full-Moon Festival is also the dead pardoning day or worshiping the souls of the dead. Offerings are parched rice, dry pancake, candies and fruits to worship for wandering spirits, who are not worshiped by relatives.
August Full-Moon Festival (Mid-Autumn Festival): Mid-Autumn Festival (aka Moon Watching Festival) is dedicated to children who are very excited about the Festival as presents will be sent out like star lanterns, masks, baked rice cake, etc. On the night of the Festival, most families have a tray of specialties for members to get around and enjoy the Moon’s beauty. The specialties are mainly fruits and confectionery formed like animals. The atmosphere of the festival night is enjoyable with the laughter and songs of children, the light of the Moon, lanterns, and candles of many kinds. Games are also available in many places such as Lantern Carrying Dance, Lion and Dragon Dance, etc.
Hung Kings Worshipping Festival: March 10th of the Lunar Calendar is the day of Hung Kings National Worshipping Festival. This event is celebrated everywhere in the country and abroad where there are large Vietnamese communities. The major celebration is held in Phu Tho, the first capital of Viet Nam under Van Lang Dynasty and the location of the Temple for 18 Hung Kings. During this event, traditional offerings are prepared, including lanterns, incense sticks, wine, betel, areca-nut, water, Chung and Day (Square and Round Sticky Rice) Cakes. In 2007, Hung Kings Festival was declared a National Day
Vietnamese Literature has been developed with a unique identity since the early days of the nation. As a country of multi ethnic groups with different literatures, Viet Nam boasts a literature of multi-identities.
Traditional Literature: including folklore literature, classical Chinese (Han) and Nom (Vietnamese scripts modified from classical Chinese scripts) literature.
Folklore literature was born as early as the primitive time during work and struggle for a living. It was passed down from one generation to another by the words of mouth and existed in various forms, including folk-tales, mythologies, epics, legends, fairy-tales, funny stories, poetic tales, folklore verses and quizzes, etc.
Classical Chinese Literature: The classical Chinese scripts were first used in Viet Nam during the first period of Northern rule. After gaining national independence in 938, Vietnamese feudal regimes, with high spirit of independence, developed their own literature and used classical Chinese as a means of transmission. There are a number of masterpieces in classical Chinese preserved till today. Among them are Deity’s poem by Ly Thuong Kiet, Proclamation to Generals and Soldiers by Tran Hung Dao, and Dai Viet History (Dai Viet su ky) by Le Van Huu.
Nom Literature: Nom scripts were modified from classical Chinese. Nom Literature first appeared in the 8th century, reached its peak in the 18th century and lived on to the 20th century. Famous works now still remain, including Proclamation of Victory over the Wu by Nguyen Trai, A Nationwide Collection of Poems with 254 poems by Nguyen Trai – a World Man of Culture, Hong Duc Nationwide Collection of Poems by King Le Thanh Tong, Bach Van Poem Collection by Nguyen Binh Khiem, Laments of a Warrior’s Wife by Dang Tran Con or poems reflecting the aspiration for gender equality by the “Queen of Nom poetry” Ho Xuan Huong, etc. The most famous works of this period was The Story of Kieu by great poet Nguyen Du. In addition, there were historic books written in Nom such as Complete Works of Dai Viet History (Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu) by Le Dynasty historians of Phan Phu Tien, Ngo Sy Lien and Vu Quynh or History of the Le Dynasty by Le Quy Don.
Contemporary Literature: The introduction of the National Language (Quoc Ngu) was the foundation for Contemporary Literature or Modern Literature. Renowned works were produced by writers like Ho Bieu Chanh, Hoang Ngoc Phach, Nguyen Trong Thuat, Truong Vinh Ky, Tan Da, The Lu, Ngo Tat To, Nguyen Cong Hoan, Nguyen Hong, Xuan Dieu, Huy Can, Luu Trong Lu, Nam Cao, etc.
Revolutionary Literature (since 1945): Between 1945 and 1975, Vietnamese literature reflected the nation’s aspiration for peace and independence, calling on the population to stand up for national independence and unification.
Since the reunification, in pursuit of the policy to build an “advanced culture with strong national identity”, Vietnamese artists and writers have been seeking to reflect various aspects of the social life in their works and call upon the whole nation to build a Viet Nam that is a “strong country, wealthy people, a just, democratic and advanced society”. The Vietnamese Literature has been rapidly developed by thousands of writers and poets and with various forms: prose, poetry and literature review, etc, thus contributing to the development of Vietnamese culture. Viet Nam’s literature works have been translated into English, French, Chinese, Japanese, etc.
The Vietnamese performing arts include various types, such as Cheo (popular theatre), Tuong (classical theatre), cai luong (reformed theatre), water puppet, court music and dancing, Quan Ho (Folk-song or Love duet of Bac Ninh), Chau Van (Worshipping Ceremonial Songs), Ca Tru (literally “singing for reward”), “Then” singing of the Thai, “Ly” singing of the Southern region people, etc. Among them, the most commonly performed are cheo, tuong, cai luong, quan ho, water puppet, “ly” singing and nha nhac (refined music) – one kind of Court Music.
Royal music and dancing: Royal music and dancing thrived during the dynasty of King Le Thanh Tong with various branches, such as Trung Cung Chi Nhac (Palace Music), Yen Nhac (Banquet music), Nha nhac (Refined Music) and mieu nhac (Confucian temple music), Dai Nhac (great music), Van Vu (civil dance), Vo Vu (military dance), etc. During the Nguyen Dynasty, court music and dancing reached its peak with the most solemn and intriguing, Bat Dzat dancing performed during Offering Ceremony of Nguyen Kings at Nam Giao Esplanade (Dan Nam Giao). However, the majority of royal dances functioned to wish the King and his family happiness, prosperity and longevity and to perform at royal anniversaries such as Fan Dance, the Tam Tinh Chuc Tho, the Bat tien Hien, the Luc Triet Hoa Ma Dang and the Luc Cung Hoa Dang. Many dances and music pieces are preserved till today. In 2003, UNESCO recognized Refined Music of Hue Royal Court as the Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Water puppetry: water puppetry is believed to appear first in the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225). Usually, there are many characters (puppets) involved in one water puppet play let. Each character is a sculpture work which bears different shapes and personalities. The puppets are sculpted from wood and coated with water-proof. The prominent character is buffoon Teu with a plump body and a humorous smile. Hidden from the audience by a blind, the puppeteers stand chest-deep in the water to manipulate the puppets through bamboo rods and pulleys. Musical accompaniment is provided by a drum set of drums, tocsins, and gongs. Water puppetry is a unique folklore performing art that is widely loved by the audience in many countries.
Cheo (Popular theatre): Originated from folklore music and dances, cheo is among Viet Nam’s most distinct theatrical arts. Traditionally performed in villages, Cheo was set to become popular theatrical art of northern delta residents. Cheo includes dancing, singing, music and literature from tales. Part of the abiding appeal of Cheo was that while it taught traditional values such as filial devotion, good morals, justice, benevolence, courage and courtesy, it was always essentially satirical and anti-establishment in nature. Cheo may move the spectators to tears or laughter identified as optimistic, smart, intelligent and mischievous with a clear sense of humanity. This form of art reflects the desire for happiness and a harmonized society where human rights are protected and the good will always wins the evil. Some of the most popular plays through generations are Quan Am Thi Kinh, Luu Binh Duong Le, Chu Mai Than and Kim Nham, etc. These plays are classified as precious treasures of the nation’s “popular theatre”.
Tuong (aka hat boi) is a classical and most scholarly theatrical art of Viet Nam, also a traditional performing art. Tuong originates from folklore theatre of Viet Nam literature, developed from diverse traditional music, dancing and performances. In late 18th century, Tuong had fully developed in terms of literary scripts and performance art. Today, tuong is considered as Viet Nam’s “national soul and national characteristic”, usually compared to China’s opera theatre or Japan’s Noh.
Cai luong (Reformed Theatre) is a form of traditional opera originated at the start of the 20th century. The roots of Cai luong are Ly folk songs and amateur music from the Mekong Delta. Cai luong uses many of Tuong’s (classical theatre) ways of performance and music. Similar to other forms of traditional art opera, Cai luong includes dances, songs and music. A Cai luong orchestra consists mainly of guitars with concave frets and Vietnamese two-cord guitar. Among those most well-known plays are Ms. Luu’s Life, To Anh Nguyet, Mong Hoa Vuong (Hoa Vuong Queen), Half Life of Prostitute, Chim Viet Canh Nam (Viet Bird Southern Branch), and Queen Mother Duong Van Nga.
Folk architecture: consists of wood, stone, brick and thatch, bamboo and leaves, which are quite popular throughout Viet Nam. Houses made of thatch, bamboo and leaves can be found in many rural areas in Viet Nam, while the wooden architecture is most typically represented in pagodas, villages’ communal houses and houses of wealthy families across the country. Some of the well-known historical sites with wooden architecture are One-pillar pagoda, Dau pagoda, Boi Khe pagoda, Thai Lac pagoda, Keo pagoda, But Thap pagoda, Tay Phuong pagoda, Dinh Bang communal house, and ancient houses in big cities, particularly in Hanoi, Hoi An and Hue… The architecture of brick and stone is typically reflected in pagoda towers (Hoa Phong tower, Bao Thien tower, Pho Minh pagoda tower, Thien Mu pagoda tower,…), citadel gates and walls (Ho Citadel gate, Hanoi Citadel gate..), three-door temple gate (Van Mieu three-door temple gate, Tran Vu three-door temple gate, Hien Nhan gate), Hanoi Flag Tower, Ngo Mon (Noon) Gate in Hue… Brick and stone architecture also constitutes a considerable part in temples built by the Cham people (known as Cham temples) scattered from Quang Nam to Binh Thuan, notably My Son Historical site.
Foreign styled architecture: Since the 19th century, Vietnamese architecture underwent a change, a combination of the two architectural schools, i.e. European, North American architecture and the traditional Oriental one. As a result, Hanoi, Saigon and Hai Phong had chessboard streets which made it convenient for transportation. Many buildings were built in the classical European style, such as the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court, Hanoi Opera House, State Bank of Viet Nam, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saigon Municipal building, Saigon Central Post Office, and some villas… Subsequently, in the 19th century, new features emerged in the Vietnamese architecture picture, i.e. Catholic churches in Saigon, Hanoi, Hue and local parishes. Noticeably, temple and pagoda features and traditional Vietnamese architecture could be found in even such European-styled architectural constructions, most notably Phat Diem church.
In the 1954-1975 period: In northern Viet Nam, many buildings followed Soviet-styled architecture, i.e. Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Friendship Cultural Palace, etc. In the south, American architectural style is noticeable, notably General Science Library of Ho Chi Minh City and Independence Palace (now Dinh Thong Nhat – Reunification Hall).
In Doi Moi period: There have been a lot of big, modern construction works in various styles, such as hotels and office buildings (Horizon, Hanoi Tower, Sofitel Plaza, New World, Phu My Hung, Ciputra, etc). Like in many other countries, the current architecture in Viet Nam generally consists of four main components: interior design, architectural design, urban planning design, environmental design and area planning.
Painting and sculpture
Folk painting: There are two kinds of folk paintings: New-year paintings and Worshipping paintings. Folk paintings are closely connected to religious belief of worshipping for forefathers and deities. For mass production, folk paintings were executed through woodblock printing. They became quite popular in the 16th century, and developed steadily at a high level in the 18th and 19th centuries. Given their artistic styles, printing and drawing techniques and materials, folk paintings could be classified into some different brands.
Today, however, folk paintings are almost obsolete. Amongst the few existing brands of folk paintings under preservation, Dong Ho paintings still develop and can be found in many countries such as Japan, France and the US… Dong Ho is the name of a small village lying along the southern bank of Duong River in Bac Ninh province. Dong Ho paintings are made in an original way, technically and aesthetically, in every aspect from pattern design, carving, paper production (dzo (poonah) paper is hand-made, coated with white powder made from baked shell), colour mixture (made from natural materials) to picture drawing and printing.
Modern painting: The founding of The Fine Arts College of Indochina in 1924 marked a milestone in the development of contemporary plastic arts in Viet Nam. The first generation of artists graduating from the Fine Arts College of Indochina and their works are now known in the world. Most prominent are “Hanoi’s Old Streets” by Bui Xuan Phai, “Game of Squares” by Nguyen Phan Chanh, “Little Thuy” by Tran Van Can, “Young Lady and the lilies” by To Ngoc Van, “On the bank of Sword Lake” by Nguyen Gia Tri, and “See a student off to the exam” by To Ngoc Van. These paintings are invaluable masterpieces in Viet Nam’s cultural treasury. In succession to the former generations, current artists, on one hand, pay regard to capturing the quintessence of the world art, and on the other hand explore new styles of Vietnamese paintings on oil, lacquer and silk… This generation of artists has become popular with their works particularly those by Luu Cong Nhan, Pham Cong Thanh, Nguyen Thu, Dang Xuan Hoa and Thanh Chuong, etc.
Ancient sculpture: In the traditional artistic heritage, sculpture experienced continuous development and provided typical images of the Vietnamese in various parts of the country and at each period, whether in the form of deities or earthly human beings. The ancient Vietnamese sculpture was very diverse, but mostly in the following existence: Prehistoric sculpture with sculptured images on stones, in caves, on bronze drums and household utensils; sculpture of Phu Nam and Chan Lap Kingdoms in the Southern part; Cham-pa sculpture in the Southern Central part; Great Vietnamese Sculpture in the Northern part and sepulchre sculpture by aborigines in the Central Highlands. Despite long time of warfare, many regions across Viet Nam still manage to preserve a lot of villages’ common houses, pagodas and temples with a variety of Buddha statues.
Traditional fine-art handicraft
Traditional Vietnamese handicraft has a long history and a diverse range of products, which have become well-known at home and abroad. Vietnamese products of ceramics, lacquer, silk, rattan and bamboo…have made their popular presence in many countries. Today, some handicraft industries are still preserved and developed, offering jobs and incomes to many labourers and contributing to exports, like ceramics, silk weaving, lacquer making, rattan & bamboo weaving, conical hat making, bronze casting and woodworking etc.
Amongst traditional crafts, the most salient is ceramics which provides a variety of products to meet both civil and industrial demands. Ceramic products are made in many localities across Viet Nam, for example in Bac Giang, Bac Ninh, Quang Binh, Dong Nai, Dong Thap provinces and Bat Trang village in Hanoi, and there is also Cham ceramics.
Silk weaving came into beings very early throughout Viet Nam, yet today the most well-known silk-weaving villages are Van Phuc (in Ha Dong, Ha Tay) and Phuong Tanh – Truc Ninh (in Nam Dinh). As early as the 15th century, Vietnamese silk made its appearance to the world through merchants.
Rattan and bamboo weaving has a thousand-year-long tradition. This craft closely links to the availability of these natural materials in all regions across Viet Nam. Vietnamese craftsmen have skilfully produced a lot of furniture of charming and beautiful designs, like tables, chairs, beds, cabinets, fruit trays and flower baskets etc. Among the localities renowned for such products are Ha Tay and Thanh Hoa provinces.