Four great philosophies and religions have shaped the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Christianity. Over the centuries, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism have melded with popular Chinese beliefs and ancient Vietnamese animism to form what is known as Tam Giao(or `Triple Religion’).
The Vietnamese language (kinh) is a hybrid of Mon-Khmer, Tai and Chinese elements with many of its basic words derived from the monotonic Mon-Khmer languages. The most widely spoken foreign languages in Vietnam are Chinese (Cantonese and Mandarin), English, French and Russian, more or less in that order.
Popular artistic forms include: traditional painting produced on frame-mounted silk; an eclectic array of theatre, puppetry, music and dance; religious sculpture; and lacquerware.
Vietnam is a long, skinny country stretching from Hanoi and the Red River in the north to Ho Chi Minh City and the fertile Mekong River Delta in the south. These ends are connected by a mountainous spine that runs along the South China Sea. On the west, Vietnam is bordered by Laos and Cambodia, and to the north, lies China. The food of the north, through stir-fries and noodle-based soups, shows the heavy influence of Chinese cooking. The mountainous middle section, with the former Imperial capitol, Hue, at its center, has an abundance of fresh produce.
It was in Hue that royal chefs developed the more elaborate dishes of Vietnamese cuisine. The southern region is tropical, sustaining rice paddies, coconut groves, and many more spices than the north. As in the rest of Southeast Asia, there is an ancient layer of Indian cultural presence, most obviously evidenced in the religion of Buddhism (which, during the first millennium C.E., made its way along the Silk Road from India to East Asia). French colonization of Vietnam, which began in the 16th century and ended in the middle of the 20th century, also had a deep influence on Vietnamese cooking. The cuisine balances all these influences. One street vendor may noodle soup, pho bo, from his cart. The next vendor over might sell baguette smeared with one of the many ground pork concoctions known as pâtés. Both may be complemented by the ubiquitous native fish sauce (nuoc nam) or dipping sauce (nuoc cham — made from fish sauce, water, sugar, and lime juice and seasoned with chiles and garlic).
As in many of the neighboring countries, a Vietnamese meal is rarely divided into courses. All the food is served at once and shared from common dishes. Meals are anchored by a starch, usually rice and sometimes noodles (especially in the north where grain is more prevalent than rice). The Vietnamese prefer long-grain rice to the glutinous short grain varieties preferred by north-eastern Thai and Japanese palates. Most meals include a soup, a stir-fry, and another main dish. Often, a light salad with shrimp or beef and vegetables will accompany the meal. Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese eat from a bowl with chopsticks.
Vietnamese cooking is generally not as rich or heavy as the coconut milk curries, of, say, Thailand or India. All that coastline means that fish and seafood are central to the diet. Other meats — pork, beef, and chicken — are also common, but in smaller quantities. Vegetables are often left raw, especially in the south, to act as a fresh contrast to the spicy cooked meat. The distinct flavors of Vietnamese food come primarily from: mint leaves, coriander, lemon grass, shrimp, fish sauces (nuoc nam and nuoc cham), star anise, ginger, black pepper, garlic, basil, rice vinegar, sugar, and green onions. Many flavorful marinades are made by some combination of these flavorings. Marinated meat or fish is quickly sautéed in the wok and served with an array of raw vegetables and herbs. All this may be eaten over rice or rolled in a rice-paper wrapper or lettuce leaf (or both), then dipped into a pungent sauce.
Roll Your Own
The other do-it-yourself element in many Vietnamese meals comes with roll-your-own rice-paper rolls. For example, grilled chunks of lemongrass beef (thit bo nuong), grilled meatballs (nem nuong), or freshly steamed shrimp (tom) all come served with a salad plate together with a stack of moist rice papers (banh trang) or fresh rice wrappers (banh uot). You lay a wrapper on your open palm, put in a piece or two of meat, several strips of pickled radish, perhaps some herbs, sprouts, or rice vermicelli, then tuck over the ends and roll it up. You now have your own unique fresh spring roll that can be dipped in nuoc cham or nuoc leo, or eaten simply on its own.
Market and Restaurant Foods
Market food is at its best, and offers the greatest selection in the morning before the day gets hot. While breakfast in the south and north is generally soup, in rural areas it can be xoi — sticky rice steamed in a leaf wrapper. Often peanuts or mung beans are steamed with the rice. In addition to street food, you’ll want to experience a Bo Bay Mon or “Beef Seven Ways” restaurant. Beef dishes include beef fondue (bo nhung dam), grilled beef-stuffed leaves (bo la lot), beef pate steamed in banana leaves (cha dum), and beef rice soup (chao thit bo). Another restaurant specialty, often eaten for lunch in the south, is banh xeo, a kind of crepe filled with finely chopped vegetables and meat.
Freshly pressed sugarcane juice is available from vendors in the afternoon and evening. Vietnamese beer is good; try Saigon Beer or 333. Vietnam grows its own tea in the region around Dalat. Tea is consumed morning to night; it’s served before or after but never during a meal. For another caffeine hit, try Vietnamese coffee black and hot or iced with condensed milk, gafe suda — our favorite. The coffee is made in individual slow-drip filters and can be very strong.
Respect for parents and ancestors is a key virtue in Vietnam. The oldest male in the family is the head of the family and the most important family member. His oldest son is the second leader of the family. Sometimes, related families live together in a big house and help each other. The parents chose their children’s marriage partners based on who they think is best suited for their child. When people die, their families honor their ancestors on the day of their death by performing special ceremonies at home or at temples and by burning incense and fake money for the one who died. The Vietnamese believed that by burning incense, their ancestors could protect them and their family from danger and harm.
Days before the ceremony starts, the family has to get ready, because they won’t have enough time to get ready when the guests arrive and the ceremony starts. Usually the women cook and prepare many special kinds of food, like chicken, ham, pork, rice, and many more including desserts.
While the women are busy cooking, the men are busy fixing up and cleaning up the house, so it won’t be messy and dirty because of all the relatives of the person that died will come for the ceremony and show honor and respect to that person
Special prayers are held at Vietnamese and Chinese pagodas on days when the moon is either full or the merest sliver. Many Buddhists eat only vegetarian food on these days. Some of the major religious festivals follow a lunar calendar. They include: Tet (late Jan-early Feb), the most important festival of the year, marking the new lunar year as well as the advent of spring; Wandering Souls Day (August), the second-largest festival of the year, when offerings of food and gifts are given to the wandering souls of the forgotten dead; Doan Ngu (June), when human effigies are burnt, becoming soldiers in the god of death’s army; and Holiday of the Dead(April), which commemorates deceased relatives.
Vietnam boasts an age-long and special culture that is closely attached to the history of the formation and development of the nation.
Historians have shared a common view that Vietnam has got a fairly large cultural community that was formed around the first half of the first millenium before Christ and flourished in the middle of this millenium. That was Dong Son cultural community. This culture attained a degree of development higher than that of others at that time in the region and had its own characteristics but still bore the features of Southeast Asian culture because of the common South Asian racial root (Southern Mongoloid) and the water rice culture. Different development routes of local cultures in various areas (in the deltas of Hong (Red) river, Ma (Horse) river, Ca river and so on…) joined together to form Dong Son culture. This was also the period of the very “embryonic” state of Vietnam in the form of inter- and super-village community, which come into being and existed in order to resist invaders and to build and maintain dykes for rice cultivation. From this pattern of “embryo” state, primitive tribes grew into nations.
The period of Van Lang-Au Lac culture (lasting for nearly 3,000 years up to the end of the first millenium before Christ) in the early Bronze Age with 18 Hung kings was regarded as the first apogee in the history of the Vietnamese culture, which was typified by the Dong Son bronze drum and stable technique of cultivating water rice.
The post-Chinese domination period was characterized by the two parallel trends of Han assimilation and anti-Han assimilation. The Dai Viet (Great Vietnam) period was the second apogee of the Vietnamese culture. Throughout the time of independent feudal states, milestoned by the Ly-Tran and Le dynasties, the Vietnamese culture underwent comprehensive restoration and quick boom, under the tremendous influence of Buddhism and Taoism.
After the chaotic Le-Mac and Trinh-Nguyen period, when the country was separated, and since the Tay Son dynasty reunited the country and territory, the Nguyen dynasty tried to restore Confucian culture. They, however, failed because Confucianism had already been fading and the Western culture started to penetrate into the country. The period up to the end of French domination was marked by a cultural mix brought about by two opposite trends – i.e. of Europeanization and anti-Europeanization; that presents, the fight between patriotic culture and colonialist culture.
The period of modern Vietnamese culture has gradually taken shape since the 30’s and 40’s of this century under the banner of patriotism and Marxism-Leninism. Vietnamese culture, with the increasingly intensive integration into the world modern civilization and the preservation and enhancement of the national identity, promises to reach a new historical peak.
It can be said that there were three layers of culture overlapping each other during the history of Vietnam: local culture, the culture that mixed with those of China and other countries in the region, and the culture that interacted with Western culture. The most prominent feature of the Vietnamese culture is that it was not assimilated by foreign cultures thanks to the strong local cultural foundations. On the contrary, it was able to utilize and localize those from abroad to enrich the national culture.
The Vietnamese national culture emerged from a concrete living environment: a tropical country with many rivers and the confluence of great cultures. The natural conditions (temperature, humidity, monsoon, water-flows, water-rice agriculture …) exert a remarkable impact on the material and spiritual life of the nation, the characteristics and psychology of the Vietnamese. However, social and historical conditions exert an extremely great influence on culture and national psychology. Thus, there are still cultural differences between Vietnam and other water-rice cultures like Thailand, Laos, Indonesia, India and so on. Though sharing the same Southeast Asian cultural origin, the Vietnamese culture was transformed and bore East Asian cultural characteristics because of the long domination of the Chinese Han dynasty and the imposition of its culture on Vietnam.
The Vietnamese nation was formed early in the history and often had to carry out wars of resistance against foreign invaders, which created a prominent cultural feature: a patriotism that infiltrated and encompassed every aspect of life. Community factors with primitive origin were amalgamated early in the history and became the foundations for the development of patriotism and national consciousness. Continual wars were the major cause of the vicissitudes of the Vietnamese social development history. All the social and economic structures were often dismantled by wars, so the social development could hardly reach its peak. Also because of the destruction of wars, Vietnam has virtually no gigantic cultural and artistic construction, or if any, they could not have been preserved intact.
Vietnam boasts 54 ethnicities living across the country. Each ethnicity has its own cultural colour, thus, the Vietnamese culture is a diversified unification. Apart from the typical Viet-Muong culture, there are other cultural groups like Tay-Nung, Thai, Cham, Hao-Ngai, Mon-Khmer, H’Mong-Dao, and especially Tay Nguyen groups that still maintain fairly diverse and comprehensive traditions of a purely agricultural society that is closely attached to forests and mountains.
The followings are the overview of major cultural aspects:
Philosophy and ideologies
At the start, with primitive and rudimentary cognition of materialism and dialectics, Vietnamese thought was mixed with beliefs. However, originating from agricultural culture that differs from nomadic culture by the appreciation of stillness over movement and closely related to natural phenomena, the Vietnamese philosophy paid special attention to relations that was typified by doctrine of yin and yang and the five basic elements (not exactly the same as the Chinese doctrine) and manifested by the moderate lifestyle tending towards harmony.
Afterwards, the influence of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, that were conciliated and Vietnamized, contributed to the development of the Vietnamese society and culture. Particularly, Zen-Buddhists in the Tran dynasty came up with the interpretation of most philosophical subjects that was set forth by Buddhism (Heart- Buddha, being or not being, life and death) in an original and distinguished way. Although Confucianism flourished afterward, many famous Vietnamese confucianists did not stick bindly to Confucianism and Mencianism, but rather adopted the spirit of Buddhism and Taoism to make their ideology more open, closer to the people and more harmonious with the nature.
Under autocratic dynasties, deep feudal ideologies were imposed on farmers and bound women, however, village democracy and primitive community still existed on the basis of self-supplied agriculture. Farmers’ thoughts that penetrated deeply into the Vietnamese agricultural society had many positive and typical features of the traditional Vietnamese. Farmers were the core of wars of resistance and uprisings against foreign invaders. Many talented generals, topped by Quang Trung Nguyen Hue – the hero of the common people in the 18th century, came from farmers.
The policy that facilitated agriculture and restrained trade, prevailing in the Nguyen dynasty, blocked the development of city-dweller’s consciousness. In the past time, the Vietnamese ranked agriculture and education as their first and second priorities of occupations, while having a low opinion of business people. Other trades were regarded as minor ones, including cultural activities.
In the 19th century when Vietnamese feudalism faded and Chinese civilization declined, Western culture started to penetrate our countries, following the colonialists’ guns. The working class formed at the start of the 20th century as a result of the colonial exploitation programs. Marxism-Leninism was introduces in Vietnam in the ’20s and ’30s, combining with patriotism to become a momentum of historical changes, which led the country up to independence, democracy and socialism. The person representing this era was Ho Chi Minh, who was recognized by the international community and UNESCO as Vietnamese hero of national liberation and great man of culture. The ailing national bourgeoisie could only implement a number of partial reforms in the first half of the 20th century.
That Vietnam did not have its own philosophical and ideological theoretical system and lacked world-class philosophers does not mean that it does not have ways of living and ideologies suitable to its nation.
The agricultural society is characterized by the village community with many prolonged primitive vestiges that have formed the specific characteristics of the Vietnamese. Those were the thoughts of dualism, a concrete way of thinking that was tilted to emotional experiences rather than rationalism and preferred images to concepts. However, it was also a flexible, adaptable, and conciliatory way of thinking. This was a way of living that highly valued emotional ties and attachment to relatives and the community (because “there would be no home in a lost country” and “the whole village rather than a sole roof would be engulfed by flood”). This was a way of behaving toward conciliatory, equilibrium and relations-based settlement of conflicts and disputes. This way of living could cope accordingly with the situation, which many times in the history was successful in using suppleness to prevail over firmness and weakness to resist strength.
Buffalo offreing ritual
On the scale of spiritual values, the Vietnamese highly appreciate “Benevolence” and closely combined it with “Righteousness” and “Virtues”; no benevolence and righteousness are tantamount to no virtues. Nguyen Trai once described the Vietnamese concept of Benevolence and Righteousness as the opposition to fierce violence, which was enhanced to the foundation for the policy of ruling as well as saving the country. The Vietnamese understood that Loyalty meant being loyal to the nation, which was higher than the loyalty to the ruler, and respected Piety without being so bound with the framework of family. Happiness was also among the top social values; people often make compliments on the happiness of a family rather than wealth and social position.
On the road of industrialization, modernization and integration into the international community, Vietnam will have to overcome some shortcomings in its traditional culture like conservatism, and parochialism, egalitarism, and the weakness in practical organization …
The Vietnamese people are realistic, prefering to “eat stodgy food and to wear hard-wearing clothes”. Eating comes first. The Vietnamese eating habit tends towards vegetarianism ; rice and vegetables are the main course of the meal that may be diversified by aquatic products. Boiling is a special way of cooking of the Vietnamese people. Vietnamese people like a synthetic food processing style that involves many materials and ingredients. Today, although meat and fish are the Meat Dishes of the meal, the Vietnamese do not forget pickled egg-plant.
The Vietnamese preferred to wear light, thin, well-ventilated kind of clothing that originated from plants and was suitable for such a tropical country as Vietnam, with grey, indigo and black colours. Men’s clothing changed from loin-cloth with bare upper half of the body to short jackets and Vietnamese traditional trousers (re-designed from Chinese trousers). In the past, women often wore brassieres, skirts and four-piece long dresses that were later modified to the modern ao dai. In general, Vietnamese women adorned themselves subtly and secretively in a society where “virtue is more important than appearance”. Old/time clothing also paid attention to kerchiefs, hats and belts.
The old-style Vietnamese house was related to the watery environment (stilted house with curved roof). Then came thatch-roofed house with clay walls, which were built mostly from wood and bamboo. This kind of house did not stand too high to avoid high winds and storms, and more importantly, the house should face to the South direction to be free from hot and cold weathers. The interior of the house was also not so spacious to leave room for the courtyard, pond, and garden. Also, the Vietnamese thought that “spacious home was no better than sufficient food”. Sizeable ancient architectures were often built shrouded and in harmony with natural environment.
The traditional means of transport is waterways. Ship of all types together with the river and the wharf, are familiar in the Vietnamese geological and humanitarian images.
Vietnamese customs of weddings, funerals, holidays and rituals all are attached to village community. Marriages not only reflecte the lovers’ desire but also had to meet the interests of the family lines, the village; thus, the choice for future bride or bridegroom was done very carefully, which had to go through many formalities from the plighting ceremony, the official proposal to the bride’s family, the wedding to the marriage tie, the ritual of sharing bridal cup of wine, the newly-weds’ first visit to the bride’s family. Besides, the bride had to pay a fine in order for her to be accepted as a new member of the village. Funeral service is also proceeded very thoroughly to express the grief and see off the relative into the other world. The family of the deceased does not have to take care of the service by themselves, they are also given a helping hand by the neighbors.
Vietnam is the country of festivities which take place all year round, especially in spring when there is little farming work. The major festivities are Nguyen Dan (Lunar New Year ), Mid-First month , Han thuc (cold food) , Doan Ngo (double five) , Mid-Seventh month , Mid-Autumn Festival, Ong tao (the god of the kitchen) etc… Each region has its own ritual holidays, the most important of which are agricultural rituals (such as the rituals of praying for rain, getting down to the rice field, and new rice…) and trades’s rituals (like the rituals of copper casting, forging, making fire crackers, and boat racing…). Besides, there are also rituals dedicating to national heroes and religious and cultural services (e.g, Buddhist rituals). Ritual holidays are usually divided into two parts: the service is carried out for blesses and thanksgivings, the holiday is the cultural activities of the community consisting of many folk games and contests.
Beliefs and Religions
The Vietnamese folk beliefs since the ancient time consist of belief in fecundity, worship of nature and worship of man. Human beings need to be reproduced, crops need to be lushly green for the nourishment and development of life, so belief in fecundity came into existence. In Vietnamese, this belief lasted for long in two forms: worshiping male and female genitals (different from India where only male genital was worshipped) and worshiping sexual intercourse (of both human beings and animals; right in Southeast Asia, there are few nations worshiping this act. The vestiges of this belief are found in relics carved on sculptures and stone poles, in decorative patterns in Tay Nguyen sepulchres, in some customs and kinds of dance, particularly in figures and patterns engraved on ancient bronze drums.
Festival ritual at Do Temple
Water-rice agriculture that depended much on natural factors ignited the belief of worshiping nature. In Vietnam, this belief was polytheism and respect for goddess, and worshipp of animals and plants as well. A research book published in 1984 listed 75 goddesses, mostly matriarchal goddesses, also called Mau (ancient people not only worshipped the Creator but also Mau Cuu Trung which was a female Creator, as well as Mau Thuong Ngan, River Goddess and so on). Regarding botany-worshiping beliefs, the rice plant was most venerated, the next were the banyan-tree, the areca-tree, the mulberry tree and the gourd. In respect of animal-worshiping beliefs, unlike nomadic culture that worships fierce wild animals, Vietnamese tend to worship gentle species of animals like stag, deer, frog, especially those which are easy to come by in the riverside regions like water-birds, snakes, and crocodiles. The Vietnamese proclaimed themselves as belonging to the Hong Bang family line and the Tien Rong breed (Hong Bang was the name of a huge species of water-bird, Tien, or Fairy, was deification of an egg-laying species of bird, Rong, or Dragon, was an abstract image of snake and crocodile). The ascending dragon that was born in the water is meaningful and special symbol of the Vietnamese nation.
Among the human-revering beliefs, the custom of worshiping ancestors is the most popular, which nearly become one belief of the Vietnamese (also called Dao Ong Ba in the Cochinchina). The Vietnamese choose the death-day rather than the birthday to hold a commemorative anniversary for the deceased. Every family worships Tho cong, or the God of Home, who takes care of the home and blesses the family. Every village worships its Thanh hoang, the God of the village, who protects and guides the whole village (the Vietnamese always honour the people who rendered distinguished services for villagers or national heroes who were born or died in the village to be their Thanh hoang). The whole nation worships the very first kings, sharing the common ancestors’ death anniversary (the Ritual of Hung Temple). Particularly, the worship of Tu Bat Tu, or the Four Immortal Gods, namely, God Tan Vien (preventing flooding), God Giong (resisting and defeating foreign invaders), God Chu Dong Tu (together with his wife growing out of poverty to consistently build his fortune) and Goddess Lieu Hanh (heavenly princess who left Heaven for the earth in the yearning for happiness) has been regarded as extremely beautiful national values.
Although turning into superstition in some specific cases, folk beliefs have lasted consistently and mixed with orthodox religions.
Therevada Buddhism might have been imported directly into Vietnam from India through sea routes since the 2nd century A.D. Vietnamese Buddhism stays on earth rather than ascends up to heaven, attaches to exorcism and prayers for wealth, happiness and longevity rather than heads toward nirvana. Only when Maharayana Buddhism approached the country from China did Vietnamese monks have the chance to carry out in-depth study of Buddhism; however, separate schools were later formed, such as Truc Lam Buddhist School which attaches importance to the Buddha inside the human heart. In the Ly-Tran dynasties, Buddhism, though having reached its peak, still embraced both Taoism and Confucianism to create a cultural face with “the three religions existing at the same time”. Over ups and downs throughout the history, Buddhism has become absolutely familiar to the Vietnamese; according to the 1993 stastistics, there were up to some 3 million Buddhist believers and some other 10 millions frequently going to the pagoda for worshipping the Buddha.
Under the Chinese domination, Confucianism had yet to gain a position in the Vietnamese society. The official adoption of Confucianism had not been recorded until 1070 when King Ly Thai To built Van Mieu (the Temple of Literature) to worship Chu Cong and Khong Tu (confucius). In the 15th century, due to the need of constructing a unified nation, a centralized administration and a social order, Confucianism took the place of Buddhism to become a national religion under the Le dynasty. Confucianism, mostly Song Confucianism, that took root deep into the social and political structure, the system of education and examinations and the circle of Confucian scholars gradually dominated social and moral life. However, Confucianism was only accepted to Vietnam in specific factors, particularly on politics and morality, rather than its entire system.
Taoism penetrated Vietnam at roughly the end of the 2nd century. Since the Vo Vi (letting things take their own course) doctrine bore the thought of resisting the Chinese rulers, it was used as a weapon against the Northern feudalism. This religion also contained factors of magic and mystery, so it fits human subconscience and primitive beliefs. Many Confucianists also admired Taoism’s tendency of enjoying quietness and joyful leisure. However, Taoism has long been regarded as an extinct religion that only left vestiges in folk beliefs.
Christianity came to Vietnam in the 17th century as an intermediary of the Western culture and colonialism. It made use of the favorable opportunity in which feudalism was in crisis, Buddhism was depraved and Confucianism was in deadlock to become a spiritual relief of a part of the population. However, this religion failed to integrate into the Vietnamese culture for a long time. Christians had to set up an altar dedicated to Jesus Christ right at their homes. Only when the Gospel was introduced into Vietnam, Christianity was able to gain a position. In 1993, there were 5 million Catholics and nearly half a million Protestants.
Foreign religions imported to Vietnam did not exterminate the local folk beliefs, but they mixed with each other to derive specific variants for both sides. For example, Taoism could not lower the women’s role, which was reflected by widespread worship of Mau (Goddess). The features of polytheism, democracy, and community are manifested by the worship of groups of ancestors, and pairs of gods. Entering a pagoda, people can easily recognize that not only Buddhas but also gods and even human are worshiped there. Perhaps, only in Vietnam, there were legends that a toad dares to sue Heaven or a human being marries a fairy. These are the prominent features of Vietnamese beliefs.
There have been many theories regarding the origin of the Vietnamese language. The most persuasive one argues that the Vietnamese language previously belonged to the Mon-Khmer group of the Southeast Asian linguistic system, it was later transformed into Viet-Muong language (or old Vietnamese language) and then separated to form the modern Vietnamese language. In the present-day Vietnamese language, many words have been proved to contain Mon-Khmer roots and to be phonetically and semantically relevant to the Muong language.
Throughout a millennium of Chinese domination and under the Vietnamese feudal dynasties, the official language was the Han, but the Vietnamese always demonstrated its strength for self-preservation and development. The Han language was pronounced in the Vietnamese way, called the Han-Viet way of pronunciation, and Vietnamized in various ways to create many commonly used Vietnamese words. The diverse development of the Vietnamese language brought about the birth of a system of writing scripts transcribing the Vietnamese language on the basis of the Han characters in the 13th century, called the Nom character.
Under the French domination, Han characters were gradually eliminated and replaced by French that was used in administrative, educational and diplomatic languages. Thanks to the National language that boasts the advantages of simple figure, composition, spelling and pronunciation the modern Vietnamese prose was actually formed and then accepted positive influence from the Western cultural language. The National language characters were produced by some Western evangelists including Alexandre de Rhodes; they cooperated with some Vietnamese to transcribe the Vietnamese language on the basis of the Latin alphabet for using in evangelism in the 17th century. The National language characters were completed and popularized to become a significant cultural tool. In late 19th century, publications were published in the National language characters.
After the August 1945 Revolution, the Vietnamese language and the National language characters have seized a dominating position and strongly developed and established itself as a multi-functional language that has been used in every field, every educational level and has reflected every reality of life. Today, thanks to the Revolution, some ethnic minority groups have their own writing scripts.
The Vietnamese language is characterized by mono-phonology with a concrete, abundant, acoustic and imaginary vocabulary and a proportionate, rhythmical, lively, flexible, symbolic and emotional way of expression, which tremendously facilitates artistic and literary creation. The Vietnamese dictionary published by the Center of Lexicography in 1997 consists of 38,410 entries.
Parallel and deeply interacting with other cultural aspects, the Vietnamese literature came into being at an early date, including two major components – folk literature and written literature. Folk literature held a great significance in Vietnam and made immense contribution to preserving and developing the national language as well as nourishing the people’s soul. Folk literary works were diversified by mythologies, epics, legends, humorous stories, riddles, proverbs, folk-songs and so on… with many colourings of Vietnamese ethnic groups.
Written literature was born roughly in the 10th century. Up to the 20th century, there had been two components existing at the same time: works written in the Han characters (with poems and prose demonstrating the Vietnamese soul and realities; thus, they were still regarded as Vietnamese literature) and works written in the Nom character (mostly poems; many great works were handed down to the later generations). Since the ’20s of this century, written literature has been mainly composed in the National language with profound renovations in form and category such as novels, new-style poems, short stories and dramas… and with diversity in artistic tendency. Written literature attained speedy development after the August Revolution, when it was directed by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s guideline and focused on the people’s fighting and working life.
Admittedly, the whole Vietnamese nation likes poetry and composing poems – ranging from kings, mandarins, generals to monks, feudal scholars, and even revolutionaries. A farmer, an old boatman, a soldier all know some six-eight-word meters or satirical verses.
Regarding the content, the mainstream was the unyielding patriotic literature in every time and the anti-feudalist literature that was often expressed through the plight of women. Another important theme was the onslaughts against social vices. Great poets of the nation were all great humanists.
Modern Vietnamese literature has developed from romanticism to realism, from heroism in wartime to all aspects of life, and scoured into ordinary life to find out genuine values of the Vietnamese people.
Classical literature generated such masterpieces as Truyen Kieu (Nguyen Du), Cung oan ngam khuc (Nguyen Gia Thieu), Chinh phu ngam (Dang Tran Con), Quoc am thi tap (Nguyen Trai)… Vietnamese had some brilliant female poets like Ho Xuan Huong, Doan Thi Diem, Ba Huyen Thanh Quan… centuries ago.
In the Vietnamese modern prose, there were authors who could emulate with whoever in the world, namely, Nguyen Cong Hoan, Vu Trong Phung, Ngo Tat To, Nguyen Hong, Nguyen Tuan, Nam Cao… They were sided by excellent poets like Xuan Dieu, Huy Can, Han Mac Tu, Nguyen Binh… Regrettably, great works that faithfully reflect the country and the times have yet to appear.
Vietnam has got some 50 national music instruments, in which the set of percussion instruments is the most popular, diverse and long-lasting such as trong dong (copper drums), cong chieng (gongs), dan da (lithophone), dan t’rung… The set of blowing instruments is represented by flutes and pan-pipes, while the set of string instruments is specified by dan bau and dan day.
The Vietnamese folksongs are rich in forms and melodies of regions across the country, ranging from ngam tho (reciting poems), hat ru (lullaby), ho (chanty) to hat quan ho, trong quan, xoan, dum, vi giam, ca Hue, bai choi, ly. Apart from this, there are also other forms like hat xam, chau van, and ca tru.
Traditional performing arts include cheo and tuong. Water-puppet shows are also a special traditional art that was ignited in the Ly dynasty. At the start of the 20th century, cai luong (reformed theatre) appeared in Cochinchina with melodies of vong co.
The Vietnamese acoustic arts generally have symbolic, expressive and emotional features. Traditional stage relates closely to the audience and is a combination of music and dance forms. The Vietnamese dance has few strong and tough actions, but contains many smooth and curling features with closed feet and a lot of arm-dancing actions.
In Vietnam, the arts of sculpturing on stone, copper and baked clay came into existence very early, dating back to the 10,000 B.C. Later, enameled ceramics, wooden statues, shell-encrusted pictures, lacquers, silk-made pictures and paper-made pictures all attained high degree of artistic development. The Vietnamese plastic arts focus on expressing innermost feelings with simplified forms uses many methods of stylization and emphasis.
There have been 2014 cultural and historical relics have been recognized by the State and other 2 relics, namely, the Old Capital of Hue and the Ha Long Bay, have gained international recognition as the world heritage site. The remaining ancient architectures are mostly pagodas and temples of the Ly-Tran dynasties, palaces and stelas of the Le dynasty, the 18th century’s community houses, citadels and tombs of the Nguyen dynasty and Cham towers.
In the 20th century, in contact with the Western culture, especially after the national independence, many new categories of arts like plays, photography, cinemas, and modern art had taken shape and developed strongly, obtaining huge achievements with the contents reflecting the social and revolutionary realities. Up to 1997, there have been 44 people operating in cultural and artistic fields honored with the Ho Chi Minh Award, 130 others conferred with People’s Artist Honor, and 1011 people awarded with the Excellent Artist Honor. At the start of 1997, there were 191 professional artistic organizations and 26 film studios (including central and local ones). There have been 28 movies, 49 scientific and documentary films receiving international motion picture awards in many countries.
The traditional and national culture in the time of industrialization and modernization is facing tough challenges posed by the market economy as well as the tendency of globalization. Some cultural and artistic branches have been seeking for renovation. The preservation and development of the national culture, the selection of the traditional values and the construction of the new ones have turned the most important than any time in history. The traditional cultural values should be preserved but should be also enriched by the advanced cultural values of the mandkind. Culture should be modernized but should not be separated from the nation . The process of cultural reform is still under way…