Welcome to Vietnam, an ancient country with a complex history and an even more complex culture. Today’s Vietnamese culture is a patchwork of traditions. First, there were the ancient Dong Son communities from the millennium before Christ. Add ancient and modern Chinese influences, leftover traces from the French colonial period. Include a mishmash of traditions borrowed from communist countries like the Soviet Union and Cuba. Notice additions from modern exposure to Western media. Together, these influences have created a culture where agriculture, family, loyalty, and beauty meld in an emerald paradise.
Vietnam is a multi-ethnic country with 54 distinct groups, each with distinct language, lifestyle, and cultural heritage. The largest ethnic group in Vietnam is Kinh or Viet; and the other ethnic groups are called “dan toc thieu so” (literally “minority people”).
Vietnamese people proudly consider themselves as descendant of dragons and angels. According to legends (such as those stated in Linh Nam Chich Quai and Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu), Lac Long Quan, a dragon lord, married Au Co, a female fairy. Au Co then gave birth to a sac containing one hundred eggs, from which hatched one hundred children. Their eldest son founded the country named Van Lang and ruled as Hung King, who is now widely considered one of the first kings of Vietnam.
The landscape of Vietnam
To experience Vietnam is to get a taste of those things and more. Travel to Vietnam to experience placid rice paddies, bustling cities, and industrious villages. If you are doing business in Vietnam, you will spend most your time in the cities: Ho Chi Minh City, the Da Nang, or Hanoi. There’s no reason that you cannot get out and see more of the country.
There are many amazing geographic attractions to discover when you travel to Vietnam. Explore the sinuous coastline of the South China Sea, more than 2,000 miles from the Gulf of Tonkin to the Gulf of Thailand. Inland Vietnam features hills, mountain ranges, highlands thick with trees and tropical lowlands. Only about 20 percent of the country is land flat enough to farm effectively. The Red River Delta is growing larger every year and is the cradle of ancient Vietnamese culture. However, the Mekong Delta in the south is the “rice bowl” of the country. More than just rice, the region also grows corn, fruit, raises fish, and more.
If you are planning to travel to Vietnam, try to visit it in festival time, such as Mid-Autumn Festival (Tet Trung Thu) and Lunar New Year (Tet) so that you can enjoy more the beauty of Vietnamese culture.
(I will write about places to visit in Vietnam soon)
Exotic traditional fashions
As you travel in Vietnam, see villagers and farmers in traditional Vietnamese dress. You’ll to see the traditional non la, the bamboo conical hat anywhere you travel in Vietnam. In the cities you’ll mostly see the high school-aged girls wearing them, with the ao dai as part of their school uniform. Non la will be more common as you travel in rural areas. They’re worn to keep sun and rain out of the faces of farmers, fishermen, anyone working outside. You’ll see the fancier versions in villages at festivals or more formal occasions.
Also, you can usually see the ao dai, a symbol of Vietnamese culture, worn mostly by women in today’s Vietnam. High school girls, in particular, wear this 18th century design as their school uniform. Business women also use the dress in formal meeting and ceremony.
Along-side ao dai, yem, the traditional backless dress has stood the test of time and remained a quintessential piece of inherent Vietnamese style. However, you may not have chance to see people wearing this ancient yet attractive design.
Taste the flavors of Vietnam
Vietnamese cuisine is worth traveling to Vietnam. Start your day with a bowl of authentic pho, the noodle soup taking the world by storm. Refuel for more adventures with a bowl of another rich and complex soup, bun thang. If you’re lucky enough to visit at the end of the winter, celebrate Tet, the Lunar New Year. Then you can experience a plethora of tasty tidbits. These foods are designed to set you up for a prosperous new year, from banh chung to xio gac, nom, and mut.
There are regional differences in Vietnamese cuisine. Climate and available ingredients make some of those differences. Expect freshness in the food in southern Vietnam. The south has a warmer climate and more fertile farm soil. There’s a wider variety of fruits and vegetables available. As well as generous amounts of garlic, shallots, and fresh herbs. The addition of sugar and coconut milk reflect a preference for sweeter flavors in southern Vietnamese cuisine.
Meals in northern Vietnam are more influenced by Chinese cooking. The flavors are more subtle and light. The dishes are prepared with precision, layering sophisticated flavors. In the central region, the food is spicier, bolder, relying on a lot of chili peppers. There is a marked French influence in both flavor and technique. Central Vietnamese cuisine is also noted for shrimp sauces and for complex meals with several small courses. These complex meals are a throwback to the ancient Nguyen dynasty, based in Hue. In addition, there’s also a culture of tasty street food to be had.
The importance of symbolism
Many of the traditions still practiced in Vietnamese culture have their roots in ancient times. Various plants and animals are important symbols in Vietnamese culture and tradition. The lotus flower, for instance, symbolizes the ability of the Vietnamese people to remain pure and upright despite difficulties. Similarly, bamboo’s vertical growth and strength represent the way Vietnamese stand and never surrender.
In Vietnamese culture, various colors have various meanings. In particular, yellow and black are for funerals while red signifies luck and is a sign of success. It is traditional to give gifts of money at weddings, graduations, as well as for children during Tet. The money is placed in a red envelope to signify a future of wealth and success. This gift is “li xi” or lucky money.
The role of Confucianism in Vietnamese culture
Vietnamese culture is highly influenced by Confucian teachings. Throughout Vietnamese society you can see the emphasis on duty, loyalty, and respect for elders. Communities are organized around a mutual sense of obligation to each other. You’ll see children deferring to their parents. In Vietnam, education is of premier importance and teachers are much respected.
The principles of Confucianism will be clear in Vietnamese etiquette practiced. The oldest person in any group is the first seated, the first served, and the first to be asked for an opinion. You will see that many Vietnamese are concerned about what is best for their family, school, company, or community). That matters more than their individual needs. A great deal of energy ensures that both the individual and the groups to which they belong are seen as dignified and prestigious.
Importance of family and ancestor worship
Family is the core of Vietnamese life and, unlike in most of American culture, usually includes the extended family. Under Vietnamese culture, it is not unusual for three or more generations to live in the same house. Children defer to their parents and any other adults, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. These family units are generally patrilineal. When a son marries, he brings his wife to live in his parents’ household. Families work to make everyone in the family successful.
Babies are generally passed around and cared for by many family members. Women are usually the ones taking care of kids, but everyone will talk to and play with the babies. Once a child turns five or six years they learn their place in the family. The learn to respect their elders, and to work for the good of the family.
Most Vietnamese families practice a form of ancestor worship. They perform rituals of remembrance on the anniversary of the death of a family member. The rituals also happen during some holidays throughout the year, including Tet. Families offer tasty foods and other gifts at their home altars and at the graves of relatives. It is important to note that the Vietnamese are not exactly worshiping their ancestors. They aren’t looking for how their ancestors can help them, but for ways to honor them in word and action.
Religion and beliefs
Currently many people in Vietnam do not claim affiliation to any religion. However, some practice tam giao (three teachings), which is a traditional folk religion that incorporates Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, playing an important part in the ancient culture of Vietnam. Other Vietnamese are Buddhist or Catholic. In addition, there are small percentage of Muslims, Bahais, and Hindu.
Vietnamese Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Officially, the communist government of Vietnam is atheist. Some consider the Vietnamese practice of ancestor worship to be a religion even though it is more of a cultural tradition. In Vietnamese culture, families are nowadays not so much worshiping their ancestors, but honoring them.
Arranged marriages used to be the norm in Vietnam. Today, like many places throughout the world, such practice is rarely seen and accepted in modern Vietnamese culture. Many couples will still have an engagement ceremony about six months before the wedding. Some other traditions may depend on the religion of the family. Many couples incorporate Vietnamese traditions with Western traditions.
Traditionally, a Buddhist monk chooses the date for a wedding. They look for a date that will be the most auspicious beginning for the new couple. From there, a traditional Vietnamese wedding consists of several ceremonies. One ceremony to ask permission to receive the bride. One to actually receive the bride from her home. The last ceremony brings the bride to the groom’s house. These three ceremonies are essentially a procession from the groom’s house to the bride’s house then back to the groom’s house. It includes the bearing of five, seven, or nine gifts in lacquer boxes covered in red cloth. The gifts can include fabric, jewelry for the bride, fruit, cakes, roast pig, etc. Many Vietnamese couples are performing these small ceremonies in place of an engagement party. Then, in the Western way, they have only a Buddhist or church ceremony and the reception on the wedding day.
If you are interested in marriage customs and wedding in Vietnam, check out this post.
Language and communication
Although Vietnamese is the official language of the country there are three regional dialects (northern, central, and southern). All three are similar enough to understand each other. The base of the language is complex. There are six distinctive tones for each vowel. That means the meaning of a single word, ma, can mean ghost, mother, or young rice plant based on the tone of the vowel. This can be difficult for non-Vietnamese speakers to grasp as they are trying to learn the language.
When traveling in Vietnam, you will find that many people in the cities speak English. It is important to know that there are still quite a few who don’t. In the rural areas, it may be difficult to find English-speakers. Due to the history of occupation, some Vietnamese will also be able to speak French or Chinese. If you are going to travel or do business outside the urban areas, find a Vietnamese translator to help you.
More important than the actual language, however are the cultural expectations of the Vietnamese. In American culture, we often prefer for communication to be informal, finding that friendlier. Vietnamese etiquette requires a more formal tenor to show proper respect. It is important to know that many Vietnamese will not express disagreement. Instead they keep silent, change the subject, or use a more neutral phrase like “interesting” or “we’ll see.”
Another cultural more is to nod or say “yes” or “ya” throughout a conversation. In Vietnamese culture, this practice shows that they are listening as you speak. Don’t assume that means that they understand or agree. It’s simply a way to show that they are paying attention. Also, a smile does not always mean agreement. In Vietnam it can also signify embarrassment, disbelief, mild disagreement, appreciation, or apology.
The formality of Vietnamese society is also clear in non-verbal communications. Some non-verbal rules in Vietnamese culture are counter-intuitive for a traveler used to the American culture. In particular, the meaning of direct eye contact different. In the United States, we expect people to maintain eye contact during conversation as a sign of respect. In the Vietnamese culture, it is disrespectful. You should avoid eye contact with anyone older than you, of a higher status than you in any way, or of someone of the opposite sex.
While Americans often give someone a friendly pat on the back or pat a child on the head. Both of those actions are frowned upon in Vietnam. Patting someone on the back, especially someone who is older or of a higher status, is disrespectful in Vietnamese etiquette.
Visiting a Vietnamese home
It is important to understand Vietnamese culture to impress your friends or partners, or just simply to avoid awkward moments. When you receive an invitation to visit a Vietnamese home, always bring a small gift, wrapped in colorful paper. Sweets, flowers, fruit, incense, decorative soaps, or framed pictures are appropriate gifts. It’s also appropriate to bring a gift to a child or older person in the family. Avoid anything black and stay away from any type of yellow flowers or chrysanthemums because of their use in funerals. Do not expect them to open the gift in front of you. The Vietnamese consider that greedy and rude, but don’t think that they aren’t grateful.
If the host asks you to stay for a meal, it is an honor. Be sure to wait until someone tells you where to sit; the oldest person in attendance should sit first. Most meals are served family-style and when you pass food, be sure to use both hands. In Vietnam, it is considered polite to hold your rice bowl in your hand, close to your mouth while eating. If you are going to speak or aren’t eating, your chopsticks should rest on the table or on a special chopstick rest. At the end of the meal, put your chopsticks flat across your bowl. Never stick your chopsticks vertically in your bowl. That’s considered bad luck as it resembles the incense burned at funerals.
Forestry, fishermen, and farmers
The largest economic sector in Vietnam relies on the natural world around them. Forestry is one of the top industries in the country. As you travel through Vietnam, you won’t see a lot of old growth forests. Due to over-production of timber before the 1990s, Vietnam put restrictions on the kinds and amounts of wood that could be harvested. They also began a tree-planting program. Throughout the country you’ll see the effects of their reforestation projects.
The coastlines, rivers, and lakes bring tourists eager to experience their beauty. They also account for the second largest industry: seafood. Shrimp and catfish (a different breed than those caught in the U.S.) are the most common catches. Keep that in mind as you’re ordering meals. These types of seafood are widely available in the complex dishes of Vietnamese cuisine.
The third largest part of the agricultural sector is what most people think of when they think of Vietnam: rice. Vietnam’s rice tradition is ancient. According to legend, the Rain-Shielding Goddess shielded Vietnam’s most ancient ancestors from torrential rains. She fashioned the first non la hat. She then taught the people how to grow rice. The non la appears on the Trong Dong Ngoc Lu drum, as well as on the Thap Dong Dao Thinh, a bronze jar from the Dong Son people. This art dates from 2,500-3,000 years ago. That means the Vietnamese have been growing rice for at least that long. The vast, emerald green lagoons are a common sight throughout Vietnam, just as they have been for thousands of years. Families have been producing rice this way for generations.
Vietnam’s artistic history is just as rich and ancient as its cultural history. Modern Vietnamese art and literature show the influence of their long-term domination by the Chinese and the French. Both art and literature maintain some characteristics that make it uniquely Vietnamese.
One of the original decorative motifs in ceramics is a woven geometric pattern. These motifs appear in ceramics as far back as the Neolithic period. These patterns first happened when artisans used woven baskets as the framework for earthenware jars. The geometric motifs continued as they began working with metals during the Bronze Age. In this same time, artists began to incise pictures of daily life. to the geometric patterns. The famous Dong Son bronze drums include depictions of war, animals, musicians, and more.
While the Chinese were in control of the country, Vietnamese culture was deeply influenced. Accordingly, Vietnamese artists adopted some of Chinese techniques and added them with their own traditions to create newer techniques. Soon, the invention of the potter’s wheel made more graceful shapes possible. The potters refined the use of the potter’s wheel and added various colors of glaze. This allowed them to produce slimmer pieces in more energetic colors. This style became typical of Vietnamese pottery.
The French brought with them the long tradition of French art. Vietnamese artists began to adapt French techniques to traditional Vietnamese materials. They adopted French artistic styles and applied them to silk, lacquer, ceramics, etc.
The architecture of Vietnam has had a similar trajectory. Based on the depictions on the Dong Son drums, early Vietnamese lived in houses built on stilts. As you travel in Vietnam you can see a mixture of architecture. You’ll see modern European villas, theaters, and government buildings. You’ll see the Chinese-inspired Imperial City of the Nguyen Dynasty. You’ll see the Confucian Temple of Literature, Van Mieu, a mixture of traditional Vietnamese elements and Chinese influences.
There are distinct Vietnamese arts which are now widely known and considered important parts of the Vietnamese cultural herritage, such as:
- Imperial Court music: Also referred to as “Nha nhac”, including court music from the Tran dynasty on to the Nguyen dynasty, playing an integral part of the rituals of the Imperial court of Vietnam.
- Ca tru: An ancient form of chamber music, which was most enjoyed by scholars and bureaucrats. It was tied falsely with prostitution in the 20th century , but recently appreciated and recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
- Woodcut painting: an internationally recognized symbol of Vietnamese culture; Dong Ho, the village famous for its traditional woodblock prints, is a recommended place to visit and buy souvenir if you travel to Vietnam.
- Water puppetry: a well-recognized Vietnamese art with puppets acting on the water, and the puppeteers manipulating them behind the scene with long poles hidden beneath the water.
Vietnamese literature shows similar influences from Chinese and French culture. There are two general categories of literature: native oral poetry tradition and written literature. The indigenous poetic tradition hasn’t been as influenced by other cultures the way written literature has. Instead, the oral tradition has had a huge impact on those later, written artifacts.
The oral tradition consists of four basic genres. Ca dao are folk ballads sung in the first person. Tuc-ngu are customary words, what we might call proverbs. The northern ca tru are ceremonial songs sung as third person tales. The southern vong co are echoes of the past, songs that tell stories of Vietnamese history. Below is a video of Hoai Lam, a famous singer in Vietnam performing vong co in his show:
The Vietnamese written tradition began with the use of Chinese ideograms. Eventually they created a demotic system of writing called Chu Nom. Later, an alphabetic system called Quoc-Ngu was invented and became popular. In Vietnamese culture and history, there is a rich tradition of short stories, novels, essays, plays, and more. Poetry, however, is the most beloved of the literary art forms in Vietnam. Almost anyone you encounter, fisherman, fireman, farmer, or philosopher will be able to recite a few stanzas of traditional Vietnamese poetry.