Vietnam is rich in traditional arts and crafts. Many have their origins in other traditions, Chinese, Indian, Malay, European, and so on, but over the centuries they have evolved into something distinctly Vietnamese.
Vietnamese lacquerware is a good example of the evolution of a craft. Introduced into Vietnam from China, the skill of creating highly-polished articles by coating them with several layers of resin developed into sophisticated art. The brilliant colours and gilded embellishments in pagodas and temples, delicate items of polished furniture, large wall-hung artworks, and tourist souvenirs are all being created by modern craftspeople, and show influences from all over Asia and beyond.
Wood and stone carving
The tradition of wood carving can be seen in Vietnamese statuary, furniture, architecture and ornaments. Typically, they are heavily incised and often stained to very dark colours or lacquered. Inlaying, usually with mother of pearl, is also a highly-developed Vietnamese craft.
An abundance of high-grade limestone and the early influences of the Hindu motifs of the Cham people have encouraged a long tradition stone carving. In the past, the craft was closely associated with embellishments to royal and religious buildings, but is now more often expressed in the form of public statuary. The fine work in the large cities shows a variety of styles from classic styles through Soviet realism to modern art.
A particularly Vietnamese tradition is the ‘craft village’, small communities where the inhabitants work together to manufacture particular products such as knives, rush mats, bamboo birdcages, ceramics, rice wine, and dozens of other commonplace and unusual articles. Most craft villages are in the north, mainly clustered around Hanoi.
The richness and diversity of ethnic craft in Vietnam can be seen in many shops and galleries in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Advanced skills include embroidery, batik, appliqué work and different styles of weaving, often with highly stylised patterns, as well as intricate jewellery, usually fashioned from silver and local gemstones.
Both the mainstream and ethnic musical traditions in Vietnam are associated with religious ceremonial and ritual. The Kinh majority group has a musical tradition stretching the back to the lithophones and stone gongs of the ancient past, and the magnificent ‘rain drums’ of the Dong Son people that are on view in the museums of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Cham music and songs are part of that tradition, as is the Chinese oriented classical forms linked to the Imperial Court.
Architecture in Vietnam is something of a hotchpotch of styles, but most constructions can be included in five main categories – vernacular, Chinese, ethnic, colonial and modern.
Where are all the old buildings?
Despite its extensive history, few buildings in Vietnam are more than a hundred years old, although there are some notable exceptions. Unlike Europeans, Asian people do not venerate old buildings. Even in the recent past, when a house, a temple, or a pagoda fell into disrepair, it was either knocked down and replaced, or extensively renovated. When a Vietnamese person says a building is ‘old’, he or she means that its original purpose has been preserved on that site, not the building itself. Recent exposure to organisations with a mandate to conserve tangible cultural relics has led to a greater concern to retain the original integrity of old buildings, but most of the skills and knowledge of the craftspeople who built them have lost.
Vernacular Vietnamese architecture
Vernacular Vietnamese buildings are distinctive- unlike most of the rest of Asia, they have a massive wooden framework, rather than the lightweight ‘stilt’ method used elsewhere. Good examples can be seen all over the country, and particularly in the villages around Hanoi. Larger public buildings, such as ‘communal houses’, are also of wooden construction. Stone and brick were reserved for royal or significant religious buildings. Nearly all vernacular buildings were single-storey, with heavy flat-tiled roofs to withstand typhoons. None had ceilings or chimneys.
Traditional Chinese architecture
The Chinese influence on Vietnamese architecture is seen most clearly in pagodas and palaces. The distinctive roofs with elevated hip rafters and half-round tiles, heavy ornamentation and lavish use of embellishments and motifs are distinctive features. However, although superficially similar to their Chinese antecedents, the architectural details of Vietnamese pagodas differ greatly. However, the layout, orientation, statues, steles and other external elements of pagodas are usually Chinese in origin.
Ethnic vernacular architecture
Vietnam has many distinct ethnic groups, and many have preserved their indigenous architecture, some of which is highly attractive. The 30m long sweeping straw roofs of the Ba Na ‘rong’ houses and the E De long houses that sometimes extend over 100m are particularly interesting.
Colonial French architecture
Vietnam’s colonial buildings are more than a straightforward replica of French architecture. Adapting to a very different climate led to many distinctive features, making the style into a genre in its own right. Good examples of colonial buildings can be found all over the country, but especially in Hanoi, Da Lat and Hai Phong. The General Post Office and the Town Hall in Ho Chi Minh City, the many mansions and the Opera House in Hanoi, and the interior of the Municipal Theatre in Hai Phong are all splendid examples.
Modern architecture in Vietnam
Heavy taxes on the frontage of old vernacular town houses led to the long, thin ‘tube’ houses of Hanoi and Hoi An. Today, spiralling land values and status has placed a premium upon height. Narrow houses built on a handkerchief of land rise as much as seven or eight stories to overtake the neighbours. They are often built in a strange pastiche of French architecture with ornate balconies, cupolas and decorations fashioned in cement and concrete and painted in pastel colours. High ceilings, ceramic tiled floors and large windows reflect the climate, but the extensive use of wrought iron screens and shutters on windows, and metal gates and doors, are the response to a high level of burglary!
Modern public architecture
Outside the towns and cities, public buildings tend to be functional rectangular buildings with little architectural merit. Particularly in Hanoi, but also in Ho Chi Minh City and other cities, there are several interesting examples of Soviet architecture dating back to the post-French war period when the influence of the USSR was at its strongest in Vietnam. Good examples are the State Bank, a blend of Soviet and oriental styles, the People’s Committee building, typical of the Soviet ‘brutalism’ architectural period, and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. All three are in central Hanoi.
More recent public and commercial building architectural styles have varied from the pseudo-classical façade of the Trang Tien Plaza shopping centre to the futuristic Sofitel Plaza Hotel, both in Hanoi. The glass and concrete high-rise towers, malls and office blocks of Ho Chi Minh City tend to be closer to mainstream international traditions
Education has always been valued in Vietnam – Hanoi’s ‘Temple of Literature’ (Van Mieu) was founded in the 11th century and is one of the oldest universities in the world – and today’s level of literacy compares favourably with fully developed countries.
Although it has a rich oral folk tradition, much of the early written literary heritage was written in Chinese ideograms (chu nho). In the 13th century, the Vietnamese designed their own symbols (chu nom), but these were used only for poetry until the French introduced the concept of prose. Today’s Romanised script was adopted in 1920 – Vietnamese literature in the form of prose is still in its infancy!
In the past, traditional music played an important role in religious ceremonies, festivals and as an accompaniment to drama and dance, and was based upon the pentatonic scale. Much of the tradition has been maintained, often by amateur enthusiasts. Tourism is also stimulating renewed interest in the old forms of musical expression.
The monochord (dan bau) is a single-string instrument unique to Vietnam. By varying the strings tension, an expert using a plectrum can produce a remarkable range of tones and effects stretching over three octaves.
Other unusual instruments include a sixteen-string zither (dan tranh), a three-string lute (dan day) and a two-string vertical fiddle (dan nhi). Wind instruments include the notoriously difficult ‘double trumpet’ (ken doi), a sort of twin-reed oboe with two pipes, each with seven holes.
Vietnam’s oldest song tradition is ‘alternate singing’ (quan ho) that still thrives in the Red River Delta and among ethnic minorities. Originally, courtship rituals, a couple sang unaccompanied, passing the lyrics back and forth.
‘Chau Van’ is ancient sacred music used to invoke the spirits during shamanic rituals. The music is hypnotic, designed to induce a trance.
‘Ca Tru’ songs date back to the 15th C. They are lyrical, often based upon poetry, and traditionally sung by a woman. Clicks and clacks accompany the centuries old ballads. Although rare today, Ca Tru is similar to a Hue song tradition that is still popular today.
Dance is predominantly a folk tradition, still practised in ethnic communities and remote villages. However, the custom is waning and efforts are being made to conserve the dances that remain and, where feasible, revive those that have already disappeared.
Vietnam has a long theatrical tradition. ‘Hat Cheo’, a form of popular opera, has been performed on the Red River Delta for at least a thousand years. Feudal in origin, its free form combining dance, song, mime and poetry with a comic narrator, was used by the peasants to mock their masters, and later, the French. A Cheo ensemble still performs regularly in Hanoi.
The highly stylised ‘Hat Tuong’ was a development of the Chinese classical Beijing opera, dealing with historic events and epics and based on Confucian traditions. After a brief revival as a propaganda vehicle for the communist movement, it has now fallen out of favour.
However, ‘Hat Cai Luong’, a comparatively recent theatre originating the south of the country, remains popular thanks to a combination of historical drama with populist themes of murder, drugs, incest, vengeance and so on. It is something of a theatrical melange, mixing traditional and modern in short scenes with frequent references to contemporary issues.
A more modern version, called ‘Hat Kich Noi’ uses modern events and stories to deliver propaganda in an entertaining form.
The famous ‘water puppets’
Water puppetry (Roi Nuoc) is a unique North Vietnamese tradition. Records show that it was being performed as early as 1121 AD: several troupes are still active and performances take place daily in Hanoi. The puppeteers are hidden behind a curtain up to their waists in water and manipulate the puppets on long rods, creating the illusion that they are gliding across the water. A performance consists of a succession of short scenes of rural life, and is a highly entertaining and amusing introduction to the Vietnamese peasant tradition.
Particularly in the cities, traditional medicine has been largely superseded by Western methods and treatments. However, it is still popular for particular conditions and in rural areas.
There are many folk ‘remedies’. For example, for stomach ache, some locks of hair must be pulled out, or the spine should be sharply pinched. A poultice of betel juice and tobacco will control acne. A treatment for pimples was to marinate silkworms in alcohol, grill them to ashes, crush them, add some liquid – and then drink the concoction!
The traditional healer
If such remedies failed, a ‘physician’ was called. This would be someone who had learned the skills and knowledge of traditional medicine under a ‘master’ (the teaching of medicine as an academic discipline is a recent innovation in Vietnam). He, for physicians were nearly always men, was also a pharmacist who examined, diagnosed and supplied medication to the patient. A physician was highly respected and unpaid, but earned an income by selling medicine.
The early physicians’ knowledge regarding anatomy and physiology was of Chinese origin. Although Vietnamese traditional medicine still draws heavily upon the Taoist beliefs of Yin and Yang and the harmony of natural elements as well as divination and astrology, modern traditional physicians are developing their own approach.
The basics of Vietnamese traditional medicine
Vietnamese traditional medicine is based on two natural elements – the ‘duong’ (the male principle, or vital heat, or active fluid) and the ‘am’ (the female principle, or radical humour, or passive fluid). The perfect balance of these two elements will result in good health.
If vital heat is dominant, the system will be in a state of ‘hot essence’. If radical humour is in control, the body suffers from the effects of ‘cold essence’. The focus of Vietnamese traditional medicine is to determine the ‘heat’ of the patient’s ‘essence’ because all medicines are deemed to have a hot, cold, or temperate action.
The ‘duong’ is located in the abdomen, and the ‘am’ in the brain and spinal cord – the three ‘heat centres’. The ‘duong’ controls the gall bladder, spleen, small and large intestines, bladder and left kidney, and the ‘am’ controls the heart, liver, lungs, stomach and right kidney.
The three ‘heat centres’ control the flow of blood and the digestion, and communicate with each other via channels that carry the vital heat and the radical humour. There are pulse points on the body’s network of channels where the physician can detect 24 different types of pulse, all equally important.
The diagnosis is made by feeling the pulses, using the left hand for the right side of the body and vice versa and is corroborated by external indications from an examination of the tongue, mouth, eyes, ears, nostrils and skin coloration.
Once the diagnosis is complete, the physician would prepare the correct combination of ingredients to bring the ‘duong’ and ‘am’ back into balance, thereby effecting a cure. The ingredients would comprise Chinese herbs, flowers, leaves, roots, barks, and grains, and plants and minerals from the north of Vietnam. Other ingredients included such items as deer horn, tiger bones, bear gall, rhinoceros and elephant skin, snakes, earthworms, silkworms, and so on.
Vietnamese traditional medicine in the 21st century
Nowadays, many of the more exotic ingredients are no longer used, but the diagnosis and treatment is more or less the same. However, the cost of treatment is no longer cheap. Whereas traditional medicine was once the medicine of the poor, it is now more likely to be the middle classes and foreigners who find their way to the traditional physician.
Poor people who can afford to self-medicate using foreign or domestically produced drugs and antibiotics usually rely upon the advice of the pharmacist. Among wealthier groups, acculturation and local doctors with only limited medical knowledge have combined to create a major problem of over-prescribing ‘Western’ drugs.
Those who don’t have enough money for medicine, or an exemption card from their local authority, use folk remedies and make do the best they can.
There is now increasing interest in using traditional medicine to supplement treatment of chronic illnesses, such as AIDS and cancer. Traditional treatments are benign, and seem to have therapeutic benefits in calming patients and restoring their confidence, perhaps because the methods and medicines are so deeply rooted in the Vietnamese culture.