Vietnam owes a lot of its cultural identity to the Chinese, who ruled them for a millennium until the 10th century.
That might seem like a long time ago but a number of important qualities were embedded into the culture. Not least are Confucian social and moral ethics that emphasise a simple way of living along with the importance of family and social harmony. Another influence came in the form of the French who colonised southern Vietnam from 1862 and in 1883 gained control over the entire country. They brought with them the Catholic religion and the Latin alphabet.
However the French rule was not welcomed and contested by leader Ho Chi Minh in 1945, leading to an eight-year war before the French were finally forced to leave in 1954. For another 21 years North and South Vietnam lived under different rule and also had to endure the American War before being reunified as the Vietnamese nation in 1976.
In the following socialist era, Vietnam was largely influenced by government-controlled media as foreign cultural influences were shunned. Since the 1990s, Vietnam has seen a greater re-exposure to outside culture and media, but remains a very deeply traditional and fascinating country.
Water puppetry is a form of Vietnamese art that originates from the 10th century and has been passed down by elders in order to preserve it as a cultural art form. It’s most popular in northern Vietnam and can be seen at water puppet theatres such as the one in Hanoi. A split-bamboo screen stands in water and obscures carved wooden puppets, which act out traditional scenes of Vietnamese life.
Although Vietnam has many forms of music – mainly percussive – and dance, the lion dance is the one most often seen at festivals. Originating from China, it’s performed in conjunction with martial arts and acrobatics to ward off evil spirits and will often also be used at the opening of new businesses.
Beliefs and Religion
Vietnamese people generally fall into one of three religious groups – Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism, known in Vietnamese as the Tam Giao, or triple religion. Due to the French influence, Catholicism is also practiced by some.
Irrespective of which religion is held, ancestor worship is common across Vietnamese culture, with most people having an ancestor altar at their home or business. This is a testament of the respect held for parents, elders, and ancestors.
A mix of Buddhist and Confucian religion is the Vietnamese belief that fate in various aspects of life such as wealth, position and marriage is pre-determined. When a person is born there are believed to have their destiny associated with the animal of their birth year, which even affects who they should or shouldn’t marry. For example, a tiger is incompatible with a monkey, and a dragon shouldn’t marry a dog.
• There are a number of customs practised across Vietnam that you should try to stick to when holidaying there. Importantly, as Vietnamese culture is concerned more with status that’s obtained with age and education, rather than with wealth, it’s seen as very serious to insult Vietnamese elders. Even when being seated at a dinner table, you should always allow the eldest person to take their seat first.
• You shouldn’t commit public displays of affection, and do note that men and women don’t traditionally even shake hands with each other. Instead many Vietnamese often greet by bowing slightly, and elders are usually greeted first.
• When pointing, you should use your whole hand rather than just fingers, passing items such as money should be done with both hands, and avoid touching someone’s head or pointing your feet towards them when sitting down as this is incredibly disrespectful.
• Vietnamese people aren’t always all that vocal, and strive to avoid confrontation. A smile is often used instead of thank you, to show modesty, and it’s common not to answer a question if it avoids confrontation.
• Birthdays are seen as a Western custom and aren’t usually celebrated in Vietnam. However weddings and funerals are very important social occasions, with strong traditions.
• Other things it’s good to know are that if you invite someone on an outing, it’s customary for you to pay the bill. You should remove shoes when entering homes or temples, and if you bargain in markets, once you agree on a price you must buy.