Exploring Vietnam | Asia Homepage | The World
Although many westerners still imagine Vietnam through the lens of war, it is in reality a country filled with captivating natural beauty and tranquil village life. Its highlands and rainforest regions, far from being devastated, continue to yield new species and team with exotic wildlife. Its islands and beaches are among the finest in all of Southeast Asia, and its cuisine is very possibly the most delicious you will ever find. Over two decades have passed since Vietnam was officially united, and in that time it has done a remarkable job of healing its wounds. Today, this gracious and graceful country is an outstanding travel destination.
Location, Geography, & Climate
Shaped like an elongated S, Vietnam stretches the length of the Indochinese Peninsula and covers a surface area of 128,000 square miles--making it roughly the size of Italy or, in the U.S., New Mexico. China lies to the north, Laos and Cambodia to the west, and the South China Sea to the east.
Topographically, Vietnam is a verdant tapestry of soaring mountains, fertile deltas, primeval forests inhabited by exotic fauna, sinuous rivers, mysterious caves, otherworldly rock formations, and heavenly waterfalls and beaches. Beyond nature, the curious and open-minded visitor will find in Vietnam a feast of culture and history.
For convenience, the country can be thought of as comprising three unique areas: north, central, and south. The north is known for its alpine peaks, the Red River Delta, the plains of Cao Bang and Vinh Yen, enchanting Halong Bay, and historic Hanoi, as well as for the diversity of its ethnolinguistic minorities.
Central Vietnam, also home to many ethnic minorities, is characterized by high temperate plateaus rich in volcanic soil and by spectacular beaches, dunes, and lagoons. It is also the location of the ancient imperial city of Hue. In the South, visitors encounter modern life in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the fertile alluvial delta of the Mekong River. Vietnam's territory also encompasses a large continental shelf and thousands of archipelagic islands.
Vietnam's climate is as complex as its topography. Although the country lies entirely within the tropics, its diverse range of latitude, altitude, and weather patterns produces enormous climatic variation. North Vietnam, like China, has two basic seasons: a cold, humid winter from November to April, and a warm, wet summer for the remainder of the year. Summer temperatures average around 70 degrees Fahrenheit (about 22 C), with occasional typhoons to keep things exciting. The northern provinces of Central Vietnam share the climate of the North, while the southern provinces share the tropical weather of the South. South Vietnam is generally warm, the hottest months being March through May, when temperatures rise into the mid-90's (low-30's C). This is also the dry season in the south, followed by the April-October monsoon season.
Legend has it that Vietnam's origin lay in the harmonious union of lac Long Quan, King of the Sea, and Au Co, Princess of the Mountains. Real life was not so paradisical, as Vietnam's early history--like its recent history--is characterized by a nearly continuous struggle for autonomy. First came an entire millenium of Chinese domination, which was finally thrown off in the 9th century. External control was imposed once again in the 19th century, when Vietnam was occupied by the French.
French rule lasted until WWII, when the country was invaded by Japan. At the war's end the predominantly Communist Viet Minh, which had led the resistance movement against the Japanese, declared the country's independence. The French Indochina War ensued, until France admitted defeat in 1954, and the Geneva Accords left Vietnam divided into a Communist north and an anti-Communist south. By this time the U.S. had replaced the French as the primary sponsor of the anti-Communist government. Tension between north and south mounted over the next few years, until in 1964 full scale war erupted. The conflict lasted for the next eight years, and involved hundreds of thousands of troops from the U.S. and other countries. In 1973 a cease-fire agreement allowed the U.S. the opportunity to withdraw its troops, and in 1975 the southern capital of Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese. An extended period of political repression followed, prompting massive emigration from the country. In 1991, with the fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War, many western powers re-established diplomatic and trade relations with Vietnam. The last country to do so, in 1995, was the U.S.
The richness of Vietnam's origins is evident throughout its culture. Spiritual life in Vietnam is a grand panoply of belief systems, including Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Tam Giao (literally 'triple religion'), which is a blend of Taoism, popular Chinese beliefs, and ancient Vietnamese animism.
The most important festival of the year is Tet, a week-long event in late January or early February that heralds the new lunar year and the advent of spring. Celebration consists of both raucous festivity (fireworks, drums, gongs) and quiet meditation. In addition to Tet, there are about twenty other traditional and religious festivals each year.
Vietnamese architecture expresses a graceful aesthetic of natural balance and harmony that is evident in any of the country's vast numbers of historic temples and monasteries. The pre-eminent architectural form is the pagoda, a tower comprised of a series of stepped pyramidal structures and frequently adorned with lavish carvings and painted ornamentation. Generally speaking, the pagoda form symbolizes the human desire to bridge the gap between the constraints of earthly existence and the perfection of heavenly forces. Pagodas are found in every province of Vietnam. One of the most treasured is the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue, founded in 1601 and completed more than two hundred years later. In North Vietnam, the pagodas that serve as the shrines and temples of the Son La mountains are especially worth visiting. In South Vietnam, the Giac Lam Pagoda of Ho Chi Minh City is considered to be the city's oldest and is notable as well for its many richly-carved jackwood statues.
As a language, Vietnamese is exceptionally flexible and lyrical, and poetry plays a strong role in both literature and the performing arts. Folk art, which flourished before French colonization, has experienced a resurgence in beautiful woodcuts, village painting, and block printing. Vietnamese lacquer art, another traditional medium, is commonly held to be the most original and sophisticated in the world. Music, dance, and puppetry, including the uniquely Vietnamese water puppetry, are also mainstays of the country's culture.
Although rice is the foundation of the Vietnamese diet, the country's cuisine is anything but bland. Deeply influenced by the national cuisines of France, China, and Thailand, Vietnamese cooking is highly innovative and makes extensive use of fresh herbs, including lemon grass, basil, coriander, parsley, laksa leaf, lime, and chili. Soup is served at almost every meal, and snacks include spring rolls and rice pancakes. The national condiment is nuoc mam, a piquant fermented fish sauce served with every meal. Indigenous tropical fruits include bananas, pineapples, coconuts, lychees, melons, mandarin oranges, grapes, and exotic varieties like the three-seeded cherry and the green dragon fruit.
Today there are about 75 million people in Vietnam. Eighty percent of these are ethnic Vietnamese, while the remaining twenty percent comprises more than fifty separate ethnic groups. About seven million of these ethnic minorities are members of the hill tribes or montagnards (French for mountain people), making their homes and livelihoods in the spectacular mountains of the north and central highlands. Among the many languages spoken in Vietnam are Vietnamese, Chinese, English, French, and Russian.
Exploring Vietnam | Asia Homepage | The World
Copyright (c) 1997-2005 interKnowledge Corp. All rights reserved.
POPULATION: 70–80 million
RELIGION: Confucianism; Taoism; Buddhism, Roman Catholicism; Cao Daism
1 • INTRODUCTION
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, commonly known as Vietnam, is located in Southeast Asia. The country's history has been shaped by its location between China and India. Straddling lines of trade between north and south, east and west, Vietnam has been a center of human trade, interaction, and conflict for centuries.
Archaeological excavations reveal that the the Dong-son peole lived in Vietnam around 800 BC . The Dong-son built dikes and canals to control the rivers and irrigate their rice fields, and crafted bronze drums, tools, and weapons.
Aroung 200 BC , a Chinese military commander demanded that the people in Vietnam join China. At that time, Vietnam was called Nam Viet—Nam meaning "south" and Viet referring to the people living along China's southern border.
Nam Viet was ruled by China until AD 900. China's influence on Vietnam could still be seen in 1990s, in ways including ideas about government, philosophy, script, education, religion, crafts, and literature.
In the 1500s and 1600s, Portuguese and French traders came to Vietnam. Some Roman Catholic missionaries converted Vietnamese to Christianity. In the 1800s, the French returned to Vietnam to explore economic and trade opportunities. For the next eighty years, France drained resources from Vietnam, and taxed the people. In the mid-1950s the Vietminh, nationalist communists led by Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969), gained power and forced the French to leave.
In 1955, Vietnam was divided into two countries. The area north of the seventeenth parallel became North Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh and the communists; south of the line lay South Vietnam, run by a pro-Western prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem. The United States sent advisors and soldiers to help South Vietnam fight communism. This led to years of devastating war.
The war continued until 1973, when the United States Congress ceased military funding for South Vietnam. In 1975, North Vietnam conquered South Vietnam and reunited the country. Almost a million Vietnamese escaped their homeland and were resettled in Western countries. Another million fled Vietnam by sea in 1978. Vietnamese continued to flee their country until the early 1990s.
By the late 1990s, there was an increase in international investment and trade in Vietnam. The government was run by the Communist Party of Vietnam (the country's only political party), and its general secretary, Do Muoi, was the political leader of the country.
2 • LOCATION
Vietnam has between 70 and 80 million people, making it one of the most populous countries in the world. Most Vietnamese live in the Red and Mekong River deltas.
Vietnam is long and slender, stretching in an S-shape more than 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from China in the north to Cambodia in the south. It is only 50 miles (80 kilometers) wide at its narrowest point. River deltas sit at each end of the country, yielding enormous quantities of rice.
Located just north of the equator, Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate. In northern Vietnam, the rainy season extends from April to October. In the southern part of Vietnam, the rainy season extends from May to November. Humidity is high throughout the year. Summers are generally hot and wet and winters are mild and dry. The typhoon season extends from July through November, often causing serious damage to crops and people especially along the central coast area.
3 • LANGUAGE
The Vietnamese language has been influenced by Chinese more than any other language. Chinese was the language used by government officials, scholars, and artists during the thousand years that China ruled Vietnam, but Vietnamese remained the popular language.
In the seventeenth century, missionaries transcribed the Vietnamese language into Roman letters (the letters used to write English and other languages). By the end of the nineteenth century, this system, called quoc ngu , had replaced the Chinese system of writing. Quoc ngu uses diacritical marks above or below letters to indicate pronunciation and tone.
Vietnamese is a tonal language, so that a change in tone alone can change the meaning of a word. To Vietnamese, their language has the sound of poetry, but it is very difficult for English-speakers to learn to pronounce.
Vietnamese use their father's family name, but unlike Americans, they use the family name first to reinforce the importance of family over the individual. The family name comes first and the individual's name second. For example, if Mr. Nguyen names his son Tai, then the boy will be known as Nguyen Tai. If Mr. Nguyen also gives his son the middle name, Thanh, his son will be called Nguyen Tai Thanh (family name, first name, and finally middle name).
4 • FOLKLORE
In AD 40–43, the Trung sisters (Trung Trac and Trung Nhi) led a revolt against China. They failed, but are remembered as great Vietnamese heroines.
A Vietnamese patriot who also sought independence for his country in the 1400s was Le Loi. After leading an elephant-mounted army against Chinese invaders in the 1420s, Le Loi became King of Vietnam. He is remembered as a benevolent ruler who increased agricultural production and built dams, dikes, and bridges for the Vietnamese people.
Ho Chi Minh (1880–1969), the first president of North Vietnam, is a national hero. Ho Chi Minh traveled extensively, becoming committed to the goal of freeing his country from French colonialism. He is revered as a communist patriot.
5 • RELIGION
The Vietnamese sometimes practice several religions at the same time. Confucianism, which came from China over 2,000 years ago, emphasizes good behavior, education, and respect for hierarchy and has been very influential in Vietnam.
Another religion inherited from China is Taoism, which emphasizes beliefs in the spirit world and ancestor worship. Most homes have an altar to the ancestors holding a small vase of flowers, some incense, a plate or two of food, and candles. Taoism also includes belief in geomancy, which focuses on the importance of aligning human objects and activities with the landscape. Thus, a father's grave must face the proper direction or his son will suffer.
In addition, most Vietnamese call themselves Buddhists. Vietnamese Buddhists believe in reincarnation and karmic destiny (the belief that people get what they deserve). If a man is good in this life, he will have a better life the next time round. If he is bad, however, the opposite will happen.
There are also several million Catholics, mostly in urban areas in the south, where the French missionaries had the greatest influence.
Cao Dai, a small but important religion, is followed by more than 1 million people. It combines elements from Buddhism, Christianity, and history. Its saints include Jesus Christ, the Buddha, Joan of Arc, and Charlie Chaplin. Cao Dai maintains a standing army, which was involved in the Vietnam War. Cao Dai adherents believe they are combining the best beliefs of all the world's religions.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
The most important Vietnamese holiday is Tet (New Year), a celebration that falls in late January or early February. Tet is celebrated over three days. Vietnamese try to return to the home of their parents to unite with family and friends. People repay their debts and ask for forgiveness from all those whom they have wronged during the year. They put on new clothes, pray for blessings, exchange gifts, and give thanks for being together.
Tet decorations include peach tree branches and red and gold paper, the colors of happiness. They light firecrackers at night and spare no expense in preparing the feast.
Other holidays include January 27, the anniversary of the peace agreement that resulted in America's withdrawal of troops from Vietnam; March 29, the actual withdrawal of American troops; and September 2, the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
The birth of a child is a welcome occasion, especially if the child is a boy. A couple without children is pitied, while a family with several offspring is considered fortunate. Children are cared for by an extended family of grandparents and aunts and uncles, especially on the father's side.
On all important family occasions, such as the birth of a child, engagements, marriages, funerals, and the anniversaries of ancestors' deaths, families hold celebrations and notify gods and ancestors of family events by special offerings.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
Vietnamese have great respect for hierarchy and take care to demonstrate respect to all they consider their superiors and demand respect from those they consider their inferiors. Older people are generally considered superior to younger people, men to women, the wealthy to the poor, and those of higher occupation or status to those of lower.
Vietnamese may greet one another with a slight bow and always with a broad smile. Civility is greatly valued, and one's true feelings are concealed beneath smiles and friendliness. Vietnamese also honor reserve and modesty, attributing loudness and brashness to immaturity and vulgarity.
Dating is virtually unknown in the countryside, where young people are closely supervised by their elders until marriage. There is little touching in public even by married couples, although young people of the same sex often hold hands as a sign of friendship.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
The health of the Vietnamese people has suffered from decades of war, upheaval, and population increase. While the infant mortality rate is lower and life expectancy at birth is higher than the average for Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese continue to be plagued by numerous health problems. Malaria and tuberculosis are widespread, and cholera and bubonic plague continue to threaten many Vietnamese. Malnutrition also affects many in the country. An additional legacy of the Vietnam War is a high percentage of birth defects which are linked to chemicals sprayed on Vietnam's forests. Bombs and shells left over from the war continue to cause injury, especially to children, soldiers, and farmers.
Since the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnam's economy has frustrated many Vietnamese in their desire for consumer goods. When the Americans left and Vietnam was shut off from trade with many Western nations, goods stopped flowing into the country. Many Vietnamese have compensated by purchasing goods on the black market (the informal, unregulated, and illegal economy). Access to consumer goods is increasing as the country's economy has become incorporated into the global economy.
Close to 80 percent of the Vietnamese population lives in rural areas, primarily in small villages. The housing of northern and southern Vietnam differs due to climatic differences. In the cooler north, most rural people live in houses made of wood or bamboo with tile roofs. In the south, which is warmer, most country folk live in houses made of straw, thatch, or palm leaves. Many families now use sheets of metal or plastic to roof their houses.
The majority of urban dwellers live in small apartments. Most dwellings are small and cramped, crowding numerous family members into a few small rooms. Building materials are predominately wood, brick, and tile.
Few homes have electricity or running water, and families carry water to their homes from nearby streams and ponds. Furniture is rare, seldom more than beds on the floor and a low table around which family members gather to eat while sitting on the floor.
American bombing during the Vietnam War destroyed many roads, bridges, rails, and ports, and the country continues to struggle with modern transportation. The poor condition of the railroads, ports, and roads continue to hamper Vietnam's ability to increase industrial productivity. However, the number of cars, buses, and trucks is increasing in Vietnam, so much so that the country's roads can scarcely handle them.
Motorbikes are a popular means of transportation for successful Vietnamese. Most families make do with bicycles, and travel any distance at all by bus, ferry, or boat.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
Vietnamese are likely to marry young and have four or five children, although many continue to have as many as possible either out of desire or the inaccessibility of birth control. Children are highly valued, not least for their potential in helping with family chores and supporting their parents in their older years.
Marriage is viewed as a social contract between two people and their families. It is arranged by intermediaries and approved by parents who may or may not allow their children some choice in their spouse.
Vietnamese say that family is the most important element of their lives, and the obligations of children to their parents, wives to husbands, and younger people to their elders are constantly emphasized. Individual interests are less important than family interests, and each individual is seen as one in a long family line that includes ancestors already dead and current and future family members.
Vietnamese families are patriarchal (headed by the father). Families generally live in nuclear family groups, although grandparents sometimes share the home with a grown child and family. Families also socialize together, gathering with other extended family members for festivals, marriages, funerals, and other important occasions.
Individuals are identified primarily by their patrilineal ties, and larger kin groups are defined through men rather than women. Women join their husbands' families, children belong to their father's family, and male children are preferred over female children. Although the government has attempted to equalize relationships between men and women, most Vietnamese continue to hold traditional views of family, marriage, and childrearing.
Children assist in the support of their family. In rural areas, boys help their fathers with farm work. In cities, boys are more likely to go to school, help their mothers with house chores or errands, or take part-time jobs on their own.
Girls assist their mothers with housework, caring for younger siblings, and helping with work outside the home. For children in rural areas, that includes farming, gardening, and caring for animals. For urban children, it includes helping their mothers in the shop or preparing food to sell.
Animals are primarily for eating, selling, or working. Dogs are used for guarding the home, hunting, and as food. Cats are kept to keep down rats and mice. Animals kept strictly as pets are a luxury most families cannot afford.
11 • CLOTHING
A special type of Vietnamese women's gown is the ao dai . This garment is a dress or long blouse worn over trousers. Usually made of light material, the gown flutters at the slightest movement, being both modest and sensuous at the same time.
For everyday wear, most urban Vietnamese wear Western clothes. Men wear short-or long-sleeved and collared shirts, tucked in for business and hanging out for informal activity. Businessmen and students usually wear long trousers, while children and physical laborers often prefer shorts. Shirts are usually light colored, while trousers tend toward dark colors. Because of the heat and humidity of Vietnam, shirts and trousers are made of light material.
In the countryside, farmers often wear baggy pajama-like shirts and pants made of black cotton. Both men and women usually wear sandals. Many Vietnamese, especially in the countryside, wear straw hats as protection from the sun.
12 • FOOD
Rice is served at virtually every meal, including breakfast. Fish is almost as important, since Vietnam is a country that has abundant water with vast resources of fish. Fish and other fresh and salt water life is eaten fresh, but is also frequently dried.
Fowl, such as chicken, ducks, and geese, along with eels and eggs, provide additional protein. Beef and pork are enjoyed only by the wealthy or on special occasions such as at weddings or festivals.
A common traditional food of Vietnam is nuoc mam , a liquid sauce made from fermented fish. Characterized by an extremely strong smell, nuoc mam is frequently used in Vietnamese dishes.
The typical Vietnamese meal consists of a bowl of rice and vegetables cooked in fermented sauce. Vegetables are mainly grown at home and include bamboo shoots, soybeans, sweet potatoes, corn, greens of various kinds, onions, and other root crops. Fruit includes bananas, coconuts, mangos, mangosteens, and pineapple. Noodle dishes are also popular. A distinctive Vietnamese dish is pho , a hot soup containing any variety of noodles in sauce with vegetables, onions, and meat or fish.
Many Vietnamese drink tea at every meal and other times throughout the day and evening. On special occasions or when guests are visiting, the Vietnamese serve rice wine, beer, soft drinks, or coffee.
Breakfast is usually eaten shortly after awakening. The large meal of the day is eaten around noon, after the morning's work, before the lighter work of the late afternoon, and during the hottest portion of the day. A lighter meal follows the day's work.
The Vietnamese eat with chopsticks, and typically dine while sitting on a mat on the floor. Vietnamese eat loudly, slurping, sucking, chomping. Such table noises are not considered bad manners; they are considered evidence that people are enjoying their food.
13 • EDUCATION
Most Vietnamese are literate (able to read and write). Children begin school at age five and usually complete at least the first five years of schooling. Children in cities continue their education more often than children in the country. If children are able to pass the examinations given at the end of an additional four years of secondary school, they can go to three years of high school or a vocational school. Those who cannot pass go into the military or try to find a job. High school graduates are considered fortunate, for they receive better jobs, higher pay, and more respect.
Vietnamese have traditionally valued education and their children to receive as much schooling as possible. The government offers twelve years of schooling for free, but many parents cannot afford the cost of school books and the loss of earning power that occurs when a child is in the classroom.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
Vietnamese music is very different from Western music in rhythm, sound, and even scale. Classical music is played on instruments that include a two-stringed mandolin, a sixteen-string zither, a long-necked guitar, a three-stringed guitar, and a four-stringed guitar. Traditional bands include instruments that most closely resemble Western flutes, oboes, xylophones, and drums.
Many traditional tunes are sung without accompaniment, with each region having its own folk melodies. Western love songs, especially slow, sad songs recorded by Asian artists, are also much loved by the Vietnamese. Popular theater combines singing with instruments and has dance, mime, and poetry. Classical theater or opera which came from China in the thirteenth century is popular, as are puppet shows. A unique Vietnamese form is water puppetry, with the controlling rods and strings handled beneath water so that the puppets appear to be dancing on the water.
Poems relate love stories, epic tales from long ago, or discuss love of country. One famous poem, Kim Van Kieu (The Tale of Kieu) , tells how a young girl struggles to preserve her family's honor. Many Vietnamese know the entire epic by heart.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
In the cities, men work at construction, in government offices, and as teachers, drivers, retailers, and mechanics. Women are primarily tradespeople or street vendors, selling clothing and a myriad of other items in the marketplace or cooked food on the streets. Women also work in clinics, as teachers, and as factory workers.
In the rural areas, most men are rice farmers. Men's work also includes caring for draft animals (such as water buffaloes, which are used for pulling carts and plows), fishing, repairing equipment, and helping clear gardens. Other men are full-time fishermen, merchants, traders, drivers, monks, or officials.
16 • SPORTS
Vietnamese children play a variety of games, but the most popular sport is soccer. Because most Vietnamese families continue to struggle to make a living, children spend most of their time assisting their parents or going to school.
17 • RECREATION
Vietnam is blanketed by a loudspeaker system and music and programs are offered regularly. Many people now own radios, and most of the country also receives television broadcasts, although many Vietnamese do not own a television set. Watching videos or television or hanging around and chatting with their friends are especially valued leisure activities for most Vietnamese youth.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
Since the 1400s, Vietnamese artisans have been making lacquerware. Wooden objects are painted and decorated with pearl, gold, silver, shell, and other objects. The objects are then coated repeatedly with a lacquer made from the tree sap.
Another popular craft is to make block prints on which scenes have been carved, inked, and then pressed onto paper. The Vietnamese also make porcelain and other ceramics, which they learned from the Chinese many centuries ago.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
Reports of arbitrary arrest, detention, and surveillance continue. Freedom of speech and movement are limited. However, there is an increasingly tolerant attitude toward literary and artistic expression. A number of political prisoners have been released since the late 1980s.
In the 1980s, the government admitted that alcoholism was a problem in the cities.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
Crawford, Ann Caddell. Customs and Culture of Vietnam. Rutland, Vt.: Charles E. Tuttle, 1966.
Hall, D.G. E. A History of South-East Asia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1968.
Osborne, Milton E. The French Presence in Cochinchina and Cambodia. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1969.
Thayer, Thomas C. War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1985.
Also read article about Vietnamese from Wikipedia
" Vietnam Cham