Vietnamese Culture

Vietnamese Culture

By Ruby ZhaoUpdated Jun. 22, 2021

Vietnam is a country that will never cease to fascinate you. It is home to more than 50 different ethnicities; every part of the country is characterized by its own cuisine and traditions, and arts are vibrating and alive.

Its religion is the result of a complex syncretism, and old practices still influence important parts of  daily life, like weddings, funerals, or even the starting of a business.

Check out our brief article and learn more about Vietnamese culture! 

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Highlights

  • Vietnam has 54 different ethnicities, with Kinh being the major one.
  • Vietnamese religion is the result of a complex religious syncretism between Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
  • Weddings and funerals are still celebrated following traditional customs.
  • Visual arts are one of the most important cultural aspects of the country.
  • Vietnamese cuisine, varied and delicious, is gaining popularity all over the world.

Vietnam has a population of 94.5 million, and 86% of its population are of the Kinh ethnicity. Beside the main ethnicity, there are 53 other minorities, comprising the remaining 14% of the population, most of which are located in the north of the country.

Kinh are Southeast Asians, and culturally similar to southern Chinese people, especially from the Guangxi region. The closest group to the Kinh are the Muong, who live in the mountainous regions of Hoa Binh Province. Nuang and Tay are closely related, and both ethnicities are almost exclusively farmers.

Thai people, the biggest ethnicity of Thailand, live in northern Vietnam, and are famous in the country for their garments. Finally the Hmong, originating from China, can be found in many Asian countries like Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand.

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Religion

The religion in Vietnam is considered a mixture of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism (called together tam giao, “three teachings”). More than 24 million people observe one of these religions. Even though many Vietnamese do not officially profess any religion, religion is still an important part of Vietnamese society, imposing social behaviors and spiritual practices on the population.

One of the most common religious practices of the country is ancestor veneration. Many people will have an altar in their house to pray and make offerings to the ancestors during important religious celebrations, when starting a new business, or just to seek counsel.

It is common to believe in ghosts and spirits. If anyone fails to perform the proper rituals, they will become ma doi, hungry ghosts.

As in every other culture, weddings are really important in Vietnam. Even though the celebration has been gradually westernized, traditional customs are still practiced. In the past, people used to get married really young, with marriages being arranged by the parents. Nowadays, people are totally free to choose their partners.

A traditional wedding is composed of two ceremonies. The first one, called Le Dam Hoi (betrothal ceremony) happens before the wedding. The groom visits the bride with an odd number of round lacquered boxes, containing things like areca nuts, betel leaves, tea, cake, fruit, wine.

Le Cuoi is the actual wedding. On the wedding day, the groom and his family go to the bride’s house to ask permission for the groom to marry, and then he takes his bride to his house. Then, the couple together pray to the ancestors, asking for permission and expressing gratitude towards their parents.

Another important aspect of any society are funerals. In Vietnam, there is a wake for the departed that lasts about six days. The body is washed and dressed, a pair of chopsticks is put between the teeth, and a pinch of rice and three coins are placed in the mouth. Then the body, wrapped with white cloth, is put inside a coffin and the ceremony begins.

The traditional ceremony will see relatives and friends accompany the dead to the cemetery. After three days of mourning, the family visits the tomb again; and after 49 days the family stops bringing rice for the dead. Finally, after 100 days, the family celebrates the “end of the tears”. Modern ceremonies are simplified.

Folk literature and written literature are the core of Vietnamese literature. Folk literature had an important impact in the life of Vietnamese people, and it greatly contributed to the shaping of a national identity. Legends, fairy tales and folk songs are extremely popular and lively.

Written literature, on the other side, was born in the 10th century. There were two different kinds: works written using Han characters and works written in Nom characters (mostly poems). However, since the 1920s, every form of written literature has been composed mostly in Nom characters.

Modern literature is an attempt to discover the most genuine values of Vietnamese society, digging into all the aspects of the ordinary life.

Vietnamese art is the result of a millenarian tradition, influenced through the centuries by the Chinese Buddhist art, by Taoism, Confucianism, and by French art. Chinese influence is especially visible in pottery, calligraphy, and architecture.

Calligraphy in Vietnam has a long history. In the past it played an important role in Vietnamese life, and during festivals people would ask scholars for a calligraphy hanging.

Silk painting is maybe the most popular Vietnamese art. During the last two centuries, Vietnamese silk painting has been greatly influenced by France, and this helped the Vietnamese to create their unique silk painting, different from the one in China and Japan. It usually depicts natural scenes, historical events, or scenes from daily life.

Outside of Vietnam, woodblock prints are quite popular. They use organic materials applied on wood and then pressed on paper.

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Martial Arts

Vietnam developed its martial arts (Vo-Thuat) during its long history of warfare. Vietnamese martial arts have been influenced by Chinese martial arts, but they still have their own characteristics.

Performing martial arts is a way of meditation and improvement, and all the disciplines are deeply spiritual, as they have been influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

Nowadays, Vietnamese martial arts are becoming more and more popular across the world, with many schools teaching the different styles in many different western countries.

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Communication

As in many Asian countries, rapport and respect are the base of communication. Body language is important, and showing agreement is a form of respect (even when one disagrees). Face, a concept similar to Western “reputation”, is vital. Vietnamese people would say indirectly what they really mean, so as not to offend their interlocutor, and they would not state a direct opinion in case they are wrong.

Women should speak with low volume, and children cannot disagree with adults. To apologize, Vietnamese people usually just smile, and in everyday interaction, eye contact is commonly avoided. When having a casual conversation, asking questions that would be considered rude in Western countries (for example about one’s salary) is considered normal.

Vietnamese cuisine can be divided into three regions: north, central, and south. Rice, soy sauce, and fish sauce are the base of the traditional cuisine, which uses little to no oil and lots of greens. Sweet, spicy, and sour are three characteristic flavors you will find in most dishes.

Noodles are also popular (especially noodle soups). The most famous Vietnamese dish is pho, originating in North Vietnam and made with rice noodles and beef soup, and seasoned with many ingredients like bean sprouts and spring onions.

Vietnamese cuisine is characterized by its choosy selection of ingredients. Local restaurants love to use only the freshest ingredients, all locally produced.

In the past, clothing was meant to mark the social status, and nobles had to observe strict dress codes. Before the Nguyen dynasty, there were not as many restrictions for common people; but with the rise of the new king, also common people have had a limited choice of simple clothes.

Ao Dai is the most famous Vietnamese national costume. Nowadays it is mostly worn by women, but men wear it during important occasions. The dress consists of a long gown with a slit on both sides, and it is usually worn over cotton trousers. Ao Dai became popular under the rulers of Hue, during the 18th century, who wanted to distinguish themselves from the people of Tonkin.

Girls have to wear a white Ao Dai in many schools across the country, and so do secretaries, receptionists, and tour guides in many offices.

Festivals are extremely important to Vietnamese people, and the most important of the festivals is Tet, which celebrates the beginning of the new year. Family is the core of the festival, and all the celebrations (many of which are derived from Buddhism), aim to bring luck for the coming year.

Mid-Autumn festival, a 3000-year-old celebration, celebrates the harvest season with lots of parades, music, dances, food, and games. It is a celebration that involves the whole country and gives a true insight into Vietnamese culture.

For Buddhists, one of the most important holidays is Vesak Day, the birthday of Buddha. People will decorate houses and temples, and will take part in colorful parades through the cities, especially Hoi An.

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