The mere mention of Vietnam immediately brings to mind its troubled past and a brutal war that was fought there for nearly three decades. But, in reality Vietnam is a beautiful country covered by tall mountains, open plains, deep valleys and cultivated green fields. The country is also home to dense jungles and rainforests filled with exotic plants and animals. It is also a place of unique customs, traditions and superstitions that are still practiced in the urban cities and simple villages. The lack of understanding of these customs and culture has occasionally cause friction between the Vietnamese and Americans. To understand the culture of Vietnam is to understand the Vietnamese people.
Vietnam is a country that guarantees religious freedom in its constitution. Religion has a deep influence on Vietnamese culture and the Vietnamese concept of life. The attitude towards life, death, and the world beyond is greatly affected by the religions of the Vietnamese people. There are three traditional religions among the Vietnamese people: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. All three have existed for centuries in Vietnam.
The predominant religion in Vietnam is Buddhism. It is practiced by 55% of the population. Buddhism was introduced into Vietnam under the Chinese domination, and can be traced back to the second century B.C. It has since remained the dominant religion in Vietnam and a major cultural force. The great majority of Vietnamese people regard themselves as Buddhists but not all of them actively participate in Buddhist rituals at the pagoda.
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Buddhism originated in India and means the “Enlightened One.” According to Buddha, man was born into this world to suffer. The cause of suffering is the craving for wealth, fame, and power that brings about frustration and disappointment. In order for man to be free from suffering he must suppress its ultimate cause, the cravings. Man must not become attached to anything and live a life full of virtue, according to the Eightfold Path. The Eightfold Path teaches that there are eight “right” ways to live a virtuous life. These “right” virtues are views, thoughts, conduct, speech, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and meditation. A man’s fate in this existence is determined by what he has done in his previous existence. This is the law of Karma, or cause and effect. Accordingly, a man’s soul does not perish at death, but reincarnates into another existence and this process goes on and on. The Buddhist’s goal is to be freed from the circle of reincarnation and reach Nirvana, which is a state of complete redemption and supreme happiness. Theoretically, any person may become a Buddha by suppressing his cravings and following the Eightfold Path. Those who actually attain the status of Buddha are rare.
Confucianism is more of a religious and social philosophy than a religion in the traditional meaning of the word. It has no church, no clergy, and no Bible. Confucianism advocates a code of social behavior that man should observe so that he may live in harmony with society and attain happiness in his individual life. There is little concern about death, the world beyond, and spiritual feelings in this religion. Confucianism was introduced into Vietnam as early as the first century, during the Chinese domination.
Confucius, the founder of this religion, stressed the goal of the individual was the improvement of the moral self. Confucius believed that in order to rule the world, one must rule one’s country; in order to rule the country, one must rule one’s family; and in order to rule the family, one must have control of oneself. The improvement of the moral self is the cornerstone of Confucianism. Confucius also believed that man is born with an essentially good nature, which becomes corrupted by his contact with society. In order to improve his moral self and regain that original good nature, with which he was born, man must practice the five cardinal virtues that are benevolence, propriety, loyalty, intellect, and trustworthiness.
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Taoism also has had a deep imprint on the way of life for the Vietnamese people. Lao Tse (600-500 B.C.), was the founder of Taoism. He advocated a philosophy of harmony between man and man and also between man and nature. To achieve the desired state of harmony, all forms of confrontation should be avoided. The virtues of simplicity, patience, and self-contentment must be observed. By non-action and keeping away from human strife and cravings, man can reach harmony with himself, other people, and the universe. Lao Tse believed that man could only find the right path by probing the inner self and quiet meditation. Taoism was created as a religious philosophy, but the followers of Lao Tse transformed it into a religion with church and a clergy involved in communicating with deities, spirits, and the dead. Taoist clergymen also claimed they could cure illness, alleviate misfortune, and predict the future.
Taoism was also introduced into Vietnam during the Chinese domination period. By the time Vietnam recovered its independence, it had become one of the main religious faiths of the Vietnamese people. It also became a source of inspiration for poets and writers.
There are several addition religions that are practiced by the Vietnamese people, including Roman Catholicism. But, regardless of their religion, most Vietnamese continue to practice ancestral worship.
The traditional clothing style of the Vietnamese people is called the “ao dai”, which is pronounced ‘ao yai’ in the south, but ‘ao zai’ in the north. This is a traditional style dress that is worn by both women and men in the country. Although trends in fashion have brought changes to the traditional ao dai in terms of materials, style and western influence, the ao dai has remained a historic article of clothing for the Vietnamese.
Ao dai is traditionally the women’s national dress of Vietnam. Traditionally every ao dai is custom made to achieve a contoured fit of the upper body that creates a flattering look. The woman’s dress is full-length with both sides slit open from the bottom up above the waist. This forms both a front and back panel. The dress is then worn over a wide style of pants that brush the floor and are usually black or white in color. Even with the whole body covered in clothing the style makes it comfortable and offers the wearer freedom of movement.
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The Vietnamese men also wear a similar form of traditional dress. It is also called an ao dai, but difference is that the man’s dress is only knee length and is looser fitting around the upper body. The ao dai is worn less by the men and is often reserved for ceremonies and special occasions.
The dresses are made in many different styles with variations of collar design and button configuration. The color of the ao dai is meant to represent the wearer’s age and status. Young girls wear pure white outfits symbolizing their purity. As they grow older but are still unmarried they will wear dresses in soft pastel colors. Only married women wear their dresses in strong, rich colors. The colors of the ao dai are no longer as rigidly controlled, but certain colors were once reserved for the public officials of Vietnam. For example, the color of gold was reserved only for the Emperor of Vietnam who wore the ao dai with an embroidered dragon. Purple was the color reserved for high-ranking mandarins. While those mandarins of lower rank wore the color blue.
Vietnamese cuisine has been influenced from its occupation by France and China, as well as by traders from India. For example, the Wok and chopsticks were introduced to Vietnam during the Chinese invasion. French bread was introduced during the France’s colonial rule of the country and can still be found in markets in the Southern end of the country. The geographic makeup of the country is also responsible for different regional cuisine’s. In North Vietnam, The Red River Delta surrounding Hanoi provides rice for its residents. The Mekong Delta, centered by Ho Chi Minh City, in the south, produces rice plus a wide variety of fruits and vegetables both for itself and central Vietnam.
Because of this, dinning in Vietnam differs greatly between the north, south and central regions of the country. Multiple dishes with contrasting flavors, varied textures, and exotic ingredients, with heavy reliance on rice, vegetables and noodles are commonly found anywhere in Vietnam. Some meals are supplemented with side dishes of pork, poultry and seafood. But, there are two main ingredients that will be found on any table within the country. First, rice plays an essential role in the nation’s diet and is a main staple throughout Southeast Asia. Secondly, no meal is complete without a bowl of fresh vegetables and herbs
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Noodles also make up a large portion of the daily food intake in all of Vietnam. They are eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, in homes, restaurants and can even be purchased at roadside stands. Noodles are eaten wet or dry, in soup or as a side dish. They come in different shapes and thicknesses and are made from wheat, rice and beans.
In the North, colder climate limits the variety of spices, as well as vegetables and fruits that are available, and as a result, the food is lighter, and less spicy-hot than that of the Central and Southern regions. For spices, North Vietnamese cooks rely on black pepper rather than hot chili peppers used in the South. Due to its proximity to the border of China, North Vietnam reflects more Chinese influence than Central or South Vietnam. For example, stir-frying and soy sauce rarely appear in Vietnamese dishes elsewhere in the country. In the South soy sauce is replaced by fish sauce, made from fermented sardines. However, fish sauce is an ingredient found in Vietnamese cooking throughout the entire country. Residents of the north also use more beef with their dishes, which was most likely picked up from the Mongolians during their 13th century invasions. Seafood dishes are also less common here than in the South.
The Center, where Hue, the ancient capital of the Vietnamese kings is located, features a very spicy cuisine, which reflects the country’s royalty and the abundance of spices this region’s mountainous terrain offers. Meals often consist of small portions of many dishes placed on the table all at once. The more vast the choices, the wealthier the household. But even the poorer families are likely to have multiple dishes of simple vegetables. An abundance of fruit in the area is also reflected at the table.
The South is hot and humid, and its fertile river delta makes it ideal for growing a huge variety of vegetables, fruits, and livestock. During colonial rule, the French introduced white potatoes, asparagus, tarragon, and shallots to this region, they are still grown there today. Curried dishes are common in this region and were influenced by Indian traders traveling west. Seafood is a natural staple for people in the South because of the extensive shoreline. Servings of food here are larger then those of Central Vietnam, but fewer will appear on the table. Black pepper is also replaced by hot chili peppers for added spice. The style of cooking is also less complex than that of central Vietnam and is most likely influenced by neighboring Cambodia. Simmering is the preferred method of cooking in South and Central Vietnam.
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The Vietnamese have numerous national holidays and festivals, whose dates mostly follow the lunar calendar. In addition, provinces hold their own festivals and villages will hold their own rituals to honor the patron spirits of local temples. But, the biggest and most important holiday for the Vietnamese people is Tet, which is short for Tet Nguyen Dan, meaning, “feast of the first day.” Tet is the celebration of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. It is also considered everyone’s birthday. Since Tet is based on the lunar calendar, the holiday is celebrated on the first new moon of the year, usually some time in the end of January or early February. It is also the celebration of the changing from winter to spring. Tet is a time for family gatherings, paying respects to deceased ancestors and relaxing from all of the previous year’s hard work. It is also a time for everyone to be on their best behavior and wish each other happiness, luck and prosperity. . Everyone behaves his or her best on this day because an angry word could bring bad luck in the coming year.
Preparations for Tet begin several days before the actual holiday is celebrated. This includes a thorough cleaning of the house, which is intended to rid the family of bad fortunes and because it is believed that if you sweep on New Year’s day you will sweep away all your good fortune. Houses are also decorated with flowers and fruit displays to symbolize rebirth and new growth. Everyone buys new clothes and repays all of their debts so they can start anew when the New Year begins. Traditionally, families place a bamboo tree in front of their homes. The leaves are removed from the plant and the rest is wrapped in red paper, to both bring good luck and ward off evil spirits.
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At midnight on the first day, firecrackers are lit to welcome the New Year. Loud gongs and the drumbeat of the dragon dance join with the sounds of fireworks. The explosions are supposed to scare away the evil spirits that roam during this time of the year. While, the gongs are meant to usher in the new. The first day of Tet sets the tone for the rest of the coming year, a good day means a good year ahead. The Vietnamese believe that the first person to enter their homes will dictate the family’s wellbeing and happiness for the rest of the coming year. This custom is known as “Song Nha.” During the first day of the celebration, people visit their parents and extended families with the continuous sounds of fireworks and drums in the background. On the third day of Tet, families visit the graves of their ancestors and leave gifts of their favorite food at ancestral altars.
It is also a tradition to give small children little red envelopes, containing money, called “li xi” for good luck. Families will also visit either a pagoda or church, depending on their religion. But, the rest of the week is spent visiting relatives and friends often exchanging gifts, eating and playing cards. Tet festivals provide the Vietnamese community a chance to get together and celebrate their biggest holiday and to pass on their culture to future generations.
Religions, cuisine, attire and the Tet holiday describes only a few of the regularly practiced customs and only touches upon the culture of the Vietnamese people. The Vietnamese also have elaborate traditional wedding ceremonies with symbolic foods and plants. Weddings are still sometimes arranged with the bride and groom meeting for the first time on their wedding day. Funerals are also very traditional and are accompanied by numerous superstitions and rituals, like placing coins and rice in the mouth of the deceased, burying the body in the families rear yard and then digging up the deceased after three years. The list of traditions and and customs reaches back to the birth of Vietnam. To understand the culture of Vietnam is to understand its people.