Vietnam – The Hidden Charm
Travel to Asia has become of great appeal to the global market in recent times. No longer is Asia considered only for the hardy. A natural flow of travellers to the countries of Indochina. With several very important milestones in the last few years - such as lifting of embargoes, government reforms and the opening of borders Vietnam is positioned to become a popular tourist destination.
It is a little known fact that Vietnam can cater to a large variety of clients not just those looking to “rough it on the last frontier”. From its natural assets; pristine sandy beaches, the wonder of limestone islands in Halong Bay the mountainous north, to its historical marvels; Cham ruins from the 14th Century in My Son, the ancient tombs of Hue; bustling cities with an energy driven by a new economy, quiet country villages reliant on rice agriculture as they have been for centuries, ornate Confucian temples, high-rises side by side with splendid French colonial architecture; Vietnam is a country of contrasts. And contrast means a greater variety of travel experiences that satisfy a great number of client markets.
It is also largely assumed that infrastructure within Vietnam is poor. Whilst we won’t deny that Vietnam is a third world country, one should not be led to believe that this means third world service! An enormous amount of investment in Vietnam has led to the development of top class hotels, of training schools, of new restaurants, of upgrading and renovating.
And on the subject of service, remember most importantly that Vietnam is Asia - where service is delivered with pride. The Vietnamese people have strong beliefs and values. They are a pragmatic people, with a philosophy to move forward, not to dwell on the past, and a determination to improve the lives of their children. Most of all they are warm and welcoming, and proud to show you their homeland.
For an experience as unique, look to a destination as unique as Vietnam.
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Vietnam shares its land borders with Cambodia and Laos to the west and China to the north. Vietnam's eastern border is the 3,000 kilometers of coastline facing the East Sea. The country covers an area of 329,600 square kilometers and its two main cultivated areas are the Red River Delta in the north and the Mekong Delta in the south.
The country's topography varies from coastal plains to mountain ranges.
The archaeological excavations carried out recently have proved the presence of human beings in the territory of Vietnam since the Paleolithic Age or the Old Stone Age (300,000 – 500,000 years). In the Neolithic Age (New Stone Age), Hoa Binh – Bac Son cultures (about 10,000 BC) had witnessed the development of agriculture and animal husbandry, including even the technique of paddy rice cultivation.
The Vietnamese as an ethnic group had been formed and developed early in the Red river and Ma river delta situated in northern part of the present-day Vietnam. Generations to generations, people moved from highland and mountainous areas to the plains, developed new lands for cultivation. They constructed a system of irrigation dams and dykes to tame the mighty Red River, the river that brought about several devastating floods every year. It is the process of continuous labor to control water – to fight against flood, storm and drought, to build up irrigation dams and canals for agricultural cultivation that formed the paddy rice civilization and the commune culture.
In the Bronze Age, a unique and distinct civilization had been formed that reached a high level in technical skill as well as art – the brilliant Dong Son culture. The recent ethnological, historical and archaeological studies and researches have asserted the existence of the Hung Kings’ period in Van Lang Kingdom (later Au Lac Kingdom) about 1000 years BC. In 200 BC, Au Lac Kingdom was invaded and annexed into the giant empire of the Han feudalism in the north. Nevertheless, the ten-century domination of Chinese feudalism could not assimilate Vietnamese culture and break the Viet people’s brave resistance.
The Dai Viet
In the 10th century AD, the Vietnamese had won their freedom and built up an independent state named Dai Viet. The country was under the ruling of many national feudal dynasties, among which the most important ones are the Ly Dynasty (11th and 12th century), the Tran Dynasty (13th and 14th century), the Le Dynasty (15th, 16th and 17th century) with their centralized administration, strong army forces and a highly developed economy and culture. During this period, Vietnam as a nation had to ceaselessly fight against the vicious conquering conspiracies of Chinese and Mongolian feudal empires. Vietnam’s long and tough struggles of resistance against the invasions of the Song (11th century), the Yuan or the Mongols (13th century), the Ming (15th century) had acquired glorious victories. Vietnam became stronger, all its ethnic groups became more united and the country moved into a new prosperous period after each struggle.
Dong Son culture which was enriched by the influence of Chinese culture developed from centuries to centuries in a framework of an independent state. Buddhism and Confucianism entered Dai Viet and brought with them many popular cultural features and distinct forms. Nonetheless, Vietnam still preserved its own language and a highly developed agricultural civilization.
In the 17th and 18th century, feudalism in Vietnam was considerably weakened. Peasants ceaselessly rose up in revolts that led to the Tay Son movement (1771–1802). Tay Son overthrew all regional feudal lordship that divided the country into two parts, united the country and chased away the Qing (Manchus) invaders from China, simultaneously implemented many social and cultural reforms. However, with foreign aid, Nguyen Anh soon took over the ruling power and the Nguyen Dynasty was established, which was the last royal dynasty in Vietnam.
Struggle for national liberation
In the middle of 19th century (1858), French colonialists began to invade Vietnam. The incompetent government of the Nguyen gradually gave in and from 1884; French colonists established a protectorate and a colonial government that controlled the whole territory of Vietnam. In the early days, resistant movements of the Vietnamese people under the leadership of intellectual patriots like the literate, cultured people and scholars broke out everywhere, but they all failed in the end.
Nguyen Ai Quoc, who later became President Ho Chi Minh, traveled abroad to find the way to save the country. He laid the foundations for the Vietnam Communist Party, which was founded on 3rd February 1930. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, the Vietnamese people rose up against French colonization and Japanese occupation, organized the Great National Uprising in August 1945 and established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam on 2nd September 1945.
Being confronted with aggressive schemes and intervention of France and the United States, the newly born Democratic Republic of Vietnam had to carry out the thirty-year war of resistance. The coming back of French aggressive troops had resulted in the nine-year war of resistance (1945–1954) which ended by the famous victory of Vietnam in Dien Bien Phu and the 1954 Geneva Agreement on Vietnam. According to this Agreement the country was temporarily partitioned into North Vietnam and South Vietnam by the 17th parallel, which should be reunified within two years (1956) through a general election held all over Vietnam. The northern part of Vietnam (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam with its capital Hanoi) was placed under the control of the Vietnam Workers’ Party. The southern part (the Republic of Vietnam), which was controlled by a pro-French administration and later, a pro-American administration, had its capital in Sai Gon. The Sai on government used all its forces to prevent the election, suppressed and killed former participants in the resistance movement. The situation led to the national movement fighting for peace and unification of the country. The Sai Gon government could not suppress the aspiration of all Vietnamese people to unify the country, especially since the National Front for Liberation of South Vietnam was established on 20th December 1960. In order to maintain the Sai Gon regime, the United States increased its military aid to the Sai Gon government.
Particularly, in the middle of the ’60s, half-million American troops and their allied troops were sent to South Vietnam in direct military intervention. From 5th of August 1964, they started bombarding North Vietnam. In spite of that, following president’s Ho Chi Minh’s teaching “Nothing is more precious than independent and freedom”, the Vietnamese people bravely and firmly stood up and won numerous victories in the northern as well as southern part of the country. In 1973, Washington had to sign the Paris Agreement on the restoration of peace in Vietnam and the withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam.
In the spring of 1975, the patriotic armed forces of Vietnam swept across the country in the great general offensive and overthrew the Saigon government. The southern part of Vietnam was liberated and the country was united as one.
On 25th April 1976, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was renamed into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which governs both northern and southern parts in its territory.
In 1977, Vietnam became a member of the United Nations. After many years of prolonged war, the country was heavily devastated. In the 1975 – 1986 periods, Vietnam had to cope with innumerable difficulties. The aftermath of war, social evils, the mass flow of refugees, war at the southwest border against the genocidal policies of Pol Pot government in Cambodia, the dispute at the northern border, the isolation and embargo from the United States and Western countries, plus continual natural calamities… put Vietnam before tremendous tough challenges. Moreover, those difficulties became more severe due to subjective reasons such as hastiness and impatience, and voluntarism in rebuilding the country regardless of specific actual conditions. Early in the 80s, Vietnam witnessed the most serious ever socio-economic crisis, the inflation rate rose up to a record 774.7% in 1986.
Art and Culture
Music and Dance
Vietnam has fifty national music instruments, in which the set of percussion instruments is the most popular and diverse. Vietnamese folksongs are rich in forms and melodies of regions from across the country, ranging from reciting poems, lullabies, and chanting. Traditional performing arts include cheo and tuong. Water-puppet shows are also a special traditional art that was ignited in the Ly dynasty. At the start of the 20th century, cai luong (reformed theatre) appeared in Cochinchina with melodies of ‘vong co’.
The Vietnamese acoustic arts generally have symbolic, expressive and emotional features. Traditional stage performances relate closely to the audience in its combination of music and dance forms. Dance is an elegant affair and rarely filled with hard or rough movements, preferring the grace and sway of arms and body movements.
Parallel and deeply interacting with other cultural aspects, Vietnamese literature came into being at an early date with its two major components - folk literature and written literature. Folk literature held a great significance in Vietnam and made immense contribution to preserving and developing the national language as well as nourishing the Vietnamese soul. Folk literary works were diversified by mythologies, epics, legends, humorous stories, riddles, proverbs and folk-songs and featured the influence of Vietnamese various ethnic groups.
Written literature was born roughly in the 10th century. Up to the 20th century, there had been two components existing at the same time: works written in the Han Chinese characters (with poems and prose demonstrating the Vietnamese soul and realities; thus, they were still regarded as Vietnamese literature) and works written in the Nom ‘Vietnamese’ character. Since the 1920’s written literature has been mainly composed in the National language with profound renovations in form and category such as novels, new-style poems, short stories and dramas... and with diversity in its artistic tendency.
Written literature attained fast development after the August Revolution in 1945, when it was directed by the Vietnamese Communist Party’s guideline and focused on the propaganda of fighting and day to day working life. In Vietnam today, greater affluence has allowed the arts to flourish and for traditional forms to resurface. Hanoi, in particular, remains home to Vietnam’s finest music and dance troupes and renowned painters and artists that are achieving acclaim on the world stage.
Religion and Beliefs
Vietnam is a country which has a rich and wide variety of religions. These include religions based on popular beliefs, religions brought to Vietnam from the outside, and several indigenous religious groups.
As with other countries, the Vietnamese have several popular beliefs, such as animism and theism. The most widespread popular belief among the Vietnamese is the belief in ancestor-worship.
In regard to the major world religions, Vietnam is a multi-religious state, with more than 20 million believers, and more than 30,000 places of worship. Buddhism is the largest of the major world religions in Vietnam, with about ten million followers. It was the earliest foreign religion to be introduced in Vietnam, arriving from India in the second century A.D. in two ways, the Mahayana sect via China, and the Hinayana sect via Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. During the ten-century feudal reign of Vietnam, Buddhism was considered a state religion. At present, Vietnam has more than 20,000 pagodas dedicated to Buddha, with a large number of other pagodas being built or restored.
The second largest foreign religion in Vietnam is Catholicism, with about six million followers. Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam by the Spanish, Portuguese, and French missionaries early in the 17th century. There are now more than 6,000 churches engaged in religious activities throughout the country. More than 500 churches damaged during the U.S. air war against Vietnam are being rebuilt.
Protestantism came to Vietnam in 1911, and was widely spread throughout Vietnam in 1920, but the number of Protestants in Vietnam is not very large. Islam was introduced to Vietnam long ago, but did not flourish.
In addition to these religions originating in other parts of the world, Vietnam has indigenous religions, such as the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects, with their holy lands in the city of Tay Ninh and the provinces of Chau Doc and An Giang in the Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese religions have never opposed or competed with one another, but were united in a national united front, the Vietnam Fatherland Front, peacefully coexisting in the Vietnamese community, and contributing to the struggle against foreign aggression for national construction.
History of beliefs and religions
The Vietnamese folk beliefs since the ancient time consist of belief in fertility, worship of nature and worship of man. Human beings need to be reproduced; crops need to be lushly green for the nourishment and development of life, so belief in fertility came into existence.
Water-rice agriculture that depended much on natural factors ignited the belief of worshiping nature. In Vietnam, this belief was polytheism and respect for goddess, and worship of animals and plants as well. A research book published in 1984 listed 75 goddesses, mostly matriarchal goddesses; also called Mau (ancient people not only worshipped the Creator but also Mau Cuu Trung which was a female Creator, as well as Mau Thuong Ngan, River Goddess and so on).
Among the human-revering beliefs, the custom of worshiping ancestors is the most popular, which nearly become one belief of the Vietnamese (also called Dao Ong Ba in the Cochinchina). The Vietnamese choose the death-day rather than the birthday to hold a commemorative anniversary for the deceased. Every family worships Tho cong, or the God of Home, who takes care of the home and blesses the family. Every village worships its Thanh hoang, the God of the village, who protects and guides the whole village (the Vietnamese always honour the people who rendered distinguished services for villagers or national heroes who were born or died in the village to be their Thanh hoang). The whole nation worships the very first kings, sharing the common ancestors’ death anniversary (the Ritual of Hung Temple). Particularly, the worship of Tu Bat Tu, or the Four Immortal Gods, namely, God Tan Vien (preventing flooding), God Giong (resisting and defeating foreign invaders), God Chu Dong Tu (together with his wife growing out of poverty to consistently build his fortune) and Goddess Lieu Hanh (heavenly princess who left Heaven for the earth in the yearning for happiness) has been regarded as extremely beautiful national values.
Although turning into superstition in some specific cases, folk beliefs have lasted consistently and mixed with orthodox religions.
Therevada Buddhism might have been imported directly into Vietnam from India through sea routes since the 2nd century A.D. Vietnamese Buddhism stays on earth rather than ascends up to heaven, attaches to exorcism and prayers for wealth, happiness and longevity rather than heads toward nirvana. Only when Maharayana Buddhism approached the country from China did Vietnamese monks have the chance to carry out in-depth study of Buddhism; however, separate schools were later formed, such as Truc Lam Buddhist School which attaches importance to the Buddha inside the human heart. In the Ly-Tran dynasties, Buddhism, though having reached its peak, still embraced both Taoism and Confucianism to create a cultural face with “the three religions existing at the same time”. Over ups and downs throughout the history, Buddhism has become absolutely familiar to the Vietnamese; according to the 1993 stastistics, there were up to some 3 million Buddhist believers and some other 10 millions frequently going to the pagoda for worshipping the Buddha.
Chinese influence: Confucianism & Taoism
Under the Chinese domination, Confucianism had yet to gain a position in the Vietnamese society. The official adoption of Confucianism had not been recorded until 1070 when King Ly Thai To built Van Mieu (the Temple of Literature) to worship Chu Cong and Khong Tu (Confucius). In the 15th century, due to the need of constructing a unified nation, a centralized administration and a social order, Confucianism took the place of Buddhism to become a national religion under the Le dynasty. Confucianism, mostly Song Confucianism that took root deep into the social and political structure, the system of education and examinations and the circle of Confucian scholars gradually dominated social and moral life. However, Confucianism was only accepted to Vietnam in specific factors, particularly on politics and morality, rather than its entire system.
Taoism penetrated Vietnam at roughly the end of the 2nd century. Since the Vo Vi (letting things take their own course) doctrine bore the thought of resisting the Chinese rulers, it was used as a weapon against the Northern feudalism. This religion also contained factors of magic and mystery, so it fits human subconscience and primitive beliefs. Many Confucianists also admired Taoism?s tendency of enjoying quietness and joyful leisure. However, Taoism has long been regarded as an extinct religion that only left vestiges in folk beliefs.
Christianity came to Vietnam in the 17th century as an intermediary of the Western culture and colonialism. It made use of the favorable opportunity in which feudalism was in crisis, Buddhism was depraved and Confucianism was in deadlock to become a spiritual relief of a part of the population. However, this religion failed to integrate into the Vietnamese culture for a long time. Christians had to set up an altar dedicated to Jesus Christ right at their homes. Only when the Gospel was introduced into Vietnam, Christianity was able to gain a position. In 1993, there were 5 million Catholics and nearly half a million Protestants.
Foreign religions imported to Vietnam did not exterminate the local folk beliefs, but they mixed with each other to derive specific variants for both sides. For example, Taoism could not lower the women’s role, which was reflected by widespread worship of Mau (Goddess). The features of polytheism, democracy, and community are manifested by the worship of groups of ancestors, and pairs of gods. Entering a pagoda, people can easily recognize that not only Buddha but also gods and even human are worshiped there. Perhaps, only in Vietnam, there were legends that a toad dares to sue Heaven or a human being marries a fairy. These are the prominent features of Vietnamese beliefs.