With her origins shrouded in the mists of time, Vietnam has evolved a rich oral tradition of myth and legend. Vietnamese mythology contends the people are descended from a dragon and a fairy. The union of the dragon, King Lac Long Quan, and the enchanting mountain fairy Au Co produced one hundred offspring. The eldest son became the first King of the thousand year Hung Dynasty. This dynasty is commemorated to this day as the bud from which the Vietnamese nation ultimately flowered.
Throughout time, Vietnam has forged her identity through the highs and lows of history. Today she has become a robust and vibrant commercial hub and thriving travel destination in the heart of Southeast Asia.
With her 3,000 km coastline bejewelled with sun-drenched sandy beaches imbued with a vast array of resorts and hotels, Vietnam has established a growing reputation as a first-class beach destination. Possessing a unique cultural and historical heritage, Vietnam is an idyllic choice for travellers in search of exotic travel experiences not to be found anywhere else. A grand exploration delves deep into the heart-warming natural hospitality and charm of the peoples and soul-stirring landscapes of Vietnam.
Vietnam’s history is one of conquest and struggle going back more than two thousand years. At various times the region has been occupied by the feudal emperors of neighboring China and French colonialism. In between, Vietnam experienced numerous imperial dynasties resulting in the capital moving from Hanoi to Hue before the last emperor, Bao Dai’s abdication in 1945. But it would be a further 30 years before Vietnam became a unified nation. At the beginning of the Bronze Age about 15 groups of Lac Viet and Au Viet tribesmen settled in what is now northern and north-central Vietnam. The most powerful was the Lac Viet tribe of the Van Lang. The leader of this tribe joined the Lac Viet tribes together to found Van Lang Nation, addressing himself as Hung King. The Van Lang Nation lasted from the beginning of the first millennium B.C. to the 3rd century B.C.
In 208 B.C, Thuc Phan, the leader of an alliance of Au-Viet tribes expelled the Tan invaders from China and founded Au Lac Nation with groups of Lac Viet and Au Viet tribes. He became known as King An Duong Vuong. In 179 B.C. Trieu Da, the feudal King of Nam Viet (China) invaded Au Lac and began a domination that was to last for the next 700 years. Meanwhile in what is now southern Vietnam, the region became part of the kingdom of Funan and remained so until 600 A.D. The Hindu kingdom of Champa appeared around present-day Danang in the late 2nd century and spread south to what is now Nha Trang by the 8th century.
Back in the north in the spring of 542, Ly Bi rose up and swept away the Chinese administrators, liberating the territory. He declared himself King of Van Xuan Kingdom in 544. However Ly Bi’s administration was short lived and he was defeated by the Chinese imperial army and the country reverted to Chinese domination again in 602. The name Van Xuan was restored only after the naval victory over the Chinese Han at Bach Dang River led by the inspirational General Ngo Quyen in 938 who lured the unsuspecting Chinese into an ingenious trap involving the planting of iron-tipped stakes in the riverbed which impaled the larger, heavier Chinese vessels. This victory effectively marked the end of almost 1,000 years of Chinese rule in Vietnam, although it was by no means the last time the Vietnamese would have to repel their larger northern neighbor.
In 968, Dinh Bo Linh unified the country and declared himself King, naming the country Dai Co Viet and establishing Hoa Lu (100km north of Hanoi) as the capital. By 1009 another dynasty, the Ly Dynasty had moved the capital to Thang Long (present day Hanoi). This period was marked by stable government and a flourishing of the arts including the creation of the Temple of Literature (Vietnam’s first university). The name Dai Co Viet remained until 1054 when a flaming bright star appeared in the sky for many days (Haley’s comet). Considered a good omen, the King changed the country’s name to Dai Viet. The Ly dynasty was replaced by the Tran dynasty whose first priority was to repel the formidable Mongol invaders in the North. They employed the same tactics used earlier by Ngo Quyen and another able-bodied leader, General Tran Hung Dao sank Kublai Khan’s Mongol fleet in 1288.
In March 1400, Ho Quy Ly usurped the throne of King Tran Thieu De, founded the Ho dynasty and once again the country’s name changed, this time to Dai Ngu, meaning peace in the ancient language. Unfortunately peace did not last for long and in 1407 the mighty Minh Chinese invaded and defeated the Ho dynasty.
French colonial occupation was marked by poor pay and conditions for the vast majority of Vietnamese needed to work the coffee, tea and rubber plantations as well as the coal, zinc and tin mines. Against this background dissent and then rebellion became widespread, especially given the successful revolutions of first China in 1911 under Sun Yat-sen and then Russia in 1918 under Lenin. Vietnam’s communist visionary was Ho Chi Minh, the son of a teacher in Vinh province. In 1911 he left Vietnam and spent the next 30 years in a variety of jobs and locations, forming the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930. His return in 1941 was the catalyst to Vietnam’s independence, initially from the Japanese and ultimately from the French. In the same year he founded the Viet Minh, primarily a nationalist organization aimed at deposing the French and securing an independent Vietnam. With the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Emperor Bao Dai resigned in Hue and on 2nd September 1945 Ho Chi Minh proclaimed himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh square. Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnamese independence sparked violent confrontations with the French, leading to a nine-year struggle. The culmination of the struggle for independence from the French came in 1954 with the military defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Here the inspired military leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap outwitted the French, under the command of General Navarre into committing 16,000 French troops to the remote northwest of the country. Here in a valley, the French were trapped by heavy artillery that the Vietnamese had somehow managed to set upon the surrounding heights.
Shortly after the Geneva Accords were drawn up, temporarily dividing Vietnam into two zones (the Communist north and the anti-Communist, US-supported south) along the lines of the 17th parallel, pending elections in 1956. The newly elected Prime Minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem refused to sign the agreement and the elections were never held. Opposition quickly turned from stalemate to armed struggle, prompting the USA and other countries to commit combat troops in 1965.
By 1968 there were over 500,000 US troops engaged in fighting the guerilla army of the Viet Cong (formerly the Viet Minh). The Viet Cong’s strength lay in its domination of the countryside and the peasant population. Although the Americans controlled the cities nearly 80% of Vietnamese live in rural areas. With this support the Viet Cong could conceal themselves and fight the American forces on their own terms and in their own time. The Americans believed that superior firepower alone would wear the enemy down – they were wrong. On January 30th 1968 just as the country was preparing to celebrate Tet, the Viet Cong simultaneously launched more than 100 attacks on every major town: The effect was devastating; at one point it looked as if Saigon itself might fall. This, coupled with the debacle at Khe Sanh (in effect an American Dien Bien Phu), turned the American public against continued US military presence in the region. From 1968 onwards US troops were gradually withdrawn and the South was ultimately left to defend itself, something it could not do. The Paris Peace Agreements, signed in 1973, provided an immediate cease-fire and signaled the withdrawal of US troops. Saigon eventually surrendered to the Communist forces on 30 April 1975
and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City shortly afterwards.
Following the liberation of Saigon, Vietnam was finally unified. In the first meeting of the national assembly of the unified Vietnam on July 2nd 1976, the assembly decided to name the country The Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The constitution of 1980, and 1992, continued its affirmation of the country’s official name, legally and actually.
CULTURE & TRADITION
Tet Nguyen Dan (Lunar New Year)
Tet Nguyen Dan, literally the ‘Festival of the First Day’ is the Lunar New Year period in Vietnam. Lasting 4-5 days, the vast majority of people simply refer to it as ‘Tet’.
More than the turning of the seasons, the importance of Tet has no equivalent in western cultures or societies. If one can imagine the combined importance of western Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, Remembrance and Memorial days, that would begin to approach the solemnity, significance and joy of Tet for the Vietnamese people. Steeped in myth, legend, ritual and tradition, Tet is a symbolic period of rebirth and renewal; of joy and merriment; a time for homecoming family reunions and fulfilment of filial piety duties. Houses are spring-cleaned and spruced up with a lick of paint or whitewash. Ancestral graves are cleaned and repaired. New clothes are purchased. Friends are visited with token gifts and warm wishes for a happy, healthy, prosperous and successful new year. Debts are repaid and outstanding matters are finalized in preparation for a fresh, new beginning for the coming year.
In traditional legend, the Kitchen God (Ông Táo) would ride a giant carp to Heaven on the 23rd of the 12th Lunar month. The Kitchen God hears and sees all that happens within the house and reports to the Jade Emperor (Ngoc Hoang) on the happenings over the previous year.
Vietnamese people enjoy a very close spiritual relationship with their ancestors. On New Year’s Eve, the head of the family will make offerings to the ancestors and invite them to return and join the family for Tet. In many families, a place will be set for the ancestors and food served.
Tradition and custom play a large part in Tet celebrations. Elders and children are presented with bright red envelopes containing money. Elders are wished happiness and longevity, while children are wished prosperity and happiness. Everything is prepared in advance so little or no work is done during the Tet period and the family can truly enjoy each others company in relaxation and festivity.
The New Year’s Day is spent only with the family. The Second day for visiting extended family and neighbors, the third day for visiting friends and the fourth day for sightseeing. With every visit will be a meal, regardless of time of day as traditional Vietnamese hospitality overflows on this happiest of occasions.
Ao Dai (Traditional Vietnamese Dress)
Like almost all societies that have risen from agrarian cultures, Vietnamese traditional attire was always plain, modest and practical. Simple trousers, skirts and shirts. For formal occasions in the countryside, a splash of colour may be added by a scarf worn around the waist or twisted into a turban as headwear.
With the passing of time and the influences of different regional climates and the introduction to western cultures, Vietnamese attire has evolved into what we see today. A classic case in point is the traditional “Áo Dài” or “long tunic”.
Historically a unisex ensemble of a long, loose, tunic-like gown with long sleeves and slits on either side, it was worn over loose fitting trousers. While the traditional “Áo Dài” will sometimes be worn by the Groom at his wedding, it is almost exclusively worn by women in modern Vietnam.
As the “Áo Dài” has evolved over the ages, so have its fashions. Once a simple ensemble in plain colours and cloth made to almost the same patterns, today the “Áo Dài” comes in a myriad of variations and designs. From sombre, respectful iterations with subdued colours and motifs for the
family matriarch, to bright, stylized, coquettish numbers for eligible single women. No matter the design or style, they all share a single important commonality.
If she can afford it, no Vietnamese woman would dream of purchasing her perfect “Áo Dài” off the rack. The “Áo Dài” is made-to-measure with as many as 60 different measurements needed to ensure a fit to die for. The perfect “Áo Dài” should accentuate the bosom and flatter the derrière while highlighting the figure in lithe, graceful lines. Colours, fabrics, embroidered designs or motifs and accessories add to the perfection.
The grace and femininity of the “Áo Dài” have made it a ubiquitous symbol of Vietnamese culture and refinement. Worn as uniform by senior high school girls and female teachers, it is favoured by companies large and small for their female staff.
In some families, a young ladies first “Áo Dài” is seen as a symbol of her attaining womanhood. For many Vietnamese women in the countryside, they may have only one throughout their life. It will almost certainly be the most cherished item in their wardrobe. To see rural women resplendent in
their “Áo Dài” is to know you are witness to an important occasion.
The size, purposes and locations of the markets are one of Vietnam’s most intriguing attractions. City or country; early morning or late evening; on a river or in a mountain clearing; every day or once a year; purely for commerce or with important social networking purposes; the markets are a
window into the soul of the community.
In the Vietnamese countryside, there are three broad types of markets: a fair; an early morning market and an afternoon market. Rural towns will also usually have an all-day market. In the hamlets and villages, with available space always at a premium and for convenience sake, the early morning and afternoon markets may share the same location, differing only in the time of day and produce or goods purveyed. Most commonly, fresh produce in the morning and durable goods, household items, clothing, etc. in the afternoon.
Markets in the highlands and mountainous areas of Vietnam are especially fascinating because of the number of ethnic minority peoples they attract. Held weekly, these markets are a kaleidoscope of colours. With their villages perhaps two or three days walk away, these markets play a crucial role in forming and maintaining communities and cultures. The people may spend a couple of days at the market before making the arduous trek home.
In some regions, particularly largely homogenous ethnic areas, some markets serve as a match-making occasion. With many ethnic minority peoples living in villages of extended family groups, the market may be the only opportunity to meet a potential spouse. In time, these “love markets” as
they are commonly called, have developed their own rituals and customs.
In the watery expanses of the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam, the canals and waterways serve as the roads and highways and the boats as cars, trucks, taxis and even mobile “shops” in the floating markets.
Floating markets are common throughout the Delta. Many are both wholesale and retail markets with housewives in canoe-like paddle boats jostling for their daily shop in and out of larger vessels up to 100 tons or more transferring cargo for onward sale up river to the towns and cities. Often located near key towns with road access to the cities, the larger floating markets serve as transhipment points for primary produce heading north and manufactured goods heading south for distribution.
Ethnic Minority Markets
Sapa – Lao Cai
The valleys and peaks surrounding Sapa are home to the Red Dzao and Black H’mong ethnic peoples. Like the ethnic minority peoples throughout the north-western highlands, they gather regularly at the market. The Saturday market in Sapa town sees them selling their produce, buying supplies, meeting friends and getting together socially.
For the Red Dzao, the weekly market also served as a “love market”. On Saturday evenings, the young men and women would court each other in song. Hidden in the darkness, the young suitors would follow the voice of a prospective partner if they liked her voice and the substance of her replies. When the couple ‘found’ each other, they would follow the customs and traditions to explore the possibility of courtship and matrimony.
With the arrival of tourists, the inherently shy Red Dzao young people no longer perform this match-making custom to the open public. However, a very authentic performance of the ritual is performed for visitors while the young people continue their personal performances away from prying eyes.
Aside from all manner of produce and livestock, Sapa Market offers a myriad of traditional Black H’mong and Red Dzao weaving and embroidery handicrafts, foods and drinks. The brightly coloured embroidered and dyed handicrafts, cloth, scarves and bags attract many travellers looking for an authentic souvenir to rekindle memories of their visit to this exotic market.
Ha Giang (Khau Vai)
Of all the markets throughout Vietnam’s north-western provinces, the Khau Vai “love market” in Meo Vac district of Ha Giang province is one of the most famous. Held only once each year on the evening of the 26th/27th of the 3rd Lunar month, the market attracts throngs of Nung, Red Dzao, White H’mong, Muong and Giay ethnic minority peoples seeking those they still hold a torch for from their youth.
Several legends exist as to the origin of the Khau Vai “love market”. However, all share the same theme of unfulfilled love. The most commonly recounted legend is that of a Giay lass and a Nung lad who found love. Since they were from different ethnic groups, marriage was forbidden. Taking no heed, the couple continued their relationship until the affair caused an outbreak of violence between their clans. The couple resolved to sacrifice their love for the sake of peace between their peoples. However, love is no weak thing. They agreed to meet secretly in Khau Vai for one day each year, and did so for the rest of their lives.
To this day, people come from far and wide in the hope of meeting their ‘old flame’. An air of nervous expectation pervades. Some will simply make longing eye contact and be satisfied with that. The lucky few will chat earnestly together, catching up on the past. Most, however, will not catch sight nor whisper from their past love amid the vibrantly coloured crowd.
The System Of Villages and Native Lands In Vietnam
Vietnam is endowed with a rich culture stemming from a wet rice civilization. Thus, the traditions of the Vietnamese people are closely attached to their villages and native lands. The definition for ‘villages and native lands’ means different things in the spoken and written language of each ethnic group in Vietnam.
Villages and native lands are defined as Lang in the Vietnamese language, Chieng in the Tay-Thai language, Ban in the Muong language, and Buon Play in the languages of several other ethnic minority groups inhabiting the Central Highlands. The Lang (village) is an extremely interwoven social unit. It is not only an administrative organization but an economic unit based on sections of farmland. Farmers living in the same village are closely linked by family, community or business.
Thus, the habits, religious practices and festivals are all based on the origins of the village. Deep in the recess of every Vietnamese person’s memory are the permanent images of his or her village. It may be a Banyan tree standing at the front gate of the village or the bamboo groves surrounding it, deep water wells, the roof of the village temple, a distant mountain peak, a nearby river, paddy fields or the joyous sounds of the bustling village.
Area & Geography: South East Asia
Vietnam shares its land borders with Cambodia and Laos to the west and China to the north. Vietnamese eastern border is the 3,000 kilometers of coastline facing the East Sea. The country covers an area of more than 330,000 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 geography varies from coastal plains to mountain ranges.
Time-zone: GMT +7
GMT plus 7 hours
General office hours are ranged from 07:30/08:30 to 16:30/17:30 (with a 01 or 1.5 hour lunch break). Monday to Friday. Some offices also open on Saturday morning. Sunday is holiday.
Shops usually open abit later from about 09:00 and close in evening. Most shops are open seven days a week and many are open later on weekends.
Climate & Seasons: Tropical Monsoon
Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate with wet and dry seasons. These seasons vary greatly from north to south and with elevation changes.
In general, the dry season lasts from November to April in the north, south and central highland regions. The coolest, driest times are from October to January (north), from February to April (Central Highlands) and from late December to March (south).
Note: The climate is changing over time due to the world climate changes.
Vietnamese is a tonal language that uses the Roman alphabet together with tone and diacritical marks. Much of the language is Sino/Vietnamese, though influences from French and English are also apparent. English has replaced French and Russian as the most widely spoken and studied foreign language and is widely used in major cities.
People & Religion: Kinh & Buddhism
Vietnam has a population of over 90 million, about 85% of which are ethnic Vietnamese or ‘Kinh’ and is the most densely populated country in Southeast Asia. The remaining 15% is comprised of ethnic-Chinese, Khmers, Chams or members of more than 50 ethnic minority peoples living in the mountainous regions of central and northern Vietnam. The largest ethnic minority groups are the Tay, the White Thai, the Black Thai and the Hmong. These groups display similar rural and agricultural lifestyles, but have different languages, dress, cultures and physical features.
Buddhism is the most common religion in Vietnam with about 60% of the population practicing some form of Buddhism. About 10% of the population is Catholic. Other religions include Protestantism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Hinduism and Caodaism.
Festivals & Holidays: TET
Tet, the Lunar New Year (last day of the last lunar month – 3rd day of the first lunar month), is undoubtedly the most important holiday for the Vietnamese. Largest holiday of the year, occurs around late January-early February. Visitors should be aware that virtually all businesses are closed during this period and international and domestic flights are fully booked as overseas Vietnamese return to visit their families and friends. Other significant public holidays include:
+ January 1st: New Year’s Day (01 day)
+ April 30th: Saigon Liberation Day (01 day)
+ May 1st: International Labor Day (01 day)
+ 10th of the 3rd lunar month: Hung Kings Commemorations Day (01 day)
+ September 2nd: National Day of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (01 day)
Direct hand phone Mr. HUE: +84 (0) 933 023 363
Add: 287/2/7A Chu Van An Str., Binh Thanh Dist., HCM City, VIETNAM
Tel: +84 (0) 28 6274 2312