Inside Vietnam: Cambodia Laos

Vietnamese arts & architecture

The arts and architecture of Southeast Asia draw their major influences from India, China and a variety of indigenous traditions.

Hinduism had an important impact on the region in its early history, but in later centuries Buddhism became - and has remained - the focal point of life in Indochina. For this reason, most arts and architecture in Vietnam have strong ties with the Buddhist religion.

Vietnamese performing arts

Water puppetry

The most famous of Vietnam's performing arts is water puppetry, a tradition that evolved in the 11th century on the Red River Delta. Every year, the Red River would burst its banks, flooding the lowlands and providing the perfect platform to conceal the puppeteers, their poles, and the mechanics that articulate the puppets.

Water puppetry fell off the map somewhat during the Vietnam War, but thanks to Vietnam's booming tourism industry it has regained popularity, and you can now see shows (usually depicting Vietnamese myths and legends) performed in a chest-deep pool of water on stage, with a curtain to conceal the puppeteers' heads and shoulders.

Theatre

Cheo is an ancient form of theatre that has existed in Vietnam since at least the Bronze Age, as evidenced by depictions of performances that have been found on drums from that era. The name cheo comes from the Chinese word for laughter, and the art consists of a comical, improvised performance on a familiar theme, set to the accompaniment of traditional instruments. Audience participation is very important, and during the performance an onlooker beats a drum to signal whether the troupe is performing well or badly.

Hat tuong is a Chinese performing art that arrived in Vietnam in the 13th century by way of a prisoner of war named Ly Nguyen Cat. Originally a theatre for the elite, hat tuong involves elaborate make-up, ceremonial costumes, masks, stylised gestures, traditional instruments, and sparse, symbolic props. The dramatic action focusses on Confucian principles adapted from the Chinese tradition to suit Vietnamese cultural sensibilities.

While cheo and hat tuong have waned in popularity significantly in recent years, one performing art that has managed to retain a modicum of popularity with modern Vietnamese is cai luong - a form of spoken drama that frequently borrows from contemporary themes.

Music

Traditional Vietnamese music can be divided into two categories: dieu bac (northern mode) and dieu nam (southern mode). The former is closest to Chinese music, while the latter takes its influence from indigenous Cham culture. Traditional styles of singing such as quan ho (a call-and-response dialogue song) and ca tru (a type of sung poetry) continue to be practised in modern Vietnam; the former at festivals and the latter at specialist clubs. Chinese-inspired court music has also seen a revival since the 1980s.

Vietnamese visual arts

The history of art in Vietnam

Aside from some rudimentary pottery dating back to the Stone Age, the earliest known example of Vietnamese art is the Dong Son drums: cast bronze drums made in the Red River Delta in from around 600 BC to 300 AD. Decorated with intricate patterns, scenes of daily life, animals, birds, and boats - these drums give an insight into life for some of the earliest Vietnamese people.

Over ten centuries of Chinese domination (from 111 BC until 939 AD), the Vietnamese learned Chinese techniques for producing art while continuing their own tradition of indigenous arts and crafts. Ceramics was an area that became particularly developed over the course of this time.

During a period of Vietnamese independence lasting from the 10th until the 15th century, meanwhile, Vietnamese art experienced something of a golden age. At this time, Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism had an important impact on artistic traditions, and Vietnamese ceramics gained a reputation for beauty and quality throughout Asia. Calligraphy, silk painting and woodblock printing were all popular traditional forms of visual art in Vietnam at this time, and have survived in one form or another to this day.

Following this golden period, Vietnam was once again dominated by China. Over the course of just two decades, a great deal of Vietnamese art and literature was destroyed, to be replaced by art heavily influenced by Ming Dynasty China. Later, in the 19th century, the French colonial era brought European artistic influences to Vietnam, making a huge impact on the Vietnamese artistic tradition that is evident in contemporary Vietnamese art even today. 

Traditional crafts

Village handicrafts have also recently enjoyed a resurgence, with whole villages often recognised for producing a certain signature craft - such as lacquerware, pottery, parasols, conical hats or silk. Today there are around 2,500 designated craft villages in Vietnam, who help to preserve the country's cultural heritage and use their skills to bring prosperity to depressed rural areas.

Vietnamese architecture

It's thought that early Vietnamese people lived in stilt houses - much like those  found in some rural parts of Vietnam today. This theory is supported by images on the Dong Son drums, dating back over two millennia.

Throughout history Vietnam has suffered repeated domination by the Chinese, meaning that influences from China have permeated Vietnamese culture since as early as 111 BC. This strong Chinese flavour is perceptible in Vietnamese architecture as well as art, and the country's palaces, pagodas and temples tend to combine Chinese aspects with native features to form a uniquely Vietnamese style. Some examples of classical Vietnamese architecture that can still be seen in Vietnam today are the Temple of Literature and One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi, the imperial city of Hue, and the Perfume Pagoda.

During the French colonial period, meanwhile, a great number of grand, European-style buildings were constructed throughout Vietnam. Many of these buildings continue to serve as restaurants, hotels, public offices and government buildings today, and form an integral part of the architectural landscape of Vietnam.