Education has always been valued in Vietnam – Hanoi’s ‘Temple
of Literature’ (Van Mieu) was founded in the 11th century
and is one of the oldest universities in the world – and
today’s level of literacy compares favourably with fully
Although it has a rich oral folk tradition, much of the
early written literary heritage was written in Chinese ideograms
(chu nho). In the 13th century, the Vietnamese designed
their own symbols (chu nom), but these were used only for
poetry until the French introduced the concept of prose.
Today’s Romanised script was adopted in 1920 - Vietnamese
literature in the form of prose is still in its infancy!
In the past, traditional music played an important role
in religious ceremonies, festivals and as an accompaniment
to drama and dance, and was based upon the pentatonic scale.
Much of the tradition has been maintained, often by amateur
enthusiasts. Tourism is also stimulating renewed interest
in the old forms of musical expression.
The monochord (dan bau) is a single-string
instrument unique to Vietnam. By varying the strings tension,
an expert using a plectrum can produce a remarkable range
of tones and effects stretching over three octaves.
Other unusual instruments include a
sixteen-string zither (dan tranh), a three-string lute (dan
day) and a two-string vertical fiddle (dan nhi). Wind instruments
include the notoriously difficult ‘double trumpet’ (ken
doi), a sort of twin-reed oboe with two pipes, each with
Vietnam’s oldest song tradition is ‘alternate singing’ (quan
ho) that still thrives in the Red River Delta and among
ethnic minorities. Originally, courtship rituals, a couple
sang unaccompanied, passing the lyrics back and forth.
‘Chau Van’ is ancient sacred music used
to invoke the spirits during shamanic rituals. The music
is hypnotic, designed to induce a trance.
Tru’ songs date back to the 15th C. They are lyrical, often
based upon poetry, and traditionally sung by a woman. Clicks
and clacks accompany the centuries old ballads. Although
rare today, Ca Tru is similar to a Hue song tradition that
is still popular today.
Dance is predominantly a folk tradition, still practised
in ethnic communities and remote villages. However, the
custom is waning and efforts are being made to conserve
the dances that remain and, where feasible, revive those
that have already disappeared.
Vietnam has a long theatrical tradition. ‘Hat Cheo’, a form
of popular opera, has been performed on the Red River Delta
for at least a thousand years. Feudal in origin, its free
form combining dance, song, mime and poetry with a comic
narrator, was used by the peasants to mock their masters,
and later, the French. A Cheo ensemble still performs regularly
The highly stylised ‘Hat Tuong’ was
a development of the Chinese classical Beijing opera, dealing
with historic events and epics and based on Confucian traditions.
After a brief revival as a propaganda vehicle for the communist
movement, it has now fallen out of favour.
However, ‘Hat Cai Luong’, a comparatively recent theatre
originating the south of the country, remains popular thanks
to a combination of historical drama with populist themes
of murder, drugs, incest, vengeance and so on. It is something
of a theatrical melange, mixing traditional and modern in
short scenes with frequent references to contemporary issues.
A more modern version, called ‘Hat Kich
Noi’ uses modern events and stories to deliver propaganda
in an entertaining form.
The famous 'water puppets'
Water puppetry (Roi Nuoc) is a unique North Vietnamese tradition.
Records show that it was being performed as early as 1121
AD: several troupes are still active and performances take
place daily in Hanoi. The puppeteers are hidden behind a
curtain up to their waists in water and manipulate the puppets
on long rods, creating the illusion that they are gliding
across the water. A performance consists of a succession
of short scenes of rural life, and is a highly entertaining
and amusing introduction to the Vietnamese peasant tradition.