Vietnamese culture has developed over the centuries from the ancient indigenous culture of Đông Sơn with wet rice cultivation as its economic basis. Some elements of the national culture have Chinese origins and draw on elements of Confucianism and Taoism in their traditional political system and philosophy. Vietnamese society is structured around the yng (ancestral villages); all Vietnamese celebrate a common ancestral birthday on the tenth day of the third lunar month. Influences from immigrant peoples – such as Cantonese, Hakka, Hokkien and Hainan cultures – can also be observed, while the national religion of the Buddhists is strongly linked to popular culture. In recent centuries, the influences of Western cultures, especially from France and the United States, have become evident in Vietnam.
The traditional centres of Vietnamese culture are humanity (nhân nghĩa) and harmony (hòa); family and community values are highly valued. Vietnam reveres a number of key cultural symbols, such as the Vietnamese dragon, derived from crocodile and snake imagery; Vietnam’s national father, Lạc Long Quân, is depicted as a sacred dragon. The lạc – a sacred bird representing Vietnam’s national mother, Âu Cơ – is another important symbol, while images of turtles and horses are also revered.
In the modern era, Vietnam’s cultural life was strongly influenced by the state-controlled media and cultural programmes. For many decades, foreign cultural influences – especially of Western origin – were avoided. Since the 1990s, however, Vietnam has come into greater contact with the culture and media of Southeast Asia, Europe and America.
The media sector in Vietnam is regulated by the government under the 2004 Law on Publication. It is generally perceived that the Vietnamese media sector is controlled by the government to follow the official Communist Party line, although some newspapers are relatively outspoken. The Voice of Vietnam is the official state broadcaster, broadcasting internationally on shortwave via leased transmitters in other countries and offering programmes on its website. Vietnam Television is the national broadcaster.
Since 1997, Vietnam has largely regulated public access to the internet, through both legal and technical means. The resulting blockage is commonly referred to as the “Bamboo Firewall”. The OpenNet Initiative Community Project classifies Vietnam’s level of online political censorship as “pervasive”, while Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam as one of the 15 “enemies of the internet” worldwide. Although the Vietnamese government claims to protect the country from obscene or sexually explicit content through its blocks, many politically and religiously sensitive websites are also banned.
Traditional Vietnamese music varies between the northern and southern regions of the country. Northern classical music is the oldest form of music in Vietnam and traditionally more formal. The origins of Vietnamese classical music can be traced back to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, when the Vietnamese captured a Chinese opera troupe. Throughout its history, Vietnam has been the country most influenced by the Chinese musical tradition, along with Korea, Mongolia and Japan, as it is an integral part of that tradition. Nhã nhạc is the most popular form of music of the imperial court. Chèo is a form of musical theatre that is usually satirical. Xẩm or Hát xẩm (Xẩm singing) is a type of Vietnamese folk music. Quan họ (alternative singing) is popular in Hà Bắc provinces (divided into Bắc Ninh and Bắc Giang) and throughout Vietnam. Hát chầu văn or hát văn is a form of spiritual music used to summon spirits during ceremonies. Nhạc dân tộc cải biên is a modern form of Vietnamese folk music that originated in the 1950s. Ca trù (also hát ả đào) is a popular folk music. Hò” cannot be considered the southern style of Quan họ. There is a whole range of traditional instruments, including the Đàn bầu (one-stringed zither), the Đàn gáo (two-stringed violin with coconut body) and the Đàn nguyệt (two-stringed moon lute).
Vietnamese literature has a deep history of several centuries. The country has a rich tradition of folk literature based on the typical 6-8 line poetic form called ca dao, which usually focuses on ancestors and village heroes. Written literature has been found dating back to the 10th century Ngô dynasty, with notable ancient authors including Nguyễn Trãi, Trần Hưng Đạo, Nguyễn Du and Nguyễn Đình Chiểu. Certain literary genres play an important role in theatrical performance, such as hát nói in ca trù. Some poetic associations have also emerged in Vietnam, such as the Tao Đàn. More recently, Vietnamese literature has been influenced by Western styles, with the first movement of literary transformation – Thơ Mới – beginning in 1932.
The áo dài, a ceremonial dress, is worn on special occasions such as weddings and religious holidays. The white áo dài is the compulsory uniform for girls in many high schools in Vietnam. In the past, the Áo dài was worn by both sexes, but today it is mostly reserved for women, although men wear it on certain occasions, such as traditional weddings. Other examples of traditional Vietnamese clothing include the thân áo tứ, a four-piece women’s dress; the thân áo ngũ, a five-piece form of thân worn mainly in the north of the country; the women’s underwear yếm; rural work pyjamas for men and women áo bà ba; the brocade tunic áo gấm for government functions; and the thân áo the, a variation of the thân áo gấm worn by brides and grooms at weddings. Traditional headgear includes the regular conical nón lá and the “lampshade-shaped” nón quai thao.
The martial arts Vovinam and Bình Định are widely practised in Vietnam, while football is the most popular team sport in the country. Its national team won the ASEAN Football Championship in 2008. Other western sports such as badminton, tennis, volleyball, table tennis and chess are also popular.
Vietnam has participated in the Summer Olympics since 1952, when it was still known as the State of Vietnam. After the partition of the country in 1954, only South Vietnam took part in the Games and sent athletes to the 1956 and 1972 Olympic Games. Since the reunification of Vietnam in 1976, the country has taken part in the Games under the name of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and has participated in all Summer Olympic Games from 1988 onwards. The current Vietnamese Olympic Committee was founded in 1976 and recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1979. As of 2014, Vietnam has never participated in the Winter Olympics. In 2016, Vietnam participated in the Rio Olympics, where it won its first gold medal.
Vietnamese cuisine traditionally represents a combination of five basic taste “elements” (in Vietnamese: ngũ vị): spicy (metal), sour (wood), bitter (fire), salty (water) and sweet (earth). Common ingredients are fish sauce, shrimp paste, soy sauce, rice, fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables. Vietnamese recipes use lemongrass, ginger, mint, Vietnamese mint, long coriander, Saigon cinnamon, bird’s eye pepper, lime and basil leaves. Traditional Vietnamese cuisine is known for its fresh ingredients, minimal use of oil and use of herbs and vegetables and is considered one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.
In northern Vietnam, local dishes are often less spicy than southern dishes because the colder climate in the north limits the production and availability of spices. Black pepper is used instead of chillies to create a spicy flavour. The use of meat such as pork, beef and chicken was relatively limited in the past, so freshwater fish, crustaceans – especially crab – and shellfish were used extensively. Fish sauce, soy sauce, shrimp sauce and lime are among the most important seasoning ingredients. Many typical Vietnamese dishes, such as bún riêu and bánh cuốn, originated in the north and were brought to central and southern Vietnam by migrants.