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VIETNAMESE CULTURE

  • Family and Social Culture

Before the late 1980s, nearly all Vietnamese people lived in villages, and the cultivation of wet rice was the principal economic activity. The basic component of rural society was the nuclear family, composed of parents and unwed children.

Respect for parents and ancestors is a key virtue in Vietnam. The oldest male in the family is the head of the family and the most important family member. His oldest son is the second leader of the family. Sometimes, related families live together in a big house and help each other. The parents chose their children's marriage partners based on who they think is best suited for their child. When people die, their families honor their ancestors on the day of their death by performing special ceremonies at home or at temples and by burning incense and fake money for the one who died.

The Vietnamese believed that by burning incense, their ancestors could protect them and their family from danger and harm. Days before the ceremony starts, the family has to get ready, because they won't have enough time to get ready when the guests arrive and the ceremony starts. Usually the women cook and prepare many special kinds of food, like chicken, ham, pork, rice, and many more including desserts.

While the women are busy cooking, the men are busy fixing up and cleaning up the house, so it won't be messy and dirty because of all the relatives of the person that died will come for the ceremony and show honor and respect to that person.

Families venerated their ancestors with special religious rituals. The houses of the wealthy were constructed of brick, with tile roofs. Those of the poor were bamboo and thatch. Rice was staple food for the vast majority, garnished with vegetables and, for those who could afford it, meat and fish.

The French introduced Western values of individual freedom and sexual quality, which undermined and the traditional Vietnamese social system. In urban areas, Western patterns of social behavior became increasingly common, especially among educated and wealthy Vietnamese attended French schools, read French books, replaced traditional attire with Western-style clothing, and drank French wines instead of the traditional wine distilled from rice. Adolescents began to resist the tradition of arranged marriages, and women chafed under social mores that demanded obedience to their fathers and husbands. In the countryside, however, traditional Vietnamese family values remained strong.

The trend toward adopting Western values continues in South Vietnam after the division of the country in 1954. Many young people embraced sexual freedom and the movies, clothing styles, and rock music from Western cultures became popular. But in the North, social ethnics were defined by Vietnam Communist Party’s principles. The government officially recognized equality of the sexes, and women began to obtain employment in professions previously dominated by men. At the same time, the government began enforcing a more puritanical lifestyle as a means to counter the so-called decadent practices of Western society. Traditional values continued to hold sway in rural areas and countryside, where the concept of male superiority remained common.

In the 1980s, the Vietnamese government adopted an economic reform program that freely from free market principles and encouraged foreign investment and tourism development. As a result, the Vietnamese people have become increasingly acquainted with and influenced by the lifestyles in developed countries of South East Asia and the West.

  • Arts and Handicrafts in Vietnam

Ceramics and pottery have been around Vietnam, it is believed, since the Neolithic period.  During the 11th century ceramics were in great demand for religious purposes with the popularity of Buddhism.  Religious objects as well as statues were needed and were produced with great skill. The beauty and elegance of ceramics caused the aristocracy, as well as emperors, to become patrons of kilns in the Red River Delta. Cups, dishes, etc., with whitish-ivory and jade-green glazes were produced in the 12th century, gradually increasing in ornamentation during the 15th and 16th centuries.  With the adoption of cobalt blue from China, Vietnam started producing blue-white ceramics which were still being produced as late as the 19th century in royal workshops, and in the village of Bat Trang (Hanoi).

Woodcarving, considered to be a peasant art, was until recently a hidden art within Vietnam.  It was not until 1972 that the country realized the beautiful art hidden within it's country's homes. 

This art uses ironwood, ebony, reddish mahogany and rosewood (yak wood) with the natural beauty of the wood just adds to the finished product, whether it be in a temple, home or a statue.  Adding to the natural beauty, sometimes several layers of  lacquer and color are applied making it even more breathtaking. Woodcuts initially came from China, but is now considered to be a traditional Vietnamese art.   These are mainly used for book illustrations and for pictures during Tet (Tranh Tet - traditional New Year's pictures).

Dong Ho Paintings

You may have seen them before. They adorn the walls of Vietnamese restaurants everywhere in the world. Vietnamese people hang them up as Lunar New Year approaches. In Vietnam, production of these folk paintings peaks right before Tet as merchants stock up in anticipation of heavy customer demand.

 

The Print Making Process

These paintings are traditionally used to decorate homes for the New Year festival. The prints are made by brushing paint made of local material onto carved wood blocks, then pressing the blocks on paper. The print is left to dry after each color is applied before another color is added. Three to five colors are used to make each print.

The Wood Blocks

The wooden blocks are made from the thi tree, a soft fibrous wood. The block is used as a printing plate, with one block for each color, print and size. The blocks are usually kept in a separate warehouse to preserve them in their finest form.

The Paper

The prints are all done on traditional giay gio paper made from the bark fiber of the do tree. This tree grows in the northwestern part of the country. The sheath is stripped off the tree trunk and soaked in a pond for a month. It is then dipped in limewater for two weeks, followed by a wash. After ten days or so the pulp is poured into frames which are stacked for several more days. Then the stacks are arranged on a wall to dry, and pressed smooth with a stone mortar. The paper is coated with a pulverized powder made from shellfish found in the Hai Phong area. The shellfish is brought to the village and coated with mud for two years.

The entire mixture is then ground up by stone mortar and put into a water tank to be filtered and pressed into balls that weigh about a kilo and they are left to dry on the walls or floors. They are then used as needed and mixed with glue. This mixture is called diep powder.

The Brush

The prints are painted with a beautiful brush made of spruce. The thet brushes are made from dried spruce leaves bound together. These brushes are made in a village not far away and come in various sizes. The leaves are pounded with salt water and a hammer to make the brush tip soft enough and are bound together and flattened at the top.

The Paint

The folk art simplicity has strong and simple contours with bright colors that are made from dried bamboo leaves, the local fruits, flowers and leaves. The paint is mixed in large earthenware pots. The colors are mixed by hand and each artisan has his or her own formula. The red paint is made from soi son, a soft stone that is found in the region. The blue paint is made from indigo leaves found in the minority areas. Both of these paints must be soaked in an earthenware pot for a couple of years and strained of all impurities. 

Yellow paint usually comes from the sophora tree whose flowers are as small as rice kernels. The flowers are roasted in a pan until they turn brownish-yellow. When water is added and the mixture is boiled, the yellow color appears. The liquid is filtered and the pulp thrown away. The violet color comes from the mong toi fruit. Black paint comes from the bamboo tree. When the bamboo trees shed their leaves,

they are burned to a cinder, then sprinkled with water and put in a glazed clay jar half filled with water. After a year or more the water is strained and the black ink is ready for use after being mixed with glutinous rice glue. 

Grinding glutinous rice into a fine powder and mixing it with water makes the rice glue. As the rice powder settles to the bottom, the clear water is skimmed off every day, to prevent the contents from fermenting.  Click here to read more

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