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 developed countries.
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 seven holes.
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.
‘Ca 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 in Hanoi.
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.