Vietnam is a vibrant modern country, with a fantastic cuisine and lots of history and culture to explore. Most people live in rural areas and getting outside the major cities can lead to some rewarding experiences. So to better understand Vietnam here’s what you need to know.
Putting Things in Perspective: the Short Version of Vietnam’s History
What you need to know begins with the history as it shapes what is today modern Vietnam. The country has a long and complex history and I am going to give you the seriously short version! With evidence of humans inhabiting this area for over 25,000 years, we are going to skip to the 10th century AD to begin our lesson. (Saving you thousands of years already!)
Vietnam was ruled for centuries by the Chinese, but in the early 10th century Vietnam began a period of self rule when many powerful dynasties ruled Vietnam. Over the centuries, it seems as though Vietnam was invaded by everyone- including the Mongols, the Cham empire, the Khmer empire, and the Chinese. The Vietnamese also invaded some of these empires. Vietnam’s history and geographical expansion is long and conquests and wars with surrounding rulers are common. In more recent times wars have included the Japanese, Cambodians, French, American, and Laos.
Let’s flash forward to more recent times, in the 1800’s French missionaries arrive in Vietnam. The period of French influence and rule is an interesting time in Vietnamese history and the legacies of the French are present in both the architecture and food. Many people also speak French as well as Vietnamese, and finding someone to speak French is relatively easy in a lot of places. A lot of tours, museums, and other activities are also available in French.
French military activity in Vietnam began in 1846. The period of French influence, colonialism and eventually rule finally came to an end after an eight year war lasting between 1946-1954, when Vietnam was divided into a Southern French region and an independent Northern region. The plan was for elections to be held in two years to reunify the country and elect one ruler. Needless to say these elections did not eventuate.
Instead the North and South of Vietnam became ever more divided. The North was Communist, the South was not. In 1959, the Communist North began a campaign to “liberate” the South by uniting the country under communism.
The US involvement in Vietnam had begun in 1950 while providing aid to the French. It continued for 25 years. The US based their continued involvement on a strategy that if South Vietnam fell to communism, other countries would follow, a doctrine referred to as the “domino” effect. This is what led to the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is known in Vietnam). This war ended in 1975. So 2015 is the 40th Anniversary of the end of the American War in Vietnam.
This is the beginning of the modern Socialist Republic of Vietnam which was created in 1976.
This however was not the end to war in the region or for Vietnam. Cambodia was under the influence of the Pol Pot regime and in 1979 Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Vietnam had troops in Cambodia and neighboring Laos until 1989.
Finally at peace in 1989, Vietnam, having suffered great economic and agricultural devastation from 50 years of conflict began to rebuild its economic infrastructure and normalize trade relations. They opened the country to overseas investment and much of what you see of modern Vietnam has been built since 1989.
As you can see this is a VERY brief history of Vietnam, I share it to provide some context of what we will see and explore over the next month.
Vietnam is considered a communist government, although it refers to itself as Socialist. However when you visit, there is little evidence to the tourist or traveler of communism, instead what is most evident is signs of capitalism. The Vietnamese, and Asians in general, are very hard working. They are very enterprising and always doing something to try and make some money to feed their families or get ahead.
Family is a very important aspect of Vietnamese life. Most of the over 77 million people still live in rural areas. Family units form the basis for working (usually farming, but it might be a shop), meals and celebrations.
Agriculture is the most common industry and you see a lot of people working in the fields. Two main river basins account for the largest proportion of food production, the Red River Valley in the North of the country and the Mekong River Valley in the South. Rice, coffee and black pepper (the spice) are all grown and exported in large amounts. We were told Vietnam is the main coffee producer for Nescafe Coffee. Vietnamese coffee is actually quite good and we will talk about it and provide instructions to make it in a future post.
Markets provide the center for social activity and due to the lack of refrigeration many people shop daily. Rice is a staple and is eaten in some form at nearly every meal- rice, noodles, rice paper, etc. Many families and villages work together to grow their own rice.
Lunar New Year or Tet as it is known in Vietnam is the largest and most important holiday of the year and is usually spent with family. It is a bit of a combination Christmas, New Years and your birthday all rolled into one. As a tourist this can be a busy time to try and travel throughout any part of Asia as many people return to their villages to spend the holiday with their families. As it is Lunar, the time varies each year, but is usually in late January or early February. It is celebrated for the three days before and on the first day of the first month of the Lunar calendar.
Vietnamese cuisine shows influences from both their neighbors and foreign rule. Chinese, French, Khmer, Malaysian, Lao and Thai influences can be found in their meals.
Rice in some form is usually served. Fish, seafood, chicken, pork and beef are all common meats in Vietnamese food. Dog is also eaten in Vietnam.
We will explore some of the cuisine and its influences in future posts.
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The Ancient Capital of Hue
Located in the middle of the country, about 700 km south of Hanoi and 1100 North of Ho Chi Minh City, in 1945 Hue became the National Capital. The city is recognized as a UNESCO world Heritage site and if your itinerary allows it, is worth a bit of exploration.
Hue (pronounced hway), referred to as the ancient capital, but most of the things you are likely to visit are from a more modern era. The Citadel, a huge fortress along the Perfume River, built in 1800 is worth a look around. Warning: wear comfortable shoes, there is a lot of walking, it is huge. It has the Imperial City (royal palaces and shrines), the Forbidden Purple City (royals residences), and Dai Noi, the inner city.
There are also several tombs from Emperors. These are also located along the river. These are huge sites, and as with a lot of memorials, built to glorify the ruler himself. So the grandeur of the tombs is impressive. This was unlike anything else we saw in Vietnam and was quite an interesting day. The tombs are all located some distance outside the town. We organized a day tour which was transport and a guide quite cheaply at a local cafe. (Your hotel can organize this as well.) The most common tombs are Tu Doc, Minh Mang and Khai Dinh. All are different in style. The entire day, transport and admissions was approximately $20 USD per person.
Our tour also included a stop at a local artisan village where they made incense sticks. This was quite interesting to watch and the pictures are fantastic! So colorful.
The Cao Dai Religion
Vietnamese practice a variety of religions- Buddhism, Catholicism, and Hindu are the most common. But they also have one originating in Vietnam, Cao Dai (pronounced: gao-DIE). It is a combination of Catholicism, Buddhism, and the teachings of Confucius combined. It started in 1926 in Tay Ninh, about 60 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.
With about 5 million followers, their colorful temples are found throughout Vietnam.
The symbol is an eye in a triangle, the “all seeing eye”. Describing it as colorful is a huge understatement. The priests wear red, yellow or blue robes and the followers wear white. For the service, worshipers kneel on the floor. Every spare inch of the temple is covered in vibrant murals or carvings. Even the floor adds to the cacophony of color.
It was very interesting to see in person and while I have read there is a Cao Dai temple in Dallas, I have not seen these temples outside of Vietnam. You can combine a visit to Tay Ninh with a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels outside of Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam has a long history of silk embroidery that look like paintings. These have been created for emperors over the years and displayed in many of Vietnam’s state buildings.
It is a common item in souvenir shops, but if you want to see some very high quality examples head to XQ Saigon Silk Hand Embroidery. This place had phenomenal silk embroidery, what would be called works of art. The quality of the craftsmanship is outstanding. They have many examples where the work is double-sided. It is on a “stand” and you can see both sides of the work, it is identical. It must take a high level of skill to embroider to this level.
There are shops throughout Vietnam, in most large cities. The company’s largest showroom is in Dalat, their headquarters. The high quality, large pieces can cost thousands of dollars. You can see the women working in the shops. Some of their Vietnamese landscapes are fantastic, especially the way the light is portrayed is exquisite. It reminds me of Thomas Kinkade’s work. So the fact it is embroidery not paint is all the more amazing.
The pictures below show the ladies at work.
Want to Learn More about Vietnam?
To get you In the Mood and help you learn more about Vietnam, here are some of our recommendations of books, movies and cookbooks about Vietnam.
Books and Movies
- The Quiet American (1950’s Vietnam, book or movie)
- Upcountry by Nelson DeMille (After the war, returning to Vietnam book)
- Apocalypse Now (Vietnam War movie)
- Heaven & Earth (movie)
- Good Morning Vietnam (Vietnam War movie)
- Last Days in Vietnam (Vietnam War movie)
- Indochine (movie 1930’s Vietnam)
- Three Seasons (movie)
- Scent of Green Papaya (movie)
Cookbooks & Travel Books
- Eating Vietnam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table (book, humorous food/travel memoir)
- The Food of Vietnam by Luke Nguyen
- The Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon
- Bikes of Burden by Hans Kemp (picture book)
- National Geographic Traveler Vietnam
A curated selection of books, movies, cookbooks and cooking essentials (tools and ingredients) is in our Shop.