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Viet Nam - a microcosm of Asian culture

Update: January, 22/2012 - 17:50


A moment in time: Monks walk past Tu Hieu Pagoda in Hue City. — VNA/VNS Photo Anh Tuan
The charming Cham: The Cham attend the traditional Ka te festival at Poklong Garai tower in Phan Rang-Thap Cham Town in Ninh Thuan Province. — VNA/VNS Photo The Anh
Although Vietnamese culture is heavily influenced by India and China, it is still quite distinct. Nguyen Van Chien affirmsStretch your eyes beyond the S-shape of Viet Nam to the north of the Yangxi River in China, or to the west until the Indian northeast state of Assam, or eastward to the Philippines waters, Hawaii and even Madagascar in Africa, or southward to the Pacific Islands, and it is not difficult to see landscapes and people similar to that of Viet Nam.

More surprises might well be unveiled if one undertakes a deeper exploration.

In fact, if one goes back into history until the prehistoric times, one would find out that this region was a unique and undivided culture-historical area. Inhabitants of this region were the masters of a civilisation with distinct shades of colour compared with two other civilisations in its vicinity, ie. the Chinese civilisation in the North and the Indian civilisation in the South, despite the deep influences that both civilizations have had in Southeast Asia.

Today, this region is called the Southeast Asian cultural area for which we can discern several common denominators.

The first denominator is the Southeast Asian language (or the Southeast Asian language family).

People of the Southeast Asian culture spoke languages derived from the most ancient languages of the world, including Austroasiatic, Austro-Thai and Austronesian languages. The Vietlanguage today has a very close and genetic relation with the Austroasiatic languages (see 2, p.35-42).

Those who spoke the Southeast Asian languages were engaged in wet-paddy agriculture for ages and were the real owners of the paddy civilisation that contained within it three different subcultures: hilly/mountainous culture, plateau culture and coastal/offshore culture, with the plateau culture dominating.

So the second common denominator is the Southeast Asian wet paddy cultivation that makes it distinct from the other two great civilisations of China (dry paddy cultivation in the central regions of China) and India (dry agriculture with wheat cultivation in the Ganges delta). These distinct features have been explored by Southeast Asian anthropologists as evidenced by repetition of a series of descriptive factors.

First and foremost, the organisation of production, cultural norms and lifestyles of Southeast Asian inhabitants have some unique characteristics.

Wet paddy played a key role in the economic life and created fundamental social values here. However, this type of agriculture remained a polycultural/multi-cultivating complex in nature, ranging from broad horticulture to wet-paddy cultivation.

With agriculture, two forms of traditional cultivation were used: employing the hoe in mountainous/hilly areas and using the plough on wet plateaus.

Apart from wet paddy cultivation, there was also a system of secondary farming of herbs for both medical treatment and daily consumption as foodstuff and spices.

Inhabitants of the Southeast Asian culture knew how to use irrigation, which was an extremely crucial element in their wet paddy farming. An ancient Vietnamese saying goes: "First water, second fertiliser.'' There was also a Thai-style canal system in narrow valleys or the Khmer's tronup-canal system in Southern Viet Nam taking advantage of the tide to desalinise sea water before taking water into the fields.

On the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia, the Khmer also created the barai-canal system. In Southern Viet Nam, Vietnamese also came up witth a canal system (imitating the ancient Phunam people's irrigation practices) while people in the North developed the dyke system to control the waters of the Hong (Red) River in the area of the uneven plateau before building the sea dyke to dam up the salt water and prevent it from overflooding the rice-fields in the later period (see 2, p.56).

Irrigation in Southeast Asia had important distinctive features compared to irrigation in the dry paddy cultivation central regions of China. On the one hand, inhabitants of the wet paddy region in Southeast Asia made full use of the rain water stored in various forms in the rivers, ponds or lakes while the Han (Chinese) people in the North mostly used underground water taken from the wells. Ancient Vietnamese used to sing 'I beg Heavens for the rain'.

There were two additional trades linked to Southeast Asian wet paddy agriculture, ie. cloth weaving for women and fishing for men. Southeast Asia was the meeting point of rivers and sea and as such, the boat was a principal symbol in agricultural rituals and was present in almost all rain praying ceremonies.

In terms of dwelling, Southeast Asian inhabitants viewed the house as a central element of their daily life and their community life. Inside the house, all decorations and interior designs reflected and conformed to the family code and the spiritual connection between the dead and the living. From the stilt house to the Rong house and the traditional house of the Viet people or the communal house and pagoda, the close connection between family life and community life is intertwined with spiritual elements and social obligations.

When talking of the Southeast Asian wet-paddy civilisation, it would be necessary to mention the family setting and social structure of its inhabitants, especially their salient features.


Rice work: Farmers in Chau Binh Commune, Quy Chau District, plant the next season's rice crop during the spring festival. — VNA/VNS Photo Le Ba Lieu
The agricultural village, the cell of this wet paddy society, was a rather close-knit community with many families related to each other.

The blood-relationship in the Southeast Asian agricultural familial relations, however, was not as large as the Han: the count of generations was only five among the Viet while the Han stretched out to nine familial groups.

However, people still knew that a close neighbour might be more worthwhile than a relative faraway. The village community therefore created a mentality that emphasised "village bonds and gratitude" as well as a code of conduct that guided its members. These are indicated by sayings like, "We are of the same village," and ‘'The king's edict stops at the village gate.'' As such, a kind of village democracy emerged.

If the Thaipeople had their own model of Ban and Muong(nation) emerging from the demand for irrigation to do wet paddy farming, the Viet people also had their model of Lang-Nuoc (village and nation) attached to the evolution of agriculture and the course of nation building and defence.

In general, there were three types of townships in Southeast Asia.

The capitals in upland areas like My Son of the Cham Kingdom in Central Viet Nam served as military and religious strongholds while those in the plateau of the wet paddy kingdoms functioned as cultural and political centres; the coastal cities and island townships experienced an early development of commerce and mostly functioned as economic hubs like HoiAn and PhoHienin VietNam.

With time, new and major cities and centres were formed performing all the three functions like Dai Viet, Champa, Sukhothai, or Malacca.

Philosophically, the Southeast Asian wet paddy culture also had its own charateristics. Southeast Asians could be said to have followed a dualist path, practising a kind of primitive dialectics apart from the yin-yang philosophy used to approach and separate the world within and outside.

In the Southeast Asian culture, three types of calendars were used: astrological calendar used to measure man's outside world, the bio-calendar used to measure the evolution of all beings and the human calendar used to measure man's life cycle.

The peoples of Southeast Asia worshipped both nature gods and human gods, as can be seen in the practice of worshipping the sun, the mountain, the river, the sea, the water, the tree, paddy, or the cult of fertility, etc. In all the folk festivals, there were always two parts: the ceremonial part dedicated to the nature gods and the festive part to the human gods.

Apart from these common denominators with the Southeast Asian culture, the Vietnamese culture had its own characteristics.

Uniquely Vietnamese

First of all, it is clear that Viet Nam could be said to be a miniature picture of the Southeast Asian culture.

If Southeast Asia is the meeting point of the two worlds, ie. the continent and the islands, Viet Nam and her long stretch of land running from north to south offers excellent evidence. Viet Nam has all the five topographical landscapes of Southeast Asia: mountain, plateau, valley, coastal land and the island system.

In Viet Nam, indigenous people have appeared since prehistoric times. This was a site of interaction for most tribes speaking the ancient Southeast Asia languages.

For the 54 fraternal ethnic groups now in Viet Nam, this land has always been a fertile one, offering excellent ground for different ethnic communities to develop their own social models. The Viet - Muong started from a developed tribal society to become a nation state of the Kinh people alongside other groups, the owners of major civilisations like the Chamin Central Viet Nam or Khmer in Southern Viet Nam as well as other smaller groups in the country.

Viet Nam is a model of a cultural area that encompasses various sub-cultures: in the northwest, there were the Thai while the Cham dominated the central part of South Viet Nam. In the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta, there is a cultural and linguistic contact region of the Khmers and in the TayNguyen (Central Highlands) region, there were ethnic groups speaking Mon-Khmer and Malayopolinesian languages.

These features confirm Viet Nam as a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic country.

Apart from the ancient Southeast Asian linguistic families, Viet Nam also had its own branch of languages including the Viet-Muong group and its isolated smaller sub-languages like May, Ruc, Sach, Arem and MaLieng (these islandish languages are on the brink of extinction). The Viet - Muong language group is now a focus of study on the origin of the Viet people as well as the evolution of the Vietnamese language.

In principle, the wet paddy civilisation of Vietnamese has been an innovative adoption of the wet paddy farming techniques of the Tay -Thai people as well as the full application of such techniques in their specific conditions and environment in the Song Hong (Red River) Delta and beyond in the coastal areas. The Vietnamese also learned from the Cham's off-season paddy farming techniques, especially the latter's experience in cultivating rice and fishery in the coastal areas.

These techniques were later incorporated with the Mon-Khmer inhabitants' mountainous rice farming knowledge. The movement of Vietnamese southward to the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta in the later phase proved the importance of learning these farming techniques from other ethnic groups.

The Vietpeople were the owners of the wet-paddy civilisation in the northern plateau. They excelled in farming paddy on the wet fields of the delta. As they expanded their rice cultivation space, they moved on to higher lands and coastal areas.

However, the 'mountainous' characteristic seems to be less distinct while the 'sea quality' could be noticed from the people's behaviour, shown especially clearly by efforts to reclaim saline lands by Nguyen Cong Tru in the areas of Tien Hai, Kim Son and PhatDiemin ThaiBinh and Ninh Binh provinces. Then, Vietnamese rarely tried offshore fishing but opted for coastal fisheries and as such, did not care much for the development of maritime commerce.

Many researchers opine that ancient port towns like Pho Hien in North Viet Nam or Hoi An in the Centre were established by foreigners who brought goods here for doing business.

With time, these ports almost vanished due to many reasons and one of which is that the Vietdid not care to develop them. The delta was the place where the Vietnamese people really showed their talents. It was here that they learned from the Chinese and Indian civilisations to create their own distinct and unique culture, absorbing the best of the two. — VNS

The author is a researcher and lecturer at Thang Long University.


1. Chi Nguyen Tu ( 1966). Gop phan nghien cuu van hoa va toc nguoi . ( Contribute the study of Culture and Nation ). NXB Van hoa va thong tin . Ha Noi

2. Duong Pham Duc ( 2000) . Van hoa Viet Nam trong boi canh dong nam a. ( The Vietnamese culture in the context of Southeast Asia ). Nxb KHXH. Ha Noi

3. Ngoc Phan ( 1992). On the community of Southeast Asian culture. In the book " Unity in diversity cooperation between Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries. Social Sciences and Humanity. Ha Noi 


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