Vietnam Culture and Traditions

Table of Contents

“Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going” (by Rita Mae Brown). Vietnamese culture plays a vital role in Vietnamese translation. A proper understanding of the Vietnamese culture allows translators and interpreters to effectively portray the Vietnamese multifaceted cultural tapestry. This helps produce high-quality translation products.

Vietnam Culture: Foundation of a Polyethnic Country

The S-shaped land called Vietnam is embroidered and woven with the distinctive colors of 54 ethnic groups living in harmony. Each ethnic group offers unique characteristics from language, customs, architecture, and clothing to culture and art.

For example, the Central Highlands of Vietnam is most commonly known as “The Space of Gong Culture”, recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on November 25, 2005. The Central Highlands’ Gong music is a unique form of folk performance that expresses the authority and solemnity of families, clans, and villages. Gong is also a sacred object in the spiritual beliefs of several ethnic groups in the Central Highlands.

Similarly, for the mountainous ethnic groups in the Northwest, traditional musical instruments are the essence of life in this region. For example, the Thai ethnic group has several musical instruments: Pi, Khaen (free-reed mouth organ), string instruments, and percussion instruments. The main musical instruments of the Mong people are the flute, Khaen, kèn lá (leaf flute), and kèn môi (lip flute).

To preserve the unique characteristics of each ethnic group, the Vietnamese government always focuses on supporting programs that encourage cultural activities and preserve the cultural heritage of the people. In addition, the government is continuously promoting integration and exchanges between ethnic groups to create favorable conditions for all Vietnamese people to live and work in a multicultural environment.

In this context, Vietnamese is the national script used as a common means of communication between ethnic groups. However, each ethnic group still retains its own language and uses it within its community.

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In a total of 53 ethnic minorities in Vietnam, only the Hoa, Cham, and Khmer ethnic groups have their own spoken language and writing system. Most other ethnic minorities only have spoken languages ​​without an official writing system.

This creates a significant challenge in Vietnamese translation because, without an official writing system, the translation process depends heavily on spoken language. To translate accurately, the translator must have good listening skills and a deep understanding of the culture of ethnic minorities in Vietnam.

Culture of filial piety and patriotism in Vietnam

The spirit of filial piety and patriotism, (“Tinh thần trung hiếu” as in Vietnamese) are traditional moral values that have been passed down through the generations of the Vietnamese people.

Trung” (patriotism) represents the loyalty, love, and trust towards the homeland. This is a sacred sentiment that seems to be present in the heart of every Vietnamese person. This spirit is demonstrated throughout their long history as Vietnamese people fought to protect their homeland against any invaders.

Hiếu” (filial piety) is the virtue of being grateful to parents, grandparents, ancestors, and the people. This long-standing cultural trait shows the respect of the Vietnamese people for those who have raised and nurtured them. The Vietnamese spirit of “hiếu” always shines through small, simple actions in daily life.

The spirit of filial piety and patriotism today has become an integral part of every Vietnamese person. Therefore, in the context of Vietnam culture, the spirit of filial piety and patriotism is an essential part that is expressed through every aspect of the language. One of them is the complex hierarchical pronoun system that reflects the relationships in the family, lineage, and society.

The pronominal system of the Vietnamese includes many principles, and there are many do’s and don’ts about what should and should not be done. Vietnamese kinship terms are often used as pronouns in daily communication. For example, you can call a male similar in age to your father “chú” (father’s younger brother), while a female slightly older than you can be referred to as “chị” (elder sister), and a slightly older male as “anh” (elder brother). However, in real life, it can be a whole lot more complicated due to regional and personal preferences. While many people appreciate the respect that comes with being called “elder sister/brother,” a few may take offense as it implies you think they look older than you. Since Vietnamese pronouns come from kinship terms, how you address someone is a clear indicator of how you perceive them and your relationship with them.

Because of the greatly complex pronominal system, translating Vietnamese into other languages without equivalent pronouns is a significant challenge. If not careful in choosing appropriate pronouns to express the cultural values ​​of the Vietnamese, the translation may cause regrettable misunderstandings about the culture. Violating the rules of pronoun use in communication is considered impolite and uncultured, showing a lack of respect for elders, as far as Vietnamese people are concerned.

Vietnamese Beliefs and Religions

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Vietnam is a country with a long-standing cultural tapestry, and throughout its historical development, the diversity of beliefs and religions is an inevitable result.

Currently, Vietnam officially recognizes and grants registration rights to more than 43 organizations representing 16 different religions with over 26.5 million followers. For ethnic minorities, the Government always ensures the right to maintain distinctive beliefs and religious activities. Therefore, it can be affirmed that this S-shaped land has an immensely diverse system of beliefs and religions.

However, in recent years, there have been notable changes in the spiritual and religious life of ethnic minorities, especially among the smaller ethnic groups. These changes include the increasing influence of major religions, the gradual fading of traditional spiritual activities, and a selective approach to religious and spiritual activities. These transformations have given rise to diverse shades of beliefs and religions among ethnic groups, demanding even more attention from government organizations to preserve and promote this diversity in the spiritual life of the Vietnamese people.

Beliefs and religions have always been sensitive topics, especially for a country with such diversity in beliefs and religions as Vietnam. Therefore, when translating documents on this topic, translators must be particularly cautious to avoid conveying the original content inaccurately and causing confusion.

For example, the English word “worship” can be translated into Vietnamese as “cúng bái,” “thành kính,” or “thờ phụng” depending on the cultural context of beliefs and religions. To create accurate and high-quality translations, translators must carefully select words based on the cultural context of beliefs and religions.

Vietnamese Folk Festival Culture

Folk festivals serve as a bridge between the past and the present, as they are the spiritual products reflecting the creative essence of the Vietnamese people passed down through thousands of years of history. Folk festivals are a testament to the diversity and uniqueness of customs, habits, and lifestyles of each ethnic group and region. With such diversity, the number of folk festivals in Vietnam is quite substantial. According to statistics, Vietnam currently boasts 7,039 folk festivals throughout the country.

Some influential folk festivals nationwide include the Saint Giong Festival in Kinh Bac, the Hung King Temple Festival in Xu Doai, and the Ba Chua Xu Festival in An Giang. Meanwhile, some festivals have a significant impact only within a specific community but are equally distinctive, such as the Muong Lap Festival of the Muong ethnic group and the Bon Sam Peah Preah Khe (the ceremony of worshiping the moon). Whether large or small, all these festivals contribute to shaping the identity and characteristics of the Vietnamese people.

The remarkable folk festivals in Vietnam have high symbolic value in terms of spirituality and are expressed through various dialects. For example, in the Saint Giong Festival, terms like “cờ hồng” (red flag), “thuyền Rồng” (dragon boat), and “đánh cờ” (flag dance) are used to symbolize certain spiritual and religious meanings.

However, these terms may often lack equivalent counterparts in the target language. In such cases, Vietnamese translation calls for native linguists with profound knowledge of Vietnamese folk festivals to produce translations that fully convey the “spirit” of these festivals.

Treasure trove of Vietnamese literature

Literature is a never-ending flow in Vietnam culture and serves as the most vivid and comprehensive reflection of Vietnamese culture.

Vietnamese literature begins with the mother’s lullaby, nurtured through proverbs and folk sayings, and matures with the birth of numerous classical works of poetry, short stories, and novels.

The brightest star in Vietnamese literature is the masterpiece “Truyen Kieu” (The Tale of Kieu) by the great poet Nguyen Du, consisting of 3,254 verses written in Vietnamese traditional “lục bát” (“six–eight”) form using the vernacular Nom script. The influence of “Truyen Kieu” extends beyond the realm of literature. The work has a powerful presence in the cultural and social life of Vietnamese people, inspiring various forms of art such as “lẩy Kiều” (changing a word or phrase in the verses to adapt them for one’s purposes), “trò Kiều” (singing, acting, and playing about Truyen Kieu), “tranh Kiều” (Kieu painting), “vịnh Kiều” (refers to the composing of poetry that uses a situation or character in Kieu as an allusion to one’s thoughts and feelings), “bói Kiều” (telling someone’s fortune by having the person randomly point at a verse line).

Several vivid comparisons and metaphors in daily life have also been shaped by the influence of “Truyen Kieu,” such as “beautiful as Thuy Kieu” (extraordinarily beautiful woman), “as jealous as Hoan Thu” (secretly jealous but deeply bitter), or the proverb “Die standing like Tu Hai” (rigidly unresponsive to a sudden event). These expressions are frequently used by the Vietnamese people to convey messages in communication. Therefore, to accurately translate Vietnamese, translators must have a profound understanding of literature and how Vietnamese people apply literary symbols and metaphors in their daily communication.

“Truyen Kieu” is only one of many masterpieces in Vietnamese literature. Each literary work contributes to enriching the literary treasure of Vietnam. The journey of Vietnamese literature to the present day continues to move forward, constantly creating literary works with profound value that act as a mirror reflecting the cultural life of the Vietnamese people. As each country’s culture is unique and distinctive, evident in customs, thoughts, and lifestyles. When translating Vietnamese literary works, translators need a broad vocabulary and in-depth knowledge to authentically reproduce the dynamic cultural landscape of Vietnamese literature.

Traditional Arts of Vietnam

Traditional arts not only have spiritual value for Vietnamese people but they are also the cultural heritage of Vietnam culture which needs preservation. Traditional arts serve as a repository of the country’s cultural and historical awareness.

Various forms of traditional arts are closely tied to the daily lives of the Vietnamese people. Traditional singing such as “” (the melodies sung while people are at work) and folk music nourish the spiritual life of generations. “Ca trù” singing (sung poetry found in the north of Vietnam) and “chèo” performance (a form of generally satirical musical theatre) are the cradle nurturing the noble qualities of the Vietnamese. In times of intense war, they became rallying cries encouraging the spirit of fighting in each Vietnamese soldier. During peaceful times, “Ví” and “Giặm” folk songs of Nghe Tinh turn into encouraging words that provide people with a chance to ease hardship while working and contribute to the continuous development of the country. Traditional arts, subtly and modestly, without fanfare, have a powerful influence on the spiritual life, becoming an indispensable part of the Viet-people’s soul.

Various forms of traditional arts in Vietnam are being strongly promoted to a global audience. A prominent example is Vietnamese-origin artists living in Germany introducing these art forms to the world through exceptional performances that bear the unmistakable Vietnamese imprint within the framework of the 2023 Berlin Asian Arts Festival program.

Traditional arts encompass various elements such as art, culture, music, and spirituality. When undertaking translation projects on this topic, translators need a comprehensive and profound understanding of the origin, developmental history, characteristics, and values of traditional Vietnamese arts. Only then can new translations become a means to bring Vietnamese traditional arts closer to international friends.

Hope this article of Thao & Co. has helped you learn more about Vietnam culture and perhaps new perspectives about its rich and dynamic culture.

Source: Thao & Company
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