By Esmee Pham
Being Vietnamese, I take immense pride in our nation’s profound cultural heritage, which has been nurtured over millennia and upheld by successive generations. Throughout my upbringing, the tales of legendary figures such as the Trung sisters, King Lac Long Quan, and the Hung kings were our windows into history, showcasing the unwavering valour of those who fought for Vietnam’s sovereignty. Remarkably, our enduring traditions can all be traced back to these captivating legends, as exemplified by the iconic Chưng cake consumed during the Tết holiday, rooted in a tale of filial piety.
Without a doubt, Tết holds a place of unparalleled significance in the hearts of Vietnamese people. It is the singular moment in the year when families unite to honour their ancestors. Amidst cherished traditions like the fireworks ceremony, prayers, and the collective making of Chung cakes, Tết encapsulates the essence of Vietnamese culture. As an international student in the UK, I long for the warmth of Tết as celebrated in Vietnam. However, the companionship of the Durham Vietnamese Society, in collaboration with the Newcastle Vietnamese Society, allowed me to partake in a truncated yet profoundly joyous Tết celebration that brought a piece of home to my heart.
Beyond these festivities, the elegance of our traditional attire, the áo dài, captivates me. Whether donned by high school students or worn on special occasions like Tết, the áo dài epitomises Vietnamese grace and beauty. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to note that Vietnam boasts a multitude of traditional costumes, each distinct to its region and ethnic group. For instance, the Mekong Delta residents wear the Áo Bà Ba, while those from Huế province are renowned for their Áo Nhật Bình, steeped in royal heritage.
Vietnam’s geographic diversity, comprising 63 provinces and 53 ethnic minorities, gives rise to a rich tapestry of cultures, cuisines, dialects, and traditions. This cultural diversity contributes to the nation’s identity, making Vietnam a tapestry woven with myriad threads, each representing the uniqueness of a particular region or ethnicity. I, as a Vietnamese, can admit that my understanding of our culture and traditions is far from comprehensive, as there are countless ethnicities I have yet to explore and learn about.
In addition, the international perception of Vietnamese culture often oversimplifies the intricate richness of our heritage. What the world glimpses is often limited to the customs of the Kinh ethnic group, the largest in Vietnam. Unfortunately, the diverse cultural practices and traditions of other ethnic groups remain relatively obscure, which is a missed opportunity to appreciate their fascinating distinctions.
Religiously, Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Ancestor worship, and Christianity are the predominant belief systems in Vietnam. These faiths significantly influence our culture, particularly the practice of Ancestor worship, which permeates our etiquette, family dynamics, and social interactions. Respect for elders is paramount, evident in our language and customs. Households maintain altars for deceased family members, and on significant lunar days, offerings are made to honour and seek blessings for the departed. Furthermore, the concept of karma, the belief that one’s actions have consequences, guides Vietnamese behaviour, emphasizing the importance of doing good deeds.
Finally, one cannot talk about Vietnam without mentioning its delightful cuisine that marries contrasting elements to create harmonious, well-balanced dishes. Similarly, Vietnamese cuisine is a testament to the art of culinary complexity. It’s a cuisine that celebrates freshness, balance, and regional diversity while embracing a rich cultural heritage. For instance, Vietnam’s cuisine is not a monolithic entity; it is a mosaic of regional flavours. The north is known for its subtle and delicate flavours, featuring dishes like pho, while the south is more vibrant and bolder, with dishes like bun thit nuong. In addition, Vietnamese cooking involves a wide range of culinary techniques, from stir-frying and grilling to steaming and braising. Moreover, the cooking methods employed differ from region to region, adding to the complexity of the cuisine. Finally, Vietnamese cuisine has been influenced by centuries of interaction with neighbouring countries, including China and France. This has resulted in a fusion of flavours, such as the use of French baguettes in the beloved banh mi sandwich.
Vietnamese culture is a rich tapestry of traditions, history, and values that has endured the test of time and continues to flourish in the modern world. Vietnamese culture is characterised by its deep-rooted respect for family, community, and the interconnectedness of all aspects of life. As Vietnam opens its doors to the world, the global community is increasingly becoming aware of the treasures it has to offer, both in terms of its tangible cultural artefacts and the intangible essence of the people. As we celebrate the beauty and diversity of Vietnamese culture, let us also recognize the importance of preserving and respecting this invaluable part of our global heritage. In doing so, we can continue to appreciate and learn from the unique traditions and values that make Vietnam a truly remarkable and enduring cultural mosaic.
Image: Ollie Brunt