Artistic Thread Throughout Vietnam
The arts in Vietnam, and particularly Hanoi, are alive and thriving. Vietnam has a rich history of performing arts, visual arts, and a unique architectural style. Throughout my time in Vietnam, I have been able to experience a broad swath of the arts, from attending the opera in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), to viewing the craftsmanship of handwoven baskets and embroidered clothing, to getting a calligraphy lesson, and witnessing a traditional Vietnamese musical.
Vietnam’s major artistic influences come from India, China, Buddhism, and a variety of indigenous traditions. The most famous of Vietnam’s performing arts is water puppetry, a tradition that evolved in the 11th century by rice farmers. When the lowland rice fields were flooded, puppeteers could tell stories using the flooded plain as a platform to conceal their poles. The stories typically depict myths and legends, performed in chest-deep water, with a curtain to conceal the puppeteers.
Here’s a short excerpt from one of the stories told.
Getting Active & Happy in Hanoi
After a relaxing couple of days in HaLong Bay, my friend Kara and I came back to Hanoi – Vietnam’s 2nd largest city and capital – where we met our other friend Kathrin. I immediately fell in love with the city. Despite the cooler weather, this felt like my kind of city. It has a slightly less frenetic pace than Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), interesting French colonial architecture, an edgier artistic vibe, a walking culture and access to water.
We stayed in the Old Quarter, which is situated right near Hoan Kiem Lake, which means ‘Returned Sword’ – a beautiful, untouched lake with running paths and gardens surrounding the entire lake and a tower, called Turtle Tower in the middle. We decided to wake up very early one day (5:30am) to check out the tai chi, a form of internal martial arts consisting of slow movements and pushing of one’s hands.
When we arrived at the lake, we didn’t see any tai chi taking place but instead followed the sound of loud music to find one of the most interesting things I’ve ever witnessed – women gathered on a street corner doing aerobics. My friends and I decided to join in from the opposite street corner. I haven’t had that much fun moving in ages! We stayed for a good 45 minutes. Just down the street, we saw another group of women dancing. Further down from there, we joined in on a group practicing laughing yoga, swaying together and just laughing joyously for 5 minutes. The experience was totally unexpected and exhilarating! Everywhere you turn in Hanoi, people are moving whether walking, running, dancing, or playing Chinese jump rope.
Finding Peace in Pagodas
By the time we were done with aerobics, the sun was shining and streets were full of families walking with their dogs and children. We visited the Ngoc Son Temple, a splendid symbol of the Buddhist architecture and a famous tourist destination in Hanoi, located right on the lake and connected by the Thé Huc Bridge.
We spent most of the day just walking around the city, enjoying its vibrant energy and architecture. One thing you’ll notice right away in Hanoi is just how skinny some of the houses are. For centuries, the government in Hanoi determined property taxes based on the width of the property from the street. The wider your home, the more you paid. Not surprisingly, people responded by building houses so narrow that two people could barely stand next to each other in some of them.
We also toured the French quarter, where you can see decaying evidence of the old French colonial style. Much of these buildings are falling into disrepair and are being replaced by modern high rises.
Amidst the high-rises, you can find old pagodas and temples, like this one, which was being used as a sports court for kids.
We attempted to visit the body of Ho Chi Minh at the Mausoleum, but were blown away by the lines of people lined up for literally miles.
Instead, we checked out the Temple of Literature – Vietnam’s oldest university.
Edgy Art & Ingenuity in Hanoi, Vietnam’s Seat of Communism
What struck me the most about Hanoi were the people, their ingenuity, and the edgy art they are getting out into the world. We witnessed stunning ceramics, clothing, and pop-up street vendors who all placed a unique twist on traditional Vietnamese goods. In 1986, Vietnam opened its Communist doors to a social-market economy that elevated the entire country.
Vietnam is extremely business friendly, and streets are full of luxury boutiques as well as individual street-front proprietorships. To date, I have not witnessed any anti-Americanism. What we call the Vietnam War, and what the Vietnamese call the American war, seems to be a thing of the past. Hanoi, seat of the Communist government that the U.S. was fighting and which was heavily bombed by the U.S., bears little to no evidence of damage from the war. The war is considered just one of many in a long history of conflicts with the Chinese, French, and others. After all, the Vietnam war was essentially a civil war that the U.S. joined in the middle of and left in the middle of when they could not beat Communism. Today, the Vietnamese view Americans as allies and welcome the tourism.
5 Tips For Experiencing the Arts in Vietnam
- Visit a water puppet theatre
- Take an art class – such as calligraphy – taught by a local master
- Visit a local clothing, art, or ceramics boutique run by the owner
- Buy something off of a street vendor, such as a basket seller
- Take a walking tour and check out the architecture of the city