Vietnamese culture may still be mysterious and attractive to most people outside the country. Today, more and more people are going to Vietnam for travelling and doing business. With either of the two purposes, isn’t getting to know a little culture of the land you’ll get a chance to visit interesting and fascinating? I guess it’s necessary as well. So here we have some suggestions for a cultural itinerary in Vietnam. Hope you may find this article useful for your trip!
1. Ho Chi Minh City (Sai Gon)
Too familiar to anyone planning to visit Vietnam, Sai Gon is known as the most modern and hectic city with a lively night life style. However, you may also pick up some new things of Vietnamese culture during your stay here.
* Street coffee
If you come to Sai Gon without trying a cup of Vietnamese coffee whilst sitting on a small plastic chair along the pavements, it means you haven’t visited the place yet. Sai Gon embraces the best Vietnamese black coffee whose high-cafein amount can raise your heart rate by 25% and keep you awaken. If you can’t stand the bitter taste, a little of sweetened condensed milk served with the coffee may help. Coffee has drawn a beautiful color to the picture of Vietnamese culture. Together with coffee, it’s also the culture of street food. You can find many street vendors with stacks of small plastic chairs on every pavement, in every corner or alleys in Sai Gon. Isn’t it so nice having small talk with your mates after a day of hard work and simply enjoy a cup of joe or maybe two?
* Art of moving in a flock
In a city full of scooters running around, it can be a little frightful to cross the street for the first-time travellers. However, if you take time to chill at a street coffee, enjoy a cup of joe and look carefully at the crazy traffic, you will see, the traffic here is orderly chaostic. Like a flock of birds, all of the vehicles coordinate to make a circulation: you drive or you flock. Even the pedestrians join the mix with loads of motorbikes around them. But everything flows harmonically and this is considered a trait of Vietnamese culture that you might not find elsewhere.
2. Mekong Delta
As the “rice bowl of Vietnam”, the Mekong Delta’s fertilization has breeding a gorgeous “water civilization”. The local floating markets starting really early in the morning, where you can find large quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables as well as sea food, have made up one of the special traits of Vietnamese culture. Dating back to the 19th century, under the Nguyen Dynasty, floating markets appeared with one of the special characteristics: the samples were hung on a lateral bar to help clients know what the traders were selling. With traders carrying their fresh goods by boats, and doing the bargains on the water, the hustle and bustle of this unique scene has gained its popularity among travellers. Taking an excursion on the local’s boats to see every beauty of the floating markets, chances are you can also get an authentic Vietnamese experience to taste the simon-pure cuisine while enjoying the floating feeling. Then during the trip to this area, there are still another things to do to discover Vietnamese culture here. Paddling through the orchads to visit the fishing villages and listen to the story of the friendly locals’ life in some small homestays are precious chances to get an insight into Vietnamese culture one shouldn’t miss!
3. Hoi An
* Lantern festival
Hoi An holds a Full Moon Festival once a month on the eve of each full moon on the 14th of every lunar month when the Old Town becomes even more festive than usual, active and marvellously decorated with colorful lights and lamps along every lane. Then comes the “lantern festival”, the most enchanting and special one of Hoi An, which is typically demonstrated with all colorful hanging cloth and paper lanterns on the 15th of every lunar month.
Most important of all Full Moon Festival, the Mid-Autumn Festival (Tet Trung Thu) is a colourful, exciting festival held in celebration of the end of the harvest, a joyful time when parents can relax and do something special for their children. Hoi An is one of the best places to enjoy the colourful Mid-Autumn festival with millions of beautiful types of lanterns and masks. It’s also added with other activities such as Unicorn Dance, lanterns parade and a lot of tasty traditional food, especially Moon cakes.
A rickshaw popular in Vietnam is a three-wheel vehicle powered by a man pedaling behind used for carrying passengers. One of the most acceptable theories about the invention of rickshaw believes that an American missionary invented it in order to carry his invalid wife. During the French colonial time, rickshaw, or more specifically, cyclo appeared in Vietnam, and became a popular means of transport. This is a unique vehicle you can find anywhere in the ancient town of Hoi An. It now serves mainly as a tourist attraction to give travellers an authentic way to explore the Vietnamese culture, which you can experience the local civil life, and the drivers are usually very passionate about telling you the stories and cultures of Vietnam.
* Incense offering
Hue was for years the capital of Vietnam and the home of the emperors. For almost 400 years (1558-1945), Hue had been the capital of 9 Nguyen dynasty lords in the Cochin under the rule of 13 Nguyen kings. Therefore, along the Perfume River, lie the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty Imperial tombs in Hue that nowhere else in Vietnam has such an honor. In addition to the mausoleums, the city has a great number of pagodas and temples, which contributes to the beauty in Vietnamese people’s belief and religion so Hue used to be the “capital” of Buddhism in Vietnam. These places are where you can understand more about Vietnamese culture with thurification or incense offering, a fine feature in the cultural tradition and folk belief of Oriental people in general and Vietnamese in particular. Incense offering appeared very early and has become an important and indispensable ritual during traditional festivals as well as in the worship of ancestors. Every first and middle day of lunar month, especially at Tet – Vietnamese traditional New Year, people keep the ritual of visiting these places to pray for good things. Incense is considered as a sacred bridge between the visible life of human beings and the spiritual world of heaven, earth and gods.
* Nha Nhac – Hue Royal Court Music
Hue today still preserves the cultural heritage and intangible object which contains the value representing the wisdom and the soul of Vietnamese. One of the vestige left of Vietnamese culture is Vietnamese court music, which is very diverse. Nha Nhac, which means “elegant music”, is the last vestige of court music. It contains all quintessence of Vietnamese Court Music trend that has been established and developed over 1,000 years. In Vietnamese traditional music heritage, Nha Nhac plays an important role and is the core of the court affairs. Also, it serves the entertainment demand of the King, royal family and the court professional, classical and scholarly music. Nha nhac was considered as the official music of the country, of the authority and performed in the royal life, including the court and royal family. Therefore, it reflects the spirit and the will of the royal dynasty, such as culture, art, law, power, even the ideology, aesthetics and regional trend, etc. Over centuries, Nha Nhac has been preserved and introduced inside and outside Vietnam. Up to present, It has been enhanced and popularized to the world. If you choose to visit Hue, take a chance to sit on boat in the evening to enjoy this masterpiece of Oral and Intangible cultural heritage of the humanity. It would be wonderful to admire the poetic Perfume River and nearby scenic beauties at the same time.
* Hue’s food
Vietnamese culture also represents in Hue’s food. Tourists come to learn the culture of this place through the art of food processing and culinary philosophy. There are hundreds of local dishes which are divided into 3 main kinds: rustic dishes, vegetarian dishes and imperial dishes.
The rustic dishes are made from the common materials in everyday life of people in Hue, simple processed and not too fussy as the dishes which are used to serve the aristocracy. There are many rustic dishes easily to find especially in Dong Ba market, but the must-try one highly recommended is tiny mussel rice. In spite of low price, these dishes are considered tasty and fantastic. Secondly, as Hue used to be the “capital” of Buddhism in Vietnam, it can be said that vegetarian diets have become specilities of Hue people. You can choose some of the vegetarian dishes to feel a wonderful pick of Hue culinary art. Finally, imperial food is the noblest dishes of the kings, appearing in the daily meal in the palace and the feasts in the imperial palace to regale distinguished guests. There’re luxurious restaurant serving these dishes so you can try.
* Cornical hat
One of Hue’s most endearing images is that of the beautiful girl wearing an ao dai (traditional gown) and a conical hat, singing folk songs while floating down the Perfume River on a wooden rowing boat. For many people, Hue’s conical hats have long been treasured symbols of the once imperial city, shields against sun and rain, and, for one particular woman, a personal “weapon” in times of distress. The legend of the Vietnamese conical hat is also related to maternal love and the history of rice growing in Vietnam.
Making a cornical hat requires a complicated process and this shows the skillfullness of the Hue’s artisans. Take a trip to visit a cornical village in to have an insight into the unique cultural beauty of the nature and human in Hue.
Unlike the ancient town of Hoi An, Hanoi’s Old Quarter has different nuances. But in Hanoi, there’re also ricksaw. It is highly recommended an exploration on a ricksaw which you can get a close touch to the local Vietnamese life. There’re also plenty of pagodas and temples for you to get to know more about Vietnamese superstitions and rituals. Besides, there’re still more unique traits of Vietnamese culture that you can get to know during your stay here.
* Water puppetry
If there’s one way that combines culture learning and entertainment, the intriguing water puppetry would be an excellent choice. It is said that “Not watching a performance of water puppetry means not visiting Vietnam yet.”. Dating back to the 11th century, this unique variation of ancient Asian puppet art features the skillful manipulation of the puppets, with the puppeteers controlling different varieties of puppet characters through large bamboo rods behind a screen, and not letting the audience see the puppeteers. The show is played on a waist-deep pool, so it would look like the puppets are moving on the water themselves. It is one of Vietnamese culture that referred to Vietnamese traditions by means of water puppets, like daily life of Vietnamese farmers (cultivating, tending buffalo, catching fishes…), communal entertainment (swimming contest, dragon dancing…), or historical legends. It tells the stories of daily living in rural Vietnam and Vietnamese folk tales that are told by grandparents to their grandchildren. To enjoy this unique type of Vietnamese culture, buy a ticket with a very reasonable price and enjoy the show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, which you can find right near Hoan Kiem Lake in the city center.
* Street food
Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, has a lively street food culture that offers reasonably priced and flavorful food in attractive settings. Most Vietnamese street food spots serve fresh and light meals drawing heavily on herbs, lime juice and chilli. With its astounding mix of tastes and flavors, Vietnamese street food is one of the healthiest in the world. You can find street vendors selling millions kinds of food in every corner, on every pavement and in every small alley in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. And there we have stacks of plastic chairs and group of friends sit together outside to enjpy the meals without hesitating. The food here is totally clean and safe. Especially in Hanoi, draught beer (bia hoi) is a must-try drink while take a street food tour around the ancient quarter. It’s super good and it’s super cheap. Highly recommend!
If you want to change a little bit, take time to try a traditional meal at some Vietnamese traditional restaurants. The meal here is as elegant and subtle as the Hanoians and requires specially skillful hands to cook. You can get to know more about Vietnamese culture through the table manners here. because of Vietnamese’s spirit of solidarity and sharing, Vietnamese always share the same plates of food and use their chopstick to take food from the plates to their own bowls which are filled with rice. It really is a huge difference from the Western etiquette where table settings include forks, knives and one’s own plates only.
Little do tourists know that Vietnam has 54 ethnic groups and Sapa is where we can find many minority ones such as Red Dao, Black and Flower H’mong. They have different customs and costumes which contributes to the diversity of Vietnamese culture. Visiting the mountainous villages of Sapa, you can pick up a lot of interesting facts about local life here.
* Herbal Bath of Red Dao
Red Dao ethnic minority based on ancient remedies handed down over the generations to make this special herbal bath. According to local people each herb remedy for bathing includes approximately 120 kinds of herbs, plants and bark used for the baths. But of that total there are 39 which are popular and about 10 which are indispensible. The herbs are boiled for 3-4 hours in 30-37oC to extract the essence before putting into water for a bath. According to the wisdom of the Red Dao people, an herbal spa is especially helpful for physical and mental fatigue, as it relaxes your body and renews your energy by enhancing overall circulation, soothing your daily tensions and also relieves some chronic illnesses including rheumatism and joint pain. For women, the herbal bath promotes skin beauty by opening pores, removing dead skin and impurities, and leaving the skin soft, clean, and silky smooth.
* Rice wine
Sapa has always been well-known for its delicious specialties from the sticky rice. One of these must-try cuisine is rice wine, especially can wine (rice wine drunk from a jar through stalks). As an alcoholic beverage fermented and distilled from rice, this wine is served usually with smoked meat. This is how friends and family in Sapa in particular, and in other mountainous parts of Vietnam celebrate whenever they meet. Rice wine is quite strong so it can make you drunk quite easily. Thus, please make sure you don’t drink it when you’re hungry!
* Love market & fair market
Sapa is the famous destination in the northwest Vietnam, opening the world of ethnic minorities’ culture. One of distinctive cultural features here is the love market which takes place every Sunday night. Before you might think about anything improper, Sa Pa’s love market has been an unique and valuable aspect in the culture of the Mong and Dao ethnic groups for a long time. Due to the distance between the villages, guys and girls from all villages come to the market to meet once a week. They talk, sing and play different games according to their ethnic groups’ tradition. After the night, many couples become intimate and promise to see each other again on the following morning. Many of them become husbands and wives in the spring.
Besides, there’s also a fair market which is held every Sunday in Bac Ha and is the biggest minority market in Northwestern Vietnam. Along with the bright colours and extravagant costumes of the local people, here you will meet Flower Hmong, Black Dao, Tay, Nung, La Chi, Phu La and other minority groups who come from far and wide to buy and sell a wide variety of goods and livestock, to exchange news and to renew friendships. In the past, the market was a centre for trading horses but now that motorbikes have replaced them so it is more common to see buffalo, cows, goats, fish and other livestock being traded.
See more at Comprehensive Sapa Travel Guide 2018 From A-Z.
If you are a culture lover, these informations must have got you excited. Let’s our tailor help you create the most meaningful trip to discover Vietnamese culture now!