Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Religions in Vietnam

There are a number of religions observed in Vietnam, the most popular of which is Mahayana, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. Besides these are minorities of Roman Catholicism, Caodaiism, Hoa Hao, and Protestantism which appeared with the arrival of French colonization. Despite this broad spectrum of religions, most Vietnamese identify themselves as non-religious. They’d rather see themselves as spiritual who believe in another world of the deceased and who go to visit pagodas and temples to pray for health, luck and happiness on important occasions of the year.

Buddhism has the greatest number of followers among religions in Vietnam, comprising about 15% of the population (this number varies significantly according to the gatherers of data). The two streams of Buddhism- Mahayana coming from China to the North and Theravada coming from India to the South- characterize the practice of Buddhists in two regions, as well as formulate the differences in the architecture of worship infrastructure in the North and the South. The evolution in Buddhism practice in Vietnam is also highly influenced by Taoism, Confucianism and other indigenous religion, which drifts the focus away from self-meditation into complicated rituals. The teaching of cause and effect in Buddhism is prevalent in Vietnamese mindset and increasingly becomes a living guide for people.

Roman Catholicism
In the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese roamed the world and spread their religion including a stop to Vietnam. During colonization, the French sped up the popularization of Catholicism, opening door for Western culture to enter Vietnam. Today there are about 6,000 churches of different size in this S-shaped country and about 6% of the population practicing Catholicism.

One of the few indigenous regions, CaoDaiism was established in 1926 based in Tay Ninh Holy Tower. It can be visualized as a modified Buddhism that harmonizes the practice of different religions. CaoDaiism worships Cao Dai, Buddha and Jesus, combines the teaching of Confucianism, Christianity and Taoism. The final goal is to teach its follower to live a balanced and benevolent life. A few practices include vegetarianism, worshiping ancestors, devoting to help the less advantaged, etc. There is an estimated 2.5% of Vietnam population is Cao Dai, mainly in Tay Ninh and a few scattering in the States, Europe and Australia.

Hoa Hao
Hoa Hao is also a recently established religion, founded in 1939 in An Giang. It bears similarity to both Catholicism and Jehovah Witness in that the founders of Hoa Hao are believed to be living Buddhas and that it encourages simple worshiping practice. If Mahayana Buddhism in the North involves colorful statues and well prepared offerings, Hoa Hao allows only flower and clean water. Events such as wedding or festival are organized simplest possible. About 1.5% of Vietnamese are followers of Hoa Hao.
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World Heritage Vietnam

Vietnam's historical and geographic sites have greatly benefited from the UNESCO program. Currently four sites in the country have been deemed cultural or geographic treasures: Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay, and My Son.

These diverse sites all play an important role in Vietnam's history, and today are under threat from neglect, tourist development and environmental factors. UNESCO provides advice on how to combat these negative influences to preserve them for all time.

Established in 1945, the United Nations UNESCO program aims to develop better relations between countries through non-diplomatic channels like sciences and art. The acronym stands for the 'United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization' and uses information exchange and expertise to preserve the world cultural heritage and to foster better understanding in the foreign scientific archeological and other diverse communities.


The ancient capital city of the Nguyen kings, Hue, joined the UNESCO Heritage list in 1993. The recognition has paved the way for preservation assistance desperately needed since the extensive destruction during the Tet Offensive in 1968, which destroyed 80% of the city's palaces and historic sights.

The city has been given extensive financial and expert advice to rebuild and strengthen these historic sights not only as a way for Vietnamese to enjoy their cultural heritage but for foreign tourists as well. The Vietnamese government has invested $60 million US dollars for this effort. Visitors today can see the results of these preservations particularly in the Forbidden Purple City, the Citadel and several tombs lining the Perfume River.


Hoi An, three hours drive south of Hue, was admitted to the UNESCO program in 1999 because it was a well preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port, and because it represented a unique fusion of cultures in its architecture and history. Since then the town has received expert assistance in the protection of houses, artifacts and other treasures related to the towns history.

In recognition of its preservation efforts, the Hoi An People Committee were awarded the UNESCO prize for excellent conservation. This effort was in recognition of the effort, a combination between Japan, Vietnam and other nations, to ensure the protection of this quiet, charming town.


My Son is a cultural remnant of the Cham, an ancient people who lived along the Central Vietnam. In 1999 the unique site joined UNESCO's World Heritage List with the nearby town of Hoi An. Recognized for the introduction of Hinduism to Southeast Asia, My Son has received assistance in the reconstruction of the temples destroyed in the American War.


The magnificent Ha Long Bay, which is an easy drive from Hanoi, has attracted visitors for centuries. UNESCO gave special recognition to the sight in 1994 because the threats of overdevelopment, pollution and other environmental factors were threatening the beauty of this unique place. Today, assistance from UNESCO has protected the waters from pollution and the towns from overdevelopment to sustain the site as beautiful as always.

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Dive Under in Nha Trang

I arrive in Nha Trang after a 45 minute flight on a Vietnam Airlines ATR 72 aircraft, which bounced and hopped down the long runway upon landing like an impatient dragonfly

It's still early, as we took off at 6.30, and early February: Tet has just finished around the country, leaving red banners, yellow leaved branches and a relaxed, festive air in the town. People are still enjoying their vacation time off they relish for a whole year at Tet, and as the taxi drives down the main waterfront street, Tran Phu, cafes and local restaurants are packed with young and old just sitting around chatting and laughing that is so typical of Vietnamese cities.

It's not my first time to Nha Trang: I ventured here for the first time in 1993 when the town was a sleepy backwater and independent travelers still resulted in intense stares and pointing. Taking a look at the 5 star resorts that line the beach now, and the billboards and furiously busy construction sites, its clear Nha Trang is well on it's way to becoming a top beach center of South East Asia.

Vietnam is growing as a dive destination, and although it does not boast the diversity of Indonesia or Thailand, increasing numbers of people are practicing the sport, especially in Nha Trang, and increasingly, Phu Quoc.

What has changed since my last visit is the presence of Dive operators, and as a keen diver, I was looking forward to ducking under Vietnam's emerald green waters for a deeper look at the marine life and creatures found here. On my last visit, all you could do was snorkel, and for a Jacques Cousteau fan, that was torture: seahorses, electric blue pipefish, and large lionfish loomed, tantalizingly, and frustratingly, out of reach.

Up before dawn on my diving day, it was the usual 6 am start, (late sleepers are not usually dedicated divers!) and we powered out though the moderate swells, having departed as most boats do in Nha Trang, from the Stone Wharf (Cau Da). We motored out past traditional fishing boats, and in the shadow of the Bao Dai villas that are now used as hotel facilities for upmarket tour groups. The sun was shining, and the water looked clear as we suited up and got ready to plunge beneath the waves.

We are headed for Hon Mun Island, a Marine Preserve in the Bay that was set up to protect the rich biodiversity of Central Vietnam's coast.

The sensation of falling off a boat, trailing 25 kilos of gear, and entering the near weightless world of the ocean is a feeling that brings a smile to most divers lips. It's a truly magical feeling, shedding all that weight at once, and all the anticipation of what creatures and animals lie down below.

As we gather at the anchor rope, checking and cross checking gear, we give anxious looks between our scuba fins, trying to make out the reef below. Its just a darkish, fuzzy outline, not in focus and hard to gauge, so we turn to each other, give the signal and drop down'. eagerly awaiting the ocean world beneath the boat.

There are a few moments of disembodied sinking as we descend, when the clarity of the surface slips away and the ocean floor is still not clear; then, gradually the reef sharpens as if in a camera lens, and we gently settle on a sandy bottom, looking around us.

With just 4 divers, aside from the dive master, we head off in a southward direction, along a rock wall covered in corals, anemones, and gorgonians; beautifully colored fish swarm around us as we cruise over the reef, following a moderately strong current.

The dive master points out electric blue starfish that scramble over the rocks, looking for food. Clownfish dart in and out of the anemones they call home, and often nip divers fingers harmlessly for getting too close!

As we continue along, a quick look in the crevasses and holes reveal lionfish and other reef dwellers hiding and taking shelter from predators. The sandy bottom is littered with black sea cucumbers, whose lazy cleaning of the sand goes on as we pass by.

For the next twenty minutes we drift along in our own thoughts taking in the animals and creatures that some have only seen in a documentary or in an aquarium. Here, beneath the sea in Vietnam, live many species that are rare and endangered elsewhere. It was a fantastic way to spend the day diving beneath the blue waters of Nha Trang.

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Phu Quoc Islands: The jewel in Viet Nam’s crown

An untapped pearl in the Gulf of Thailand not 120km from Rach Gia, Phu Quoc Island is a mixing pot of flavours, history and beauty that has aesthetic potency sure to befuddle even the most travelled.

The plane gently tilts its wings just enough for us to catch a glimpse of workers scurrying like mice through an expansive limestone mine below. Strange.

The captain announces that we are descending into Phu Quoc airspace. Like magic, under the plane's wings an emerald island nearly the size of Singapore appears circled by a twinkling azure sea.

There are 99 mountains on the 22-island archipelago, all low and covered by a canopy of green that evokes a refreshing feeling as we plunge into the forest.

Phu Quoc, they say, is the "pearl of nature", and I'm a believer.

Though small, the airport is quite animated as everyday it receives six planes from HCM City and Rach Gia. Airfare is a bit steep, but it's worth it considering that 55 minutes after leaving the sooty, humid city, one can already be stretched out on the beach or swimming through the limpid waters a la Brooke Shields circa Blue Lagoon.

It's also worth just seeing the welcome party of well-dressed hotel employees, taxi drivers and guides that will mob you at the gate.

After some light inquiring, my friend and I hop on two motorbike-taxis to a hotel.

Room rates in Phu Quoc range from VND200,000 to 600,000 (US$13 to $40) per night for a double room. They're low buildings hugging the beaches and are convenient for tourists wanting a quick rest or dive in the ocean, and a trek around the island.

But, first things first. We have breakfast.

Forget the stringy-meat pho of Ha Noi, in Duong Dong, the largest town on the island, we have a gob-smacking, royal breakfast of champions – sizzling prawn and squid noodle soup.

The administrative hub of the island, Duong Dong has all the tell-tale signs of a budding urban tourist centre in the future, for better or worse.

Here you have a crowded market, a modest but accommodating post office – from which I manage to get out a phone call to Ha Noi quicker than in HCM City – a bank, a port, a medical centre and a school. The electricity pumps round the clock, and the TV reception catches all standard domestic channels.

Only once during my sojourn do I encounter a traffic cop – a reflection mostly of the excellent security. Vinh confirms this: Last year, he says, there was only one case of a stolen motorbike, and it was recuperated within two hours in the middle of the night. I don't see any drug addicts or gangsters hanging out curbside, either.

We begin our expedition by heading southwards on the paved road along the west side of the island. Not 2km from Duong Dong we come to the Viet Nam-Australia pearl and oyster farm, an underwater factory of sorts where ivory oysters weighing up to 1kg are raised and fished.

Pearls here will cost you VND200,000 and up. An exotic black pearl catches my eye, so does its $600 price tag. And I am told that some easily fetch thousands of dollars each.

We carry on south-bound, enjoying cool breezes under the stretches of coconut trees and cashew, mango and durian orchards. The odd sighting of a house or fisherman's hamlet helps allay the feelings of emptiness and worry that haunt our minds – as, I imagine, they do other tourists too.

Then we come to Cay Dua (Coconut Tree) Prison, the erstwhile detainment centre familiar to tens of thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

Built by the French just before the World War II, during the American war it became a notoriously vile detention camp spread over 40ha. Now it's a certified national historic relic complete with a magnificent commemorative monument built on a nearby hill.

After our time in the slammer, we hit the paved road again to An Thoi, a port and tourist hot spot overlooking the southern tip of the archipelago. Here the deep and crystal-clear sea has seduced scores of tourists partaking in a little fishing, sight-seeing, swimming and diving.

The largest fishing port in the archipelago, An Thoi houses hundreds of fishing and passenger boats from Rach Gia and Ha Tien. And its kaleidoscopic seafood market offers big and ruddy prawns, fish, crabs, squid and the island speciality, the renowned and savoury Phu Quoc fish-sauce is served up by charming and chatty young women.

Forget the pearls, limpid waters and historic war-time memorials.

Come to Phu Quoc and not check out its fish sauce workshops, and you might as well have stayed at home to watch the VTV documentary.

Vinh takes us to a fish-sauce workshop whose owner is a solid, pinky-white and well-dressed woman of about 40 years. Cordially receiving us, her hospitality heats up when she discovers we are reporters from Ha Noi. She takes us to her workshop and tells us that her family has worked in the trade for decades.

On the workshop floor stand about 30 huge basins. Measuring 3m in height and 4m in diameter, with a capacity to hold 12 tonnes of fish.

Like the unique flavour of the basins' wood, it is key that only fresh white herrings be used. No mixing allowed. A year of fermentation produces a first pressing of sauce with 40 per cent protein. Then there's a second and a third.

I am invited to taste the first sauce. The amber-coloured liquid gives off a sweet and mildly fragrant smell, gently numbing the tip of my tongue. The packaging doesn't lie, it's a special and unique product indeed.

We leave An Thoi before noon and have a lunch and rest at Sao Beach, one of the ten most beautiful beaches on the island. Two tourist company yachts seemingly seeped in languor and luxury sit anchored in the calm, waveless waters about 100m off shore.

One has equipment for night-fishing and visits around the island, the other for pulling parasailors 200m in the air.

One more day passes and we head back north. While in the southern part of the island there are plenty of orchards on both sides of the road, in the north we encounter only pepper farms. Pepper winds its way through hills and alleys, around the houses and close to Phu Quoc National Forest.

More info about Phu Quoc's forest:

Diversed fauna, flora Not often does one have the chance to ride 20km through a primitive forest lulled to a calm homeostasis by bird songs and come across old and precious trees, some so thick two people together could hardly wrap fully around them! Phu Quoc's forests, blanketing 70 per cent of the island, are criss-crossed by rivers and streams with plenty of fresh water. And unlike many other places in Viet Nam, in and around these forests you'd be hard pressed to find a restaurant dishing up wild and endangered animal meat. You could think of Phu Quoc National Forest as a Vietnamese forest museum, given its rich flora of thousands of tropical plants and a rich fauna of 150 kinds of wild animals. From the national forest we go to Bai Thom, Rach Tram and Gianh Dau, where we are just two among a gaggle of Vietnamese and foreign tourists. It's easy to see how the price of land here has skyrocketed, and all available space has been snatched to build hotels. Only a two-hour flight from almost any Southeast Asian metropolis, Phu Quoc has in recent years been dubbed the next big Vietnamese thing. And like places such as Sa Pa – the northwest ethnic minority hill town – where hotels will soon outnumber houses, you had better get there quick while you can.

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Vietnamese Handicraft Villages

For centuries hundreds of villages all over Vietnam have produced special crafts and products that are used for Tet (Vietnamese New Year) celebrations and other holidays. Sometimes the production of these beautiful objects can absorb the attention of everyone in the village...

The very best of these 'factories' are recognized by Vietnamese people as the best producers of a particular object, and enjoy national recognition for their handiwork. Everything from firecrackers to silk paintings, woodcarvings to ceramics and puppets to pottery are made in these locations and can make unique gifts for friends and family at home, or as an exotic reminder of your trip to Vietnam. When paying a visit, you can chat with these artisans, and even try the handiwork yourself.

Bat Trang Pottery Village
The Bat Trang pottery village is one of the most famous of the craft villages in Vietnam. It's so close to Hanoi, you can visit it on a half day tour. Famous for its fired clay pottery (with a temperature of 1,200 degrees, the ceramics are well known for being difficult to break) Since the 15th century this village of the 2,000 families has been creating earthenware and ceramic creations.

Ha Dong Silk Making Village
Villagers gather mulberry leaves to feed the hungry silkworms. The traditional way of growing silkworms was imported from China, and today flourishes in many parts of the country. When the worms have woven a silken cocoon, the animals are boiled and the cocoon is carefully unraveled. The thread is carefully woven into all sorts of different things like placemats, shirts, etc.

Chuyen My Wood Carving Village
Located in the Ha Tay province, this village is famous for creating more traditional crafts related to wood carving. It's the mother of pearl inlay that makes it so popular, and this wasn't started until the Ly Dynasty.

A visit here can be made in combination with a trip to Hoa Lu, because its 35 kilometers south of Hanoi.

Van Ha Puppet Making Village
Vietnamese Water Puppet shows are now popular the world over, and if you have an interest in how the implements of this art form are made, come to the Van Ha village.

Duyen Thai Lacquerware Village
In this village, all kinds of lacquerware products are made, including those using small slivers of mother of pearl, that are expertly placed into small grooves. The pieces are then painted with layers of lacquer. Each piece can take months to complete.

Dong Ho Paper Making Village
This village is located in Ha Bac province, the province just north of Hanoi. It's been made famous for the folk themes printed onto a special paper made from the Do tree. Artisans in this village carve images onto thin wood blocks that are carefully layered with paint; then printed onto the specially made paper. These designs are particularly popular around Tet.

Co Do Silk Village
Sent to this village by her father, to help villagers grow silk, Princess Hoang Phu Thieu Hoa helped begin an industry that stretches all over the country today. Silk is produced by special worms that eat soley mulberry leaves, and these are gathered by children to feed the greedy animals. Once they have rolled a cocoon, the animals are boiled alive, and the cocoon is unraveled carefully to extract the precious thread. Popular designs include dragons, flowers and other Vietnamese legends.

Thu Bon River Islands

While visiting the historic and ancient port town of Hoi An, stop off at some of the islands in Thu Bon river, where artisans creating woodblock prints, silk weavings and other crafts offer a uniquely central Vietnamese art experience.
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Tuesday, May 30, 2017


The Ao Dai in Vietnamese culture

The Ao Dai is the most recognizable traditional dress seen in Vietnam, and though western style clothes are popular, this beautifully styled outfit is still actively worn throughout the country during Tet, at work, to weddings, and other national celebrations.

The words Ao Dai mean 'Long Dress,' and is a two piece garment. The bottom part consists of loose pants that reach the ankles. The top is a tight fitting tunic with long sleeves and a high collar with two panels that float loosely down the front and back.

The Ao Dai is famously known to 'cover everything, but hide nothing,' and it perfectly accentuates the long, lithe body possessed by Vietnamese women. When choosing to wear the Ao Dai it pays to have a similarly shaped figure.

Historically the Ao Dai is believed to come from China, when the newly crowned king Nguyen Phuc Khoat decreed in 1744 that the Ming Chinese style of dress would be adopted by all his subjects. Since then, both men and women have worn different variations of the Ao Dai. It has never been an official ceremonial dress, and has always been used an an everyday outfit.

Now, with western fashions popular in Vietnam, the once 'everyday' Ao Dai is now only worn at special occasions and by office staff in companies that require it. It has experienced a revival in recent years, and its extremely common now to see women navigating traffic on bicycles and motorbikes, expertly lifting the long panels away from greasy spokes and gears.

Men no longer wear the garment as much as women do, confining it to traditional weddings the normal photo shoots popular with Vietnamese all over the country.

The variations in colors of this unique national costume is amazing: high school girls wear white ones, female cabin crew on Vietnam Airlines wear red ones, and bank employees wear ones matching their company's logo. It's also common for older women to wear Ao Dais to be made of a velvety material and accented with a rope of pearls.

The style of today's Ao Dai remains close to the antique originals, and hasn't changed very much in the last 100 years; however in the last thirty years changes have been made to the pleating and the lengths of the collar.

Many Vietnamese designers are now reinterpreting the Ao Dai, experimenting with new materials, decorations, and adornments. Many of their studios can be found in Saigon and Hanoi, with prices ranging up to several hundred dollars for one of their creations.

For foreign women traveling in Vietnam, Ao Dais make excellent handmade souvenirs. Shopping for material in Saigon's Ben Thanh market is a good excursion and you will make friends along the way by asking for suggestions and tailors to recommend. Numerous tailors can be found in Saigon, Hoi An and Hanoi that specialize in making excellent Ao Dais. Most of them can make the outfit in 24 hours or less. What better way is there to remember your fantastic trip to Vietnam? You'll be reminded of the beautiful country every time you put your Ao Dai on.

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Friday, May 12, 2017



Vietnamese culture is endowed with a rich heritage. Famous ancient cultures include the Nui Do culture, followed by the Son Vi culture, founded over 10,000 years ago, then by the Hoa Binh - Bac Son culture and the flourishing Dong Son culture, which was closely related to the Red River and water rice civilization (in the North); the Sa Huynh culture, related to the Cham people (in the Central); and the Oc Eo culture of Phu Nam State (in the South).

Vietnam has its own language and writing. The national identify is made up of the 54 ethnic minorities living together in the country. This diversity has produced a lot of traditional arts which have been developing for thousands of years. Specific features of Vietnam have been reflected in many legends, festivals and traditional folk-song (Cheo, Tuong, Cai Luong, Quan Ho)

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