With a heritage dating back to the Bronze Age drums and flutes of the Dong Son culture of the Red River Valley, it’s not surprising that the musical and theatrical arts of Vietnam have a huge repertoire. Chinese and European influences have been added to these performing arts, which flourish today
The musical element, particularly singing, which characterizes traditional Vietnamese theatrical performance, is due to Chinese influence and results in opera-like shows. Hat Cheo, or popular theater, explore local legends, and often has a satirical note, while Hat Tuong, which was once performed only for royalty in Hue in the 19th century, is highly stylized and deals with more elevated themes.
Vietnamese traditional music comprises several genres, including court, religious, ceremonial, chamber, folk, and theater music. Recognized by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage, Cat Tru is an enchantingly melodic form of chamber music. It features female singers, who play wooden percussion instruments (peach) and are accompanied by a lute player. Hat Chau Van, which originated in the 16th century as an incantation during religious rituals, is a form of rhythmic singing and dancing. Dating to the 13th century, Quan Ho are folk singing contests that form an important part of spring festivals to this day
Dating back over 1,000 years, this uniquely Vietnamese performance art originated in flooded rice paddies. Brightly painted wooden puppets are manipulated from behind a screen by skilled puppeteers. Performances center on themes of village life and legends, enlivened by music and special effects. Enjoy a show at Hanoi’s Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
Top 5 TRADITIONAL MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS
Originating in the Central Highlands, this bamboo xylophone is now used in much of Vietnam’s traditional music.
Also from the Central Highlands, this two-stringed bamboo lute has been used by Western musicians, such as Stevie Wonder
Dan ty ba
This pear-shaped, four-stringed guitar is plucked and played upright.
Bronze alloy gongs are used in musical performances and religious ceremonies.
Vietnam’s many types of a drum (trong) include the venerable bronze drums of the Dong Son.
Vietnamese cuisine is characterized by a subtle range of flavors, complemented by fresh herbs such as mint, basil, and lemongrass. Balance is the Vietnamese cook’s goal – in flavors, colors, and textures – creating delicious, healthy dishes. The Vietnamese eat with chopsticks, but if you’re not comfortable with them, ask for a fork (nia) and spoon (muong).
Some of the best food in Vietnam can be found at street-side stalls. Popular dishes include pho banh mi (a baguette stuffed with paté, sausage, and condiments that include fish sauce and mayonnaise); and Banh xeo (crispy rice crepes filled with pork, shrimp, and vegetables) – tear off a piece, wrap it in the lettuce provided, add some herbs, and dip in one of the savory sauces.*
INSIDER TIP Beer
Bars serving refreshing bia hoi (fresh draft beer) are usually simple, hole-in-the-wall places, visited mostly by local men. Foreign visitors are welcome as long as they don’t mind squatting on tiny stools. The beer is light in taste and alcohol and is accompanied by snacks. For craft beer, head to Ho Chi Minh City – rich brews there use local herbs, fruits, and spices, such as lemongrass and passion fruit.
The regional specialties of Northern Vietnam closely resemble those of neighboring China. Hanoi is where the iconic noodle dish pho (flat rice noodles served in a broth of beef or chicken bones, topped with pieces of meat) originated. Other famous dishes here include crab spring rolls (nem cua be) and rice noodles with grilled marinated pork (bun cha). Try the latter at Bun Cha Huong Lien (24 Le Van Huu, Hanoi).
The coffee grown in the Central Highlands is of excellent quality and is both exported and consumed locally in large quantities. It can be drunk in a variety of ways, both hot and cold. Here are some of the most popular types:
Ca phe den: standard black coffee brewed into the cup through a metal filter called a phin.
Ca phe sua: black coffee served with condensed sweetened milk, served with ice.
Sua Chua ca phe: yogurt coffee, always served cold
Ca phe trung: black coffee with cream of egg yolk and condensed milk.
Sinh to ca phe: a fruit smoothie to which black coffee is added.
With an Indic Cham influence, dishes in Central Vietnam can be spicy, such as bun bo (fried noodles with beef, garlic, cucumber, chili peppers, and tomato paste). The most famous dish here is Banh khoai, a potato pancake stuffed with shrimp and pork belly. Restaurants in Hue still offer the banquet meals that were served to royalty during the 19th century. Farther south, Nha Trang is famed for its seafood.
The warm climate and rich soil of the south result in an abundance of tropical fruits and vegetables. Sweet flavors abound – coconut milk is part of the mix in mild curries and coconut pancakes. Nuoc mam, Vietnam’s famous fish sauce, produced by fermenting anchovies for several months, originated here. A signature dish of the Mekong Delta is canh Chua ca – sweet and sour catfish soup with vegetables and herbs.