With ancient culture and many centuries of history, costumes, rituals, traditions and spiritual practices in Vietnam are extremely rich and complex. The main religion is a branch of Buddhism called Mahayana, with many influences from Chinese culture, including Taoism and Confucianism. Besides that, there is still a strong presence of ancient folk traditions. So with a melting pot as complex and rich as this, there is definitely a lot to explore in terms of culture and religion in Vietnam!
As much arms as Vietnam has influences in its religion and culture.
While Buddhism came from India (it started around 2500 years ago with Prince Siddhartha, but only came to Vietnam in the second century BC), Confucianism and Taoism arrived in the country with Chinese immigrants, when Vietnam was a colony of China (111 BC to 938 AD).
They were all mixed in Buddhism that became the official religion during the Ly dynasty of 1010 to 1214. Confucianism brought the social order and hierarchies, the notion of loyalty and morality. In fact it is focusing a lot on obligations to others such as family, society and authorities.
In the opposite spectrum, Taoism is all about freedom from conventions and following the effortless flux of nature. It’s about the harmony between everything, simplicity and the ability to be patient and let things following their natural course. Morals are replaced by the belief that everything has a positive and a negative side, light and darkness, male and female energies. Remember that yin and yang symbol that is nowadays so cliché in stickers, t-shirts or tattoos? 🙂
Incense burning in a temple in Hanoi.
The co-existence of these three religions is called ‘tam giáo’, or the three teachings. Buddhism is the organized religion that most people in Vietnam identify with (the majority identify themselves with the folk religions but we will cover this later!). One of the particularities of Vietnamese Buddhists compared to other Asian countries Buddhism is the love for Quan Am, a female bodhisattva (a kind of saint in Buddhism, someone who dedicates his or her life to uplift the life of others). She was famous for her compassion and you will notice many statues in her honor, some of them quite huge! Another venerable figure is Thich Nhat Hanh. This Vietnamese monk brought Buddhist culture in western countries and wrote many books, making his philosophy very popular and spreading Buddha’s message of peace and love.
Monks are people too!
Other small religions that co-exist in the country are:
Last but not least, Vietnam still has very present its old folk traditions. This is the spiritual practice majority of population identify with, often mixing it with the organized religion. Besides a Buddhist temple, every village has a community house, ‘dinh’, where elders meet and spirits rest. Mediums or astrologers fill the markets, and people often consult them before taking decisions in their lives. This is still not recognized as a state religion and faced great repression under the communist governments. However, this type of animism still thrives in the imagination of Vietnamese people. They believe more in spirits (for instance the thần) than in the gods of the organized religions.
Small shrine with offerings to the spirits.
In a reportage for National Geographic, a Vietnamese man summarized quite well the spiritual practice of the country: “Most Vietnamese, the best educated and the illiterate alike, believe exactly what the emperors believed. They believe in the morality propounded by Confucius. They are in awe of vague Buddhism. Above all, they bow to the spirits. To the spirits of their ancestors and to many others, to the spirit of great men, to the spirits of the sky and the fields, of the trees and of the animals, to the spirits good and evil and changeable in between.”
Hope this article helped you clarify a bit the complex and rich culture and religion in Vietnam. Go explore the many temples, shrines, pagodas to learn more about what Vietnamese people believe!
If you need a bus from Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh, where you can start exploring visiting the “Vietnamese Notre Dame” or the main Caodaism temple nearby in Tây Ninh, check Camboticket website for the best tickets options!Read more
First of all, please click here and listen to a song while reading the article 🙂
So, now that we caught your attention (and that you have your ears filled with good music) let’s start!
You may or may not know that this kingdom in the 60s was famous for its music. Local musicians were listening to what was happening in the west and combining it with traditional Khmer sounds.
A unique music style was born. It combined the best of both worlds, a kind of Asian psychedelic garage rock, taking inspiration from the surf rock of bands such as The Beach Boys or the psychedelic tunes of Grateful Dead or Jefferson Airplane. Basically an oriental version of the hippie movement!
A compilation of Khmer rock and roll.
In case you are into this style of music, or just want to dive in Cambodian culture, you can listen to this beautiful compilation of some of the best sounds of the Khmer 60s.
This brings up an interesting story, since an American tourist travelling in Cambodia managed to buy some old cassette tapes and made this album!
We can’t forget that most of these musicians were killed in the late 70s and this music destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. This period has been almost forgotten until recently.
One of the reasons of this revival is the movie ‘Don’t think I’ve forgotten’, by John Pirozzi, about the Cambodia’s lost rock and roll. You can have a look at the trailer here or you can watch it online or download it in the movie’s website here.
Marketing materials for the documentary movie that brought attention to this genre.
If we have to highlight one singer, there is a name from that period who is above all the others. Sometimes called ‘the King of Khmer music’ or ‘The Golden Voice’, Sinn Sisamouth (borned in 1932, executed by the Khmer Rouge in 1976) is unavoidable. He’s a kind of mixture between Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra with, of course, an Asian twist. He was actually a nurse but soon became the most famous Cambodian singer. Both common people and the Royal family loved him and became a protégé, often performing for the Queen Kossomak Nirirath.
His prolific nature as a singer-songwriter can’t be denied, as we can see in this list of 1200 songs in his Wikipedia discography page. He often got inspiration by western songs and created beautiful renditions of classics we may recognize from western musicians but probably looking even better in Khmer!
One of our favourites is definetely ‘Quando quando quando‘ from an old italian singer.
An example of cover for one of the many Sinn Sisamouth’s albums.
The second most famous artist of that period is the singer of the song at the beginning of this article. A performer called Ros Sereysothea was first a poor lady from a rural background and discovered while singing in weddings. She was then able to achieve the status of Queen of Khmer Rock and Roll. Some examples of songs are ‘Jam 10 Kai Theit‘ or ‘Penh Jet Thai Bong Mouy (Ago Go)‘.
Another musician from this period is Yol Aularong (check an example of song here or, our favourite, ‘riding a cyclo‘). The New York Times describes him as “a charismatic proto-punk who mocked conformist society”. What’s better for an iconoclast Cambodian musician from the 60s?
Also worth listening is Mao Sareth, a singer from Battambang province (example of song here).
However, as we mentioned above, all of these musicians were killed during the Khmer Rouge. All but one, Sieng Vanthy, who said to the Khmer Rouge she was a banana seller and managed to survive.
A big cultural difference compared to the one of the reign of King Norodom Sihanouk. He was a music lover, played saxophone, was a jazz fan and promoted this new mix of east and west culture, old and new.
Some other album covers from the sixties.
But of course, this is not only an article to look at the past, butalso to remember the present. Noawadays many bands are bringing back this style of music, adapting it to contemporary sounds while mainting the energy this 60’s rock and roll was famous for.
While in Cambodia, you can also attend one of the very energetic performances of Kampot Playboys or of Bokor Mountain Magic Band. Listen here and here, the latter one performing a very famous song from the sixties.
Based in California, Dengue Fever, a Khmer-American band, is probably the most famous of this rising genre. They are bringing back the Cambodian rock and roll from the 60s and coating it with sonorities of the present.
Have a look on this appearance of them in a famous radio show.
Baksey Cham Krong, a band from that period, sometimes described as the first one to appear.
Hope this article will make you listen more local music! While travelling, learn something from street musicians and do not be afraid to teach to local kids how to play. So many possibilities of collaboration!Read more
Many travelers probably don’t know but, before the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia had a thriving culture and movie industry. Hundreds of movies were fueling Phnom Penh’s vast amount of movie theaters, creating in the population a deep love for this art. It is still possible, in some cities of the Kingdom, to see what remains of the old movie theaters and their beautiful architecture.
Stay tuned for a quick introduction to Cambodian cinema and its golden age!
If you want to know more about the movie theaters, check the Roung Kon project, formed by a group of local architecture students and graduates passionate about the architecture of the sixties. With many movies produced and people from every class interested in going to the cinema, many venues popped-up in Phnom Penh, especially in the riverside area along street 13. King Sihanouk appointed the famous architect Vann Molyvann in order to develop the capital of the newly-independent kingdom. This lead to the development of the new Khmer architecture, a mix of modern and traditional Cambodian aesthetic.
A guide from the Roung Kon project showing a old photo of the currently destroyed Phnom Penh Cinema.
Focusing on the movies, the first Cambodian directors started working in the fifties, including Sun Bun Ly, Roeum Sophon and Leu Pannakar. But was just in the next decade that the industry boomed, with around 300 to 400 movies produced. It all happened from 1960 to 1975, when civil war stopped any cultural endeavors in the country. These years are the Golden Age of Cambodian cinema and arts. Even King Sihanouk was making movies, like the Rose of Bokor with Queen Mother Norodom Monineath (you can see some excerpts here). You can consult his entire filmography here. Some of his movies are even available entirely on Youtube, such as Little Prince from 1967 and Twilight from 1969.
A photo inside the currently abandoned Cinestar Cinema – the first one in Phnom Penh and where the Royal Family used to go in the 60s.
The best way to learn more about the Golden Age is to watch the celebrated documentary of Khmer-French director Davy Chou called Golden Slumbers (you can see a trailer here). He is the grandson of Van Chann, one of the main film producers in the sixties’ Cambodian movie industry and started a journey to discover and interview the remaining stars of that period who managed to survive the Khmer Rouge. During that time in fact the Khmer Rouge soldiers killed most of the artists and intellectuals, totally dismantling the Cambodian culture.
The old movie posters, often painted by hand and with beautiful vintage quality, are a unique example of the culture of that era. A quick search on google retrieves some examples of this.
Coming back to the present, unfortunately most of these movie houses have already been destroyed or abandoned (being the Lux Cinema on Norodom Boulevard the last one, closing its doors just a few months ago). So besides the commercial movie theaters in Phnom Penh such as Aeon mall, other alternative venues that regularly showcase Cambodian and international movies are Meta House, Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, French Institute and the Flicks Community Cinema (check the links or facebook pages for their current schedule). In Bophana you can research in their extensive film archive and watch old movies for free. You will get to know more about Cambodian history and culture.
If you want to know more about Cambodian movies of the last decades, here are some alternatives, with links to their trailers:
Hemakcheat, one of the few movie theaters that still stands untouched.
We hope we had sparkle in you curiosity for the Kingdom’s cinema, its unique Golden Age and the recent revival with young directors trying to tell stories about Cambodia in an unique way.
While in Phnom Penh, definitely try to catch a screening of Golden Slumbers or Diamond Island. They are both movies from Davy Chou, one of the most interesting directors of the new generation!Read more