Art of Vietnam

The text below is the excerpt from the book Art of Vietnam (ASIN: B07C2JLY7X), written by Catherine Noppe and Jean-François Hubert, published by Parkstone International.

Situated on the eastern extremity of what is known as Southeast Asia, Vietnam finds itself at the confluence of two worlds. With China to the north and Laos and Combodia to the west, Vietnam has long been subject to a double-influence; one nicely captured by the French term, first introduced in the 1840s , “Indochine” (Indo—China).

Draining the rice fields, photograph by Loi Nguyen

Endowed with a coastline more than two thousand kilometers long, Vietnam’s eastern seaboard gives it access not only to the Philippines and Indonesia, but also to China and Japan, commercial opportunities that were first exploited in the fifteenth century.

Reparing the fishnets, photograph by Loi Nguyen Khoa

Vietnam’s tropical climate differs from north to south. While the north of the country enjoys four distinct seasons and receives monsoons in both winter and summer, the south has only two seasons, one dry, and the other rainy. “Two baskets of rice suspended on a yoke”; such is the image most frequently cited by the Vietnamese to evoke the shape of their country as it appears on a map. In this image, the yoke — in fact, a long bamboo pole split along its length and carried on the shoulders to assist in transport of all sorts — represents the Trường Sơn Mountains, otherwise known as the “Annamite Mountain Range”, the backbone of the country and principal frontier with its western neighbors. The “two baskets of rice” which hang from the extremities of the yoke correspond to the Red River (Sông Hồng) in the north and the Mekong River (Cửu Long) in the south. These low countries, particularly well-suited to rice field irrigation (there are two monsoons annually in the north and three in the southern and intermediate market areas) and consequently overpopulated, sometimes leads one to forget that Vietnam (with a total area of 329,000 km2) contains twice as much mountainous area as plains. Indeed, it is in Vietnam that one finds the highest summit in Southeast Asia, Mount Fansipan (3143m).

In addition to the forest covered and virtual ly uninhabited Trường Sơn Mountains, the country also possesses a moderate “Middle Region” in the north and “High Plateaus” in the center and south. In many cases, the latter only expire when they reach the Eastern Sea — for example, at Porte of Annam, which gives access to the entire central region and the Collar of Clouds between Hue and Danang.

During the colonial era, Vietnam’s three regions — Northern (Bac Bo), Central (Trung Bo), and Southern regions (Nam Bo) — were rebaptized Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchine. Tonkin comes from the name Dong Kinh, “capital of the east”, as Hanoi was known in the sixteenth century; Annam, “South Pacific”, was the name conferred on the country by the Chinese during the Tang Dynasty (618—906 AD); the term “Cochinchine”, though invented by Westerners, also derives from Dong Kinh.

Although each of these three regions still plays an important cultural role, the most important regional division in the country, as we shall see later, is that between the plains and the High Plateaus.

The chain of limestone mountains in the north of the country, including the fantastic isles of the Bay of Ha Long (“the dragon which descends towards the sea”), are geologically similar to the Guangxi formations of China. Just like the mountains of the central region, they are penetrated by innumerable caves, long considered sacred places giving access to the entrails of the Earth. Stalactites and stalagmites of bizarre shapes are given names in accordance with their form and have been known to come in such shapes as geckos, elephants, tortoises, “Buddha’s heart”, and even, in a cave that was only recently discovered on an island in the Bay of Ha Long, an astonishing profile of former President Ho Chi Minh. Since prehistory, two great rivers, the Red River and the Mekong, have graced the country with diverse and profoundly civilizing influences. With a length of 1,200 kilometers, the Red River has its source in the Chinese province of Yunan. The Mekong, meanwhile, runs for 4,200 kilometers in a general north-south direction before evaporating into a vast delta. Beginning in the Tibetan plateau, it passes through China, travels along the Laotian — Burmese border, and then crosses Cambodia before entering Vietnam.

Pier on the Yen Vi river leading to the Perfume Pagoda
( Chua Hương, apelerinage site) , in the Ha Tây province

Sources of life and the foundation of regional rice patty irrigation, the waters of these great rivers are also prone to terrifying floods against which the population struggles without cease via an ever more perfected series of dams. In addition to these great rivers and their tributaries, numerous waterways, generally oriented northwest/southwest, make their way through the mountains to the Eastern Sea, crossing slender bands of coastal plains as they do so. These rivers supply a large part of the population with fish, snails, and diverse crustaceans. One need only glance at the iconography that characterizes the various ceramics, “blue and white” porcelain, and enamel work of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries — crabs, shrimp, fish, waterfowl, lotus and other Asiatic plants are everywhere in evidence — to grasp the vital importance that waterways have long played in Vietnamese culture. For all that, the resources of the sea itself are in no way neglected: prehistoric coastal cultures have left traces of their existence in the form of great heaps of seashells along the shores of Vietnam’s northern and central coast…

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