Culture Guide to Vietnam

Jin Kong is a guest research fellow with The Greater Cincinnati World Affairs Council (GCWAC) for the next six months. This fellowship is sponsored by The Mission Continues. Through this fellowship, Kong is researching to gain a better understanding of the populist sentiment towards immigrants in the Cincinnati region. This is one blog of many on his research of immigration and Cincinnati. To learn more about Jin Kong click here.

History to Present

Human habitation of the now northern Vietnam dates back 500,000 years; primitive agriculture dates back to 7000 BC. The Chinese colonized the region for a better part of Vietnam’s recorded history. There was a brief Vietnamese independence in 40 A.D. led by the Trung Sisters; and another some 900 years later in 938 A.D. But Vietnam again came under China’s control in the early 15th century and once more sought independence by Le Loi’s famous victory over the Chinese in 1428.

Between the Portuguese landing in 1516, the French and Japanese occupations, and the eventual America’s failed war, the Vietnam region was split between the north and the south. Historically it began with Trinh ruling the north and the Nguyen ruling and expanding the south, each aligned with a European colonial opportunist. The division and resentment worsened the anti-colonialism sentiment long held by the Vietnamese people. Eventually, communism became the successful party to lead an anti-colonialism campaign to “liberate” the South, which began in 1959.

After the Vietnam War, United States re-established its diplomatic relationship in 1994 following the lifting of its embargo that had been in place since the 1960s. Vietnam entered the World Trade Organization in 2006 and experienced significant economic growth thereafter; it is now a major tourism destination for many.

Due to the long Chinese influence, the Vietnamese people maintains a traditional family and clan based society. Although heavily influenced by Confucius and its feudal views of male importance, women play the most important role in family life. Moreover, Vietnamese women have long been inspired by the heroics of the Trung Sisters who led the very first independence campaign and won. Vietnam in its modern age has passed a number of laws on marriage and family in order to make family relations equal between men and women. But the time-honored Confucian tradition of “respect for the elderly and love for the children” are maintained and advocated in Vietnamese families.

People, Places, and Celebrations

There are approximately 95 million people in Vietnam; 54 ethnic groups are recognized and the majority group is Kinh (Viet), which constitutes 86% of the country’s population. Vietnamese is the official language but English is favored as a second language. Chinese, French, and various mountain languages are also spoken. By far, the country is Buddhist and majority of the country’s population is between the working age of 25 and 54 (according to the World Factbook).

Vietnam is one of the most densely populated region on earth and perhaps artistically vibrant for this reason. Vietnamese Literature has been developed with a unique multi-identity. Its traditional form takes shape in folklores, tales, humor, as well as Chinese and Vietnamese scripts. Its contemporary literature came to age with the introduction of a Vietnam national language (Quoc Ngu).

Between 1945 and 1975, Vietnamese literature reflected aspiration for peace and independence; today it is much more a call to national identity and progress. The Vietnamese performing arts include popular, classical, and reformed theatre, water puppet, court music and dancing, folk-song, duets, ceremonial songs, etc.

Vietnamese architecture consists of wood, stone, brick and thatch, bamboo and leaves, typically represented in pagodas. Vietnamese architecture is also influenced by European and North American styles. Many famous buildings were built in the classical European style, such as the Presidential Palace, Supreme Court, Hanoi Opera House, and the State Bank of Vietnam. Vietnam architecture was also influenced by the Soviets; for example, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Friendship Cultural Palace, etc.

Vietnamese paintings are traditionally worships and celebratory. Its current artists, on the other hand, attempt to explore global subject matters and new styles of Vietnamese paintings on oil, lacquer and silk. Vietnam also has a long and rich history of hand-crafting ceramics, lacquer, silk, rattan and bamboo.

Most Vietnamese festivals are held during traditional agricultural “leisure times” which are spring and autumn. Many of the major celebratory festivals are commonly found in other Asian countries: e.g., the Lunar New Year and Fall Full-Moon festival. The Lunar New Year is the biggest one among Vietnam’s traditional festivals. During this time, family get together and enjoy traditional food, visit relatives, friends and colleagues and wish them a happy new year.

Vietnamese Cuisine


People of Vietnam respect the rule of balance and it is evident in their cuisine choices. Vietnamese food typically exhibits five taste elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet; corresponding to five organs: gall bladder, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, and urinary bladder. Vietnam cooking typically select five types of nutrients: powder, water/liquid, minerals, protein, and fat; and it also tries to have five colors: white, green, yellow, red, and black in their dishes. Rice is a dominate component to a meal, and choice protein often include fish, meat, or tofu. Vietnamese food is also well-known for its pickled, steamed, or fresh vegetables; fish sauce, made from fermented fish, is also commonly used.

The North and South Vietnamese food differ much like the way China’s north and south differ in their eating habits. Southern Vietnamese food are often bold, made of fresh ingredients, often with rice, and strong in salt and fish flavors. Northern Vietnamese food are heavily influenced by the Chinese, including the iconic pho (China’s northern cuisine preference include noodles and breads).

Due to its colonial history, Vietnamese food also takes a European spin. For example, Banh mi is a popular modern-day Vietnamese street-food that requires the use of baguettes, which was introduced by the French. But the Vietnamese people make their bread with a mix of rice and wheat flours.

Vietnamese in America

In 2010, Vietnamese was the 4th largest among Asian population groups in the United States. Majority of the Vietnamese immigrants live in California, Texas, Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Massachusetts.

Immigration from Vietnam began as a humanitarian inflow due to the Vietnam War. In recent decades, family based immigration is more common. A 2014 census survey reported 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants, accounting for 3% of the nation’s total immigrant count. (Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2014 American Community Surveys).

Vietnamese immigrants generally have higher incomes compared to other foreign- and native-born populations. In 2014, median household income among Vietnamese immigrants was $59,933; and there were less Vietnamese immigrants living in poverty compared to other foreign- and native-born populations.

Vietnamese immigrants mostly came to the United States prior to 2000. Since then, Vietnamese immigration significantly decreased. Today, Ohio is home to estimated 11,000 Vietnamese immigrants. Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio claimed to have resettled more than 10,000 refugees in Cincinnati since the Vietnam War exodus. One census report puts Vietnamese population in Cincinnati to approximately 3,100 (closing-in on the approximately 4,000 Chinese and 3,300 Indian immigrants in Cincinnati).

Along with this increased Vietnamese cultural presence, Cincinnati is now the home of many Vietnamese restaurants including the popular Pho Lang Thang, Quan Hapa, and lunch favorite located in downtown Cincinnati—Saigon Subs and Rolls. The University of Cincinnati has a Vietnamese Student Association claiming 311 members.

The blog is part of the Mission Continues blog series, written by Jin Kong and therefore all words and thoughts are his own and not a reflection of GCWAC.

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