Vietnam / Việt Nam
Organised religion is rare in Vietnam
Only about 27% of Vietnamese people follow an organised religion, most of whom are Buddhist. The other 73% do have a system of beliefs though: the “Vietnamese folk religion”. There is no “bible” of the Vietnamese folk religion, and it can vary a lot from region to region. Many people who consider themselves atheist or Buddhist can still hold folk beliefs.
The religion is devoted to the worship of nature spirits and gods, cultural heroes, and the ancestors. It is believed that the spirits of dead family members remain in the family home, and can influence the luck and safety of the family. Because of this important part of Vietnamese culture, superstitions and belief in ghosts are extremely common.
There are many interesting and unusual traditions in Vietnam relating to ancestor worship. Almost every building you enter, including restaurants and shops, will have an altar to the ancestors. Offerings are placed on the altar, (usually water, beer, fruit and biscuits), and incense is lit. When the incense stops burning, the ancestors are finished eating.
Another common custom you will see in Vietnam is burning “lucky money” (Vàng Mã). This involves setting fire to fake money in the streets, as a sacrifice to the ancestors. The ancestors then reward this gift by bringing luck to the family. Lucky money is usually burnt every full or new Moon.
The longest word in Vietnamese is only seven letters
The longest word in Vietnamese is “Nghiêng” (meaning “inclined”), with only 7 letters. Most Vietnamese words are only 2-5 letters long!
Actually, that’s not quite right. “Words” are really just defined differently in Vietnamese.
In English, we see words as groups of letters separated by spaces. In Vietnamese, the spaces go between syllables, not between separate “words”. So, there can be a space half way through a word, and it is still a single word.
The word for a hexagon, for example, is hình sáu góc. This looks like 3 words, but it is really 1 word made from 3 words. “hình”= form/shape, “sáu”= six, “góc”= corner. So “hình sáu góc” literally means “six-corner-shape”. Makes sense right?
So, much longer words like “sự phản ứng trung hòa” (“neutralisation”) do exist, they just don’t look like single words.
Vietnam has some amazing rocky landscapes
I lived in and travelled around Northern Vietnam for 14 months, and in that time I saw many beautiful places. One reoccurring feature you see in the north are huge rock formations, rising steeply out of otherwise flat landscapes. This is because much of northern Vietnam is made of limestone, which gradually dissolves away over time, leaving many beautiful caves and mountains. These formations are called “Karsts”.
The most famous example of this is Ha Long Bay, Vietnam’s number 1 tourist attraction. Ha Long Bay is unique, because the Karst has been flooded by the sea, and the formations have become 2000 tiny islands, each topped with their own tiny forest. There are many interesting animals living in on the islands, including the Cat Ba Langur, possibly the rarest monkey on Earth.
Limestone is also the reason for the huge number of caves in Vietnam (see the last fact).
Ancient Vietnam has some awesome female warriors
For about 1000 years of Vietnam’s early history, the country was occupied by the Chinese empire. This means many Vietnamese legends involve heroes who fought against the Chinese rule, and tried to liberate Vietnam.
One of the most interesting figures from this time is Lady Triệu. She is sometimes called “the Vietnamese Joan of Arc”. Born about 225AD, she was orphaned and forced to live with her wicked sister-in-law, who was cruel to her. They eventually fought, and Triệu killed her sister-in-law, and ran away into the mountains. Even though she was only 20 years old, her bravery and strength helped her gather the mountain tribes together into an army, and she decided to rebel against the Chinese. When her brother told her to settle down, she said this amazing quote:
“I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom, and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man.”
With this ferocious attitude, she roused the people of Vietnam into rebellion, and lead their armies in combat. Legend says she rode into battle on the top of a war elephant, dressed in a yellow tunic.
Unfortunately, the Chinese were too powerful, and her revolution lasted only 6 months before she was defeated. To avoid capture, she committed suicide at the age of only 22, by throwing herself into the sea. Why isn’t there a film about her yet?
They Lead the world in…
Vietnam is home to the largest known cave in the world: Hang Sơn Đoòng.
The cave is 5km long, and has the same volume as 37 Empire State Buildings. The main cavern is so enormous, that a Boeing 747 could fly through it! It is also home to the largest stalagmites in the world, 70 meters tall!
Hang Sơn Đoòng was first explored in 2009, and adventurers discovered a large underground river, and a small underground forest, which gets enough light from holes in the roof. If you want to visit the cave, I’m afraid it isn’t easy. There is a very long waiting list, as only a small number of people are allowed each year. Tickets are currently at $3000 each, but as more infrastructure builds up it will probably become cheaper for tourists to explore this natural wonder. I just hope this amazing place is properly respected and preserved, and not made into a theme park! There are some worrying plans to build a cable car though the cave, which could be very destructive.