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Meet 90-Year-Old Huỳnh Văn Ba, the Father of Hội An's Foldable Lanterns

In his 90s, Huỳnh Văn Ba’s hair has turned completely silver, but when he was telling me stories about lanterns, his voice and eyes sparkled with a particularly lively hope. Thanks to Ba’s invention — collapsible lanterns — Hội An’s distinctive souvenir can easily follow the footsteps of international tourists to all corners of the globe.

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In Hà Nội, a Martial Arts Master Preserves the Century-Old Tradition of Dragon Dancing

In Vietnam, during festive occasions such as Tết Nguyên Đán (Lunar New Year), mesmerizing dragon dance performances serve to eloquently spell the people's aspiration for fortune, abundance, and propitiousness. A glimpse into the art of dragon dancing The dragon has been a symbol of great cultural and spiritual significance in Vietnam since ancient times. Standing at the forefront of the Four Divine Creatures (Dragon, Unicorn, Tortoise, Phoenix), the dragon embodies strength, authority, opulence, and good fortune. Consequently, there is a prevailing belief among elders that the Year of the Dragon, denoted as "Năm Thìn," will usher in a period of substantial prosperity. The dragon also represents ancestral roots due to the folklore of Kinh Vietnamese being descendants of a dragon king and a fairy princess. The dragon, synonymous with strength and prosperity, has been a defining symbol in Vietnamese culture throughout history. Given its sacred status, dragon imageries have appeared across different art forms, from architecture, painting, and sculpture to folk theatrics like dragon dances. These vibrant performances take place during festive occasions such as the Lunar New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and other celebrations, symbolizing the collective desire for prosperity. Tracing its roots back to China, dragon dancing has since sprawled across much of Asia. Ancient Hà Nội, known as Thăng Long, is considered the first place in Vietnam where the art took off. Research suggests that dragon dancing in Thăng Long dates back to the 10th century during the Lý Dynasty. Over time, it fused with traditional martial arts and folk dances to become a unique form of art embedded in Vietnamese culture. With its enduring legacy, dragon dance continues to be a popular activity in community events from northern to southern Vietnam. Dragon dance continues to be a popular activity in community events from northern to southern Vietnam. Among various forms, fabric dragon dancing prevails. In the South, this variation is believed to have first emerged within the Chinese community around 1944-1945, when Hokkien businessman Trần Bội, owner of Trung Nam soap company, started a troupe comprising his factory workers in Sa Đéc. Another source, however, suggests that the first fabric dragon troupe appeared a few years earlier at Ông Temple in Phan Thiết, where remnants of a revered dragon head remain. After the war, the practice suffered a subdued period until 1987, when the former Hokkien troupe regrouped, establishing its base at Ông Bổn Temple in District 5. Since then, dragon dancing performances have continued to embellish local celebrations. Preserving Thăng Long's Dragon Dance Tradition In Hà Nội, particularly in localities such as Chương Mỹ, Thanh Trì, or Sơn Tây, the age-old practice is still cherished by locals. The resounding drums and graceful dragon movements remain a staple during Tết festivities. In its modern iteration, Hà Nội's dragon dancing stays true to its traditional roots while adapting to evolving contemporary tastes, with more than 30 styles developed. Master Bùi Viết Tưởng Crafting His Troupe's Costume. In Chương Mỹ, Hà Nội, a young martial arts master dedicates his career to championing the tradition of lion and dragon dancing. As the year of the dragon approaches, amidst busy preparations, Bùi Viết Tưởng and his apprentices find themselves working overtime to meet the surging demand for dragon displays in Hà Nội and neighboring regions. In the biting cold of January, Tưởng's workshop hums with activity, its presence a rare bastion for lion and dragon heads crafting in the capital. Having started his martial arts training at a young age, Master Bui Viet Tuong later focused on studying the intricate art of lion and dragon dancing. He returned to his hometown to establish a martial arts school and form the Tưởng Nghĩa Đường troupe, hoping to pass on this tradition to future generations of his community. The making of a dragon costume. At the workshop, the master and his apprentices diligently cut, sew, and adorn their creations with intense focus. "The dragon-making process involves multiple stages, demanding artisans to be truly patient, meticulous, and appreciative of traditional beauty to spend hours each day decorating every detail, adjusting each part until the dragon takes shape," Tưởng candidly says. Dragon costumes vary in size and color based on the routine, thus allowing for appropriate creativity and variations as needed. Each fabric dragon costume consists of three parts: head, body, and tail, all attached to bamboo legs. Dragons often sport vibrant colors like red - symbolizing luck, and gold, which represents prosperity. Each dragon head requires 5 to 6 days to complete, while the body and other parts take up to 10 days. The dragon head is a combination of bamboo, straw, fabric, and decal paper. After being mounted, the dragon head is intricately decorated. Tưởng notes that the material used for the dragon head must be able to withstand all the weather changes through the seasons of the North. Each paint stroke is emphasized to evoke the majestic spirit of this revered creature. The dragon body is crafted from fabric, with scales printed thermally or raised with decal paper. The number of scales can reach thousands, creating a sparkly effect. In addition to crafting dragons, rigorous training sessions at the club are held well before the Giáp Thìn Lunar New Year. As Tết looms near, the training at the club becomes increasingly rigorous. Artists performing dragon dance should be experienced in martial arts. "Dragon dance is a highly artistic form of performance art. It requires artists to skillfully create movements that accurately depict the majestic and powerful aura of the dragon. Therefore, a seamless blend of fluidity and decisiveness is essential for a dragon dancer. In addition to performance skills, a background in martial arts is crucial," shares Tưởng who draws from his 15 years of experience in both martial arts training and dragon dance. "Anyone looking to engage in dragon dance must undergo a tedious process. Good physical health is a prerequisite to meet the demands of constantly changing movements. Flexible reflexes and resilience are equally important qualities. Hence, those with a martial arts background, adept in various stances and techniques, will quickly adapt to this art form," he explains. Good coordination determines the success of a dragon dance performance. The ability to coordinate within the team also determines the success of a dragon dance performance. "How well the team harmonizes to create continuous transformations, maintaining a tight connection among members, is something I always emphasize to my students." The number of members in a dance troupe varies depending on the size of the dragon. For Tưởng Nghĩa Đường, a typical performance involves 9 members. Each member plays a crucial role, although the positions at the head, number 5, and tail are the most physically demanding. As the one controlling the dragon's head, Đỗ Văn Tới explains, "To make the dragon move gracefully and execute visually appealing movements, the leader must practice sharpness and agility. Precise movements enable other members to follow suit. Additionally, this position is pivotal in handling any unexpected situations during the performance." Đỗ Văn Tới, the dragon head bearer. With each Tet celebration and the arrival of spring, rhythmic drumbeats echo through community gatherings. Against the backdrop of village courtyards, majestic dragons coil and sway, a testament to the enduring power of this traditional art form. Dragon dance performances evoke not just fond childhood memories but also the people's aspirations for luck, success, and the ambition to rise resiliently. As long as the younger generations embrace this cultural legacy, its enduring charm remains steadfast.

Khôi Phạm

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On Delving Into Vietnam's Eras of Tết Firecrackers via My Family History

Is it a valid reverie or just mere misguided nostalgia to feel a sense of yearning for lives you’ve never lived?

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Xông Đất and the Art of Not Letting Randos Into Your Home on Mùng Một

Tết permeates all areas of life this time of the year, from TV programs to online memes and highly detailed charts, tables, and infographics that guide people to participate in a popular new year activity called xông đất.

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In the Year of the Dragon, Confessions of a Supposedly 'Auspicious' Dragon Baby

During high school, I learned that babies born in years of the dragon were thought to be “fortunate” and thus, highly sought-after.

Paul Christiansen

in Music & Arts

On Warmly Welcoming the Whimsy of Wonky Tết Zodiac Statues

Every Tết arrives accompanied by netizens sharing collections of poorly constructed statues of the year’s zodiac animal. Viewing the online collections with colleagues is one of my favorite holiday traditions.

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When Lịch Bloc Is Gone, What Will Vietnam Use to Keep Discarded Fish Bones?

I have never bought a lịch bloc, or tear-off calendar, for personal use, because every new year, I'm bound to be gifted a brand-new one. In Vietnam, a calendar is often something one purchases as a present for others.

Paul Christiansen

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It's Tết: The Liberating Magic of Using Tết as an Excuse for Everything

I hate excuses.

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Brian Letwin

in Music & Arts

Video: Hanoi Hustle

Check out this Video, Hanoi Hustle, featuring music from Touliver and LK with choreography by Oliver and performed by Handi crew. Nice to see more hip hop and less kpop!

Brian Letwin

in Culture

A History of Vietnamese Banknotes

These days, you’d be hard pressed to find Vietnamese coins as with a maximum value of VND5,000, inflation has rendered them virtually useless. However, even though banknotes have existed in Vietnam si...

Brian Letwin

in Music & Arts

Slideshow: Vintage Vietnamese Hairdos Recreated by Top Stylists

When we posted an article featuring Vietnamese album art from the 60s and 70s a few months back, we found the singers’ hair styles to be some of the more intriguing details.

Brian Letwin

in Culture

Saigon Hotpot Charity Auction

Sky Lantern is Saigon Hotpot club’s most famous annual charity event, whose mission is to help underprivileged children by bettering their living and studying conditions. We would like to cordially in...

in Music & Arts

Everyone's A DJ Presents: Shimmy Shimmy Coco Pop

Everyone's A DJ presents 'Shimmy Shimmy Coco Pop' - a 50s/60s rock'n'roll/motown dance party! From the organisers:

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A Musical Journey with Henry Saiz

You wonder through the deserted landscape…it’s not a dream, not a nightmare, your mind is empty of memories as if you have always been here, since the beginning of time...you are afraid of yourself, y...

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'Beautiful Saigon Project' Explores Saigon Through HipHop

Hip hop has a special place in our hearts so when we see the style gaining popularity in Vietnam, we get pretty excited. We just stumbled upon this extremely entertaining and well-produced hip hop vi...

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Working Multiple Jobs: A Trend for Foreigners in Saigon?

It’s been almost a year since I first arrived in Saigon. Now, when looking back on my search for jobs in the city, I think that my personal experiences carry some value and may come in handy for those...

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“Long way home” - Asia - Europe Short Story Contest

"They called her The Big Girl, sometimes The Lost Girl, but among themselves The Strange Girl. In her own world she was a little girl. But she stopped being little when she went travelling and decided...

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Saigon Players Are Back and Calling for New Cast Members

“Saigon Players” will celebrate its 10th anniversary as a community theatre in Saigon. It is a non-profit theatrical group composed by amateurs and professional foreigners and Vietnamese who share the...

Brian Letwin

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Dope Vietnamese Rap Mix

Over at Bodegapop, Gary has assembled a dope mix of Vietnamese hip hop tracks. Gary, always on the hunt for unique international music, was driven to find some Vietnamese hip hop at his local Vietnam...

Brian Letwin

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Vietnam Struggling to Keep Treasure Hunters in Check

Since 1998, numerous ancient vessels have been found of the coast of Quang Ngai Province. The ships hold thousands of ancient artifacts, mainly ceramics as these waters were once part of the ‘Ceramic ...

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VietPride Arrives in Saigon

Tomorrow, August 24th VietPride - "share the pride" will arrive in Saigon for the very first time. The LGBT community has prepared a series of activities and events to raise awareness about sex...

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San Art Laboratory: Open Studio Session 3

Have you ever been in front of a painting, a photograph, a video installation or any other form of artistic creation, for that matter, and asked yourself “What was the artist/author thinking?”, “What ...

Brian Letwin

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New Web Series Captures the Vietnamese Diaspora Seeking a New Life in Vietnam

A new web series, Employed Identity, explores the phenomenon of the Vietnamese diaspora returning to the country of their parents’ birth, to find both themselves and successful careers. Directed by Ba...

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Today is Vulan, the Day of Mother Worship and Welcoming Ghosts

If you're wondering why the Buddha flags are out and why all your Buddhist friends are eating vegetarian today, that's because it's one of Vietnam's coolest holidays - Vulan.

Brian Letwin

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Saudi Man, Exiled for Being Too Đẹp, on His Way to Vietnam

You may recall hearing the story of Omar Borkan Al Gala, a Saudi man deported from his home country for being too handsome. Well, luckily this is no crime in Vietnam and the exiled, really, really ri...

Brian Letwin

in Film & TV

Films Coming to Vietnam This August

We know we’re a few weeks late, but here’s a list of films being released in Vietnam this month. Descriptions from IMDB.

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Beautiful, 100-year-old Water Paintings of Vietnam

You know how much we love to post old photos of Vietnam. But every now and then it's nice to switch up the medium a bit, so today, we present some beautiful, turn-of-the 20th century water color paint...

Brian Letwin

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Vietnam in the Frame for New Season of BBC World News Programmes

The BBC will be televising a number of stories relating to Vietnam starting August 24.