Vietnam is a country of young people, who account for one quarter of the total population. A long history that spans millennia has forged a rich culture in this land beside the East Sea. Naturally, Vietnamese people are close to their heritage, which transcends time. Just as heritage was part of our ancestors’ cultural lives, it now lives on through young people.
The young generation has developed many communities dedicated to preserving our heritage. They have not only inherited traditional values but are forging their own cultural identity. The ability to preserve traditional cultures and build upon that foundation to create new ones is the essence of the Vietnamese identity.
Heritage: burning brightly
Nowadays, young people’s interest in cultural heritage might come from their love and passion for its artistic values. Some enthusiastic young scholars are so dedicated to their ancestors’ legacy that they become catalysts that spark flames of passion in their peers. Over time, this fascination spreads among people of their generation and beyond. Examples of these communities include Đình làng Việt (Vietnamese Communal House) and Chùa Việt(Vietnamese Pagoda), which have a large presence on the internet and boast both large and diverse memberships. Most of these communities’ members are quite young and include many researchers, artists, architects, and professors of heritage studies among their ranks, whose engagements and ties with research facilities and regulatory agencies allow them to make significant contributions. From these large groups with up to several thousand members come smaller groups that focus on in-depth research and raising awareness about heritage preservation.
These groups not only organize field trips to the countryside to learn more about Vietnamese communal houses and pagodas (mainly in the Northern and Central regions) but also compile photo collections of architectural works, from their structures to detailed designs, contributing to preservation efforts. Some groups have even developed 3D designs that prove very useful for virtual sightseeing apps and help their creators to showcase their professional talents. Helping to observe, monitor, and report on the monuments’ condition not only helps people appreciate the rustic beauty of ancient communal houses and pagodas but also allows them to raise their voices and make important demands regarding the preservation of these monuments and heritage sites in the face of constant pressures from economic development and urbanization. Dalat Heritage Observatory is one of many groups raising red flags about the rapid disappearance of the city’s old architectural works and heritage landscape.
Finding past vestiges
Some members of Đình làng Việt formed a small group with a meaningful social-cultural purpose: Support Center for Developing Traditional Five-flap Áo Dài. Even though there are only 6,000 members in the group, their influence is undeniable. Finding and compiling images of traditional áo dài that embody the cultural spirit of our ancestors is more than just a passion and exercise of nostalgia. It is a wish to decode the cultural messages of Vietnamese people who lived more than a century ago.
The comeback of five-flap áo dài, as well as rules for wearing turbans, conical hats, walking styles and postures, etc. on mass media, have rekindled Vietnamese people’s interest in their ethnic and national identity in the 21st century. This influence has also been well received by cultural agencies, such as the Department of Sports, Culture and Tourism in Thua Thien-Hue, inspiring them to implement a work policy that requires staff to wear traditionaláo dài on the first Monday of each month. While this decision was controversial, Hue has definitely benefitted from media reports on this practice, since áo dài are associated with this land, helping to form a picturesque landscape along with the Perfume River and Ngu Mountain.
While using 3D models to virtually restore ancient architectural works and sculptures like Đình làng Việt and Chùa Việt, groups like Sen Heritage have gone a step further, creating miniature versions of the Amitabha Buddha statue in Phat Tich Pagoda, alongside other ambitious projects like rebuilding the Ly Dynasty’s One-Pillar Pagoda based on the stone pillar of Dam Pagoda. Another project aims to create a perfect replica of the thousand-armed Avalokitesvara statue from Bao An Pagoda, now housed in the Guimet Museum in Paris, having been seized by French colonialists at the end of the 19th century.
The flow of cultural codes
On top of physical vestiges and monuments, groups of young researchers aspire to recreate cultural spaces and intangible cultural heritages that have deteriorated due to people’s living conditions and the ravages of time. This is a much more difficult task.
Infatuated with ca trù (also called ả đào) melodies, yet not content to let ả đào be an insignificant sideshow at cultural exchange events, a group of researchers founded a project dedicated to recreating the time and settings linked to these melodies, which were iconic in Hanoi in the 1930s and ’40s. They initiated the pre-production phase of a cultural documentary named Ả Đào, featuring young ca nương (female ả đào singers) from the wards of Thai Ha, Lo Khe (Hanoi) and Dong Mon (Hai Phong), as well as amateur actresses to play well-known singers and musicians of yesteryear. The sounds of tơ, sênh phách (types of Vietnamese traditional musical instruments) that contain the essence of a bygone era and added to Vietnam’s developing culture will be represented on the silver screen for the first time in a movie about music.
A group of young artists hoping to present traditional elements in a modern setting implemented a project to host tuồng performances in the backyard of the Van Chuong collective living quarter, an iconic Soviet-style architectural work dating back to the 1960s, and inside the Guangdong Assembly Hall (No. 22, Hang Buom Street), which was renovated during the 2021 Hanoi Unleashing Creativity Week. Other groups are making great efforts too. Projects like the “Cải lương Storytelling Community” campaign launched by Yume Project group, or the online historical drama “Việt sử kiêu hùng” (The Glorious History of Vietnam) produced by a group of enthusiastic youths from Ho Chi Minh City have captivated young audiences. From recreating national and ethnic discourses through computer-generated graphics to performing society-oriented classic cải lương plays, these diverse works all aim to identify our cultural codes and identities. At a time when folk arts face many challenges, these communal activities are innovative instead of repeating traditional methods.
Cuisine is a form of heritage that no one can ignore. Many groups of youngsters can quickly see its potential, namely the Hanoi Unbox group created by students from the Diplomatic Academy of Hanoi, who won first prize in a media contest. The group sought to create basic culinary packages for tourists coming to Hanoi based on an old Vietnamese proverb and philosophy: “One must learn proper table manners, etiquette in speaking, and skills at work.” Opening the cultural boxes, metaphorically, is a new and refreshing way of approaching cultural heritage.