Story: Truong Quy
Photos: Ba Ngoc, Nguyen Hieu,
Nguyen Van Khoi

The Dinh lang Viet Club is working to preserve village communal temples and their cultural contributions.

Among various recently-formed groups dedicated to Vietnam’s heritage, the Dinh lang Viet Club has made an impact with their sustainable grassroots activities in fieldwork programs and online. As their name suggests, their activities are closely linked to the dinh lang (village communal temple), which form the heart of villages founded between the 16th and 17th centuries. Village communal temples form some of the most important cultural and historic institutions.

Art researcher Nguyen Duc Binh, the head of the Dinh lang Viet Club, displays an ao dai ngu than

Art researcher Nguyen Duc Binh is the head of the Dinh lang Viet Club. Back in 2008, he wished to create a space for studying the culture of dinh lang, collecting data on dinh architecture, and researching activities, traditions, and festivals connected to village communal temples. The Dinh lang Viet Club was founded as a meeting place for dinh lang enthusiasts, including scholars of art and architecture and agencies dedicated to preserving historical sites. The club’s first goal is to promote the values of these sites and generate public interest before raising concerns with the sites’ management. A brief visit to a dinh won’t allow us to fully appreciate its beauty, especially the exquisite carvings in high or dimly lit places. Dinh lang Viet introduces the public to beautiful aspects of dinh lang to help conserve these sites’ original values.

A folk music perfomance

In the past, most publicity about dinh lang was limited to a few studies and sculptural exhibitions. At 2015, the Dinh lang Viet Club organized the exhibit “Dinh lang Viet – nhung dieu con mat” (Vietnamese Village Communal Temples – What is Gone and What Remains). During and immediately after the Lunar New Year, mentions of dinh lang skyrocketed in the media, and people began to pay more attention to these sites and see them as equal to  pagodas and other historical sites.

Courtyards enlivened with music and fine clothes

As the Dinh lang Viet Club investigated the origins of village communal temple architecture, they realized that most folk music originated in these village temples. Experts Tran Doan Lam and Artist Doan Thi Thanh Binh helped organize these club activities. At the end of 2014, Mr. Hien restored the act of hat cua dinh (“singing at the dinh entrance”) with the Ca tru Performers’ Guild of Hai Phong. Village communal temples are indeed the people’s theater, where all traditional musical genres convene: ca tru, chieu cheo, quan ho, and even hat boi. The Dinh lang Viet Club aims to recreate original performance arts that were once performed in dinh courtyards.

A folk music perfomance

Next comes the topic of holidays and the Lunar New Year, events that are central to Vietnamese cultural expression. The Dinh lang Viet Club has long aspired to restore Tet activities in dinh lang in accordance with long-standing traditions. Making these events beautiful and appealing requires appropriate clothing. The group initially experimented by borrowing 30 outfits from the ao dai designers to reenact dinh lang ceremonies. While these outfits may not have been perfect replicas, they created a wonderful impression of uniformity. Members of the Dinh lang Viet Club realized they could restore traditional clothing. They swam against the tide of modernization since popular styles are not faithful to original versions. Club members searched for artisans who could reproduce garments from artifacts in Hue. It was quite a challenge, as the forms of ao dai made in craft villages today had greatly changed. Club members were fortunate to meet Do Minh Tam of Trach Xa village (Hoa Lam commune, Ung Hoa district, Hanoi) – a resident of a well-known ao dai artisan community. They persuaded Mr. Tam to join the club and create more authentically traditional garments. The Dinh lang Viet Club is also working with Nam Tuyen, who owns a modern garment factory in Ho Chi Minh City, to promote the adoption of ao dai ngu than (five-piece tunics). For aesthetic and practical reasons, these garments are made from suitably modern fabrics and having improvements in sewing techniques, color selection for aesthetics.

Spreading the love of Viet phuc

A fashion show of ao dai ngu than in Hanoi's Old Quarter

“Viet phuc” (Vietnamese dress) is a broad term, as it covers any kind of clothing worn by Vietnamese people in the past and present. The Dinh lang Viet Club, however, defines “viet phuc” as mainly related to the ao ngu than, particularly for women’s ao dai, which many consider the national dress. As the Dinh lang Viet cultural space reenacts traditions, I was immediately greeted by echoes of past ao dai, on display and being worn by Nguyen Duc Binh himself. I asked him how these traditional garments could be appropriately worn in a modern setting, overcoming the misconception that they are only suitable for holidays and ritual occasions.  Mr. Binh told me that members of Dinh lang Viet wear traditional attire without issue: on the streets, at supermarkets, and in shopping centers in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. While wooden clogs can be exchanged for Western-style shoes and pants legs can be tightened for ease of movement, some factors must be retained at all costs, such as the turban, which conveys dignity. Recreations or innovations must be based on careful observation and a keen sense of practical aesthetics.

Surprisingly, many young people born after 2000 took to this style naturally. Even in the Dinh lang Viet cultural space, many youths look for ao dai – not only for themselves but also for their grandfathers or fathers. Some overseas students have expressed a wish to wear ao dai ngu than to cultural exchange events where students often wear their countries’ traditional garb.

Today, the ao dai is truly a form of heritage without a provenance. To recognize it as a common legacy, historical clothing must be systematically studied and its origins carefully traced. Recently, the club was fortunate to receive the support of Dr. Phan Thanh Hai, Director of the Department of Culture and Sports for Thua Thien – Hue Province. Staff in Dr. Hai’s department have begun to wear ao dai ngu than on meeting, culture events. Garnering favorable reactions. This is appropriate for the ancient capital of Hue, a tourist city with cultural heritage sites recognized by UNESCO.