Vietnamese Art: Origins and Influences

Vietnamese art rshutterstock_38331889uns the gamut from ancient wood sculptures to modern oil paintings. This proud nation in Southeast Asia has a long and storied history that is filled with cultural achievements.


Vietnam is a populous country in Southeast Asia. It is the easternmost country in the Indochina Peninsula. Vietnam is bordered by China to the north, the South China Sea to the east, Cambodia to the southwest, and Laos in the northwest. Its capitol city is Hanoi, in the north. Vietnamese is the official language.

Its land area is about the size of Germany. Home to nearly 90 million people, Vietnam has a population that is the 13th largest in the world. The name Vietnam translates to “Southern Viet” and was first used in 1802. Following independence from French colonial authority, the name was readopted in 1945. “Viet” is the collective name for the people of the land.

At its narrowest point – in the centrally located Quang Binh province – Vietnam is barely 30 miles wide. In the north, the territory expands to some 370 miles wide. The territory of Vietnam is largely hilly and forested. Mountains make up 40% of the terrain and level ground is just 20%. Lush tropical forests cover 42% of the country.

Vietnam has a long history, dating back to the Stone Age. The region was dominated by the Chinese for nearly a millennium, and then later, after a long period of independence, underwent nearly a century of French colonial rule.

The Bronze Age

The Dong Son culture flourished in the Red River Valley of northern Vietnam as long ago as 1000 BCE. These people had mastered rice cultivation and bronze casting. They used their skills to create bronze drums, which were both useful and beautiful. Nearly 200 of these drums remain in collections around the world. The drums were cast using the lost wax method, where molten metal is poured into an empty mold and then cooled. These drums can stand up to three feet tall and weigh over 200 pounds. One of the larger drums could have used up to seven tons of ore, and up to ten molds to make!

These unique drums were decorated with different geometric patterns, or scenes depicting daily life or nature. They were then traded to places as far away as China, New Guinea, and Indonesia. The use of the drums is uncertain – they may have been used in religious ceremonies, to rally soldiers, or for other reasons. However, their makers’ skill and the drums’ beauty remain apparent. Other bronze objects that have been excavated include jewelry, bowls, jugs, and weapons.

The engravings on the drums depict people wearing what appears to be elaborate clothing. From that, archaeologists have deduced that textile making was another artistic skill of the Dong Son people.

It is also known that the peoples of Vietnam in this era were skilled potters. Ceramics – being more fragile – are harder to find intact during archaeological digs. These items were primarily utilitarian, but also showed elements of aesthetic achievement.

The Chinese Influence

For nearly a millennium – from 100 BCE to 938 CE – the Vietnamese peoples were ruled by dynasties of Chinese leaders during the Giao Chi period. (Giao Chi, or Jiaozhi, was the Chinese name for this new province.) Chinese cultural practices were introduced, from animal husbandry to jewelry making. The Chinese brought their knowledge of ceramics, which influenced the Vietnamese decorative arts. For instance, the city of Hue became known for its delicate ceramics decorated in cobalt blue and white.

The Chinese also brought their religions, like Taoism and Buddhism. These new faiths influenced Vietnamese arts as well. For instance, at funeral sites, Taoist perfume burners have been found in this era rather than the bronze weaponry that is found at earlier sites. Ceramics and bronze items began to be decorated with Chinese motifs, like phoenixes and dragons. The Chinese influence on Vietnamese art – from introducing written language to architecture – is undeniable.

The French Influence

Vietnam was invaded by France in 1859, and finally completely conquered by 1884. The colony was dubbed French Indochina during this era. The French, as the Chinese had before them, imposed their own ways of doing things on the Vietnamese people. For instance, the French imposed the religion of Roman Catholicism on the country. Plantations were developed to grow and export tobacco, indigo, coffee, and tea. But the French also brought Western-style educational systems. They created museums, galleries, and art schools. The French colonialists also introduced Western artistic styles and media to Vietnam. Oil painting, water color painting, and French architectural styles blossomed in Vietnam.

The native Vietnamese artists were thus influenced by some of the finest Western art, like the Impressionist and Expressionist painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They used Western styles to paint native Vietnamese subjects. Painters used oils and impressionist styles to paint the monuments of Hue, or rural rice plantations. These artists also used their new stylistic influences in working with traditional materials such as silk and lacquer.

Traditional Vietnamese Arts

The Chinese and French influences have been reinterpreted by Vietnamese artists using traditional methods. These artists also use these media to express typically Vietnamese motifs.

Lacquer painting is one traditional artistic method that is popular in Vietnam. Lacquer is any clear or colored wood finish that is dried and then polished, leading to a durable outer layer. The finish can be matte or high glossy, depending on the level of polishing. Lacquer painting is dyed lacquer that is then painted onto a hard and smooth surface.

In Vietnam, this technique is called “son mai,” which means “to paint and to rub.” The lacquer used is extracted from the Thitsi tree. The resin is extracted from the tree and is used to make the paints.

The son mai artist paints almost exclusively on wood. The process takes great skill and patience. It can take a month or two to prepare the wooden surface first, as it must be smooth and preserved from warping. It is then painted black.

On top of the black surface, chalk outlines are made and highlighted with a white paint. This layer is then polished. The rest of the colors are layered on, alternating with a coating of clear varnish as the process continues. After the artist has painted the color on, the paint must dry and then be burnished and rubbed – there are multiple layers, so this is a time-consuming process. The hot humid environment of Vietnam helps the chemical elements in the lacquer to evaporate. The level of polishing affects the colors and the final effect. The artist may burnish different parts of the final painting to different levels. Sandpaper and charcoal powder are used to polish the piece to perfection.

Silk painting is another traditional Vietnamese medium. Called tranh lua in Vietnamese, silk painting uses fine sheets of silk rather than canvas or paper. These delicate works use watercolor paints for a subtle effect. In Vietnam, the silk is stretched on a frame, as canvas is, rather than spread across a board as Chinese silk painters do. The artist uses a broad brush to dampen the surface of the silk with water, to slacken the fabric. It is then starched with rice water. Once dry, the silken surface will be stiff and can then absorb the watery paints without blurring. An image is drawn using pen or pencil on a piece of paper, which is placed beneath the silk. The artist then renders the image using that template, essentially tracing the image below. Silk painting is unforgiving and takes skill, since there is no way to cover up or change any paint stroke made.