For most US travelers, a trip to Vietnam is a trip of a lifetime. Not only is the journey long, but the destination is exotic, and a far stretch from the culture of the ‘Western World.’ Before you go, it’s’ a good idea to understand Vietnam street culture so you can get the full scope of your adventure.
After all, you’re traveling to explore the cultures of the world! Here we’ll discuss Vietnam street culture and its modern landscape.
Incredible places are not often defined solely by their location. There are places that are largely the sum of their parts, as with purpose-built chalet towns in the Alps or tourist-trap seaside resorts on the Costa del Sol – but outside of these ‘all-inclusive’ destination resorts, places are so much more than the sum of their parts.
A heady combination of history, geography, art, architecture, and above all culture is what makes somewhere special, and this couldn’t be truer of Vietnam street culture.
Vietnam has a long and storied history, which, alongside its tropical forests and hazy sunsets, make it a tourist destination all of its own. But in recent years, Vietnam street culture or countercultural movements have brought cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City into an exciting present.
Let’s dive into Vietnam street culture and what has influenced it to evolve to the present day.
The Influences Behind Vietnam Street Culture
Vietnam has had a troubled and often turbulent past. The country gained independence from China in the 10th century after over 1,000 years of rule and began to expand southwards, incorporating the Champa and Khmer culture which resided in what is now southern Vietnam and Cambodia.
This Chinese influence remained despite the emergence of an independent Vietnamese state and still forms many of the foundations of the culture today. But that wasn’t the last colonization Vietnam would endure.
In the late 1800s, the French colonized Vietnam and the surrounding region, creating French Indochina. This brought a wave of Catholicism, Western culture, and a whole range of other influences to Vietnam street culture.
There are still French quarters in Hanoi, which are fascinating to see and explore.
The French lost control of Vietnam during WWII to the Japanese and, in the decades after, the country was divided by communist and Western ideologies. This north-south divide led to war and further suffering for the Vietnamese people, all of which was largely staged at the hands of the world’s great superpowers.
Since 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has unified the country, combining all the influences and scars left from centuries of colonization, war, and struggle.
All this history may not seem relatable to today’s Vietnam street culture, but there are plenty of links to be drawn. The underlying roots of traditional Vietnamese culture have remained through all that turbulence and this is evidenced in many cultural outlets.
There’s certainly a strong sense of nationalism about today’s Vietnam – understandably, given the plight of its people.
But there’s also a brilliant blend of all the influences that have shaped the country, whether it’s the baguette-like bread used in Bánh mì or the language and phonetic differences between north and south. Vietnam street culture is a myriad of experiences.
Let’s look at a few of the things that are most prevalent in Vietnam street culture.
Vietnam Street Art
Part of the Vietnam street culture is its street art. Hanoi has embraced the rapid growth of modern cultural movement within its walls, and indeed across them. This has been typified by the recent unveiling of street art on Phung Hung Street in Hoan Kiem.
This is Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and its history has been rendered directly onto the wall that bounds the street.
Stone arches act as frames for depictions of Hanoi’s past, with different street artists taking different forms and inspirations to create an eclectic tableau that marries the past with the present. The iconic nature of these artworks has already been enshrined, with Vietnam tours diverting to take this new cultural nexus in.
Street art in Vietnam is still relatively young, only appearing in the country’s largest cities, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, since the 2000s. There’s a distinct American style that has blossomed in popularity with many youths looking west for inspiration from hip-hop and rock culture.
Although these values have been largely shunned by the traditional mainstream, works have taken off online and underground, helping to drive a street art scene that has little in the way of support and dedicated spaces.
There’s a widespread appreciation for street art among the majority of Vietnamese people it seems, with many murals and depictions transforming run-down, barren neighborhoods and villages. Although street art is considered mostly apolitical, some works have been used to draw attention to critical issues such as climate change and animal trafficking.
For example, colorful rhinos sprung up around Ho Chi Minh in a 2017 campaign designed to raise awareness about endangered species. In many ways, street art has flourished to bring many positive impacts to the people and culture of Vietnam.
Another important aspect of the Vietnam street culture is its music. Vietnam’s reputation politically is of a more conservative nature, which makes the cropping-up of modern cultural monuments and scenes all the starker and all the more important.
From Berlin to Los Angeles, it is a truth universally known that art and music go hand in hand – and where there’s street painting, there is music.
Vietnam’s fruiting counterculture spreads from the relatively sanitized artworks of Hanoi’s past to the seething underbelly of Saigon’s DIY music scene, with underground spaces hosting live gigs and underground exhibitions in direct contrast to the country’s mainstream musical leanings.
These spaces are exhilarating, radical, and distinctly illegal – the secret ingredient that makes such cultural excursions all the more vital for the city of Hanoi and for visitors alike.
The music scene in Vietnam is ethnically and culturally diverse, however. Mainstream music from domestic talent and abroad has huge a following, many of which have gained in popularity thanks to online platforms such as TikTok and Spotify.
It’s not all drifting away from traditional Vietnamese culture though; young artists are having success appealing to a broader audience by infusing contemporary methods and themes into modern compositions. This works well in line with proud Vietnamese values and traditions while keeping younger generations engaged with fresh styles.
The thing about culture is that it never stands still. Artworks and creative expressions are only ever snapshots of a single moment in time and are often left behind by the forms and frameworks that allowed them to exist in the first place. Hanoi’s Old Quarter is gentrifying, slowly but surely – and the future of DIY venues is very much anyone’s guess.
Much of the culture that is coming to define this new Vietnam has a fascinating mix of deep-seated roots, diverse influences, and modern perspectives. All art is political in some way, and all good art is interrogative; it just happens to be thrilling in the process.
The future of Vietnam’s street culture is highly promising – and it is incontrovertible that DIY scenes will continue to thrive as will the Vietnam street culture.
Vietnam is one of the great destinations to experience at some point in your life. If you’re fortunate enough to visit, exploring north to south or the other way around gives you a captivating taste of life as it was through the centuries, under various rulers and in the modern day.
The country has a few surprises up its sleeve, no matter how well-traveled or researched you are.
While you’re passing through, be sure to pay close attention to the Vietnam street culture and all its trappings. Street art is widespread and you’ll see many without a clear purpose, but some with important messages to share. Music is often all around, depending on where you go, but you’ll certainly hear a wide variety of performances and styles. And you’ve surely got to try the street food – it would be a crime not to.