An introduction to Martial Arts of Viet Nam

Since the early days of Viet Nam’s history, the Vietnamese have always had to fight against invasions, especially from the armies of various Chinese dynasties. Historians of Vietnamese Martial Arts usually trace the roots to Vietnam’s origin (first settlement on this territory date back to 2879 B.C.), during Hung Vuong dynasty. A more realistic date seems to be about the X – XI centuries A.D.

At this time a state was founded in the area of today’s northern Vietnam. Its name changed – Nam Viet, Dai Co Viet, or simply Dai Viet (Great Viet). Dai Viet’s state grew and got stronger during continuous wars against mountain tribes, Khmers, Chams (their state, in the South of today’s Vietnam, was finally conquered at 1471), and many wars with China.

The threat of neighbouring Middle Empire constantly forced Dai Viet to prepare its troops. Subsequent historical circumstances facilitated further development of martial arts among soldiers and generals as well as among common people. In 938, Ngo Quyen achieved victory over the Southern Han invaders on the Bach Dang River. Viet Nam regained its independence after over a thousand years under Chinese domination. A series of patriotic struggles against foreign invaders followed: against the Song (981 and 1077), the Mongols (1258, 1285 and 1288), the Ming (from 1418 to 1428), and the Qing (1789).

Since the XI century there was an academy (or university) of martial arts in the capital, Thang Long city (today’s Hanoi). This academy prepared master teachers, who had a diploma of “doctor of military science”. Every candidate had to pass 11 exams, then he studied for 3 – 5 years until passing the graduate exam. This time also is known for its variety of competitions, and for the creation of numerous treatises on martial arts. The most widely known treatise is “Linh Nam Vo Kinh” (“On Vietnamese Martial Art”) written in the XVI century.

Many martial arts were created during XVI – XVIII centuries, when Vietnam was separated in several states. It was a good condition for the developing of martial arts. Many martial arts surfaced during the Tay Son Rebellion (1771 – 1788), the first serious attempt for unifying the country. The rebel’s base was in Binh Dinh Province, which is still a birth place of many martial arts.

The country was finally united at the beginning of XIX century. During the period of 1858 – 1884 Vietnam was conquered by France and became its colony. During the colonisation, martial arts had to be kept underground and were transferred in family schools only, from father to son. Studying was kept secret, students assured to never use their martial art without serious reason and to not divulge its secrets.

The revival of the tradition in Vietnamese martial arts is connected with Master Nguyen Loc (1912 – 1960). He was born in Son Tay (near Hanoi). In 1938, he founded the first club of Vo Thuat for all interested people (including foreigners). He named his school Vovinam Viet Vo Dao.

In 1939, a first public demonstration of Vovinam Viet Vo Dao took place in Hanoi and subsequently Viet Vo Dao clubs aroused in all regions of northern and central Vietnam. After the death of Nguyen Loc, his successor – Master Le Sang – organized a meeting of masters in Saigon for fostering the plan of spreading Vietnamese martial arts worldwide. In 1973 the French Viet Vo Dao Federation was established, evolved in the International Viet Vo Dao Federation and then in the Vietnamese Martial Arts World Federation (president : Master Phan Hoang).

In Vietnam itself many people practice Vo Co Truyen, Vovinam – Viet Vo dao, Thieu Lam Viet Nam, Kim Ke, Phakwondo – Hóa Quyền Đạo, Hong Gia Viet Nam Nam Huynh Dao, Vo Binh Dinh, Tay Son, Lam Son, Nhat Nam.

Also there are various Sino – Vietnamese styles, styles that are only partially Vietnamese. For example, Thieu Lam or Bach My Phai that were popular among Chinese who lived in Vietnam. Other styles include My Hoa Quyen (Meihuaquan).

Along with martial arts philosophies and health maintenance techniques, Vovinam – Viet Vo Dao provides a system of martial arts techniques that encompass various forms of self-defence and combat based on the principle of Yin-Yang development. Vovinam adapts the techniques of traditional Vietnamese martial arts and other styles of martial arts worldwide, and updates itself based on psychological and physiological discoveries as they become available. Hence, Vovinam techniques are rich and varied, appropriate for people of all physical statures and ages.

Tinh Vo Dao means “the purity of martial arts”. The Founder of the style is Master Ho Hoa Hue (born in 1944).  Her house is one of the best “vo duong” in Saigon.

Kim Ke means “golden cock”. Kim Ke fighters prefer to attack from the side. Special features are strikes, similar to strikes by the cock’s talons, two-legs jumping kick to the head or torso. Teeth also are used very often.

Vo Binh Dinh is a style that originated in Binh Dinh Province. It is based on the assumption that the opponent is non-Vietnamese and therefore likely taller and heavier. Hence a Vo Binh Dinh fighter constantly moves, changes positions, changes the directions of movement, uses counter-strikes to attacking arm or leg.

Since the late nineteenth century, boxing and schools of martial arts have also entered Viet Nam from other Asian countries. These include judo, aikido and karate (Japan), wushu shaolin, and wudang (China), Tae Kwon do (Korea) and Pencak Silat (Indonesia). Vietnamese have accepted these schools, which have transformed, enriched, and enlivened indigenous martial arts.

Traditional martial arts are not only sports but also part of the nation’s culture, embracing a heritage accumulated across many generations.

Hien Bui – Research and translation (2011)