For centuries the land we know as Vietnam has been shaped by conflict. Whether it was ancient battles that pitted sword against sword and fist against fist or more recent wars fought with guns and guerilla tactics, all of these experiences have culminated to develop the martial spirit that has become such a huge part of the Vietnamese national identity.
In modern-day Vietnam, there are hundreds if not thousands of different styles of martial arts. While there is an ever growing number of modern combat-sports practitioners, traditional martial arts (i.e. those that do not utilize modern military weaponry) still retain a large following. They are not just popular as practices for self-defense and combat training, but also for their historical and cultural relevance as well as physical and mental benefits.
Mai Ngoc Phu, head coach of Star Kickboxing and Fitness, mainly teaches kickboxing these days, but he cut his teeth learning Vietnamese martial arts and believes the way they are perceived is changing.
“I have practiced various martial arts like Nhat Nam, Wing Chun, Karate and Muay Thai since I was a teenager. In the Vietnamese military, my training took many parts of different Kung Fu styles to create the military’s own martial art. We were trained to be able to kill if that is what it came to, but mostly martial arts are about defending and restraining the enemy,” Phu told Chào.
“As Vietnam is changing so is the martial arts scene and it has become very commercial and used as a means for fitness training and sports that are more commonly known in ‘modern’ martial arts such as kickboxing, MMA and even Muay Thai which are very new to Vietnam and growing popularity in Hanoi especially.”
Though, much as everywhere else, Vietnamese martial arts are evolving, the underlying principles remain much the same. Here we are going to look at three different styles, one each from the North, Central and Southern Regions of Vietnam:
- Northern Vietnam – Vovinam / Viêt Võ đao
The largest and most easily recognizable style of Vietnamese martial arts is Vovinam or Viêt Võ Đao. With an estimated one-and-a-half million practitioners across five continents, Vovinam is one of Vietnam’s national sports and is one of 36 sports in competition at the the Southeast Asian Games.
Vovinam was officially formed in Hanoi, in 1938 by the late Grand Master Nguyen Loc, although the headquarters are now based in Ho Chi Minh City.
Vovinam is a diverse and dynamic martial art that fuses traditional and modern styles. As Master Nguyen Hung, vice president of the Vovinam-Viet Vo Dao Federation says: “With its wide variety of techniques, Vovinam is the complete martial art.”
Vovinam is well known for its dynamic high and low attacks, such as the “flying scissor” takedowns—in which practitioners leap up and wrap their legs around an opponent’s neck using momentum to send them flying. This technique is said to have originated in the 13th century as an attack designed to take charging Mongol cavalry from horseback.
Vovinam also features grappling and throws developed from systems such as Judo and Vietnamese Folk Wrestling; weapons such as swords and staffs and a system of competitive fighting that uses kickboxing-style rules, but also awards points for throws and takedowns.
Vovinam is extremely popular among students and some of the biggest clubs can be found on university campuses such as the Foreign Trade University in Cau Giay District, Hanoi.
- Central Vietnam – Võ Bình Định
The central region of Vietnam is arguably the most important in the development of what we now know as the Vietnamese martial arts. Styles stemming from the region are collectively referred to as Võ Bình Định, all of which have roots in the former Champa territory. Binh Dinh is commonly thought of as being the “Shaolin” of Vietnam and has long been associated with martial arts.
From the 10th century onward, the Viet Empire in the north of the country expanded south. In doing so, the Viet people brought with them the already thousand-year-old practices of the sword and spear, as well as concepts such as traditional wrestling and unarmed battlefield combat. This cross cohabitation between the Viet, Cham and other martial cultures peaked with the Nguyen progression southwards in the 17th century.
The Tay Son Rebellion, which emerged from Binh Dinh Province during the late 18th century, is seen as a key development in Vietnamese martial arts. Nguyen Hue (Aka Quang Trung), the first emperor of modern Vietnam, his two warrior brothers and their teachers, are widely credited with the development and promotion of modern Võ Bình Đinh.
Key features of Võ Bình Định are external (hard) and internal (soft) training practices similar to Qigong or Tai Chi; competitive fighting and sparring and forms (kata) that can be practiced with weapons or empty handed. Grandmaster Truong Van Vinh says that “speed, strength and accuracy [are] the key features of Binh Dinh martial arts.”
Vietnam’s Traditional Martial Arts Association headquarters are located at 36 Tran Phu Street, Ba Dinh District and oversee more than 50 clubs in Hanoi.
- Southern Vietnam – Seven Mountains Martial Arts (Võ Miền Bảy Núi)
The seven mountains region is close to the Cambodian border in An Giang Province and is well known for its sects of Buddhist and Daoist warrior monks who have led numerous uprisings against the French and other invaders.
The martial arts from this region are heavily influenced by spiritual practices often featuring Yoga-like exercises and meditation alongside physical combat, which Master Thich Quang Huyen says “evolved not only in response to the human battlefield, but also to combat the invisible powers of the unknown and supernatural.”
The Seven Mountains martial arts include a number of animal styles, such as the Tiger, Crane, Hawk, Snake, Monkey, Phoenix and Dragon. They also incorporate aspects of Southeast Asian and Khmer martial arts (e.g. Muay Thai/Muay Boran) such as close-range elbows, knees and head-butts alongside wide and low stances and high, long-range kicks reminiscent of Shaolin Kung Fu.
Although the Seven Mountains martial arts are well known in southern Vietnam, it should be noted that these systems, for the most part, have not gone through the same process of modernization as other systems have and there are few sporting or competitive adaptations, which adds to the practical nature of the style.
Augustus John Roe is the author of “The Martial Arts of Vietnam – An overview of history and styles,” which is out in September 2020.