10 more days to visit Vietnam: From Myth to Modernity

I’m back in Singapore for the weekend and one of the items on my to-do list was to visit the Vietnam: From Myth to Modernity exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum. When this exhibition first opened, I had only just started my stint up north, so I was glad to finally have been able to catch this exhibition before it closed at the end of this month. If you’ve been a loyal reader of this blog, you would have realised that by far, Vietnam is the most prolific country in terms of archaeological news that gets published here – this is in part because Vietnam’s archaeological heritage is quite varied and multi-layered. I haven’t visited Vietnam myself, and I reckon it’d take me at least three or four trips to see everything that I want to see. In this respect, this exhibition did quite a good job in revealing the breadth of Vietnam’s history from prehistory to modernity through the country’s artifacts. Read on to discover Vietnam’s archaeological heritage.



It’s indeed rare to see Vietnamese artifacts outside of Vietnam, for a good reason. It wasn’t until 2002 that legislation was enacted to allow antiquities to leave the country. From Myth to Modernity is the first exhibition of Vietnamese artifacts in an ASEAN country. The exhibition opens to a gallery of Vietnamese prehistory. This was my first time seeing examples of Phung Nguyen and Go Mun culture in real life:

Stone blades from the Phung Nguyen and Go Mun culture
Stone blades from the Phung Nguyen and Go Mun cultures

The blades, made from stone and jade (nephrite), go as far back as 2,500 BCE. Some of the blades have a remarkable polished sheen to them and a lack of use-wear – so they were probably more ceremonial than functional. Of course, no decent account of Vietnamese prehistory would be complete without featuring some Dong Son style drums:

Dong Son Drums, 15th-17th century
Dong Son Drums, 15th-17th century

These drums are actually quite late, belonging to the 15th – 17th century but they attest to the long lifespan of the bronze casting technology in Vietnam, enduring even to today. You’ll find other examples of the drum in the exhibition, dating to the 6th century BCE and even a fragment of one from Pahang dated to the 2nd century BCE. The Dong Son drums have an enduring quality about them, and they can be found just about all over ancient Southeast Asia and were possibly some sort of prestige item used in inter-regional exchanges. Their ubiquity might also explain why some scholars have tried to tie the motifs found on the drums with rock paintings found in East Timor, Malaysia and Thailand.

This 6th century BCE ladle’s handle has a distinctive shape similar to the prows of boats found on some Dong Son drums.

Gourd-shaped ladle, Dong Son period
Gourd-shaped ladle, Dong Son period

The ancient Vietnamese skill in bronze working is further seen through this vessel, which is shaped in the rare form of an elephant. This piece is dated to between the 2nd centuries BCE and CE. During this period, elephants became associated with war.

Bronze elephant-shaped receptacle
Bronze elephant-shaped receptacle

Overlapping the Dong Son period in the north was the Sa Huynh culture in the south. The Sa Huynh culture is associated with the later Chams and produced these distinctive set of earrings. These lingling-o have been found along the coast of Vietnam, but more intriguingly across the sea in Philippines and Taiwan. What’s even more intriguing is that the majority of the jade used was quarried in Taiwan, and their distribution hints at a large network of exchange that crisscrossed the South China Sea.

Lingling-o and animal-headed earrings
Lingling-o and animal-headed earrings

Besides the exhibits from Vietnam’s prehistory, we also find artifacts from the early polities: Funan (1st – 7th century CE) and Champa (2nd – 17th century CE). These polities were located in the central and southern regions and played an important role in the maritime trade between China and India, but the influence from India is more easily seen from the material culture:

Rock crystal beads found near Oc Eo
Rock crystal beads found near Oc Eo
Male dancing figure from Tra Kieu
Male dancing figure from Tra Kieu
Garuda from the Champa period
Garuda from the Champa period

The northern region of Vietnam was a vassal state of China for much of the first millennium, and it wasn’t until the foundation of the Ly Dynasty in 1009 that we see the beginnings of a cohesive Vietnam. The capital of the Ly kingdom was Thang Long, or the Ascending Dragon – where Hanoi is today. This banister is in fact from the 1,000-year-old citadel at Thang Long.

Banister from the Thang Long Citadel
Banister from the Thang Long Citadel
Ly Dynasty stone jar depicting warriors
Ly Dynasty stone jar depicting warriors

From this point on, the exhibition follows the history of Vietnam through its main dynasties: the Ly dynasty (100-1225) was followed by the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400), which was followed by the Le Dynasty (1428-1788) and the last major dynasty, the Nguyen (1802-1945). I’ll not elaborate here, but you can get a sense of the ceramics, clothes and printing technology that was produced throughout the course of these periods.

Artifacts from the Nguyen Dynasty
Artifacts from the Nguyen Dynasty

Vietnam: From Myth to Modernity is on its final days and the exhibition will end on September 30 – so if you haven’t got a chance, or would like to get reacquainted with Vietnam’s long and illustrious history, make your way down to the Asian Civilisations Museum fast!


For more about the archaeology of Vietnam, read:
Archeology of Viet-Nam (Collection “Cher ami, ne te degonfle pas”)
My So’n Relics
Vietnamese art and archaeology
Vietnamese art and archaeology: A selected bibliography
The Art of Champa (Temporis)
Hindu-Buddhist Art Of Vietnam: Treasures From Champa
The Champa Kingdom; The History of an Extinct Vietnamese Culture

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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