Vietnam‘s socialist government places a strong emphasis on the arts, particularly because it regards them as a prime vehicle for the propagation of socialist values. All of the main artistic forms such as theater, literature, cinema, and painting have state-controlled organizations that artists are encouraged if not forced to join. The government at times severely constrains the direction of artistic development through censorship, control over printing, and the presence of party members in artistic organizations. This has not prevented a minor artistic renaissance, particularly in literature, since the late 1980s. Some artists find ways to insert critical messages into their work. Many artists struggle financially because of the recent dramatic reductions in government subsidies for the arts, the absence of adequate protection for copyrights, and the fickle tastes of a public that sometimes prefers imported films, music, and literature. Artists, especially painters, who can produce for expatriates or the tourist market, have the greatest freedom to pursue their craft.
Vietnam has a vibrant literary tradition dating back many centuries. Elite mandarins and scholars in the premodern period composed sophisticated poetry. Many poems from earlier eras such as Nguyen Du’s The Tale of Kieu or Nguyen Dinh Chieu Luc Van Tien are regarded as literary masterpieces. Along with these traditions, the Vietnamese also maintained a rich oral legacy of songs, poems, and morality tales people still recite today. Prose fiction became popular under colonial rule in the first half of the twentieth century. Writers of this period such as those of the “Self-Reliance Literature Group” ( Tu Luc Van Doan ) developed the role of author as social critic. The socialist authorities kept literature under tight control for several decades to ensure that it was in accord with the officially prescribed “socialist realist” canon that described the virtues of the working class and the revolution. Since the late 1980s, Vietnam has experienced a literary revitalization with the publication of numerous works that present war, and revolution, and their consequences in a critical light. The work of several such authors, including Bao Ninh, Duong Thu Huong, and Nguyen Huy Thiep has attracted an international audience.
A number of indigenous graphic art traditions remain popular. These include lacquerware, ink block prints, and ceramics, all of which employ distinctive themes developed by Vietnamese artists. Historically, specialist families or villages have produced these items for local sale, though some objects such as ceramics were sold throughout the country and abroad. Painting has become more popular in urban areas since the colonial period. All of these forms are displayed in museums and, with the exception of paintings, are sold in local markets as well as galleries or shops in major cities.
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The most popular performance arts in Vietnam have historically been a variety of musical theater traditions, all of which continue to be performed by government-organized troupes. The main forms included the courtly tradition of classical opera ( hat tuong ); reform theater ( hat cai luong ); an innovative tradition that emerged in the Mekong Delta in the early twentieth century; and hat cheo, a rural folk tradition. The former tradition has been in decline for several decades. Reform theater is popular in the south, and hat cheo in the north. Most performances take place in theaters usually in urban areas. Troupes struggle financially and perform less frequently than before the revolution. The French introduced Western drama to Vietnam, but its popularity has never matched musical theater. Musical performances, either of traditional musical forms or contemporary popular music, are also popular. Radio and television have become a common way to listen to or watch the whole range of performance arts.