Vietnam was conveniently situated along one of the main routes of the Southeast Asian maritime trade that flourished from the 16th century onward. Its harbors were frequented by traders from China, Japan, Siam, and from Europe the Dutch, French, and English. The cultural exchange that took place is reflected in their traditional arms, bearing influences from various of these cultures.
Vietnam produced some of the finest mother-of-pearl inlays, seen on for example on the scabbards of ceremonial swords and sabers. Their metalwork was also exquisite, with detailed chasing and chiseling on brass and silver, or inlays with various types of metal. Yet, the antique arms of Vietnam remain relatively under-studied and under-appreciated in the ethnographic arms and armor community, although interest is steadily increasing in recent years.
This article is meant as an introduction to the subject. It will expand over time as I will have more to show and tell.
Enjoy, and tell me what you think!
Exquisite mother-of-pearl inlays on a precious wooden scabbard of a ceremonial saber.
In the background various antique Vietnamese blades, some with floral engravings so typical for Vietnamese work.
A brief history of Vietnam
Vietnam has a very long recorded history, the first official state was founded as early as 2879 BC. In 111 BC, starting with the Chinese Qin dynasty, Vietnam came under Chinese rule for most of the next 1100 years. They regained independence at the start of the Ngô dynasty (939–967), which lead to a long period of independence that lasted almost a thousand years under various dynasties. It was interrupted only briefly by short-lived foreign occupations such as that of the Ming in the early 15th century.
During the 17th century, the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC) and British East India Company (EIC) became active in Vietnam, especially in and around the northern Vietnamese Kingdom of Tonkin. They came to trade primarily in silks, ceramics, ivory, precious woods, and spices and introduced Western arms, Dutch glassware, and Japanese products into the area.
In the 16th century, civil unrest in Japan made many Japanese flee their country on boats. A good portion of them were samurai who had lost their master. China was unwelcoming, their "sea ban" prohibited unregulated maritime trade and labeled any seafaring ship "pirate". As a result, many Japanese sailed on and settled in Southeast Asia instead, including Vietnam. They often worked as sailors, manual laborers, merchants, or mercenaries. Some master-less samurai or ronin got employed by the Dutch VOC and British EIC.
The final Vietnamese dynasty was the Nguyễn dynasty (1802–1945). Early Nguyễn emperor Minh Mang (ruled 1820 – 1841) claimed a Chinese legacy and sinicized his subjects, introducing Chinese clothing and an orthodox Confucianist model of state. He was well known for his opposition to missionaries, and his resistance to French involvement in the country. Eventually, the French did succeed in colonizing the country until 1945, after which it became a republic.
The edged weapons of Vietnam
Here follows a basic typology of Vietnamese edged weapons, which may be updated in the future to include more specimens, as well as different types of weapons of different eras.
1. A guőm truòng.
2. A trường đao.
3. An officer's ceremonial guőm.
4. A utilitarian fighting guőm.
Among the most common of Vietnamese edged weapons is the saber or guőm. The non-ceremonial version comes in various shapes and sizes and their blades often show considerable Chinese or Japanese influence: They feature narrow blades of gently curvature that do not widen like dha the common saber in the rest of mainland Southeast Asia. Vietnamese sabers often come with ridged cross-sections, also like Japanese and some Chinese swords. Others are wedged shaped in cross-section, or with a system of fullers, both reminiscent of Chinese liuyedao. A purely Vietnamese element is that they often have floral engravings, even on the more utilitarian pieces. At the base of the blade is often a metal sleeve that stylistically sits in the middle between a Japanese habaki and Chinese tunkou.
Scabbards are often pointy, reminiscent of those of Ming China. Guards are round or rectangular, often inspired by Japanese examples and usually incorporate an oval washer, like the Japanese seppa. Many Vietnamese guards include even the two holes often found on Japanese guards that are meant to accommodate the handles of the kogai and kogatana, a hairpin and a knife typically carried in the scabbard of the Japanese sword. The holes are reproduced as a purely stylistic element on Vietnamese saber guards, because the Vietnamese never carry these implements.
A guard, probably of Vietnamese origin, on a rare dha from the border region of north Vietnam, Yunnan and Laos.
Sold through Mandarin Mansion.
A utilitarian guőm of the Nguyen dynasty, of classical shape and with simple iron mounts.
Sold through Mandarin Mansion in 2018.
The engravings so typical for Vietnamese swords. Not all have them, but they are very common.
This particular one also has a date, 1887, engraved in the blade.
The Vietnamese falchion or trường đao (長刀), literally "long sword" reminds strongly of the Chinese dadao and are all too often mistaken for Chinese examples, even by reputable dealers and notable museums. They come in various shapes and sizes. Trường đao are often of pretty decent workmanship for such weapons and compare well to the bulk of mass-produced Chinese dadao in terms of aesthetics, while it is often the Chinese dadao that have a better surface finish on the blades.
A typical Vietnamese trường đao.
Note the exaggerated shape that goes from narrower than Chinese to wider than the Chinese dadao, a typical feature of the Vietnamese trường đao. The end of this example is concave, creating two functional peaks that could be utilized in the fight.
Chinese examples typically have flatter clipped tips, limiting their use only to the cut. But beware, slight concave Chinese examples are encountered, as are flat Vietnamese examples. At first glance, it is usually the more dramatic execution of whatever shape they have that tells the Vietnamese apart from the Chinese ones.
The main differences between Vietnamese trường đao and Chinese dadao:
Vietnamese trường đao (長刀)
Grip wrap: Thin round cord or rattan, dull colors.
Guard: Often small. A round or octagonal plate, sometimes after the Japanese mokko-gata form.
Blade profile: An exaggerated shape, going from narrower at the base to wider at the tip than Chinese dadao. The clipped tip can be concave or flat.
Blade decor: Usually no grooves or shallow grooves. Floral engravings are common and one of the most characteristic elements of Vietnamese work.
Steel: Usually pretty well-made, inserted hard edge, sometimes a number of rectangles can be seen in the steel. Steel surface, however, is often lumpier than on even mass produced dadao, with rough tool marks remaining, indicating they may have been made by smiths who normally make farming tools.
Chinese dàdāo (大刀)
Grip wrap: Often thick, wider cord either round or flat in cross-section. Dull colors to bright red.
Guard: A larger disc guard, cup guard, guard with two quillons, or S-shaped guard.
Blade profile: More moderate widening. Clipped tip is almost always flat, rarely concave.
Blade decor: No grooves, single groove or double groove. Sometimes stamped or chiseled at the forte with unit info, a dragon, and/or auspicious symbols or sayings.
Steel: Workmanship ranging from very good to moderate to downright bad. Inserted hard edge.
The straightsword or the Vietnamese is the kiếm, modeled after the Chinese straightsword, jian resembling the style popular in China under the Ming. Like their Chinese counterparts, they come as single or double weapons in one scabbard. Their blades are usually much narrower than those on Chinese jian, and seem to be primarily focused on the thrust. Actual fighting examples are rare, as most of them were parade regalia carried by officers.
Fittings of such ceremonial swords are often silver, chased and chiseled, with precious hardwood scabbards, often with fine mother of pearl inlay. Handles can be wood, ivory, elephant tooth, marine ivory, jade, or all-metal such as silver or copper, inlaid with metals of contrasting colors. While the overall style often reminds of Chinese Ming swords, the decor is often a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese elements and sometimes purely Vietnamese.
A rare antique Vietnamese straightsword with heavy, fully functional blade.
It has a rare banner-shaped guard and fossilized mastodon tooth handle.
Sold by Mandarin Mansion in 2016. (Click picture for full description.)
Parade swords and sabers
Among the most sought after of antique Vietnamese arms are the ornate kiem (straightswords) and guőm (narrow-bladed sabers) that were carried by officers of the Nguyễn dynasty (1802 - 1945). Most of them have thin, unhardened blades and were strictly for the parade. Sometimes, captured French blades are encountered. They were often carried in hand with the tip pointing up, so of the decor is usually also aligned to be seen in that way. Their appeal is not so much in the quality of the swords, but the workmanship of the hilts and scabbards. The general shape of these often follows pre-Qing Chinese design with pointy scabbard end pieces, while the decor is often with typical Qing Chinese motifs and symbology. It is interesting that along with all their purely Asian elements the hilts of the ceremonial guőm usually feature a European inspired lion head pommel and knuckle-bow.
A typical ceremonial guőm
with hardwood scabbard with chased and chiseled silver mounts and fine mother-of-pearl inlays.
Guard with pierced silver sheet overlay depicting dragons in clouds.
Some of the more elaborate inlays I've come across.
A rare all-metal ceremonial guőm with French captured blade.
Sold through Mandarin Mansion.
Chased and chiseled silver mounts on a copper scabbard body, the body in turn inlaid with various contrasting metals including silver.
The handle inlaid with copper and niello. The latter is more common on Thai weapons than it is on Vietnamese.
The pointy curled up chape reminiscent of Ming Chinese designs.
The cutout flames, in turn, remind of those on the helmets of late Qing ceremonial armors.
An antique Vietnamese ceremonial straightsword, or kiếm.
It has a rare faux tortoiseshell handle, made with layers of lacquer and gold foil.
Scabbard with fine mother-of-pearl inlays and chased silver mounts.
Sold in 2016. (Click picture for full description.)
Two handed sabers
Among some of the more rare edged weapons from Vietnam today are the large two handed sabers, or guőm truòng. The Vietnamese classify them as pole-arms and they feel much like it, with relatively straight, narrow blades of gentle curvature and with long handles of round cross-section. The classical guőm truòng has a bulbous feature right behind the guard.
Two Vietnamese guőm truòng. The top one is from the northern border region with Yunnan and Laos.
The bottom is a classic Vietnamese example, with the bulbous feature at the base of the guard.
This feature is also seen, in a lesser extent, on various Southeast Asian dha.
Handle of the classic guőm truòng with its bulbous feature against the guard.
The following list was compiled by Philip Tom.
Philip based the glossary on various sources and dictionaries he has consulted over the years.
Knife, a general term for single-edged weapons with wide blades, regardless of length. Similar to the Chinese dāo (刀).
A small dagger-like knife.
Doan đao (短刀)
A short, cutlass-like weapon with a single-edged curved blade.
A saber with a narrow, curved blade. The hilt may be guarded by a knucklebow or a simple disc.
Gươm truòng (鎌長)
Large saber with a long handle, usually requiring two hands to wield.
A sword, having a straight, double-edged blade. Similar to the Chinese jiàn (劍).
Song kiếm (雙劍)
A pair of swords with half-hilts, nesting side-by-side in a single scabbard. (Song, meaning “double”, can also be applied to paired đao and guὅm.)
Trường đao (長刀)
A falchion (big broad-bladed sword-like knife), usually with long handle.
A backsword having a straight single-edged blade.
Trident or war-fork.
Spear (held in the hand when fighting, never thrown).
Javelin (designed for throwing).
Angular-bladed broad knife blade on a shaft, of Khmer origin, and related to a peculiar hatchet-like tool used by various peoples in Indochina and Siam.
(Literally, “scythe ”) A glaive, consisting of a falchion-like blade on a staff
Spear with shaft made of flexible wood.
Yem nguyệt đao (偃月刀)
A fauchard, resembling a phang except for having a hooked prong or beak on the back of the blade; analogous to the Chinese yanyuedao and Korean unwoldo (“reclining moon knife”).
Bow (alternate term: cái giàng).
FIREARMS AND ARTILLERY
Súng dại bác
Súng doan mã
Sung hoả mai
Súng khai phúc
Súng khoa son
A heavy musket-like gun whose barrel is supported on a rest or swivel.
Súng mã truõng
Hand-cannon, the earliest type of hand firearm in use.
Súng máy dá
Ammunition for small arms.
A circular shield woven of cane or rattan, much like the Chinese tengpai.
A wooden or metal shield, usually of oblong shape.
MILITARY SYMBOLS AND SIGNALLING
Cờ đuôi nheo
Trumpet-shaped wooden megaphone used to relay orders in the field.
Vietnamese arms are an area that present an interesting mix of styles and native elements, displaying a rich cultural diversity. The better examples exhibit fine metalwork and meticulous skills in inlays of either metal in metal or mother of pearl in wood. High levels of craftsmanship are also displayed in the carving of hilts, often from exquisite materials. With the richness, diversity, and quality of manufacture the arms of Vietnam deserve more attention. This page will be periodically updated with more information and examples of antique Vietnamese arms that pass through our hands.
Nguyen-Long, Kerry: Silvercraft in Vietnam: Four generations. Arts of Asia, vol. 32, nr. 3, page 123. (On a family that used to make ceremonial sabers.)
Pierre Huard; Maurice Durand: Viet Nam Civilization and Culture (English version of "Connaissance Du Vietnam". Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, 1998.
Engelmann, Francis: L'Indochine à la Belle Epoque: Un rêve d'aventure 1870-1914. Paris, ASA éditions, 2001.