Vovinam: Power with Purpose

Tess Somerville checks out the moves of Vietnam’s proprietary martial art, and the inner strength that fuels them. Photos by Kyle Phanroy


The most common crimes in Vietnam, namely purse-snatching and motorbike theft, may seem somewhat tame in comparison to the kind of violence that takes place in other major cities around the world. Nonetheless, the crime rate is on the rise and becoming increasingly brutal in nature. Last November, Ho Chi Minh City residents were staggered by an incident on the Phu My Bridge, where a woman’s arm was nearly chopped off by machete-wielding thieves attempting to steal her scooter.

Although the problems surrounding the cause and prevention of crime in the city are manifold, many find some comfort in martial arts as a means of self-defense. Master Sen of To Duong Vovinam (31 Su Van Hanh, Q10) explains that their demographic, primarily children and young adults, has expanded recently to include those looking to protect themselves on the streets. While numerous styles of martial arts are practised in Vietnam, for example Japanese Aikido and Korean Taekwondo, homegrown Vovinam has been growing in popularity in the last couple decades, not only because of the physical prowess it necessitates, but also for the strength of character it promotes.

The History

Vovinam was founded in 1938 by Grand Master Nguyen Loc. Loc drew from various forms of Chinese Kung Fu, fusing them with Japanese, Korean and traditional Vietnamese techniques to create a practice that would physically and spiritually empower Vietnamese people in their struggle against French colonisation.

Though it has since been stripped of its radical undertones, it remains a source of national pride. Vovinam studios have popped up all over the Vietnamese diaspora, beginning with the opening of a studio in Houston, Texas in 1976. Recent successes in the Southeast Asia Games competition have enhanced the art’s reputation throughout the region.

Master Sen agrees. “When Vietnamese go overseas to compete in the Southeast Asia Games,” he says, “it creates a really good image of Vietnam.”


The Moves

Each move falls into one of three categories. The first category involves rechanneling the momentum of an attacker in order to deflect the attack. The second involves finding an opponent’s weakness and attacking with force. The third involves getting free from any sort of hold or lock.

Master Sen explains that unlike other martial art forms, which focus just on legs and arms, Vovinam utilises the whole body, making it excellent for physical fitness. Moves vary from simple kicks to running up and back-flipping off an opponent’s chest in order to disorient them. In one move, fighters run, jump and fly through the air to entrap their opponents’ heads between the legs and pin them to the ground.


The Philosophy

The central message behind Vovinam denounces unprovoked aggression and encourages fighting in the name of something positive. Based on a Yin-Yang style theory of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, it advocates a healthy balance between the two, in daily life as well as in combat. Part of the training is learning when to adjust levels of hard (courage, tenacity, assertiveness) and soft (fairness, modesty, tolerance) to adapt to different situations. According to Master Sen, Vovinam practice is especially important for young people, as it gives them “better direction, and a sense of how to work with others”.

14-year-old Tan, who will be leaving his family soon to live in the US, feels that Vovinam is helping him prepare for adulthood. “I feel more confident now when I go outside,” he says. “I won’t need my parents to protect me any more.”


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