Martial Arts School:
Vovinam Việt Võ Ðạo
On July 3, 2005, nearly 200 Vovinam martial arts students and masters gathered at Yerba Buena High School in San Jose, California for the Sixth Annual Vovinam Demonstration and Competition Conference. Since 1999, these conferences had been held in places like San Jose, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, Canada.
At first look, the Vovinam gathering looked like a demonstration event put together by any other major martial arts schools in the U.S. However, keen observers would notice some key differences. The participating students didn't just come from California, but from faraway places like France, Germany, Salem ( Oregon) and Orlando ( Florida), reflecting the Vietnam diasporas after 1975. While most students are Vietnamese, there are some Hispanics and French as well, reflecting the growth and adoption of the Vietnamese martial arts in many countries. The opening ceremony, with the salutation to the US and Vietnam national anthems, and moment of silence for Vietnamese countrymen and heroes, reflects Vovinam's long tradition of patriotism and service to the country since its founding.
Vovinam’s Intertwining History with Vietnam
Vovinam (an abbreviation of Võ Việt Nam - or Vietnamese Martial Arts) is a Vietnamese martial arts discipline founded by Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc in 1938. Born in 1912 in Sơn Tây province, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc grew up during a time when revolutionary fervor to free Vietnam from the French colonization was at a high pitch. On one hand, many Vietnamese patriots promoted violent revolutions to overthrow the colonialists. On the other, the French colonialists tried to quell this patriotic fervor by brutally cracking down on the revolutionaries and "anesthetizing” Vietnamese youths with empty promises of freedom and luxury. Being intensely patriotic, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc didn’t buy the French propaganda. At the same time, he thought the time was not yet right for revolution. Instead, he set out on his own path of finding a way for Vietnamese youths to build their own indomitable spirit, strong bodies, the ability to defend themselves, and a sense of patriotism and service to their country.
With this ambitious goal, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc studied many different martial arts around the world as well as philosophy and literature. In his early twenties, he became an expert and created the Vovinam distinctive martial arts style, using the traditional Vietnamese wrestling and martial arts as the foundation and adding complementary techniques from other martial arts. In 1938, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc secretly began to teach Vovinam to a group of close friends.
In naming his martial arts style “Vovinam”, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc had a patriotic intention of tying the style to the country's honor. He realized early on that given the small physical stature of most Vietnamese, teaching students a particular martial arts style alone is not enough. Other than physical skills and strength, two important factors that determine victory in a fight are the determination to uphold one’s honor and mental toughness. By naming the style Vovinam, the martial arts of Vietnam, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc wanted to instill in his students a strong sense of patriotism and the belief that any time they fight, it is to uphold the honor of or to protect the country. It is this sense of pride and honor that gives the Vovinam martial artists the edge they need as they enter battle (As a result of this strong belief in country and honor, Vovinam martial arts students are strictly forbidden from using their skills to enter prize fighting for as long as they remain students of the school.)
In 1939, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc and his students performed the first demonstration of Vovinam to the public at the Hanoi Opera House with great success. In early 1940, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc was invited to open the first public Vovinam class at the Ecole Normal University in Hanoi. Many other Vovinam classes taught by Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc and his disciples were started soon after.
Since then, Vovinam students led and participated in many demonstrations against the French and its rule, including the demonstration in the University of Hanoi and the Ministry of Agriculture. Consequently, the French colonial government closed all the Vovinam classes and prohibited Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc from teaching Vovinam. Despite the prohibition, he still secretly taught many loyal disciples at home, and continued to lead many public demonstrations.
When the first Indochina War (1945-1954) broke out, many Vovinam students joined the Viet Minh guerrillas to fight the French colonialists. Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc and his disciples traveled to many provinces to train young men and soldiers in martial arts, preparing them for the long fight for independence. During this time, many Vovinam students became commanders or soldiers in the Vietminh Army and many lost their lives in the war. Also, two organizations were formed by Vovinam masters to train future fighters for the country, the Ðoàn Võ Sĩ Cảm Tử (The Fearless Fighters) and the Ðoàn Anh Hùng Ngày Mai (The Tomorrow Heroes). Other classes to train the general public on how to use machetes in guerrillas fighting were also established and run by Vovinam students.
The popular appeal of Vovinam in the general population reached a peak during this time, as represented in the slogan "không học Vovinam không phải là người yêu nước" (If you don't study Vovinam, you are not a patriot). However, both Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc and current Grandmaster Lê Sáng didn’t endorse this extreme view. Throughout its history, Vovinam has strived to be a gift and of service to mankind, including people outside of Vietnam’s borders. When he opened the school, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc's goal was simply to develop capable fighters with patriotism and an honorable code of the warrior. Vovinam was not intended to be a political or social organization. Nevertheless, given the national fight for independence of the time, the Vovinam masters readily cooperated with other patriots to resist the French. This cooperation, however, simply meant that Vovinam students were doing their patriotic duty, not that they supported any specific political parties.
In 1948, when the Communist Party openly took over the Vietminh resistance movement after it crushed other nationalist factions, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc immediately halted all his involvements with the Vietminh and urged his disciples to leave as well. Subsequently, the Vietminh ordered for his arrest. In this dangerous situation of being wanted by both the Vietminh and the French, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc took some of the disciples back to his home town, Hữu Bàng village. Here, he helped to organize the young men into militias and trained the new militias in hand to hand combat. He also assigned instructors to the Trần Quốc Tuấn Military Academy. Continuing his journey later, he also trained the Militia Officers in the villages of Chuế Lưu, Ấm Thương, Thanh Hương, Ðan Hà, and Ðan Phú along the way.
As Vietnam was divided in two by the Geneva Convention in July, 1954, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc and many disciples joined nearly 1 million North Vietnamese to migrate to South Vietnam. In Saigon, he opened a new martial art class in Thủ Khoa Huân Street while his disciples trained South Vietnamese soldiers in Saigon and Thủ Ðức.
In April 1960, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc passed away in Saigon after being ill for sometimes. Before his death, Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc passed on the mantel of running Vovinam to Grandmaster Lê Sáng, who had been with him since 1938.
On 11-11-1960, since Judo Master Phạm Lợi participated in the coup d’etat led by General Nguyễn Chánh Thi, the Ngô administration prohibited many martial art disciplines, including Vovinam from functioning. All training centers were banned. All martial masters either dispersed or were drafted into the army. The Vovinam schools were shut down at this time though Vovinam masters secretly continued to train many disciples.
After the 1963 coup when President Ngô Ðình Diệm was assassinated, the ban on the martial arts was lifted. Grandmaster Lê Sáng returned to Saigon and reopened Vovinam schools. In 1964, after a meeting of leading Vovinam Masters, the phrase “Việt Võ Ðạo” (The code of honor of Vietnamese Martial Arts) is added to “Vovinam”. Henceforth, Vovinam would be known as “Vovinam Việt Võ Ðạo”.
For more than 20 years, Grandmaster Lê Sáng immersed himself in the work of reinforcing, building, and developing the discipline of Vovinam. Although living in constrained circumstances, he not only directed the Vovinam movement but also spent his days training students for hours on end. At night, he hunched by a lamp writing books and articles, systemizing the Founding Grandmaster's philosophy of martial arts and enriching the training program with his own techniques. In addition, he was elected to serve as the Director of the South Vietnam General Office of Martial Arts and Treasurer for the South Vietnam Olympic Committee
From 1964 to 1975, Grandmaster Lê Sáng led Vovinam into a period of robust growth. In 1966, Vovinam was brought into many South Vietnam’s high schools such as Trương Vĩnh Ký, Cao Thắng, Gia Long, Trưng Vương, and Võ Trường Toản. Several ten of thousands of students regularly practiced the martial arts in these schools. In 1967, Vovinam was incorporated into the training of police officers throughout South Vietnam. From 1968 through 1975, Vovinam was brought into many branches of the Army of Republic of Vietnam, local militias, and governmental agencies. During this time, the number of Vovinam students was well over one million people.
In early 1975, fearing that the fall of South Vietnam was imminent and the 40 plus years achievement of Vovinam would be destroyed, Grandmaster Lê Sáng proposed a blueprint to bring Vovinam overseas. Vovinam masters who can leave the country would be entrusted with keeping the martial arts alive in other countries. Despite having many chances to leave Vietnam, Grandmaster Lê Sáng and other senior masters decided to stay and keep the legacy of Vovinam alive. Soon after, Grandmaster Lê Sáng was put under house arrest and subsequently sent to re-education camps for 13 years. Master Trần Huy Phong was also sent to prison for 5 years. During this period, Vovinam was almost disbanded. Other Masters either were imprisoned or escaped overseas to the United States, Europe, Africa, and Australia.
While Vovinam went into a hiatus for five years after 1975 in Vietnam, the martial arts began to take root in countries where the Vovinam masters migrated to. In 1976, the first Vovinam training center in the United States was opened in Houston. Vovinam schools were also opened in Germany and France at the same time. Today, 30 years after the fall of South Vietnam, there are Vovinam schools in 20 countries in America, Europe, Africa, and Australia, with more than 20,000 disciples. In Europe, Vovinam schools operated in France, Germany, Italy, Holland, Switzerland, and Spain. There were Africans who studied Vovinam while they were in Europe, and went back to their own countries to open Vovinam schools in Ivory Coast, Tunisia, and Ghana. In the United States, nearly 30 Vovinam schools exist in many major cities, including Washington D.C., Houston, San Jose, Los Angeles, Orlando, Boston, and Chicago.
In Vietnam, Vovinam was permitted to operate again after 1978. After Grandmaster Lê Sáng was released in 1988, the school experienced a revival. With diligent support from masters Trần Huy Phong and Nguyễn Văn Chiếu, Vovinam spreads to more than 30 cities and provinces in Vietnam, with more than 30,000 practitioners. Vovinam students have represented Vietnam in many martial arts festivals and competitions for the past several years.
The Vovinam’s Difference
The casual observers at a Vovinam demonstration would most likely be amazed by the martial artists’ display of agility and the unique, spectacular flying neck lock moves. However, as a martial arts discipline with long history and great depth, Vovinam is much more than these public displays. Starting from founding Grandmaster Nguyễn Lộc to all current masters, Vovinam teachers have always stressed on building the complete martial artists with a clear, definite code of honor. This code of honor is summarized in the 10 Vovinam Credos (see the credos below) and the motto “Bàn tay thép với trái tim từ ái” (“Hands of Steel with Compassionate Heart”). Training sessions or competition events organized by Vovinam usually start or end with a ranking master explaining or reminding all students of the code of honor of the martial artists. All Vovinam students are expected to remember and live by these credos.
For many Vovinam students, the credos are living principles and not just rote recitals. A true story of Vovinam students during the Vietnam War illustrates the practice of the credos. In the early 1970's, a group of South Vietnamese commandos went on a mission behind enemy lines. As their movement was discovered, the North Vietnamese troops sent teams to hunt them. In one encounter, the South Vietnamese commander engaged a North Vietnamese soldier in hand to hand combat. After just a few moves, the men realized they were both Vovinam students. The North Vietnamese soldier called a stop to the fight and led the South Vietnamese commandos to a safe route of escape. Despite being on opposite sides and not knowing each other, these Vovinam fighters still considered each other as brothers.
A key appeal of Vovinam to martial art practitioners is its practicality. Vovinam students learn practical, time-tested self-defense and hand to hand combat techniques very early on in their practice. These techniques, various elbow attacks, chops, leg sweeps, and blocks, were based on the traditional Vietnamese martial arts and refined through more than 60 years of application in combat. Vovinam moves are always executed in quick, successive, unexpected combination, and thus, give the Vovinam students tactical advantage in real life situations.
Like other Asian martial arts, Vovinam also has many elaborate "bài quyền" (also known as "forms" or "katas") designed to build the students' endurance, agility, and footwork. The Oriental principle of yin and yang and the combination of strength and flexibility are built into each form as the practitioners learned to execute series of complex punches, sweeps, chops, elbow hits, and kicks with power and catlike agility. As they advance in their study, the Vovinam students also learn to effectively use long sticks, swords, knives, machetes and advanced breathing techniques.
Unlike other martial arts, Vovinam doesn't have "black belt" as a key goal or focus for its students. Instead, Vovinam has a simple belt system that is uniquely and patriotically Vietnamese. As students advance through Vovinam, they will successively earn blue, yellow, then red belts (the yellow and red belt colors are identical to the red and yellow colors on the Vietnam national flag). At the highest level, the Grandmaster of Vovinam wears the only white belt in the discipline. At each belt level, practitioners have to earn 3 stripes before they can advance to the next belt. At the blue belt level, each stripe is equivalent to a minimum of six months of practice, while at the red belt level, a stripe is the equivalent of 4 years of continuous training. In terms of capability, a Vovinam yellow belt is considered to be the equivalent of other martial arts' black belt, and a red belt is the equivalent of a fourth degree black belt.
In the past 10 years, the “black belt” was introduced to Vovinam schools in Vietnam, but only as a transitional stage to the yellow belt level. Vovinam schools abroad still adhere to the blue-yellow-red belt system.
Living by the Vovinam credo with the commitment to " build up our martial arts discipline and develop the next generation of Viet Vo Dao disciples", many Vovinam masters in the United States teach on a volunteer basis and charge very low tuition. In return, the students are expected to be highly disciplined and dedicated. The expansion of Vovinam outside of Vietnam is often considered by the masters as a task to preserve and enrich an important part of Vietnamese culture. As such, Vovinam masters and students rarely ever use their expertise and skills for commercial purposes. The atmosphere at Vovinam schools is often like that of a large family. Competition and demonstration events are generally open to the public at no charge.
If interested, readers can find out more about Vovinam and its schools by visiting the following website online: http://www.vovinam.ws
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