Four-thousand years ago, Vietnam was called Van Lang, "literate country." Reading and writing are still important in Vietnam. Poetry is the traditionally preferred form, but novels and short stories are also popular. Vietnam has many contemporary writers. The well-known Nguyen Huy Thiep writes about the lives of ordinary people in books such as The General Retires and Other Stories. Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War shows the suffering of soldiers, both Vietnamese and American.

In the arts, Vietnam is distinguished by its long history of woodblock printing. The country is also famous for lacquer art and for mother-of-pearl designs inlaid in tropical hardwoods.

The Vietnamese are fond of singing and do so almost any place. Many singers make up their own songs as they walk or work in the fields. Sometimes a group of women will sing to a group of men working in a neighbouring field; the men have to reply with their own songs. A traditional style of singing that has recently become popular again is ca tru, which sets poems to music. Pop music is also popular; Trinh Cong Son, known internationally, is one of Vietnam's most famous songwriters.

Traditional Vietnamese music is based on a five-note scale. The country has many stringed instruments; the don tranh is a 16-string zither, and the dan bau is a one-stringed instrument played with a bow and popular with women players. Bamboo flutes such as the sao and the lui have been played since ancient times.

Older buildings in Vietnam often contain images of the four mythical animals, the dragon, unicorn, turtle and snake. Pagodas, buildings erected to honor the Buddha, are common structures. Most consist of a one-storey building with a number of rooms and the distinctive curled roof. The Royal Tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) near the city of Hue are architectural wonders. Each of the 13 massive tombs consists of a sepulchre, a building containing the emperor's personal objects and a monolith describing the emperor's achievements. Some tombs also include gardens and dozens of monuments.

  Did you know?
Almost everybody in Vietnam knows sections of the classical poem written by Nguyen Du (1765-1820) called Kim Vân Kiêù. It expresses the commonly held belief that the world is governed by a universal law of addition and subtraction, bu tru. If a woman is beautiful, her life will be miserable in order to establish balance; similarly, a talented man may confront a difficult fate.

  Did you know?
The Vietnamese poem hat or nón bài tho is a version of the conical hat with a poem from Vietnamese legend printed inside the brim.