Vietnam has been under the rule of greater civilizations or nations for centuries. And each of them left cultural traces and influenced Vietnam to develop in a totally specific way. Swords craftsmanship was not an exception. Changes and influences made it evolve unexpectedly in different directions.
Imaginary the swordmaking art consist of several historical ‘layers’:
Chinese layer – The Chinese domination of Vietnam lasted from about 111 BCE to the early 10th century CE. After 10 centuries under Chinese control, in 939 CE, the Vietnamese defeated Chinese and gained independence. Thus the basis of Vietnamese swordmaking was set by Chinese.
Domestic layer – Between the 11th and 18th centuries, the Vietnamese expanded southward, this was the so called southward expansion. This was the period when national values developed and the assimilated Chinese tradition melted, giving birth to the Vietnamese one.
French layer – In the mid 19th century CE Vietnam was colonized by the French Empire. The French administration considerably enriched and changed the Vietnamese society. European influences were envisioned in sword making art. It can be easily seen in the pompous exemplar of swords dating with the French colonization period.
Other layers – It is evident that there are Japanese, and Thai influences due to the fact that these two countries were proficient enough in swordmaking to share it with others. Some believe that it is also due to the Japanese presence in Thailand and coastal Vietnam in the 15th and 16th century.
What made them unsurpassed?
Vietnamese smiths had (and still have) a sophisticated technique of inlaying precious metals. They crafted excellent silver fittings for their weapons which were very original for the area. What really distinguishes the Vietnamese swords is the original mounting with elephant handles. This makes the blade easy maneuverable due to its lightweight and comfortable grip. For this purpose elephant molars or tips of tusks are used.
Some of the most used Vietnamese swords are:
1. Kiem . A double edged straight sword. It is very typical and has no analogs in the Southeastern part of Asia. The Kiem is made in keeping with Chinese tradition and is believed to be a reminiscence of Jiansword. It features needle shaped blade and strong hilt with reach decorations. The Vietnamese kiem is easily confused with European small swords. However, the kiem is considerably lighter than the European and the Chinese needle-like swords.
2. Dao. It is also called ‘the leaf sword’. This sabre-type sword exists in three main variants, or better said variations. Each reflecting one of the three foreign influences mentioned above. Here are the two most distinguishable pieces:
– Sabres from northern Vietnam (Tonkin). they show strong Chinese influence in both component parts: blade and handle. This kind of daois even wielded in a Chinese manner.
– Sabres from southern Vietnam (Cochin). These ones represent two-handed sabres called dai dao. They are distinguished by their Chinese elements but also by very strong Japanese influence. Notice traditional webbing and cast metal fittings! Best evidences to prove Japanese attribution. The hand guards are also reflections of Japanese katana’ tsuba.
3. Native Vietnam Swords. These ones were forged in keeping with Chinese traditions and featured pattern welded steel. The Chinese technology was known as qiangang (inserted steel). It consists in an inserted hardened steel cutting edge backed by a soft steel core. Thus the two metals formed a layered construction.
4. French Styled Sword. These sabres are basically designed in keeping with European traditions. Compared to their predecessors these sabres are very extravagant. They featured embossed silver fittings on the scabbard and hilt and reach inlays of precious metals or stones. It distinguished by lion-head designed pommel and ‘D’ shaded knuckle-bow, which appeared after establishment of the Nguyen dynasty.
It should be noted that the Vietnamese sometimes used foreign blades. Mainly Japanese, and later the swords were equipped with French blades.