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.
10 principles of Vovinam Viêt Võ Dao
The term Việt Võ Đạo (“the way (Dao) of Viet Vo”) was coined by the patriarch of 2nd generation of the Vovinam Viet Vo Dao, the Grand Master Le Sang with the objective to add a philosophical dimension to his martial art. This “Viet Vo Dao” consists of ten principles:
- Vovinam’s disciples vow to pursue high proficiency in their martial art in order to serve the people and humanity.
- Promise to be faithful to the intentions and teaching of Vovinam and develop the young generation of Vovinam Viêt Võ Dao
- Be united in spirit and heart, respect one’s elder, be kind to one’s peers.
- Respect discipline absolutely, maintain the high standard of personal conduct and honour of a martial art disciple.
- Have respect for other martial art schools, only use martial art skills for self defense and protect justice.
- Be studious, strengthen the mind, enrich one’s thought & behavior.
- Live simply, with chastity, loyalty, high principles and ethics.
- Build up a spirit of steely determination and vigor, overcome powers of violence.
- Make intelligent judgments, carry out struggles with perseverance and act with alertness.
- Be self-confident, self-controlled, modest and generous.
“Việt Võ Đạo Federation” was founded November 3, 1973 in order to re-unite some Vietnamese martial arts, including Qwan Ki Do. Therefore “Việt Võ Đạo”, only in Europe, is also used as a generic term for certain Vietnamese martial arts and philosophies but in Vietnam is only used to refer to “Vovinam Việt Võ Đạo”.
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