VoVinam, The Traditional Vietnamese Martial Art

In Martial Arts on February 6, 2009 at 12:47 am


Antonio Graceffo


They beat the Chinese, the French, the Americans, and even Genghis Khan in war, so I figured the Vietnamese could teach this Brooklyn Monk Something about fighting.


Vovinam is taught everywhere in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The practitioners see it as a matter of national pride, similar to the way Koreans view Tae Kwan Do. Vovinam is a very complete martial art with elements taken from many styles. There are kicks from Tae Kwan Do, but also a limited number of shin kicks and knee kicks. There are grapples from Hop Kido and throws from Judo. There are also a limited number of elbow strikes. They train with an array of weapons, taken from China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan.


Because Vietnam is still a communist country, there is no professional fighting at all. So, the Vovinam guys weren’t ready to go fight in the UFC. But, with a bit of tweaking, the style looks like it could be modified to use in MMA competitions. As far as traditional martial art (TMA) goes, Vovinam was a lot more interesting and complete than Tae Kwan Do. Anything that includes a grappling component is more multi-dimensional than a stand up kicking art. Unfortunately, because Tae Kwan Do is now part of the Olympics and the SEA Games, there is a huge push, particularly in Communist countries, to build world class teams. The cost is that the local martial arts are dying out. 


In Cholon, Saigon’s China Town, I found a massive sports center. In the basement there was a full weight lifting gym. Gyms in Vietnam were quite complete and training was cheap. Membership in a gym costs les than $10 per month. The other five floors of the building were dedicated to martial arts. Walking up the stairs, I felt like Bruce Lee, climbing the tower in “Game of Death.” On the first floor there were about a hundred people doing karate. On the next floor, Kung Fu. Up a level, Kendo and Aikido. On the next floor, Karate and Tae Kwand Do again.


The price of martial arts training was $6 per month.


On the top floor, I found my home, boxing.


I was in Vietnam to learn something new, so I concentrated on Vovinam. The problem with most TMA is that there isn’t enough of a cardio component, nearly no strength component, and no toughening or fighting training. So, I set up a training schedule of weights in the morning, followed by Vovinam in the evening and boxing at night. The boxing was the perfect addition to make my training day complete.


In Ho Chi Minh City people, go out late, study late, and train late. The streets are full of cars and motorcycles, at all hours. Boxing started at 7:30 PM, which is amazing, because in Cambodia, no one would ever consider going out that late. Even more amazing, as I was leaving the two hour workout, people were coming in for their martial arts lessons.


When you walk into a new martial arts school in Asia, there is always the thing about showing respect. They are sizing you up, so you don’t want to look weak. But you don’t want to look challenging either. If they think you have only come to fight, they may not train you, or they may hurt you. Or if they think you are showing disrespect, they won’t deal with you at all.


In boxing, there is none of this. The minute I walked into the boxing gym, the coach, Mr. Ahn, welcomed me with open arms. He was all smiles, asking me a million questions about my training and experiences in other countries. He called the boxers around to listen to the stories and ask me questions. With the martial arts guys, I have to build rapport before I can take out my camera. Mr. Ahn, on the other hand, immediately asked if the boys could take some photos with their new American friend.


As there is no professional boxing in Vietnam, all the boys were amateurs. Most were around 22 years old. They attended university fulltime and boxed part time.


I asked if I could fight in Vietnam, Mr. Ahn laughed and told me that in the whole country there were only four boxers registered at 81 Kgs, the highest weight division. “At national championships they give one gold, one silver, and two bronze medals. So, everyone wins.”


In Thailand I am always amazed at the steps they are taking to improve their training, such as brining in foreign coaches or sending coaches to other countries. Vietnam was the same. One of the team’s coaches had trained in Thailand with the Vietnam national boxing team.


“We can learn from them.” Said Mr. Ahn. “In the lower weight divisions, the Philippines and Thailand are the best in Southeast Asia.”


Philippine champion, Mani Paquoia (Pac Man) was almost as much of a hero to the Vietnamese boxers as he was to the Filipinos.


Talking about my Muay Thai experience, Mr Ahn told me, “We had kickboxing prior to 1979. But then it was banned. Now they would like to bring it back, but there isn’t even an association or a team yet.”


“Traditional wrestling is also dying out. Maybe it exists in the provinces, and probably not every day, just at festivals.”


The good thing about training in a socialist country is that the government supports sports and education programs. Sports are made available to nearly everyone, regardless of how poor they are. The downside, of course, is that while top athletes will have state of the art training and equipment, the average gym is not as good as one we would pay for in a rich country. Boxing training at the sports complex was free, but the boxing team had absolutely nothing. They had half a heavy bag and some rotting, smelly glove. 


The bag was hung too high and not heavy enough for me to do body punches or low kicks. There were no coache’s mitts for pad-work. Mr. Ahn showed me where there had been a floor to ceiling bag, but it was broken. One very cool piece of equipment they did have was a makiwara board hanging on the wall. This padded boarded is normally used in karate and other martial arts to practice focus punching. The boxers used it for speed and power drills. One guy would stand at board, throwing one-two, one-two as fast and hard as he could for thirty seconds, while his partner shadow boxed. Then they would switch off. Thirty second board, thirty seconds shadow, alternating for three minutes. It was brutal! By my third rotation on the board I was completely beat. My arms would barely stay up.


During the drill, Mr. Ahn stood by, and made sure my hands were coming back to a proper guard position between punches, so I was punching off my face, straight through.


Usually when I train with amateurs the coaches leave me alone and let me train what I want, which is nice, if I am there for a short time. I like them to leave me alone because amateur boxing is so different from professional boxing. Fr example, they turn their hands over when they hook, which pros don’t do. I don’t want them to undue my skills.

But if I am going to be there for a year it is a problem because then I am not learning anything new.


Watching one of the best guys train, he was very fast and had good form and tremendous power or his size, but his hands were down at his sides, like Muhammad Ali, and he was wide open. Maybe he was fast enough that it didn’t matter, but I was shocked at how open many of them were.


The gym didn’t have a heavy bag, which would be the bulk of my training as a heavyweight pro. I got the impression that amateurs didn’t work the heavy bag the way pros do. Most of their work was shadow boxing and mock sparing. Amateurs I have trained with in Philippines, Vietnam and other countries did a lot of things we don’t do, such as sliding drills, punching drills, and blocking drills. Maybe we could benefit from these training techniques too.


After the board work, Mr. Ahn had me spar with two of his guys, one round each. We didn’t hit each other hard, just worked.


The second boy I sparred with had one hand on his waste, and punched off his hip. He did all right with it, but it still looked dangerous. The cool thing he kept doing was switching off, left and right hand lead. He didn’t actually change his lead leg, but would twist his body about 50% and lead with a right hand jab. It was tricky and kept giving me a new picture to look at.


They didn’t have a ring, so we were sparring on the floor. Normally I shepherd my opponent onto the ropes or into the corner and pound them. This is much harder to do in an open fighting situation. The speed and stamina of the smaller amateur is a bigger advantage in an open situation.


In pro boxing you are always looking for that knock out or a win by attrition. You lead with the left, but you are constantly trying to set the man up for the big right hand. In amateur boxing, you are trying to win by points. Throwing a flurry of punches, whether they are hard or not, will win you points.


Training with the Vietnamese was great fun, and I look forward to continuing my study of Vovinam, supplemented with boxing and weight lifting. Maybe I will find out who is trying to start the professional kickboxing league and I can help out. Maybe we can build a Vietnamese MMA team and take the Southeast Asian title.


Tan Da helped me to find a school where I could learn Vovinam, the quintessential Vietnamese martial art. Vo means fight. Vovinam is also called Viet Vo Dao, or the way of Vietnamese fighting.


Vovinam is a synthetic martial art, founded by Nguyen Loc in 1938. The practitioners wear blue karate ghis and earn belts just as in many traditional martial arts.


Apparently in the past, the Vietnamese martial arts were as developed as those of China. A martial arts university was founded nearly a thousand years ago, where students studied all forms of combat and also read the classics, such as Tsun Zu, “The Art of War.” National exams were held regularly until some time during the French occupation. Even under the French, martial arts continued to develop with Vietnamese students competing in French competitions of foreign martial arts from Korea, Japan, and China.  


Today, the students of Vovinam seem very proud to be studying their national art, but like in many parts of the developing world, society pushes young people to excel in their studies, particularly English and IT, and to make money. Given the difficulty I had in finding teachers and teams I would say that martial arts are on the decline in Vietnam but still infinitely more alive than in Cambodia or Lao. Tae Kwan Do seems to be extremely popular and was being taught at many high schools and universities. Most parents feel that letting their kids study Tae Kwan Do is a good compromise since they probably won’t get injured. And, now that Tae Kwan Do is in the SEA Games and the Olympics, Tae Kwan Do becomes a matter of national pride, the same as gymnastics or other Asian dominated sports.


The sad thing about the rise of Tae Kwan Do and economic prosperity is that it means the demise of traditional martial arts.


Training with a team who met in one of the most famous high schools of Ho Chi Minh city, at a glance the art looked a lot like Tae Kwan Do with that same round house kick, which hits with the top of the foot. Tae Kwan Do style kicking pads were used and students did drills, running and kicking, leaping and kicking multiple targets. The forms also looked like Tae Kwan Do katas. But when I started rolling with one of the instructors, I found there was a lot more to the art than high kicks and leaps.


The teacher was named Master Hai. I would find out that nearly everyone I met in Vietnam was either named Hai or Nguyen. Nguyen was a traditional hero in ancient literature and was also one of Ho Chi Minh’s original names. Hai admonished me for taking photos of his class. As a result, the story was never able to run in American magazines because there were no images. I try to like TMA but I sometimes get angry and just want to punch these guys in the head. I just didn’t think it was good for PR to prevent foreigners from studying your art or photographing it.


Hai did agree to let me train with him, and once again the price was very low, a few dollars per month. He required me to wear a blue ghi, which is the typical uniform of Vovinam. Almost all of the students were black belts, but I would find out that red was the highest. Remember, when you invent your own martial art, it is important that black not be the highest belt. That way you can be totally unique. One of the styles I had studied in Philippines the highest belt was red, white and blue.


Vovinam contained a lot of impressive joint locks and locking throws, similar to Hop Kido. There were some throws that seemed to have come right out of a judo textbook, “In judo they grab the clothes.” Explained the teacher. “But if you try and grab someone by the T-shirt it will rip and what if he isn’t wearing a shirt? So, we only practice throws that can be done from body lock positions.”


He had a few very cool hip throws where he either locked his arms under mine or grabbed my head and threw me.


When the throw is completed the students did a lock and control or followed up with a punch. I didn’t see any actual submissions, chokes or finishing moves.


The strike side of the art showed the influence from neighboring Cambodia and Bradal Serey (Khmer kickboxing). Vovinam contained low kicks, all be it with the top of the foot, but still they were striking down into the calf muscle. They used some knee strikes. The most obvious connection with Cambodian martial arts was the use of elbows. Vovinam had about five different elbow strikes, including the uppercut elbow, hook elbow, and spin elbow which are techniques pretty much unique to Cambodia and Thailand.



Hai kept referring to Vovinam as Vietnamese kung fu, showing the Chinese influence in Vietnamese culture.


Vovinam was one of those typical traditional martial arts that I have trouble practicing. I hate wearing a ghi. Southeast Asia is bloody hot and I prefer wearing my Muay Thai shorts and T-shirt. We had to stand in rows, military style, according to rank, and do our exercises in unison.


There was a lot of standing and static throwing punches, chops, and elbows. The knees were straight during these drills. Hai yelled at me for dropping into a fighter’s crouch.  


I asked one of the instructors if Vovinam used elbows. He answered, “Yes, several of our combinations involve elbows.”


Vovinam has a number of standard combinations. If your opponent kicked a certain way, you countered with combination 3. if he struck another way, you countered with combination 7. From what I understood, if you started a combination, you had to finish it and these strikes could only be done within the context of these combinations. It seemed very restrictive and not at all conducive of actual fighting.


Being TMA they practiced the old, strike at my face with a lung punch, freeze, and I will block it, deflect it, twist your arm and throw you. I kept wanting to ask him if anyone had ever done any of these techniques for real. One of the stupid drills they had me do was to stand square, once again with your knees stiff, and my hands on my hips. The teacher would throw a very slow punch to my face and I was supposed to block it with my opposite hand. Any time I didn’t do it exactly as he wanted, Hai would laugh at me.


“If you do this in a fight, you will get your nose broken.”


I wanted to answer, if you mouth of at me again, your going to get your nose broken. The only way I can even tolerate TMA is by convincing myself that it isn’t supposed to be about fighting. It is supposed to be about art or culture or tradition or something. But then when they bring up the subject of foght9ng I just get aggressive. If this isn’t fighting, why is he talking about fighting? And if this is fighting, why I am standing with my knees braced, my legs square and my hands on my hips? Who would fight like that? And it’s not like, he is a master and he could fight like this and win. No, the rules are the same for everyone, I don’t care who you are. If you come into a fight like that, you will lose.


How was this stance superior to my normal fighting stance, my Muay Thai/boxing stance?


Hai wanted to teach me a hook, but when I moved my legs, he yelled at me. He wanted me to hook from this same stupid position with my hands on my hips and my knees straight. Then he yelled at me for not putting my shoulder into. I was like, what are you retarded? Boxers through the best hook in the world. And believe me, if someone showed me a better hook I would do it. To hook properly, have to stand in fighting stance. And the way you get your shoulder into is by rotating at the hips and pushing off with your back leg. Standing square like this not only were you not going to have any power, but you were going to hurt yourself.


Maybe that was the plan all along, to get me to through out my back. Perhaps this was revenge for the war. You never knew in Vietnam when the war would rear its ugly head.


The next argument came when he wanted me to turn my fist over on the hook. This is a repeated argument I have had all over Asia. Modern fighters, ones who absorb(rather than reject) the new information flowing throughout the world, do not turn their fist over on a hook. You always turn your fist on a straight punch, but never on a hook. But all of these traditional martial arts have you turning the fist on a hook. But once again, they are only punching the air. None of them train on a bag for several hours per day as a real fighter would and none of them are actually fighting. So, I guess they can throw their hook however they want to and it will be fine.


One thing they did right in Vovinam was the warm up. It was composed of useful martial arts techniques. When you do Tae Kwan Do in other countries, often, they rush through the exercises counting very fast in Korean ish, ni, sam sa….which actually isn’t even the counting system Koreans use for counting exercises in Korea. In so many of these schools I have seen the amount of time they hold a stretch is less than ten seconds. The only reason they don’t have more injuries is because the guys are so young. But, in Vovinam we did real exercises and at a pace that was appropriate.


In most martial arts schools I have trained in (non fighting schools) they do like ten pushups and ten sit ups. In Vovinam we did pushups for about three or four minutes and abs for about twenty minutes. We also did kicking and punching drills which looked as if they were taken from Tae Kwan Do. One guy held up the TKD style kick pad and the other guy kicked it as many times as he could in a certain time limit. Real fighters don’t do this drill because it doesn’t test your ability to throw good kicks. It tests your ability to do the drill. The first kick is real. After that, the guys are only bringing their leg back half way before kicking again. They are practicing wrong, but very fast. And admittedly they can all do this drill better and faster than me. But this has zero impact on whether they can kick in a fight or not.


When people practice this type of drill the kick pad is general held high, head or shoulder height. This is also something I almost never practice. In Muay Thai, most of our kicks are from the floating ribs down and of course we hit with our shins, whereas these guys were hitting with the tops of their feet. 


In their kicking and punching drills they either stood still or moved in a straight line. Real fighters practice moving in circles.


While I was kicking I saw the guys practicing their grappling. On the whole, and as far as TMA goes, Vovinam was infinitely better than Tae Kwan Do or other traditional martial arts I had seen. It was more multi-dimensional. They had a lot of grappling. Some of it looked like Hop Kido and a little clearly came from judo. The Korean influences were obvious in all aspects of the art. After a throw they would go to the ground and use a lock to submit and control the opponent. But because this was TMA the series ended when the thrower put the opponent into a lock. There was no actual wrestling or countering or escaping going on. It was, you attack me. I throw you and put you in a joint lock. Ok, now, you stand up and I attack you and you throw me and put me in an arm bar.


Like in most TMA when Hai talked about fighting it was always theoretical. “If someone strikes you …” They had prepared various silly self-defense techniques such as if someone grabs you from the side, from behind in a bear hug, in a choke…You employ this tricky means of escape. They also had misconceptions about other arts. One of the instructors explained to me that Vovinam was more lethal than Muay Thai because in Muay Thai you just kick once and stop, but in Vovinam you kick and punch at the same time.


I really wanted to fight him so he could show me the failings of my boxing and Muay Thai.


Once again, I was having trouble studying TMA. I know there a lot of cultural and health benefits to TMA, but I still couldn’t do it.


Traditional martial art can be excellent for your health because it will increase the range and variety of your movements. We lose flexibility and get sick in old age because we reduce the types of movements we do. We stand up, walk, sit at a desk, and open the refrigerator everyday. When you were a child you climbed, you slid, you jumped, you belly flopped, you went under the couch…you moved your body in every way possible. As an adult, even if you exercise you are limited in what you are doing. If you lift weights, how much are you actually moving? How many different kinds of motion do you do in a day? Yoga would be an exception but even a dance class or aerobics has you on your feet most of the time.


I can do all my boxing and kickboxing movements, but those are pretty limited compared to what children can do or what TMA requires. Even as a boxer, I, you, all of us do the same things every day. Muscles and joints begin to function only with the scope of very limited range of motion. The movements I do in my boxing routine are the same ones I have done for twenty years. If I do something that feels like boxing or Muay Thai I am pretty good at it. But as soon as I get out o that comfort zone I am lost. 


Looking at one of my Vietnamese training partners I could see that a kid sixty kilos is stronger than me at certain angles. When I actually threw a kick or a hook the way he wanted me to, he was stronger. I am certain that my hook, thrown my way, is stronger than his hook thrown his way. But if I see TMA as exercise then throwing his hook would be a way for me to develop muscles I don’t normally use. It is the same concept as swimming as cross training. You work muscles which are neglected in your regular workouts.


As you get older you develop these tunnels of motion in all of you joints, your wrists, neck, elbows, back, shoulders… If you move within your familiar range you are fine. If you do anything else, you get injured.


I think for an older guy, doing TMA may be a really good way of preserving general health. The problem is doing TMA alone won’t do it because there is not enough cardio and almost no strength work. The cardio at Vovinam was running around the gym in circles. That is just silliness. I refuse to run inside of gyms or dojo. That is not cardio. It is an excuse for cardio and it is really bad for your knees to run in too tight of a circle. You need at least twenty minutes of cardio work to get a work out.


As with Tae Kwan Do practitioners, the dexterity that the Vovinam guys had with their feet was impressive. They were as good with their feet as I am with my hands. They can put a kick anywhere on your body they want and use any part of the foot they want. They can effectively plant a kick up, down, or sideways. That is impressive and they have a lot of techniques kicking low and then high with out the foot touching the ground. The flipside of course is that they have never kicked anything; never kicked a bag, never kicked a target. Most likely, they can’t do it in a real fight, or they might hurt themselves. 


Vovinam had more grappling than most TMA. Once you have kicking, punching, and grappling you have a pretty complete martial art. I wish that more people around the world were doing Vovinam rather than Tae Kwan Do. But in a country with no professional fighters at all how could you expect them to learn it? In Cambodia I don’t know how kickboxing and TKD could exist in the same universe. Can’t the TKD people see how weak their style is compared to kickboxing? Now, MMA and k-1 are big I Korea and yet they still believe in their TKD.


I was not in Vietnam to disprove them. In the context of what they were doing, Vovinam was very good. The pride is also a good thing. They love their country, and they should be proud of Vietnam’s progress. In Cambodia I always had a feeling that there was no hope for the future. But in Vietnam I think the people are capable of achieving anything they want to. 


The final martial art I looked at in Vietnam was Tieu Lam, Vietnamese Kung Fu.


The aged Master Hai (everyone in Vietnam is named Hai) draws his sword and bows. He drops into a low stance and the sword comes over his head and around his body. He rises up on one leg, steps out with his foot and drops back into a low stance. With the perfection of a warrior sculpture he pauses in a forward  stance, the sword fitting his frame like an extension of his arm. Sword practice over, he goes through a similar routine with a long spear. Fighting imaginary opponents, he shuffles forward, backward, turns, strikes behind him, leaps, smack the floor with the weapon, and lunges forward. His practice continues with a chinese fan, wielding the delicate weapon with lethal precision. Last, he practices with his bare hands. This is a daily routine which he has maintained for nearly half a century.


The art is Thieu Lam, and Master Hai has practiced his whole life. In spite of his advanced years, he still manages to teach several group classes as well as private lessons in the Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) sports complex, located in China Town. His favorite form which he demonstrates for foreign visitors is called call “Lao Ho Thuong Son,” which encompasses fifty-eight movements.


“This form contains all the best of Vietnamese Martial Art.” He explains. The form takes nearly four minutes to complete, months to learn, and years to master.


According to data published by the Thieu Lam association, Thieu Lam can trace its origins to China. The art was developed as a hybrid art, a mix of Choy Gar and Hung Gar style of Kung Fu and was originally taught in Guangdong province. Later, Wing Chun was added to the mix.


In watching the master and his students go through their paces, the influence of Northern styles is clear. In fact, much of the movements they use are identical to techniques and forms taught at the Shaolin temple today. At times, however, the southern influence becomes apparent, as they sometimes use a pigeon toed stance. The students would also hlaf twist at the hips and drop into a low stance, similar to that used in Wing Chun.


The Thieu Lam style was brought to Vietnam by M° Luu Phu, who was born near Canton in 1909 and died in 1971 in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). He trained with his master in China, until 1937, when he left China, fleeing the Japanese invasion. Millions of Chinese live in Vietnam. They came in various waves, most recently, escaping the Japanese war or the Chinese civil war. At the beginning, they lived in tight Chinese communities, divided into dialect groups, with Fujians living together and Guandongese living together. At that time, Kung Fu was not taught to outsiders, and Thieu Lam remained a purely Chinese art. After 1975, Vietnamese students were permitted to study the art. M° Sui Dau, a student of M° Luu Phu became a master and taught the art to Chinese and Vietnamese alike, until his death in 1991.


Thieu Lam is divided into two major schools, “Thieu That Son” and “Trung Son Thieu Lam Tu”. Master Hai belongs to a sect called “Kim Ke Tay Son Hac.”



Training a Chinese art in Vietnam is a unique experience. It is always fascinating to see which aspects of Chinese culture they chose to keep, and which they abandoned. In studying other Vietnamese martial arts, such as Vo Vinam, it is also interesting to see which elements of Chinese Kung Fu were adopted and incorporated  into other Vietnamese arts.


Thieu Lam included a good number of knees and elbows, including the over the top elbow, which must have been picked up in the Indochina region. There were also a lot more joint locks than you would expect to find in a Shaolin art. These may have been adopted from Vo Vinam, the national martial art, or directly from Korean martial arts such as Hop Kido.


They used a lot of the ever-returning fists, similar to Wing Chun. Master Hai punched, and then in one fluid, circular motion, came back with a back fist, followed by a hammer fist. He was constantly striking in circles or figure eights with repeated strikes.


“Everything we do is based on circles.” Explained master Hai, pointing at a Yin Yang symbol over his door. With his weathered features, his face showing signs of age and wisdom, the Master looked like a caricature of a teacher. If you were casting a Kong Fu master in a movie, Mr. Hai would have been your first pick.


“We use circles both up and down for blocking. We also have animal styles such as monkey and dragon.” Said Mr. Hai, pointing out some similarities with Chinese martial arts.


Several of the Vietnamese students referred to their martial art as Vietnamese Kung Fu, the same way people in China use the name Kung Fu as a general word for martial arts.


Although a close first cousin to Kung Fu, Thieu Lam had its own unique Vietnamese character. “In china they use a low stance, but in Vietnam we use medium stance.”


The horse stance looked like it came from southern China or Wing Chun.



“When your opponent strikes with the right hand, you have to block with the left, and vice versa.”


Mr. Hai showed me that if you block with the opposite hand, you will have your opponent tied up in his own limbs, and it will be impossible for him to hit you. Also, it leaves him wide open for you to do a quick jerking joint manipulation and break his arm at the elbow.


As with many traditional martial arts, there was no sparring. They practiced their fighting in patterns, so, to do the drill, both parties would have to know his script. A student struck, Mr. Hai came of the block and into a strike with the same hand. When rolling with me he hit me in the floating ribs, which is more something we emphasize in kickboxing than in Kung Fu. When I threw a kick, he kicked my leg and hit me with his knee, another Muay Thai-esque technique. When we were playing around, he blocked my kick with a cross knee and then kicked the inside of my thigh with the ball of his foot, This is basically a Muay Boran sequence. The most telling Indochina move was when he blocked and then stepped in with an elbow strike to the head, followed by a forearm smash to the elbow, while trapping the hand and hyper-extending the elbow.


“Concentrate where you hit.” Said Mr. Hai. “In China they hit in the liver. In Vietnam we hit in the heart.”


The thing that some students find boring when studying kung Fu is the lack of practical application. Mr. Hai’s students, for example, never did anything apart from forms, which they repeated over and over again. They never sparred and never tried ttheir techniques against a live opponent. Every few years I try to do TMA(Traditional Martial Art), and always quit because I prefer fighting. Kung Fu, however, is the one form of TMA I can forgive because they never actually claim to be fighters. Kung fu is beautiful and on some level, practicing Kung Fu demonstrates a deeper commitment to the art than does fighting.


The thing I really liked about practicing with Master Hai was doing the warm up. A Kung Fu warm up is a sensible exercise. Not only does it prepare your muscles for training, as well as strengthening and creating flexibility, but moving through all of those stances and techniques is much more interesting than standing in front of a mirror in the gym doing sets and reps. Doing the stances, the squatting, bending, and twisting, up and down,  is good for you body, and will help to maintain health and flexibility into old age. Adding TMA, especially Kung Fu, to your overall health regime makes a lot of sense. Most days in ho Chi Minh City, I trained with Mr. Hai and then trained with the boxing team. The combination of the two programs seemed to work well for me. 


In addition to Thieu Lam, the Vietnamese have a rich and diversified martial arts history. At a book store I discovered there was no shortage of books about the various Vietnamese martial arts. The only problem was, none of them were in English. So, you’ll just have to wait for my next book.


Antonio Graceffo is a martial arts and adventure author living in Asia. His book, The Monk from Brooklyn, is available at See his vieos on youtub.


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  1. Terrific explanation & criticism of Vovinam with helpful comparisons to TKD.

  2. cant figure out hwere to learn Vovinam

  3. Mr. Antonio
    I have read “ fight in Hanoi park” and would like to leave few comments about Vietnamese traditional martial arts. First, I want to clarify what is the Vietnamese traditional martial arts (TMA of Vietnam).
    I hope you have visited history museums . If not , you can check it out
    Vietnam has built an effective martial art. I am sure you knew that Mongolia, a country that crushed most of Europe, and the whole of the Chinese under their horses legs but they had been three times defeated in Vietnam. Traditional martial arts of Vietnam was good isn’t it?
    You said:
    “It would have been difficult or impossible to find a fighter who could stand up to the experienced MMA fighters who hosted these shows.”
    Right. But why??? Because TMA is not designed for unarmed fighting one vs one in the ring or cage. TMA designed for large battles with weapons complex terrain and in all fields, mountains, rivers and lakes … The fight between MMA and TMA just like the race between two cars: formula 1 and 4WD.
    Because TMA is not designed for hand battles in the ring or cage like 4WD is not designed for the speed up.
    Let’s look at the stances of TMA
    An MMA guy said about the stances of TMA like this:
    TMA (along with some Chinese styles) employs some of the most ineffective stances in martial arts. Deep, low TMA stances make you completely immobile; they plant you in one spot, making quick movements extremely difficult. This is great for working your muscles but not for active conflicts. You may as well hang a sign around your neck saying “strike me at will, I can not move.” If you recall early kickboxing, MMA, The first thing They got rid of those static stances.
    That is so right, but if you have to fight on the muddy and uneven terrain, those stances is what you need if you do not want to be under thousand soldiers’ shoes.
    Hand Technical
    Whether you can find someone to perform the form like this
    [Video = youtube_share; RNgivjjx2Xk] [/ video]
    Then also the concept that there are unarmed fighting techniques. In fact, all the form which are designed for use with the weapons and techniques on that form only effective with the weapons in hand. The reason they have to be trained with invisible weapon for many reasons:
    1-The prohibition of government
    2-Avoid eyeing other sect
    3-Do not always be able to use weapons ( can train at home, small area…)
    4- approach to weapons to increase all necessary muscles.
    The hand technique in that form are completely ineffective when fighting unarmed in the case or ring, Because these techniques are designed for weapons.
    Sir, if you want to see more about TMA maybe you need to go further to BINHDINH provinces instead of the park in the Hanoi, where I am sure you will find the real Vietnamese traditional martial arts, not VOVINAM or Nam Hong Son which are the new martial with only 80 years old.

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