In general, the territory of Vietnam has emerged 3 major centers of civilization: Dong Son Culture in the North, Sa Huynh Culture in the Center and Oc Eo Culture in the South. They all interacted on one another and got in touch with other centers of civilization in Southern China and South-East Asia.
Regarding to ancient fine arts, researchers thus far not have been sure of the time when Vietnamese’s fine arts come into being. But some carvings found in Dong Noi cave, 180km (112mi) west of the capital Hanoi, are the first imprints ever, which dates back to some 10.000 years ago.
During the XI & XII century, the Ly dynasty ushered an era of self-government and feudality. Its strong spirit of national independence has helped towards bringing about a peculiar style to fine arts. Buddhist and royal court arts developed very well, many sumptuously ornamented pagodas and royal palaces of large dimensions are reported in historical records. Since they have all damaged by wars, we now can find only some stone and terra-cotta relics.
Styles of art during this time tended to gentleness, prevalent theme are foliage, lion, dragon, phoenix, cloud, wave, musician, dancing woman. Together with the art of Viet in Northern Vietnam, the Champa art is well known for its sculptural works full of life, there is some interaction between the art of the Ly dynasty and the Cham art.
Come to the XIII & XIV century, the nation has seen many victorious wars of resistances waged by Viet people. Modified spiritual elements of the society acted on fine art and manifested themselves in the changes in art style. Generally speaking, traditions were inherited from the Ly dynasty, but yet works of art during the Tran dynasty were feature by its description with reality, vigor and solidity. Means of expression also became more liberal, with stress laid on broad lines rather than on details. Apart from it, the art of the Tran dynasty and that of Champa still seemed to intertwine in this stage.
In the XV century, after the victory over the Chinese, a new dynasty was established – the early Le. With a view to muster every resource to consolidate the post war country, the royal court advocated many progressive economic, political and cultural policies. Buddhism was also set to rights: restriction on the building of pagodas and the casting of new bell, monks were put through a test of virtue and knowledge.
Mandarins and aristocrats were forbidden to build houses of large dimensions. Even tombs and mausoleums of kings and queens of the Early Le dynasty were modestly and simply constructed in order to save the treasury. Those regulations acquired a positive social meaning but, on the other hand, they reflected on the environment that had long been familiar to fine art. Beside, Confucianism being held in high esteem by the Early Le since the middle of the XV century, Vietnamese art was inhibited and clearly influenced. This situation is considered as a temporary recession of ancient fine art.
From the mid XVI century, the early Le was replaced by Mac (1517 – 1595), and the art also entered a new development stage. An explosion of the popular tendency was shown in communal house decoration. This tendency existed concurrently with the orthodox propensity, and intertwined harmoniously with it. This is a peculiar feature in comparison with preceding periods, and it gave birth to a new aspect of Vietnamese ancient art.
Art of this time was highly decorative and monumental. Cultural statues carved in stone and wood were plentiful, but most numerous were Goddess of Merci statue of large dimensions. The art of the XVI century is referred to as the beginning of a stage of revival in the following century.