History of Vovinam

History of Vovinam


Ecusson Vovinam Viet Vo Dao

Nowadays, Vovinam Việt Võ Đạo is practiced in about 40 countries on all the contients. Nevertheless, contrary to the main big styles like the Japanese or Korean martial arts schools, Vovinam is still unknown in the rest of the world. Several International organisations are trying to spread Vovinam.

Vovinam was codified by the late Grand Master Nguyễn Lộc in 1938, in Hànội, Vietnam. It is not a traditional martial art though it is a synthesis of the family school of Master Nguyễn Lộc and the knowledge he acquired in his research in several traditional martial arts schools.

The Vietnamese martial arts schools have evolved in function of the wars and the civilizations that prevailed in the country throughout 4000 years. Thanks to this particularity, Vietnamese martial arts differ from all the other martial arts in the world.

The Vovinam Founder, Master Nguyễn Lộc, born the 8th day of the 4th month of the lunar calendar of the year 1912, after having studied with assiduity the familial style, traveled throughout the country, from the beginning of 1930, in search of the essence of a nationally unified Vietnamese Võ Thuật (Martial Arts). In 1938, he synthesized his knowledge to create the VoVietnam whose prononciation was not easy for the French colonizers of the country. This is why the contraction of VoVietnam to "VoVinam", easier to prononce, was adopted.

I) 1938-1960

Vovinam was included in the first Sports and Physical Education Seminar organized by the French colonialist government in 1940 (Maurice Ducoroy was the Secretary of State for Education, Youth and Sports).
The first big public exhibition of Vovinam was held in the Hanoi Opera in the Fall of 1939. The first official classes began in the Spring of 1940, in the "Ecole Normale" of the Cửa Bắc street of Hànội.
Vovinam was introduced to the French government as "Vietnamese Gymnastic".

Master Nguyễn Lộc developed Vovinam through three main phases:
1) 1940-1945, Vovinam is only practiced in the capital, Hanoi. Then the last three years in secret. 2) 1946- 1948, Vovinam practice is extended to several provinces in the North without the agreement of the French colonial government. 3) 1954-1960, after the end of the Indochina War against the French, a communist government is formed in the North. Master Nguyễn Lộc went to the recently created South Vietnam with most of his disciples. However, his student Phan Dương Bình decides to stay in the North, for family reasons. After some time, isolated from his master and his co disciples, Phan Dương Bình eventually quits Vovinam and practices the Vinh Xuân style.
2) 1946-1948 : le Vovinam se répand timidement dans quelques provinces du nord et cela, sans l’accord du gouvernement colonial français.
3) 1954-1960 : Après la fin de la guerre d’Indochine, un gouvernement communiste se forme au nord. Le maître Nguyễn Lộc se déplace au Sud Vietnam récemment formé, avec la majorité de ses élèves (mais Phan Dương Bình, décide de rester au nord, et il finira par renoncer au Vovinam et pratiquera le style Vinh Xuân [Win Chung en chinois].

Then, began a new stage for Vovinam. Master Nguyễn Lộc and the other masters started to teach Vovinam in the region of Sàigòn.

Master Nguyễn Lộc became seriously ill. From 1957, his health was so bad that he had to stop teaching. He had to leave the teaching to his most advanced pupil, Master Lê Sáng.

II) 1960

The fourth day of the fourth month of the Lunar Calendar of 1960, Founder Master passed away. Master Nguyễn Lộc was only 48 years old and left a widow and 9 children (6 girls and 3 boys). The ashes of Master Nguyễn Lộc were carefully preserved in the Altar of Master Lê Sáng's Võ Đường, (Võ Đường Hùng Vương) usually called "Tổ Đường".

III) 1960-1964

On the 11th of November of 1960 a coup d'état was perpetrated in Sàigòn. Consequently the government of Mister Ngô Đình Diệm forbade all martial arts practice. The President Ngô Đinh Diệm was murdered the 1st of November of 1963 and in 1964 the martial arts were re-authorized.

IV) 1964-1975 

In 1964, Master Lê Sáng opened a Vovinam training center in the Vĩnh Viễn Street of Sàigòn and gathered a group of disciples from the “class of 1955” composed by masters, instructors and intimate friends. They founded the first official Vovinam’s Direction Comity. Nowadays it is sometimes called "the first Council of Masters". However, as not only masters were members of this meeting, it was not a "Council of Masters" but, as its name indicates, a commission for the direction of the style (Ban Chấp Hành Môn Phái).
In this meeting, it was decided that the practice of Vovinam would not be done with shorts and a nude torso anymore, but with a cloth similar to that of Judo, but thinner.
Ils décidèrent alors du système de couleurs des ceintures:
First Belt System created in1964:
- Màu Xanh, (Dark Blue) = Sơ Đẳng (Low Level) with three grades.
- Màu Vàng (Yellow) = Trung Đẳng (Medium Level) with three grades.
- Màu Đỏ (Red) = Cao Đẳng (High Level) with five grades.
- Màu Trắng (White) = Thượng Đẳng (Superior Level), only for the master leader of Vovinam.
(La ceinture noire n’existait pas à l’époque.)

There were 3 Cấp on the belts because they represented the three regions of Vietnam, the north Miền Bắc, the center Miền Trung and the south Miền Nam.

A new name for Vovinam

It was during the year 1964 that the decision to modify the name of Vovinam was taken. The goal was to guide Vovinam more in the philosophical side and in the sense of the Đạo. It was the conception and the foundation of the two notions Việt Võ Đạo - Nhân Võ Đạo.

The Sàigòn Police and Vovinam

Master Trần Huy Phong was the person-in-charge for the training of the 1200 policemen of Sàigòn.

First big movement of major Vovinam development in Vietnam

In 1968, in order to reach a major and faster Vovinam expansion, some masters were designated to go to very faraway places of South-Vietnam to open Vovinam Centers there: Master Nguyễn Văn Vang in Vĩnh Long, Master Nguyễn Văn Sen and Master Nguyễn Văn Nhàn in Cần Thơ, Master Trịnh Ngọc Minh in Nha Trang, Master Dương Minh Nhơn in Kiên Giang, Master Nguyễn Văn Ít in Mỹ Tho, Master Ngô Kim Tuyền in Bình Dương, Master Trần Văn Mỹ in Hậu Nghĩa, Master Trần Tân Vũ in Phu Yên, Master Nguyễn Tôn Khoa in An Giang, Master Nguyễn Văn Chiếu in the city of Quy Nhơn, etc.

Vovinam Việt Võ Đạo in the West

In 1972-73, Vovinam Việt Võ Đạo gradually began to be introduced to western countries. In 1974, Master Lê Sáng authorized the establishment of the International Federation of Vovinam Việt Võ Đạo. Some of the most famous or well-known Vietnamese masters and instructors in France were gathered under Professor Phan Hoàng.

Following Master Lê Sáng’s instructions, these masters and instructors, who did not belong to the Vovinam Việt Võ Đạo martial art, agreed to learn and then spread Vovinam.

V) End of the Vietnam War

In 1973, the American Forces left South-Vietnam and left this country alone in its struggle against the regular troops of the North and the Việt Cộng. The 30th of April 1975, the North Vietnamese troops entered in the capital of the South (Sàigòn) and ended the war, initiating the reunification of Vietnam and reprisals against the soldiers and politicians of the former government.

VI) After 1975

Following orders of the new unified country’s capital, Hà Nội, Vovinam as well as the other styles were forbidden in the south. On May 27th of 1975, almost one month after the end of the war, master Lê Sáng was incarcerated, then was Master Trần Huy Phong too. They never participated in the war nor did never have any political function in the former government.

Master Trần Huy Phong liberated

In Vietnam, in 1980, Master Trần Huy Phong, after having been incarcerated for five years, was the first to leave prison. Master Lê Sáng gave Master Trần Huy Phong the title of Chưởng Môn Lần Thứ III, 3rd patriarch successor of the Vovinam School. This left master Phong at the head of Worldwide Vovinam. Although he was not totally free: He was under house arrest and was controlled by the secret police.

Master Lê Sáng, endured the hard life in prison. He was freed in 1988, after 13 years of captivity. Then, there came some problems and disagreements about who “should be the new leader” of Vovinam. Master Lê Sáng finally came back to the leadership of Vovinam but it was the starting point of a divergence and a separation in two currents of expansion of the same martial art, at the beginning of the 90’s.

In April 1994, the government of Vietnam decided to create a Commission of Control and Management of Vovinam, taking away Master Lê Sáng’s position of director. They put in charge Communist Party members who were not even Vovinam practitioners. All the clubs that were not part of this Commission were closed. It produced a division inside Vovinam: on the one hand the masters that cooperated with the regime, and on the other hand the Masters that did not want to mix politics with Vovinam.
De nos jours :
Nowadays, the Vietnamese government declared Vovinam as "National Martial Art". This is quite positive on the one hand, since it is a gratification for the work that Master Nguyen Van Chieu did for the development of Vovinam in the post-1975 Vietnam, but on the other hand it also might mean more control from the government, even if Vietnam has now a true National Vovinam Federation.

VII) World Federation in Vietnam

In 1991, Patrick Levet, a French citizen expatriated in Spain, traveled to Vietnam for the first time and met Master Nguyen Van Chieu. When Patrick Levet came back to Vietnam for the 3rd time, in 1996, he decided to develop Vovinam in Spain as well as in other countries, and then he created a project of Intercontinental Vovinam VietVoDao Association (IVVDA). This entity would be for many years the only Vovinam organization to work officially with the Vovinam of Vietnam.
During 10 years, Patrick Levet would trot the globe spreading Vovinam. He reached to introduce Vovinam in 14 new countries and to teach officially Vovinam in more than 20 countries. In Vietnam, the newspapers nicknamed him "Hiep Si Tay Balo" (The Globe trotter knight). Vietnamese were quite astonished of this record from a Westerner, moreover when Patrick did all the interviews in Vietnamese language. "Hiep Si Tay Balo" (The Globe trotter knight).Vietnamese were quite astonished of this record from a Westerner, moreover when Patrick did all the interviews in Vietnamese language.
Thanks to the development of the Intercontinental Vovinam Association (IVVDA), who became later Intercontinental Vovinam Federation and would gather more than 30 countries, Vietnam could finally aspire to have its own World Federation: more and more countries were coming to Vietnam to compete in official Vovinam competitions.
In fact, Patrick Levet was the person who originated all international Vovinam competitions that took part in Vietnam from 1997. We even may affirm that it was Patrick Levet who was the promoter of the very first International Vovinam Championships in Vietnam, because there had never been any international Vovinam championships organized in Vietnam since the foundation of Vovinam in 1938.
In 1999 Mister Juan Cid Argilles (then President of the Intercontinental Vovinam Association), and Patrick Levet (the first Technical Director of this Association), went both to Vietnam for an interview with the Ministry Of Sport of Vietnam in Hanoi, in order to officially propose the foundation of an International Federation with its headquarters in Vietnam. Patrick Levet had even written an official letter in Vietnamese (a 7-page letter) to support his idea.

However, it's also thanks to the countries members of the Intercontinental Vovinam Federation (IVVDF) as well as to the non-member countries who participated in the international competitions in Vietnam that the World Vovinam Federation (WVVF) could be created, after nearly 10 years of administrative processes directed by Master Nguyen Van Chieu.

After the official foundation the World Vovinam Federation (WVVF) the Intercontinental Federation asked its countries members to transfer gradually to the new World Vovinam Federation (WVVF) since this one was having the support of numerous National Olympic Committees.


Thanks to the expatriates

The expansion of Vovinam all over the world is mainly due the expatriation of Vovinam masters and instructors. Due to the hard life conditions in Vietnam after the end of the war, a great number of them escaped from Vietnam after 1975 and found freedom in Europe, Australia, Africa and the United States of America. Thanks to those masters and teachers, the international expansion of Vovinam is as big as it is nowadays.