Guide to Vietnamese Swords: Exploring Design, Function, and History
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Vietnam lies like a dragon in the heart of Indo-China and is surrounded by several powerful dynasties and influences, some of them coming as far as Paris. As a result, numerous unique swords were created, each with its own fascinating backstory and influence from abroad.
In this article, we will discuss all types of Vietnamese swords. We shall start with the first ones from ancient times and finish with the modern Vietnamese ceremonial sabers. We will even go over the legendary Thuan Thien and the long history of Vietnamese swordcraft.
Types of Vietnamese Swords
A Vietnamese sword is an edged weapon that comes from the region of Vietnam. Vietnamese swords are separated into two categories and are either Kiem or Guam – straight or curved. They are all very popular today and can be seen in Asian martial arts and even in Chinese Kung Fu and Tai Chi.
Vietnamese Ancient Short Sword
In the earliest history of Vietnam, there were double-edged short swords, just like any other ancient civilization, especially their neighbor China. These ancient weapons were made out of copper or bronze, and their exact formula for creation, as well as the swordsmithing craft, were lost during the one thousand years of Chinese rule.
These weapons were much shorter than the Vietnamese swords that exist today. They were used for ceremonial, religious, and combat and were often combined with a long spear or polearm. The swords would have been held as a backup weapon for when the polearm was rendered useless.
The Kiem is a double-edged straight sword from Vietnam that seems to only have inherited similarities from the Chinese Jian and is unlike any other sword from that region and period in history. Although it mirrors the Jian in almost all its characteristics, it is still technically a different sword.
The biggest difference that swordsmiths notice is the much thinner steel blade, which the Chinese sword does not have. The Kiem has a very sharp blade that almost replicates a needle.
It was used for warfare and was a big ceremonial sword in the Nguen dynasty with lots of decorations like the Vietnamese kīrttimukha, which means the face of glory. This Vietnamese sword has an average length of around 36 inches (90 cm) and is usually very light, around 1.3 lbs (600 grams).
Guam or Viatnemese Dao
The Vietnamese Saber is sometimes called the Vietnamese Dao or the Guam. These types of Vietnamese swords are mostly single-edged and have a slight curve, something akin to the Chinese Dao swords. The Liuyedao Sword, better known as the Leaf Saber, probably heavily influenced the design of the Guam.
They can be separated into different groups based on their shape, size, and curve. These are the most popular Vietnamese antique swords available today and are known to be very deadly if they are made battle ready out of carbon steel.
Vietnamese Saber – Tonkin Guam
These sabers mostly come from the very northern parts of Vietnam, hence the very strong Chinese influence and design similarities. They are slightly curved and closely resemble the Liuyedao sword.
These types of Vietnamese swords usually also have a curved pommel, and most of the time they have no crossguard. They are also the most common sabers that were used in Vietnam and are very easy to recognize.
Vietnamese Dai Dao or Guom Truong
The Dai Dao was often just called the Dao, thanks to the Chinese terminology for these types of swords. The biggest influence these swords had are from the Japanese swords. It was directly influenced by the southeast Asian saber, the Thai Dha, and the Japanese Katana.
This Vietnamese sword has a very large handle making it a two-handed weapon that could be used for very fast and effective slashes. They were used often throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, and although it would be cool to call it the Vietnamese Katana, it was also influenced by the Chinese Liuyedao and the Dha.
Dao Truong – DaDao
The direct translation for Dao Truong would be ‘long sword’. The Truong Dao is a Vietnamese sword that is very similar to the Chinese DaDao and is a very long curved sword with a broad-tipped blade.
This Vietnamese sword usually has a more dramatic flaring and is very narrow rather than wide at the blade’s tip. It is a single-edged blade and has a very small Japanese-like guard together with a very long handle bound in rattan, something typical for Vietnam weapons. Also, it has a ring pommel which could help out in battle and make it easier to carry.
This sword was used for fighting in both small and large-scale battles, but its most well-known function is for beheading people during executions. The large curved blade carried enough energy to easily slice through someone’s neck.
France Dao – Thanh Guam
In the early 19th century, France had a significant impact and influence over swordcraft in Vietnam with their European-styled sabers. The Thanh Guam emerged as the first knuckle guard sword from Vietnam.
These sabers are decorated in Vietnamese patterns, and some of them even have tortoiseshell scabbards. The blade is single-edged and has a curve that ends in a very sharp tip. The difference between the Vietnamese and the European saber is the sharp curve in the scabbard. The Vietnamese scabbard has a distinctly curved point that is most likely a result of Chinese influence.
Today these are the most popular Vietnamese swords available, and there are many different versions of them. The ceremonial version is the most popular as it has the shortest blade and is meant to be used strictly for ceremonial purposes.
This rather unusual Viatnemese sword has been found throughout Vietnam and most likely had a lot of daily use as a machete-type tool and weapon. They were mostly made very simple without any decorations or designs, but some of them have very unique etchings on the blade, possibly being used as ceremonial weapons for the nobility.
This Vietnamese Large Falchion came from the northern parts of Vietnam and had a very big influence from the Chinese Niuweidao, which is very similar to this one. The biggest difference is in the blade. The Vietnamese Falchions are bigger while also having a fatter wider blade as well.
Thuan Thien – Legendary
The legendary Vietnamese sword Thuận Thiên, whose name literally translates to “to comply with Heaven,” was wielded by King Lê Lêi during the 10 years of conflict between 1418 and 1428 that resulted in the liberation of Vietnam from the Ming Dynasty’s control. After that, Lê Li anointed himself as king and monarch of the newly formed Lê Dynasty.
It is said that the sword had some kind of magical power and that this power was responsible for Lê Lêi’s extraordinary height. The mythos surrounding the sword was widely used to support Lê Lêi’s control over Vietnam since it says that when he wielded the sword, it provided him the power of ten thousand warriors.
Some historians believe that these legends were made at the same time as when Le Lêi was waging guerrilla warfare against the Chinese, mainly to increase his legitimacy and also to attract people to join him. Whatever the case may be, it must be said that the Thuan Thien sword has one of the most interesting legends surrounding it, with a fantastic mythological background.
History of the Vietnamese Swords
The influences of the Chinese, Japanese, and Thai cultures, as well as the French for later designs, can be seen in Vietnam’s gorgeous and fascinating swords. For their one-of-a-kind, region-specific weapons, blacksmiths in Vietnam used complex techniques for etching precious metals and forging superb chased silver.
Ivory or elephant tusks were sometimes used to mount the handles of more expensive or noble swords. These grips are crafted from either the tip of an elephant’s tusk or portions of an elephant’s molars. The oldest Vietnam sword can be traced back to ancient times, around the 5th century BC.
In Vietnam, swords played a large role in the country’s independence, and some have legendary stories connected to them. Although the invention of the rifle did evntually replace these swords, they have still been used on some occasions, like in WW2 under Japanese occupation or even during the Vietnam War.
Over the course of more than a millennium, Vietnam has served as a cultural melting pot thanks to its geography spanning along the coast between maritime countries of the Chinese Empire and those of Asia and Europe. The centuries of evolution, the wide range of cultural influences, and the exceptional local craftsmanship all came together to make one-of-a-kind swords.