Illuminating Vietnam

Vietnam is flooded each year by more than 3 million tourists from all over the world. They come to see a nation shaped by thousands of years of diverse cultural influence, oppression, rebellion and war. In no other country is a history so vividly apparent; you can step into Hanoi and read the city’s story from what you see in the streets as easily as you would read the words from a page. Many European cities look very similar; you could stand in the centre of one and plausibly be in any number of countries. But stand in a Vietnamese city and you can have no possible doubt as to where you are, the country’s past being so imprinted on everything you see. The old quarter in Hanoi acts as a perfect visual representation of it’s own history: the Chinese-looking temples, the French colonial-style buildings with their crumbling beauty, the constant presence of brilliant red and yellow. And all of this intertwined in an untidy melange; the many different elements of Vietnam’s past tumbling over one another as if fighting to come out on top. Importantly no one element dominates, they are all relics of forces that tried to, but ultimately failed and have instead been themselves assimilated into Vietnam’s unique and varied culture.

Many things in Vietnam seem paradoxical: the architecture an enchanting mix of Chinese and French, now accompanied by the increasing number of new glossy shop fronts, throwing the old buildings of a battered Vietnam into sharp relief. Stumbling across incredible 19th century neo-gothic Cathedrals in a country where 85% of the population are Buddhist; seeing a nation apparently embracing capitalism while knowing that the Communist Party of Vietnam governs it. This is a country with a traumatic history of subjugation and bloodshed, so you’d expect to find a people haunted by their past, but the majority of Vietnamese people were not even part of that history. Over two thirds of the population was born after 1975 (the year the USA finally withdrew their troops), their culture is deeply rooted in ancient religion and etiquette but is dominated by youth, propelling them away from their painful past and into the future

In the melting pot that is Vietnam arguably the most significant influence has been that of it’s northerly neighbour, China. Vietnam was under Chinese rule for a thousand years until it finally gained independence in the mid 10th century. Unsurprisingly then, Chinese influence pervades Vietnamese culture. The Vietnamese language ‘borrows’ much of its vocabulary from Cantonese in particular and was originally written using a Chinese character system. Another of the key effects of such early and sustained Chinese rule was the introduction of Confucianism to Vietnamese society, which today remains the basis for much of the country’s culture and etiquette. A perfect example of the philosophical and educational impact of China’s 1st millennia rule is the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu) in Hanoi. Built in 1076 it is a temple of Confucius and was also the site of the first university in Vietnam, housed in the 5th courtyard of this majestic temple complex. China also introduced the method of ‘terraced’ farming, laying the foundations for one of Vietnam’s most important agricultural industries, rice farming.

It is tempting now to skip forward to the late 19th century and French colonisation but before this there was another foreign import that became crucial in the formation of modern day Vietnam. In the 16th century the first Catholic missionaries arrived from Portugal. It was not until the early 17th century and the arrival of Father Alexander de Rhodes that Catholicism really took hold but it was the Portuguese who laid the foundations. It was de Rhodes who created the Latin alphabet-based writing system still used in Vietnam today but once again he was working on the earlier efforts of Portuguese missionaries. These events cannot be seen as insignificant in Vietnam’s history as the country now has the 5th largest Catholic community in any Asian country and thousands of tourists each year visit Vietnam’s stunning cathedrals such as the Notre Dame Basilica in Ho Chi Minh City.

Just as the Vietnamese took many positive aspects from their thousand years under Chinese rule, their years as part of French Indochina also left elements that are now firmly embedded in Vietnamese culture. The French occupation influenced Vietnamese language and particularly the Cuisine of the country. In contrast to the surrounding countries in South East Asia, freshly baked baguettes are commonly sold on the streets in the same way that Pad Thai is sold in Thailand. This is often a pleasant treat for Western travellers longing for some familiar grub but it is also another example of Vietnam’s wonderfully varied and surprising society. Furthermore the colonial style buildings all over the country add an incredibly romantic and evocative kind of decayed beauty to Vietnam’s aesthetic. The French also influenced a sense of architectural grandeur in buildings such as the stunning post office in Ho Chi Minh City.

However, in celebrating these things it is all too easy to forget what they took away. The French bombing of the country in the late 1940s destroyed several national treasures (including the 5th courtyard of Hanoi’s Temple of Literature) and before withdrawing in 1954 they demolished the One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi. Dating from 1049 and considered by the Vietnamese as one of their two greatest temples, true to form, the Vietnamese simply rebuilt this treasure, reiterating their incredible resilience.

Perhaps France’s greatest legacy is the Communist Party of Vietnam, for it was in 1926, during this period of French governance that Ho Chi Minh founded the party. This party has shaped Vietnam’s modern history from the mid-20th century to present day. Would the party ever have come into existence, would the Vietnam War ever have happened without the catalyst of French imperialism?

China also had an important impact on Vietnam throughout the 20th century. It was communist China that flooded Vietnam with weapons in the early 60s. China provided some material backing once the Communists managed to seize power from the French in the late 40s and provided a level of ‘uncommitted’ political support. However in 1962 this support escalated when the Chinese supplied Hanoi with 90,000 guns and rifles. The Chinese then also supplied troops to aid the Viet Cong as the communist fighters became known, and crucially, helped to repair roads and railways, thus freeing the Vietnamese troops to concentrate on fighting.

China was not the only Communist country to aid Vietnam in this era; the Soviet Union provided medical supplies as well as significant military aid in the form of tanks, helicopters, planes, arms and artillery. In the post WWII world and with the onset of the Cold War, America was trying desperately to stop what it saw as a Domino Effect of Communism hence their intervention in Vietnam. Of course the other side of this coin is what the world saw happen in Vietnam; a country bolstered by other communist nations, rallying together against a common Western threat. The Cold War witnessed these ideological power plays being conducted in Africa and South America too, in effect enabling the Super Powers to fight wars by proxy.

Sino-Vietnamese relations deteriorated in the late 1970s and Vietnam was forced to increase its economic and military reliance upon the Soviet Union. This period of dependency is most visible in modern Vietnam in the form of the two stroke Russian Minsk 125 motorcycle, many of which still clog the roads and atmosphere and are easily recognisable even in the hectic Vietnamese traffic.

After the Reunification of Vietnam in 1976 (the North and South had been separated for 12 years in line with the Geneva Accords) a policy of widespread collectivisation was implemented throughout the country with devastating economic consequences. A decade later the reformation was still painfully slow and reformers at the National Congress replaced the old leadership and began the implementation of Doi Moi. This initially controversial economic policy would allow certain levels of privatisation and take Vietnam into the free-market. While the state-owned conglomerates are still in existence this dramatic shift in policy has allowed the economy to grow by around 8% almost every year for the past decade and poverty levels have considerably dropped. However the gap between rich and poor is ever widening and there is a massive disparity in wealth and living conditions between rural and urban areas. On the other hand Doi Moi has helped improve Vietnam’s international relationships. Former enemies China and the US are now two of the biggest investors in the Vietnamese economy.

Far from feeling resentment towards the US most Vietnamese (especially the predominant youth) idolise them as an economic superpower. The Westernising influence of this relationship and the impact of a booming tourist industry is best demonstrated at the beach resorts of Vietnam. Just off the coast of Nha Trang is a small island which has been turned entirely into a theme park (a dubious choice for a nation of people who find it hard to take the bus without seeing their lunch again) and the island’s name Vin Pearl can be seen from the mainland in Hollywood-style letters. Just another, albeit slightly more bizarre, Vietnamese surprise. Expect the unexpected, as Sam Manicom says in the next article.

Sitting on the first floor of a café in Hanoi, in a room decorated completely in red and yellow stars, hammers and sickles and the ubiquitous portraits of leader Ho Chi Minh, you look out onto a small leafy square which is dominated by the beautiful St Joseph’s Cathedral. It is the invariable existence of juxtapositions like this that makes Vietnam such an extraordinary country to experience. At every turn you are reminded of its rich and troubled history, of its people’s ability to take all of these contrasting influxes and make them seem perfectly at home with each other. Posters reminiscent of Soviet Russia plaster the walls of buildings that you’d expect to see in some square in a corner of old Paris, Confucianist pagodas covered in Chinese symbols stand on the same street as a Jazz Café that wouldn’t look out of place in downtown New Orleans and in a country where everything is for sale, a country with a booming economy that has embraced capitalism, it is impossible to escape the symbols of communism: a red flag emblazoned with a yellow star, the hammer and sickle flying alongside. At times it even feels as though the country is haunted by Ho Chi Minh, so omnipresent is his image. I wonder how he would feel, this icon of communist leadership, if he knew that now, as with Che Guevara, his own face had become a commodity, on a postcard, a t-shirt or key-ring. This, in a way, is the very essence of Vietnam. In a history of foreign rule, repression and battles for liberty, Vietnam has always overcome, made it out the other side by taking everything it could from what came before in order to carry on after.

Bridie Chomse