The Struggle for Independence and National Identity: Nguyen Khac Vien's Vietnam: A Long History

by Steven K. Bailey, Jan 1, 1999 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Many fine books have been written about the history of Vietnam. In terms of American authors, many regard Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History as the definitive work on this subject. In the case of Vietnamese writers, a key book on Vietnamese history is Nguyen Khac Vien's Vietnam: A Long History. I hold Karnow's book in high regard, but I think Nguyen's book to be of equal merit, for here is an insightful chronicle of Vietnam penned by a native who lived through much of the history he describes.

Few could be better suited to the task of penning such a history than Nguyen Khac Vien. Eighty-two years old when The Gioi Publishers of Hanoi printed the revised edition of his book in 1993, Nguyen holds a Ph.D. and the 1992 Francophone Grand Prize of the French Academy. His historical insights are penetrating and by his own admission, subjective. Nguyen understands that no historian can be truly free of bias. He explains that traditionally court historians simply chronicled a king's rule, usually with a distinctly favorable bias. They called their royal chronicles "mirrors," a tradition Nguyen sees himself continuing, as he states in the final lines of his last chapter: "Like all mirrors, the one I have presented is perhaps distorted, or biased, to use a term currently in vogue. It is up to each individual reader to make any adjustments and reinterpretations that may be seen as necessary."

Certainly Nguyen's bias is clear: He is an older Vietnamese intellectual who views the world through the prism of Marxist theory. Generally this benefits his book, but sometimes it works against it. The book is ridden with tired communist jargon, for instance, though this is possibly the result of poor translation. Examples include subtitles like "Working Class, Bourgeoisie, New Intelligentsia" and "The Proletariat, Force of the Future." This might lead a reader to conclude that Nguyen does nothing but literally toe the party line, but in fact the opposite is true. He saves some of his sharpest criticisms for the Communist Party. Nguyen states, for example, that the economic policies adopted at the 1975 Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party proved "disastrous." He also believes that while it was necessary to imprison certain officials of the South Vietnamese government and army after the fall of Saigon, "the government erred in carrying [this policy] out indiscriminately."

For simplicity, Nguyen divides his 472-page hardback into two basic sections. The first, titled "Traditional Vietnam," remains the shorter of the two. It skims Vietnamese history from the Stone Age to the arrival of the French in 1858. Nguyen examines prehistoric cultures, of which relatively little is known and then details the ten-century occupation of Vietnam by various Chinese dynasties from the first century BC to the tenth century AD. He points out that this long occupation led to the absorption of many aspects of Chinese culture into Vietnamese culture, but that the more or less continual resistance to Chinese rule also forged a Vietnamese national identity. Here Nguyen reveals the central theme of his book: "The long march of the Vietnamese people and the birth and formation of their culture and their nation."

This theme continues in the much longer second section, titled "Contemporary Vietnam," which covers 1858 to 1993. Here Nguyen discusses the French colonial conquest, the birth of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam at the end of World War II, Dien Bien Phu and the French war, the Geneva Accords, the American war and the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the post-war efforts to achieve economic prosperity and heal the wounds left by decades of warfare.

For those who are not hard-core history buffs, I might add that this book has some practical uses of the guidebook variety. For example, Vietnam: A Long History unlocks the mystery of city street names. Many streets in Saigon are named for famous people, but only the most illustrious names will be familiar to the average western visitor. However, by using the book's index, a reader can look up the figures for which the streets are named. For instance, I discovered that De Tham Street, epicenter of Saigon's budget traveler district, is named for a Vietnamese guerilla leader otherwise known as Hoang Hoa Tham. De Tham fought against the French in the Red River Delta in the late 1800s, and that his name now graces a street overrun with an invading army of foreign backpackers strikes me as an interesting irony.

The pages about De Tham aside, I found the final chapter to be the most interesting because it covers new ground and asks hard questions. Here Nguyen explains that he sees Vietnamese history as an ongoing struggle for independence and national identity that is not yet complete. Today the country has certainly achieved independence and peace after 150 years of war against French, Japanese, Chinese and American invaders. However, Nguyen feels less certain of his country's national identity. The north-south divide no longer exists, he believes, but other problems conspire to tear the Vietnamese national fabric. Restive minority groups, such as the Hoa, Khmer and Hmong, are not fully integrated into Vietnamese society. The same could be said of the ethnic Chinese and religious minorities such as the Cao Dai and Catholics, who comprise 7-8% of the population. In addition, what Nguyen terms "wild capitalism" has led to class-based inequities of wealth and power. Knitting this "mosaic" into a cohesive national identity remains the country's biggest challenge, Nguyen concludes.

Nguyen does not claim to know with any certainty what the future holds for his country; nobody has such prescience. But for those readers who want to understand where Vietnam has come from and use this knowledge to comprehend future events as they unfold; it is a clear window into Vietnam's past and a hazy crystal ball into its future.