Your Own Private Tutor: The Ancient Civilization of Vietnam

by Steven K. Bailey, Jul 1, 1998 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Do you find certain Vietnamese concepts a bit hard to grasp? Do you feel confused by such non-western practices as Taoism and ancestor worship? Do aspects of the culture sometimes cause you to scratch your head in puzzlement?

If you're feeling perplexed, don't worry. A little cross-cultural confusion is to be expected during your first visit. Fortunately, there is help in the form of The Ancient Civilization of Vietnam, a text written by Dr. Nguyen Van Huyen (1908-75). This little gem is not a guidebook, but a schoolbook. This seems appropriate, for I have always found Vietnam, not to mention the rest of Asia, to be one long learning experience.

Dr. Nguyen earned his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne and served as the North Vietnamese Minister of Culture from 1946 until his death in 1975. He first published his work in 1945 under the title La civilisation annamite. He intended it to be a secondary school textbook for Vietnamese students. Last year, however, an English translation of the book was printed to mark its fiftieth anniversary. As a result, it is no longer just a textbook for students, but a handy reference for western travelers as well.

As Dr. Nguyen well knew, understanding a nation's past, be it Venezuela, Vanuatu or Vietnam, leads to an understanding of its present. This truism is the basic premise of The Ancient Civilization of Vietnam, a helpful reference book for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the people.

The fact that Dr. Nguyen penned this title more than fifty years ago strikes me as a strength rather than a weakness because he wrote at a time when Vietnam still remained largely rural, unmodernized and agrarian. Dr. Nguyen knew the premodern--and prewar--life of Vietnam firsthand, and recorded his observations and conclusions for the benefit of future readers like ourselves who know only a more modern Vietnam. The pages of this book are not nearly as outdated as they might first appear. For example, Dr. Nguyen's explanation of Confucianism remains as relevant now as it was fifty years ago. Without a working knowledge of such ancient concepts, the western mind cannot fully comprehend twentieth-century Vietnam.

The book's 300 pages are broken down into nine chapters, all jam-packed with insight. Topics covered include the clan and family, village life, religion, art, language, the emperor and imperial cult of worship, agriculture and more. If you have the good fortune to be invited to a Vietnamese wedding ceremony, the book can help you again. If you decide to give betel nut a try, the book even lists the recipe for a traditional betel-nut chew: areca nut, lime, tree root, tobacco, and, of course, the betel itself. Don't forget to check this out in the course of your travels.

This is an inexpensive, lightweight paperback that won't take up much space in your bag. Rather than scratch your head next time you're baffled, pull out your trusty copy of The Ancient Civilization of Vietnam instead. Enlightenment is just a page away.