Alpert, William T. (2005). The Vietnamese economy and its transormation to |
an open market systen. New York: ME Sharpe Inc. [Chapter 2 Only]
Cultural Issues in
Ton That Thien
Thousands of books have been written about Vietnam in the past fifty years-
fifteen hundred between 1975 and 1989 alone. The majority of these books
dealt with the country's anticolonial struggles and their ramifications, in par-
ticular with the wars in which Vietnam was involved and their international
dimensions. These various aspects have been covered extensively and even
exhaustively by many authors. There is therefore no need to go over the same
ground again. (For background material, see the bibliography at the end of this
Consequently, Vietnam's struggle for independence from French colonialism
will not be covered here, nor will the Vietnam wars and the international
politics related to them, except incidentally. Instead, the focus will be on an
aspect of Vietnam largely neglected by these writers: the psychological and
cultural attributes of the country and its people. This subject is particularly
relevant as it is the most important one pertaining to the economic modern-
ization of underdeveloped countries.2
Economic development depends on the willingness and capacity of people to
meet the conditions that produce positive and sustained economic growth. In
the first years after the end of World War n, people involved in the promotion
of fast economic development for underdeveloped countries-mostly
economists, technical experts, and Western idealists-quickly discovered two
stark truths. First, they saw that the greatest obstacles to rapid development, or
to any development at all, are traceable to the attitudes of the people of the
countries concerned; they are psychological and cultural, and not technical
or due to a lack of "know-how" or capital. Second, these obstacles are essen-
tially endogenous, deeply rooted in the histories of the people concerned, and
not exogenous, raised by stubborn nostalgic imperialism. One should thus
expect Vietnam to also be subject to the same constraints in its economic
development. Focusing on them is, therefore, quite appropriate.
Vietnam has undeniably become fully independent since 1975. It is now the
master of its own destiny. France, the United States, the Soviet Union, although
perhaps not China, have ceased to be the major players in Vietnam because
none of them are in a position to control the country's destiny and direct its
people's conduct. Policies intended for Vietnam today and in the future will
have to be centered, essentially on the Vietnamese, the people-and their
political leaders-who will play the major role in their implementation.
For the policies recommended for Vietnam to be acceptable to the Viet-
namese, in particular to all Vietnamese governments, one should ensure that
these policies are feasible and realistic. It is therefore necessary for their
formulators to make correct assumptions concerning the willingness and ca-
pacity of the Vietnamese and their political leaders to implement such policies.
This, in turn, means that knowledge of what makes the Vietnamese "tick" is
As a matter of common sense, we can assume that regardless of ideological
inclinations, what defines the Vietnamese today as a culture and society is
likely to be similar to what has defined them during their two-thousand-year
A study of this kind is unavoidably subject to two constraints: It has to be
essentially interpretive rather than purely descriptive, and it has to be thematic
rather than chronological. Within the limits of these constraints, the following
events will be covered:
• How the Vietnamese responded to the challenge of their regional envi-
ronment before the intrusion of the West; in other words, from cultural
origin to the mid-nineteenth century.
• .How the Vietnamese responded to the challenge of the West between the
1850s and 1975.
• How the Vietnamese responded to the challenge of a totally new inter-
national environment since 1975, with the breakup of the Communist
brotherhood, the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of communism in
The Country and Its People
Vietnam occupies a central position in Southeast Asia. The distances from its
major cities to other cities of the region are moderate:
CULTURAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S TRANSITION 15
• Ho Chi Minh City to Singapore: 1,100 kilometers . Ho Chi Minh City to
Jakarta: 1,890 kilometers
• Hanoi to Rangoon: 1,770 kilometers
• Hanoi to Manila: 1,120 kilometers
Vietnam is at the crossroads of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. The
major sea-lanes from Europe and the Indian Ocean to Northeast Asia pass off
its coastline. Indeed, it overlooks the Pacific Ocean and for this reason has been
called a "balcony over the Pacific." Below this balcony, its continental shelf
stretches over 500,000 square kilometers.
Vietnam's immediate neighbors are China in the north, with which it shares
1,150 kilometers of common border; Laos in the west, with 1,650 kilometers of
common border; and Cambodia in the west and southwest, with 930 neigh-
With an area of 329,560 square kilometers, Vietnam is slightly smaller than
Arizona. It is larger than Cambodia and Laos, but tiny compared to its northen
neighbor China, and slightly smaller than Japan. Compared to its Southeast
Asian neighbors, Vietnam is of moderate size, coming after Indonesia and
Thailand, holding equal rank with Malaysia, and being larger than the
Philippines and, of course, Singapore.
In broad physical terms, a distinctive feature of Vietnam is that it is com-
posed of two large bulges in the north and the south linked by a narrow and
long waist in the middle, a division reflected in the administrative structure of
Another distinctive physical feature is that the two large bulges in the north
and south are also two large basins watered by two large rivers, the Red River
in the north, which flows through a delta in North Vietnam some 15,000 square
kilometers wide; and the Mekong River in the south, which has a delta of
40,000 square kilometers wide. Along the length of Central Vietnam is a string
of narrow coastal plains, forming pockets separated by hills protruding into the
In terms of resources, agriculturally the country's arable land is rather
limited. It occupies only 95,000 square kilometers, one-third of the country's
territory. On the other hand, the forested areas are extensive and contain a large
variety of species, including many precious ones, while the surrounding seas
are rich in fish as well as crustaceans, in particular, shrimp. As for mineral
resources, the country is known to be relatively well endowed also: its soil is
known to contain some fifty kinds of minerals, including lead, antimony, gold,
nickel, bauxite, iron, tin, copper, and especially sizable reserves of coal and oil.
Racially the Vietnamese population is mixed. It contains some sixty ethnic
groups belonging to two predominant streams: Mongoloids moving down from
Vietnam's Ethnic Groups (1986)
Vi et (or Kinh)
Hoa (or Han)
Mien (or Kho-me)
Hmong (or Meo)
Source: George Condominas, "Ethnologie," in Alain Ruscio, ed., Vietnam:
L'Histoire, la terre, les hommes (Paris: L'Harrnattan, 1989), p. 43.
the north and Malaysians moving up from the south. The Vietnamese, or Kinh,
residents of the lowlands predominate, with 80 percent of the total. The others
are the Hoa, or Han - Vietnamese of Chinese origin - and the Thuong, residents
of the highlands. Twelve groups number over 100,000 each (see Table 2.1).
The smallest groups, about one dozen, have 1,000 members or less each.3
With regard to religion, the majority of the Vietnamese have adopted the
traditional tarn giao, the three religions -Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
All Vietnamese adopt basic Confucian moral values, although Confucian
political institutions have long been discarded and Confucian social values have
been much weakened. The majority identify themselves as practicing
Buddhism, while small minorities have adopted Cao Dai or Hoa Hao, two
religions native to the south. There is also a sizable Catholic community. At
present there are no exact figures concerning the sizes of the Cao Dai and Hoa
Hao. They are estimated to number 2.5 million each. Catholics numbered 5
million in 1989 according to one estimate.4 Concurrently with these main forms
of worship, animism and superstition continue to exert a strong influence.
Vietnam from Its Origins to the Early Nineteenth Century
In the 1850s, at the time of the first French intervention, Vietnam had achieved
the status of a recognized separate state and regional power. Its struggle to
achieve this status had extended over eighteen centuries. Ten were spent
CULTURAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S TRANSITION 17
resisting pressure from the north, avoiding total absorption by China, and win-
ning separate statehood; and eight saw the nation expand southward from the
Red River delta to the Mekong delta and gain the status of a major power in the
region. During this long period Vietnam rejected Chinese rule but adopted
Chinese culture. It escaped the status of a Chinese province but became a
The uncertainty concerning Vietnam's origin has made the Vietnamese very
sensitive to China's claims of not only suzerainty, but, more dangerously, its
annexation. Until the 1960s the prevailing view concerning the origin of the
Vietnamese was based essentially on Chinese sources. According to this view
the Vietnamese are the descendants of the one hundred Yue (Viet) tribes whose
original home was the area around Dongting Lake and the Yangzi River in
Central China. These tribes were driven south under the pressure of stronger
neighbors and settled in present North Vietnam. They mingled with the local
people there and founded the kingdom of Nam Viet, or Nam Yue, meaning Yue
of the South. Thus the Vietnamese are the product of an immigration from
China, a view obviously full of unpleasant implications for proud Vietnamese
In the late 1920s certain archaeological finds, especially of bronze drums in
the Dong-Son (Thanh-Hoa) area, pointed to the possible existence of an early
civilization inside northern Vietnam. Since the 1960s, Vietnamese ar-
chaeologists have tried hard to find more conclusive evidence to support the
view that Vietnam existed as a state and a civilization long before the Han
invasion and conquest in the second century B.C.E. The Hanoi scholars were
eager to prove a Vietnamese popular assertion that "four thousand years of
civilization" under the Hung Vuong dynasty of the Van Lang state, and under
King An Duong of the Au Lac state, are not just legends but anchored in fact.
The archaeologists' efforts have been partially successful. Their discoveries
since 1960, along with the discovery of the bronze drums at Dong-Son,
substantiated the view that the Vietnamese states existed with undeniable state
structures and a "distinct and brilliant civilization" between 2878 and the third
century B.C.E., and very possibly as far back as 4000 B.C.E. The Hanoi
scholars call this "the Red River civilization."5 They have a strong claim that
the cradle of the Vietnamese people is the Red River delta (in northern
Vietnam) and not the Yangzi River area of China, and their evidence has
provided comfort to nationalistic Vietnamese vis-a- vis their gigantic northern
neighbor (see map).
The Hanoi scholars did not dispute the fact, recorded in Chinese annals, that
in the year 111 B.C.E., Vietnam was invaded and conquered by the Han under
Emperor Wudi, annexed outright to China, and given the name Giao Chi. It
remained under direct Chinese rule for the next 1,050 years. This obviously is
Map of Vietnam
CHAPTER 2 - 18
CULTURAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S TRANSITION 19
a very significant fact in the history of Vietnam from every point of view,
particularly the psychological and cultural.
Politically, Giao Chi was administered as a province of China in every way,
like any other province: by Chinese officials, according to Chinese rules. The
Chinese exploited Giao Chi economically. On the other hand, they also brought
to its people a higher level of culture and civilization. Chinese officials
introduced new crops and better agricultural techniques-in particular the
planting of rice and the use of the plow - and improved the educational and
cultural levels of the people through such activities as organizing examinations
for the bureaucracy, teaching manners, and establishing marriage rules. The
work of these Chinese officials was acknowledged by the Vietnamese, who
built temples to honor and worship them.
Readiness to learn and the ability to learn quickly are basic traits of the
Vietnamese. Another is a stubborn clinging to what they think is "the summum
bonum of intelligence." The combination of these factors explains why the most
important product introduced by the Chinese during their long rule,
Confucianism, has taken such a strong hold in Vietnam. Vietnamese views on
the cosmos, society, men and their mutual relations, government, ethics, and
much else bear the stamp of Confucianism, and, more particularly, the Song
brand of Confucianism. The Song variation stresses daoli, the moral sphere, at
the expense of wuli, which is the sphere of things and the physical world. As a
result, good ethics and brilliant literary achievements were valued highly while
economic performance was disdained. This contrasts with the Japanese brand,
which accepted both dori, involving morality, and butsuri, involving things and
physical forces-a combination that more readily opens the door to
modernization and economic development. Song Confucianists stressed
particularly the need for a centralized government, a strong bureaucracy, and an
In addition to Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism also came to Vietnam
by way of China. Buddhism preached renunciation, and Taoism preached
mysticism. Neither stressed the necessity of studying and understanding wuli,
or of science, a basic condition of modernization and economic development.
Until the West, through France, exerted its impact on Vietnam, Chinese
culture had extensively and intensively fashioned Vietnam, molding it in the
image of China. Any traveler who has visited both Vietnam and southern China
surely has been struck by the resemblance between the landscapes as well as by
the similar customs - the rice fields and farming techniques, villages surrounded
by bamboo hedges, worship of ancestors and spirits, acceptance of the basic
Confucianist moral precepts, and so forth.
While accepting Chinese culture and techniques, the Vietnamese resolutely
rejected total absorption by China. This rejection took the form of
open rebellions that occurred in response to oppression, economic exploitation,
and abuse by officials during the period of Chinese direct rule in 40-44 C.E.
These uprisings took place under the Vietnamese Trung sisters; and in 248,
under Trieu-Au, also a woman. There also was open war when the Vietnamese
were confronted with non-Chinese models represented by the cultures and
techniques of the West.
Until then, however, the mastery of the Chinese model made Vietnam a
strong state capable of both resisting Chinese pressures in the north and de-
feating weaker neighbor states and expanding into the south. This expansion is
known to the Vietnamese as nam tien-"the march to the South."
Nam tien is a great epic of Vietnam's history. Begun in the tenth century, this
march covered a thousand kilometers and extended over eight centuries. In the
process it destroyed one state-Champa-swallowed up a large chunk of another-
Cambodia-and carried the Chinese model from the Red River delta to the
shores of the Mekong River, the Gulf of Thailand, and, for a short time, right up
to the borders of Thailand itself.
In 1020, less than one hundred years after Vietnam achieved independence,
the Ly, successors of the Ngo, staged a major military expedition against the
Indianized kingdom of Champa. By 1069 they had extended the borders of
Giao Chi, renamed Dai Viet, to Quang Tri. The next dynasty, the Tran, pushed
Vietnam's borders to the latitude of Hue, which became Vietnamese in 1307. In
1402, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai were taken by the short-lived Ho dynasty.
Then in 1470, the next dynasty, the Le, definitively broke the power of Champa
by dividing it into three small kingdoms. The next dynasty, the Nguyen,
completed the absorption of this country in less than one century. Phru Yen
(Qui Nhon) was founded in 1611, Dien Khanh (Nha Trang) in 1653, and Binh
Thuan (Phan Thiet) in 1697. Thus ended Champa. Beyond Champa spread the
vast, fertile, and beckoning expanses of Cambodia (see map).
Less than five years after the formal founding of Dien Khanh, the first
Vietnamese settled in Bien Hoa on Cambodian territory. Between 1658 and
1759, what is present-day southern Vietnam was conquered by the Nguyen. Gia
Dinh (Ho Chi Minh City) and My Tho were occupied in 1679; Ha Tien in 1708;
Vinh Long, Sadec, and Chau Doc in 1759; and Ca Mau in 1780 (see map).
During the next fifty years civil war prevented the Vietnamese from seeking
further gain. But after the war ended, the march resumed, this time westward
under Minh Mang (who ruled from 1820-40). He changed the name of the
country from Vietnam to Dai Nam, or Greater Vietnam. Cambodia was
annexed and placed under direct Vietnamese administration. Vietnam's borders
were extended to the border of Thailand.
CULTURAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S TRANSITION
Cambodian resistance was fierce, and Vietnamese troops and officials had to
evacuate the country and pull back to its present-day borders to wait for a more
opportune time to resume their march. They had to wait another 130 years as, in
the meantime, France had come between Vietnam and Cambodia and brought
both countries under its rule. It should be added that France had come between
Vietnam and Thailand also, as Vietnam's expansion into Cambodia had brought
it into direct contact, strong competition, and armed conflict with that country.
A glance at the map shows that economics, and more specifically the con-
straint on an economy based essentially on agriculture, was a major reason for
Vietnam's territorial expansion at the expense of Champa and Cambodia. A
social crisis had been deepening since the twelfth century.6 A growing
population, agricultural space limited to the narrow Red River delta, and
technology permitting only low productivity made it imperative for the Viet-
namese rulers to constantly acquire more land, especially more fertile land, to
feed their people and avoid social unrest. For this they could only push
southward against Vietnam's weaker neighbors.
Statistics on Vietnam's population growth before 1900 are almost nonex-
istent. But fragmentary as they are, they tell us that Vietnam's population
expanded from about 1 million at the time of Giao Chi in the first century 7 to
5.2 million at the time of the Ming invasion in the early fifteenth century -
according to Chinese records8 - and to 13 million at the end of the nineteenth
century, according to Hanoi scholars.9
The following figures give a measure of the migration of Vietnamese, mostly
poor peasants, to the south. Between 1658 and 1696,40,000 households-some
200,000 people-had settled in the newly acquired lands. By 1880 the number of
settlers there had increased to 1,679,000 people.10
Considering the interstate practices prevailing at the time, instead of being
imperialist, Vietnam itself could very well have been a victim of imperialism on
the part of China, Champa, or Cambodia. Indeed, in the early part of the
fifteenth century, Vietnam almost ceased to exist when it was annexed outright
for two decades by China under the Ming. Regarding Champa, before its power
was finally broken by Vietnam in the fifteenth century, it was a serious threat to
Vietnam. Finally, Cambodia had been a great regional power until the twelfth
century, when it as known as Funan.
Vietnam's nam tien took place during a period of prolonged civil war,
another major fact in the country's history. It lasted for two hundred years, from
1600 to 1800, and divided the country neatly into practically two states: Xu
Dang Trong, the South, and Xu Dang Ngoai, the North. This left two deep
impressions on the country that persist even today. In Vietnam's history this war
is known as Trinh-Nguyen Phan Tranh, or the Trinh-Nguyen struggle.
In typically Vietnamese fashion, it was a fight between two related but fiercely
competitive families and their followers. Each group professed to uphold the
same values of Confucian honor and defense of the authority of the legitimate
monarch and to seek the same aim of carrying out the will of heaven and
answering the wish of the people.
The Trinh-Nguyen Phan Tranh was, however, not just a two-way fight, but
rather a three-way one, as between 1771 and 1802 the Nguyen in the south had
to face a rebellion of the Tay Son. After having temporarily overthrown the
Nguyen, the Tay Son moved north and overthrew the Trinh and the Le emperor
as well. One can imagine what this kind of many-sided and constant warfare did
to the country and its people. In fact, after the Nguyen had defeated all of its
enemies and laid claim to the throne, they had to try to rebuild a tattered
country in political, economic, and social disarray.
The dynasty being new, its authority was challenged from many quarters,
especially in places far away from the capital, such as Hue. The court had to
spend a great deal of time and energy putting down rebellions in the north and
in the south. Next, after so many years of bellum.omnium contra omnes, the
country had to be rebuilt from scratch at a time when officials of the court and
the common people were physically and mentally exhausted. Heavy demands
were made for new efforts and new ideas from the mandarins and new
contributions in labor and taxes from the people. And with all that, the country,
from emperor down, and especially the Confucian mandarins of the court, had
to cope with increasing pressure and then with aggression by the West,
represented by the French.
Vietnam and the West (1800-1975)
The intrusion of the French forced the Vietnamese to face a completely new
problem: how to cope with a totally alien, non-Chinese nation. Vietnam, as
"Little China," could cope with "Big China." France was not only different
from but also stronger than Vietnam, and even stronger than China-the su-
perpower of the time in Vietnamese eyes. Against the French, the Chinese
model based on the Confucian Weltanschauung ceased to be effective. What to
put in its place? This was the big problem for the Vietnamese then, and for the
next 150 years.
The problem contains two basic questions: How to fight French domination,
and how to modernize Vietnam? In Vietnamese, the answer, put in a nutshell,
was phu, cuong, or power and wealth. The two are naturally intimately linked:
cuong, or military power, must be based on phu, or wealth, understood in a
broad sense as economic power.
The necessity of finding conect answers to the above questions had already
CULTURAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S TRANSITION 23
arisen under Gia Long (1802-20), but it became vital under his successors,
Minh Mang (1820-40), Thieu Tri (1840-47), and Tu Duc (184783).
Unfortunately, Gia Long missed the great opportunity for change to prepare the
country for successfully meeting the new challenge. Instead of Westernizing, he
chose to revert resolutely and fully to the past, resumed the Chinese connection,
and clamped the Chinese mold firmly on his country. He initiated a policy of
"massive assertion of Confucian values and institutions." Minh Mang continued
that policy "with a vengeance," and Tu Duc also opted unreservedly for
"extreme Confucian conservatism."ll It has been suggested that Gia Long's
behavior conformed to "a law of development" of Vietnam until the middle of
the nineteenth century: "As Vietnam becomes politically independent from the
old Chinese colonizer, its sinicization intensifies."12 As we shall see, this will
remain true even beyond the mid-nineteenth century. In any case, the emperors
and their courts stubbornly clung to the Chinese model in spite of the warnings
and the repeated pleadings of Vietnamese who had been abroad and seen the
The best known preacher of reforms of that time was Nguyen Truong To. He
had been to Hong Kong, Singapore, Penang, and Europe and had seen the
modern world. His great curiosity, sharp mind, and keen sense of observation
allowed him to perceive with great vision what should be done to modernize
Vietnam. In more than twenty memoranda to the emperor, he outlined a
remarkably comprehensive plan for modernizing the country: survey of the
country's resources; development of mining, agriculture, commerce, and
industries; promotion of foreign investments; and reform of finances, education,
and political institutions.
Tragically for Vietnam, Tu Duc, who as an absolute monarch could have
steered the country in any direction he wished, took no action but instead
referred the proposals to the court and to his mandarins, whose minds were cast
in the solid Chinese Confucian mold. They especially wanted security of
position, peace, and tranquility, and found all kinds of pretexts to turn down
Nguyen Truong To's proposals. They called them "wild talk," "impractical,"
"subversive," "irrelevant," "untimely," "unnecessary," "matters requiring
serious study," and so forth. 13 The result was easy conquest by the French and
subjection of the country to humiliating French rule in 1884. More important,
the country's modernization would be delayed for more than a century and be
much more difficult.
In 1885 the French replacement of Vietnam's reigning emperor, Ham Nghi,
by a man of their choice, Emperor Dong Khanh, sparked a rebellion of the
Vietnamese scholars, the Can Vuong, who supported the king. This movement,
led by the highly respected Phan Dinh, was unsuccessful, as were all
Vietnamese uprisings against the French. However, independence
movements inspired by the Japanese model greatly heartened the Vietnamese,
as the general belief among the intellectuals was that "if Japan can do it, we can
do it too."14 .
The upshot of the stimulation by China and Japan was the founding of the
Duy Tan modernization movement with its twin manifestations: the Dong Du
(the Go East school) and the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc (the Modern school). Both
reached their high point in 1906 and 1907. The Dong Du, brainchild of Phan
Boi Chau, aimed at giving young Vietnamese military training by sending them
to Japan. The Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc, brainchild of Phan Chu Trinh, aimed at
introducing the country to the modern world through modern education
including, among other things, commerce and industry.
On political reforms and methods, there was a sharp, difference between the
views of Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh. Phan Boi Chau favored military
action and constitutional monarchy while Phan Chu Trinh favored a period of
cooperation with France, and republicanism. There were no clear schemes of
economic development, at least none of a realistic kind, in the thinking of either
man. Such schemes would have been utopian in any case. As Phan Chu Trinh
saw very clearly from the beginning, and as Phan Boi Chau recognized late in
his life during his house arrest, nothing could be accomplished unless the
educational, moral, and civic levels of the people were raised.15
In concrete and immediate terms, all the above movements achieved next to
nothing. The movements were short-lived, lasting only a few years from 1903
to 1908, and Phan Chu Trinh was arrested in 1911 while Phan Boi Chau was
arrested in 1925. The agitations generated a great deal of excitement, kept the
nationalist spirit alive, and showed clearly that the major national problems still
awaited effective solutions.
The post-World War I generation was not heavily burdened with the full
weight of the past. The new generation was a tay hoc, or Western-educated,
generation. Its members drew their revolutionary ideas and methods from the
West, either from the liberal West or from Communist Russia. Yet they could
not escape the shadow of China. An examination of the platforms of the two
major parties and their leaders' pronouncements makes this point clear. The
Western liberal model adopted by Vietnam's major nationalist party-the
Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD)-borrowed heavily from Sun Yat-sen's
ideas and the Kuomintang's organizational pattern. Likewise, the Communist
model introduced by Ho Chi Minh to Vietnam came via China. It was Lenin's
brand of socialism-bolshevism as interpreted by Joseph Stalin and Mao
Zedong.16 On the other hand, if those platforms were long on political and
social revolutionary strategy and tactics, they were very short on the more
complex but more fundamental problem of modernization and economic
CULTURAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S TRANSITION 25
The Vietnamese were drawn to the national and colonial questions raised at
the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920. Vladimir Lenin said in that
thesis: "The Communist International should advance the proposition, with
appropriate theoretical foundation, that with the aid of the proletariat of the
advanced countries, backward countries can go over to the Soviet system and,
through certain stages of development, to communism, without having to pass
through the capitalist stage."l7
Those words are said to have made Ho Chi Minh cry in his room in Paris
al1d become an unconditional Leninist. Ho had joined the French Socialist
Earty in 1918 because it was anticolonial, but he had to grapple painfully with
the insoluble problem of how a precapitalist country like Vietnam could
become even socialist. In Lenin's thesis he thought he had found the solution.
He did not pay attention at all to the sentence following the above statement. In
it, Lenin said, "The necessary means for this cannot be indicated in advance.
These will be prompted by experience." In other words, Lenin did not tell Ho
and his followers in Vietnam how to move to communism directly from
precapitalism without passing through the capitalist stage. This problem seemed
minor to Ho then, but it was to plague the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV)
after 1975, especially after the spectacular demonstration that the Soviet
experiment had proved a dismal failure.
Until World War II, then, the Vietnamese had not come up with any
effective solution to the problem of modernization and economic development.
Undoubtedly, even having theories would serve no purpose if they did not have
the power to put these theories into practice. The French were still firmly in
control when war broke out, and soon there was Japanese control on top of the
French. The war, however, gave the Vietnamese the opportunity they had been
seeking for a century. It made "it possible for them to achieve independence.
Unfortunately, independence was achieved through two very costly wars.
Worse still, it came only after the division of the country into two parts North
and South-and then into three-North, South, and the South Vietnam National
Liberation Front. The Geneva Agreement of 1954 and the Paris Peace
Agreement of 1973 only gave dramatic formal recognition to this division.
Vietnam was back where it had been two hundred years earlier, with the same
destructive consequences: devastation of the country and exhaustion of its
One of the major features of the wars involving France from 1946 to 1954
and the United States from 1954 to 1975 was the clear cleavage of the Viet-
namese not only along political and social lines, but also along economic lines.
There was communism and rigid central planning in the North versus
anticommunism and a capitalist free market in the South. This cleavage was
to have far-reaching consequences. But for the time being, in 1975, the division
was formally terminated in favor of the Communists.
Facing the Challenges of a New World
In winning victory and extending their total control over the whole country, the
Communists won the exclusive and unfettered right to lead Vietnam in the
direction they wished. For the first time in 130 years, a group of Vietnamese
was in a position to put into practice its ideas on how to solve the nation's
fundamental problems. Since independence was no longer an issue, the re-
maining priority was how to modernize. This implied two questions-what
model to choose, and where to look for support.
To the leadership of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the clear and certain
answer was resolute adoption of the socialist road, including the full application
of Marxism-Leninism and alliance with the Soviet Union. The new leaders
indulged in "voluntarism," believing that, if through determination they could
defeat two world powers, they would be quite capable of carrying out the
accelerated "socialist transformation" of the country and accomplish economic
development with great ease. Reality was to teach them otherwise.
The basic decision to embark fully on a Marxist-Leninist course was taken at
the party's Fourth National Congress in December 1976. This congress decided
to move "directly from small-scale production to large-scale production without
passing through the capitalist stage," to give priority to heavy industry, and to
turn Vietnam into a socialist country with modem agriculture and industry
"within twenty years." Very ambitious targets were set, although, as party
leader Le Duan admitted, "War has destroyed practically everything built by the
people at the cost of very great efforts, retarded our development by three five-
year plans, and wrought havoc on management." 18
Parallel to the accelerated industrialization of the country, the Communist
government also decided to step up acceleration of the "socialist transforma-
tion" of the south to bring it into line with the north. The determined eradication
of all traces of capitalism-large, medium, and small-had been a basic plank of
the party since 1930, and a campaign to that end was pushed very vigorously in
1976 and 1978. Within a relatively short time the Communist government had
dismantled the economic and financial structures of the south and driven the
southern professionals to either joining the ranks of the "boat people" or to
becoming irrelevant in their own country. In the process the productive
potential not only of the south but also of the whole country was destroyed, for
economically the south was far more advanced and better equipped both in
material and human terms than the north.19 If the party
CULTURAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S TRANSITION 27
leadership had not killed it, they certainly had seriously crippled the goose that
laid the golden egg.
For more than thirty years the Communist Party of Vietnam had lived with
the "millstone of Stalinist-Maoist ideology around its neck," and it arbitrarily
applied the Stalinist-Maoist model to the south, says Vo Nhan Tri. The party
leadership thus made the same leftist mistakes that "bear resemblance to the
ones committed by Mao."20 The "law of sinicization" evoked by Andre Masson
for Vietnam until the mid-nineteenth century still operated, more than a century
By 1980 it had become obvious that the course pursued by the party had led
to disaster. This was acknowledged by the party leadership at the Fifth National
Congress in March 1982. At this congress, Pham Van Dong, who had been full
of self-confidence when he presented the plan in 1976, asked, rather bemusedly:
"The socialist revolution line and the socialist economic construction line put
forward by the Fourth Congress were correct. Why is it that after five years of
implementation we have not achieved the economic results which the country
demanded and which the potential of the country should make possible?" And
he gave the answers: subjectivity; hastiness; setting tasks that were too big with
targets that were too high; clinging to policies after they had ceased to be
suitable, in particular those of bureaucratic command and state subsidy; and
above all, giving first priority to heavy industries.21
The situation called for drastic changes, and soon momentous events would
force the Communist Party of Vietnam into the position of changing or dying.
The changes occurred in Europe, in the Communist camp. Faced with economic
collapse and political rebellion in the Communist regimes of Europe and in the
Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev rose to the' top leadership position in the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union. His response was perestroika, or
democratic liberalization, a process that ultimately led to independence in the
former Soviet bloc in Europe and the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.
The most devastating of these events was the disappearance of the Soviet
Union, the "fortress of world revolution," which had served as Vietnam's main
source of military protection and economic aid; it was the Communist Party of
Vietnam's ideological support and lodestar. None of these developments in
Europe, which followed in rapid succession from 1986 through 1991, had been
anticipated by the Vietnamese leadership at their Sixth Party Congress in 1986.
But they were the most decisive developments in forcing the party to adopt
major changes in course.
Externally, it was clear that Vietnam had to withdraw forces from Cambodia,
which had become a costly venture and a major cause of Vietnam's
international diplomatic isolation with its subsequently dire economic con-
sequences. Vietnam was urged to seek closer relations with the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to compensate for the loss of Soviet aid and
markets. Vietnam also was advised to normalize relations with the United
States to gain access to International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank
funds. Internally, measures had to be adopted to improve economic conditions,
in particular, to encourage production and attract foreign investment. This
meant opening up the economy toward the free market, with its inevitable
consequence: a growing demand for more political freedom. The leaders of the
Communist Party of Vietnam called these demands "the mosquitoes and flies"
or the "dust and trash" that come with foreign capitalist dollars.
The questions of whether to make changes, what those changes should be,
how far to go, and who should carry out those changes, naturally caused deep
divisions inside the party leadership. In the late 1980s the party leaders in
Vietnam were determined to drag the country down the road to socialism, even
though socialism had proved a failure even in its original home. Indeed, at a
key plenum of the party's Central Committee in December 1990, with the
collapse of socialism in Europe in mind, Tran Gbach Dang, who was later
expelled from the Politburo, asked, "What are the characteristics of socialism?"
and the answer was, "The plenum found that we do not have sufficient
conditions yet to argue this issue scientifically.”22
Thus, the "nation's Communist Party leaders have learned nothing from
Vietnam's painful experience. Like the Confucianist mandarins 150 years
earlier, at the time of Gia Long and Tu Due, and for the same reasons, they
chose an obviously wrong path and persisted in pursuing that path, thus wasting
the country's precious time.
The past decade has seen a substantial liberalization in Vietnam's economic
policies, but socially and politically the country still is constrained. In the
1990s, Vietnam experienced tax and trade reforms, an influx of foreign in-
vestment, normalization of trade relations with the United States, and strong
economic growth. However, there has been less movement in the areas of
cultural, social, and political change. Recognition of individual political free-
dom, availability and transparency of information, and establishment of pro-
tected legal and property rights have been limited. As a result, Vietnam's
fundamental problems-modernization and economic development-remain
unsolved and still await solution.
CULTURAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S TRANSITION 29
From the foregoing study, we can conclude the following:
• China has exerted on Vietnam a strong gravitational attraction.
• Chinese-influenced Vietnamese rulers have proven to be usually con-
servative, ignorant, arrogant, and complacent.
• The Vietnamese elite have not given much thought to the modernization
and economic development of their country and have failed to find
appropriate answers to these problems.
• The situation of Vietnam today is very similar to that in the first half of the
nineteenth century under the first Nguyen emperors.
• As long as Vietnam remains essentially an agricultural country, it is bound
to be imperialist or face constant social crises.
• The basic problem of Vietnam still awaits appropriate answers.
1. For basic geographical data on Vietnam, see Hoang Dao Thuy, Huynh Lua, and Nguyen
Phuoc Hoang, Dat Nuoe Tax (Our Country) (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Khoa Hoc, 1989); Alain
Ruscio, ed., Vietnam: L'Histoire, la terre, les hommes (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1989); Melanie
Beresford, Vietnam: Politics, Economics, and Society
(London and New York: Pinter
2. Hoang Mai, "Planning Familial au Vietnam," Courrier du Vietnam 7 (1981). 3. Georges
Condominas, "Ethnologie," in Ruscio, Vietnam, p. 43.
4. The figure for the Cao Dai was provided by a Cao Dai personality in Montreal; that for the
Hoa Hao is a projection from the pre-1975 figure of 1.5 million. The number of Catholics is
given by Father Claude Lange in "Histoiredu christianisme," in Ruscio, Vietnam, p. 104.
5. Phan Huy Le, et al., Lieh Su Viet Nam (Vietnamese History), vo!. 1 (Hanoi: Nhan Xuat
Ban Dai Hoc Va Trung Hoc Chuyen Nghiep, 1985), pp. 161-65.
6. Nguyen Thi Thanh, "The French Conquest of Cocinchina, 1852-1862" (Ph.D.
dissertation, Cornell University, 1992), p. 515.
7. Phan Huy Le, Lich Su Viet Nam, p. 87.
8. Nguyen Khac Vien, Histoire du Vietnam (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1970), p. 54. 9. Vu Kien
and Vu Ngoc Bich, "La croissance demographique: Un Probleme preoccupant," in Ruscio,
Vietnam, p. 32.
10. Andre Masson, Histoire du Vietnam (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1960), pp.
29 and 94.
11. David G. Marr, Vietnamese Anti-Colonialism, 1885-1925 (Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1971), p. 22.
Histoire du Vietnam, p. 49.
13. Truong Ba Can, N guyen Truong To, con N guoi Va Di Cao (Nguyen Truong To: The
Man and His Posthumous Manuscripts) (Ho Chi Minh City: Nha Xuat Ban Thanh Pho Ho Chi
Minh, 1988), pp. 63-100.
14. Nguyen Hien Le, Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc (Saigon: La Boi, 1968), pp. 23-26.
15. On Phan Boi Chau, see his memoirs: Nien Bieu (Memoirs) (Saigon: Nhom Nghien Cuu Su
Dia, 1971); and Georges Boudarel, "Ph an Boi Chau et la societe vietnamienne de son temps,"
France-Asia (Paris) 23, no. 4 (1969). On Phan Chu Trinh, see The-Nguyen, Phan Chu Trinh
(Saigon: Tan Viet, 1956).
16. On the VNQDD, see HoangVan Dao, Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang (Saigon, 1970;
reprinted in the United States by an anonymous publisher). On the CPV, see "Ho Chi Minh, Ba
Muoi Nam Hoat Dong Cua Dang" (Thirty Years of Activity in the Party), in Ho Chi Minh
Tuyen Tap (Ho Chi Minh Selected Works), vol. 2 (Hanoi, 1980), p. 152, and "Cash Mang
Trung Quoc Va Cach Man Vietnam" (The Chinese Revolution and the Vietnamese Revolution),
in' Ket Hop Chat Che Long Yeu Nuoc Va Tinh Than Quoc Te (Closely Uniting Patriotism and
Internationalism) (Hanal: Nha Xuat Ban Su That, 1976), pp. 160-6l.
17. v.I. Lenin, Speeches at Congresses of the Comm_unist International (Moscow: Progress
Publishers, 1972), p. 59.
18. Ph am Van Dong, Phuong Huong, Nhiem Vu, Va Nhung Muc Tieu Chu Veu Ve Kinh Te
Trong Nam Nam 1981-1985 Va Nhung Nam 80, Bao CaD Tai Dai Hoi V (Basic Economic
Orientations, Tasks, and Objectives for the Five Years 1981-1985 and the 80s; Report to the
Fifth Congress), Hoi Nguoi Viet Tai Cong Hoa Lien Bang Duc (Document reprinted by the
Association of Vietnamese in the German Federal Republic, April 1982), pp. 5 and 11.
19. For the Communist government's policy after 1975, see Vo Nhan Tri, Vietnam's
Economic Development since 1975 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1990). For
other developments, see Nguyen Van Canh, Vietnam Under Communism, 1975-1982 (Stanford:
Hoover Institution Press, 1983), and Joseph Zasloff, ed., "Postwar Indochina: Old Enemies and
New Allies" (Washington, DC: Department of State Publication No. 9657, 1988).
20. Vo Nhan Tri, Vietnam's Economic Development, pp. 45, 62, and 181.
21. Pham Van Dong, et aI., Va Nhung Muc Tieu Chu Veu Ve Kinh Te Trong Nam Nam 1981-
1985, pp. 5 and 11.
22. Foreign Broadcast Information Service, Southeast Asia Daily Service, January 8, 1992.
As mentioned in the introduction, a large number of books on Vietnam has been, published
recently. Unfortunately, most were written in a period when the urge to be "politically correct"
was overwhelming. Even academics, anxious to curry favor with the antiwar public, failed to
practice what they were supposed to teach their students: balanced analysis and objectivity.
It is therefore difficult to recommend books that will provide a balanced and objective view
of Vietnam. I shall mention only a few books whose authors obviously tried to be objective. It
would be best to read primary sources, especially accounts by those who were direct witnesses
to the events unfolding in Vietnam in the postwar years.
Duiker, William J. The Communist Road to Power in Vietnam. Boulder, CO: Westview Press,
CULTURAL ISSUES IN VIETNAM'S TRANSITION 31
Hammer, Ellen J. The Struggl e for lndochina, 1940-1955. Stanford: Stanford University Press,
Joyaux, Fran<;:ois. La Chine et le reglement du premier con flit d'lndochine, Geneve 1954.
Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne, 1979.
Lancaster, Donald. The Emancipation of lndochina. London: Oxford University Press,
Randle, Robert F. Geneva 1954: The Settlement of the lndochinese War. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1978.
Thai, Quang Trung, ed. Vietnam Today: Assessing the New Trends. New York: Crane Russack,
Thai, Quang Trung. "Factionalism and Collective Leadership: Ho Chi Minh's Legacy."
Singapore: ISEAS (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies), 1985.
Ton, That Thien. The Foreign Politics of the Communist Party of Vietnam: A Study of
Communist Tactics. New York: Crane Russack, 1989.
Zasslof, Joseph J., ed. "Postwar Indochina: Old Enemies and New Allies." Washington, DC:
Department of State Publication No. 9657, 1988.
Bao Dai (ex-emperor). Le Dragon d'Annam. Paris: PIon, 1980.
Chen, K.c. Vietnam and China, 1938-1954. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.
Cooper, Chester. The Lost Crusade. London: Mc Gibbon & Keel, 1970.
D' argenlieu, (Adm.) Thierry. Chronique d'lndochine, 1945-1947. Paris: Albin Michel, 1985.
Institut Charles de Gaulle. Le General de Gaulle et l'lndochine. Paris: PIon, 1982. Kissinger,
Henry. White House Years; and Years of Upheaval. Boston: Little Brown, 1970 and 1982.
Patti, (Col.) Archimedes L. Why Vietnam? America'sAlbatross. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1980.
Saiteny, Jean. Histoire d'une paix manquee, lndochine, 1945-1947. Paris: Amoit, 1973.