The annual Phan Chau Trinh Cultural Foundation awards for contributions to Vietnamese studies, culture and research were held in Ha Noi on Saturday.
French historian Alain Ruscio, was one of the six prize winners. He received his award for his research on Indochina's culture and the French war from 1945-54.
Culture Vulture spoke with Ruscio about his fascination with Vietnamese history.
What were your feelings when you received the award?
I was of course surprised and very honoured. I know that Phan Chau Trinh is well-known. He is a national hero and a cultural expert, and one of those who preceded President Ho Chi Minh down the nationalist path. Not many French people have received this prize, maybe I am the first, I don't know.
You received your award for your research into Vietnamese history. You published a book about General Vo Nguyen Giap, entitled Vo Nguyen Giap – Une Vie (Vo Nguyen Giap – A Life) last year. Could you tell about the book?
The book gathers together a number of interviews I had with General Vo Nguyen Giap since 1979 when I met him for the first time. At that time, I was in Viet Nam as a correspondent for the French newspaper L'Humanite. The country was preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu victory. I asked to have an interview with the General. Our first meeting was friendly and warm. Since then, I've been back to Viet Nam about 30 times and we gradually got in the habit of meeting each to discuss the news in Viet Nam and the world. He always expressed very nicely, very sincerely his views. He told me much about his life, of the battles and the victories the country had been involved in. This book is a collection of those interviews, focusing on his life from his youth to 1975. I asked his permission to write the book but he asked me to wait. He didn't want to put himself forward. He firmly believes that it was the Vietnamese nation that won the war, not he. I had to wait 20 years for his permission. The book will be translated into Vietnamese this year.]
What were your impressions of General Giap?
He is very modest and cultured. He is very knowledgeable. And he smiles a lot. I very impressed with how accessible and open he is for such an important person in Vietnamese history. I could see him anytime I wanted. My last meeting with him was in 2008. He said that that would be the last time because of his ill-heath.
Besides Giap, I have met other Viet Nam's personalities, including former prime minister Pham Van Dong, ex vice-president Madame Nguyen Thi Binh.
You are also director of an information and documentary centre on Viet Nam in France? Would you tell about this centre?
I founded the centre with some ten other researchers in 1984. It was an opportunity to talk about Viet Nam's history and news. The centre collects, classifies and makes publicly available an important number of documents from a number of sources in Viet Nam, France, England, Russia and Italy. The Viet Nam National Library sends us new books every three months.
The centre is located in Montreuil, near Paris, but now it is housed at the Cultural House of Viet Nam in Paris.
Why are you so interested in studying Vietnamese history?
I have been interested in Viet Nam's history since I was very young. During the American war, I was among the many young people who cried out for justice and liberty in Viet Nam. I loved Viet Nam at that time but I didn't know the country very well. Later when I become a historian, I chose to specialise in Viet Nam. I wanted to understand the causes of the resistance and the courage of the Vietnamese people.
The first book of my life was dedicated to Viet Nam. It is entitled Vivre au Viet Nam (Life in Viet Nam) and was published 30 years ago. I have since published more than 10 books on Vietnamese history.
You have witnessed many changes in Viet Nam. What do you think about this?
I believe that the changes have been very positive. When I first arrived in the country in 1979, life was very difficult here. The doi moi (renewal) process was cleverly conceived. Thanks to it, consumption has developed markedly. Young people now have a wide range of choices in fashion, motorbikes, mobile phones.
However, now that Viet Nam is open to the effects of globalisation, its cultural identity has been weakened. I know the Government is aware of this. It should find ways to preserve the Vietnamese spirit, its culture, respect for the family, its music, its literature. — VNS