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Volume takes brief look at a long history

Update: October, 07/2007 - 00:00

Volume takes brief look at a long history

Perennial favourite: First published in 1976, Nguyen Khac Vien’s Viet Nam: A Long History is now in its 7th edition.
Viet Nam: A Long History (7th ed) by Nguyen Khac Vien, annotated with new indices, is available for VND270,000 from The Gioi Publishers, 46 Tran Hung Dao St.

(07-10-2007)

by Elizabeth Mc Lean

This book has just been published for the seventh time in 30 years, and it’s not difficult to see the reason for its acclaim. It is authoritative and comprehensive, but not heavy or ponderous – the narrative flows easily and interestingly. The 7th edition is 200 pages longer than the 6th edition, which came out in 2004, and contains a lot of new material.

The book’s author was a paediatrician, an advocate of Vietnamese independence in France in the 1950’s-1960’s, and a literary man par excellence. After his return to Ha Noi he authored many books in Vietnamese and French on literature, history, language and politics, worked as an editor and a translator, and received several state and literary awards. His account of Viet Nam’s growth into modern nationhood was originally written in French and first published in Viet Nam in 1976.

The book takes us back to the Stone Age and the Bronze Age, and through a thousand years of Chinese hegemony in what is now northern Viet Nam, and then through the various indigenous dynasties, from the time of independence in the 10th century to the hasty retreat of US soldiers from Sai Gon in April of 1975. Much attention is given to the birth of the nationalist movement and its successful resistance against French and American occupiers under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh. But it is not simply a political history, although the power struggles of the monarchs and the colonisers are given their due. It is also a sociological study and a cultural treatise, analysing the impact of Confucianism and Buddhism on the development of the Vietnamese consciousness, and tracing the birth and growth of national literature and theatre, music and handicrafts.

In 1993, at the age of 80, the author added a final chapter, briefly evaluating the then still-young accomplishments of the policy of doi moi (renewal) introduced at the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Viet Nam in July of 1986. He voiced his fears regarding the possible exacerbation of social problems and ecological disasters, which could result from runaway capitalism. In a political setting which continued to proclaim its allegiance to Marxism-Leninism even while promoting free enterprise, he wondered, what socio-political structures would be compatible with an expanding market economy controlled by the state, he wondered? These questions are as valid today as they were then. To provide a partial answer and update the story, the new edition includes appendices with excerpts from the recent Congresses of the Communist Party of Viet Nam, which include general goals for the country for the years 2006-2010.

The usefulness of this volume lies in its architecture, which repeats the history of Viet Nam in three different ways. First, there is the standard narrative, mentioned above, tracing the development of Viet Nam chronologically from the Palaeolithic and Neolithic times to the present. But on page 390, begins "The Brief Timeline of Vietnamese History," which takes up 150 pages and gives a listing, year by year, of crucial events which impacted Viet Nam over the centuries. We learn, for example, that in the year 1651, Viet Nam both overthrew the Chinese Ming Dynasty and received a visit from Dutch trade missionaries based in Indonesia who negotiated a peace and trade treaty.

Unfortunately, some entries are not adequately developed. For example, the entry for the year 1653 states: "In March, a large parade is held in An Cuu (Hue)." What was the reason for it? What was the significance and the outcome of the parade?

A one-sentence explanation would have been helpful. The longest entries cover the years of the American War. The entry for 1972, for example, gives a week-by-week summary of events on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.

Finally, the Index, which gives a list of proper names in alphabetical order, also provides summaries of the lives of the various notables mentioned in the history explaining their contributions to the development of Viet Nam, thus retelling the long story one more time. The colourful foldout map at the end of the book is helpful, but the attractively designed hard cover is unnecessarily weighty and makes the volume too heavy to carry around or travel with.

This book is a solid reference text for anyone interested in the history of Viet Nam, from high-school students to history buffs, from journalists to visiting tourists eager to learn. It was written by a cultured Vietnamese patriot who cherished his country and tried to understand its historical development. Contemporary historians may question his appraisal of, let’s say, the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), which made a significant contribution to the development of Viet Nam’s agriculture and irrigation system but also, some say, paved the way for the arrival of French colonizers. The discussion continues, but meanwhile, this ample volume remains a very readable overview of the history of Viet Nam from pre-historic times to beginning of the 21st century. — VNS

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