Perception & Memory - 

The Vietnamese "Nation" in History 


The Emperor of the South rules over the rivers and the mountains of the southern country. This destiny has been indelibly registered in the celestial book. How dare you, rebellious slaves, come violate it? You shall undoubtedly witness your own and complete defeat.[1]


Modern Vietnamese scholarship, in invoking the existence of a “great Vietnamese nation” has often looked to the past to document its arguments, alluding to such nationalistic poems by great Vietnamese heroes, and asserting that the Vietnamese people possessed a “separate identity” from their Northern neighbours.[2] History texts published in the war years of the Vietnamese Communist Party similarly evoked such a memory of a “nation” whose people had the “sacred right” to “live, to be happy and to be free”.[3] In examining the Communist interpretation of the Vietnamese “nation”, this paper argues that while it might make sense for modern Vietnamese scholarship to focus on the country’s extended past as a nation, this might not be entirely accurate from a historical perspective.

 The Vietnamese “nation”, according to popular Communist interpretation, conveyed the idea of an “independent” and “sovereign” people, who had a distinct character and identity, and consequently created a “relatively advanced culture”.[4]  Accordingly, such a people were believed to be “industrious, intelligent and flexible, yet strong and determined not to be overcome by adverse circumstances”.[5] This allowed them to be united towards the national cause of protecting the sovereignty and integrity of Vietnam by “[linking] the interests of their country… with the interests of each family and individual”.[6] In portraying the early Vietnamese as “heroic” people who underwent “sacrifice and hardship”, the Communist wartime leadership hoped to instil in its people a strong sense of identity, which it hoped would translate into support against the invading American forces in Saigon. Consequently, historical events were perceived through the eyes of a determined people, who overcame natural obstacles and resisted foreign aggression continually throughout the span of history.

In the construction of such a history, modern Vietnamese scholars portrayed the idea of the Vietnamese people as possessing a “definite territory”, speaking “one language”, sharing “common traditions” and being “born of a single historical experience”.[7] They defined nationalism as “a sense of ultimate loyalty to, or inclusion in, a community of people”.[8] For instance, scholar Truong Buu Lam attributed the formation of Vietnamese nationalism to the past Chinese invasions of the country, saying that the people had to rise up and “defend their nation’s right to survival as an independent country”.[9] He wrote about a similar nationalistic fervour in resistance leader Phan Dinh Phung, who led the Vietnamese struggle against the French. Phung had reportedly said that he "[had] only one brother for whom to care: he [was] the Vietnamese people” and “only one tomb to protect: it [was] the land of Vietnam”.[10] Concurrently, Communist writers argued that their leader Ho Chi Minh and his efforts were linked to those of the legendary Hung Kings, and to historical heroic figures such as the Trung Sisters and Tran Hung Dao.[11] In connecting the Communist leadership to legendary heroes, these writers hoped to legitimise the governing regime through its assumed association with the past.

Modern Vietnamese scholars, by evoking such a strong sense of the past and linking contemporary events to past occurrences, hoped to instil a sense of unity into their countrymen, so as to enable them to tide over the difficulties facing the country at that current moment. Indeed, the contemporary Vietnamese people would be able to develop a strong sense of patriotism and national belonging if they could connect current events to experiences in the past, identifying personally to the “heroic spirit” of their ancient compatriots. Consequently, by linking the rise of the Vietnamese nation to the territory’s extended past, Vietnamese scholars expressed hopes that because their country’s roots lie entrenched in the distant past, it would therefore survive through the difficult present situation.

However, if one were to examine the historical rise of the Vietnamese “nation”, the inconsistencies between modern perceptions of nationhood and historical realities would become apparent. Consider the idea of the Vietnamese “nation” as people possessing a “definite territory”, speaking “one language”, sharing “common traditions” and being “born of a single historical experience”. This assertion, although convincing, is not historically accurate. For instance, the Vietnamese people did not possess a “definite territory” until recent times, with the Red River Delta, Mekong Delta and Coastal areas not completely fused together as one distinctly “Vietnamese” territory. This raises the question of whether local loyalties outweigh national allegiance. In addition, Vietnamese territory was also administered loosely subject to the governing requirements of the ruling bodies.[12] There is also the idea of continuity, or lack thereof, as can be seen in the periods of Chinese conquests, indicating that the Vietnamese people were not able to possess a “definite territory” since the founding of their country. Consequently, it is difficult to contend that the Vietnamese people had a definite territory that was independent and sovereign since ancient times.

Regarding the idea that all Vietnamese people speak “one language”, this might be true on the surface, especially since the language was widely spoken throughout nineteenth century Vietnam and differed in regional nuances only because of local dialects. However, the Vietnamese language yielded to the ancient Chinese script in the essential fields of social life and in intellectual activity.[13] Moreover, the linguistic system of chu-nom implied that Chinese characters had to be learnt before spoken Vietnamese could be used.[14] In this sense, there was no clear significance of Vietnamese as a “national” language and it would be presumptuous to imply that the Vietnam was a nation because its people spoke “one language”.

In arguing towards the idea that the Vietnamese people shared “common traditions”, Vietnamese writers maintained that early Vietnam possessed a “relatively advanced culture [that was] the pride of [their] nation”.[15] This “common tradition”, believed to be part of the ancient Dong Son way of life, and symbolised by the development of the bronze drum, implied that the early Vietnamese shared a unique culture and were considerably civilised. However, as argued by revisionist historians, most of these “common traditions” were not completely “national” and were instead “crossbred” with Chinese influences and culture. Examples of this hybrid culture extend to the popular amusements of chess and cricket-fighting, the dietary and cooking styles, as well as the dress fashions, which were mainly imported from China.[16]

In order to justify the need for a strong nation undivided in its aspirations and desires, modern Vietnamese writers have argued that the Vietnamese people were “born of a single historical experience”. Accordingly, because of this singular past, the Vietnamese people would then be expected to work congruently with their leaders so as to embark on a common destiny as a nation. However, if one were to examine the issue carefully, the historical experience of Vietnam would probably not be so clearly defined. This can be explained through the numerous ethnic groups present in the territory, whose very presence denies the existence of a single “Vietnamese historical experience”. Indeed the ethnic groups of the northern uplands and the central highlands were only added to the Vietnamese state under French rule, and many of these groups possess experiences different from the dominant Kinh people.

In conclusion, the idea of an extended Vietnamese “nation” that is rooted in the annals of ancient history and deeply entrenched in culture and civilisation might be closer to myth than reality. This can be ascertained through closely examining the Vietnamese record of its “nationhood”, which is shrouded largely in myths and heroic tales. However, when viewing history from the perspective of a modern Vietnamese scholar, it might not be all that insensible to portray a romantic picture of Vietnam as a heroic nation that wrestled against numerous aggressors and yet survived to present an account of its struggles. This is especially because of the critical importance of such a picture towards shaping the memories and thought processes of the Vietnamese people. Consequently, the extent to which an extended Vietnamese “nation” makes sense should not be determined solely by its historical accuracy, but also according to how important such a concept is to the Vietnamese people.

The above essay was written by Mark Lim Shan-Loong on 14th August 2000.


Buttinger, Joseph, A Dragon Defiant:  A Short History of Vietnam, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.  

Chesneaux, Jean, The Vietnamese Nation:  Contribution to a History, Trans. Malcolm Salmon, 2nd ed., Sydney: Current Book Distributors, 1966. 

SarDesai, D.R., Vietnam:  The Struggle for National Identity, 2nd ed., Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 1992.  

Truong, Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention:  1858-1900, USA: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, 1967.

[1] Ly Thuong Kiet, quoted in Truong Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention:  1858-1900, USA: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies, 1967, pp.47-8. Ly Thuong Kiet, who commanded the Vietnamese Army against the Song Dynasty’s invasion from 1075 -1077, was alleged to have read this poem assuming the identity of a temple deity in order to raise the morale of the army.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Annex A below. Vietnamese history textbook published in Hanoi in 1971, translated by Bruce Lockhart and reproduced in a tutorial handout.

[4] Ibid., p. 2.

[5] Ibid., p. 1.

[6] Ibid., p. 2.

[7] Truong Buu Lam, Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention, p. 31. Lam’s perceptions typify the experiences of overseas Vietnamese who had trained overseas and were living outside of their country, but who nonetheless possessed a strong sense of national affinity towards their homeland.

[8] Ibid., p. 29.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 27. 

[11] Annex A.

[12] Jean Chesneaux, The Vietnamese Nation:  Contribution to a History, Trans. Malcolm Salmon, 2nd ed., Sydney: Current Book Distributors, 1966, p. 67. Chesneaux’s opinions are crucial towards understanding the contemporary views of Vietnamese nationhood, especially when considered from the perspective of a non-Vietnamese.

[13] Ibid., pp. 67-8.

[14] The chu-nom system referred to the use of a popular tongue adapted to Vietnamese sounds but derived directly from Chinese characters.

[15] Annex A.

[16] Jean Chesneaux, The Vietnamese Nation, pp. 70-2.


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Annex A

“All the peoples of the world were born equal; every one of them has the right to live, to be happy, and to be free.”  That is the first sentence of the introduction to Chairman Ho Chi Minh’s Proclamation of Independence, read in Ba Dinh Square [in Hanoi] on 2 September 1945, the day when the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was born.

The Vietnamese nation rose up to fulfill their sacred right, which they reclaimed after nearly a century of determined struggle for Independence and Freedom.  This was also a warm fraternal greeting to the peoples of the whole world, for their effort and their victory were part of the historic victory of the Vietnamese people.  Vietnam is happy and proud to have been the first colony to carry out a great revolution:  The August Revolution.  Vietnam liberated itself from the shackles of imperialism:  the country was independent, and the people were free.  Although this was only a first step, this victory was very fundamental in the long and difficult struggle to obtain the right for the nation to take its destiny into its own hands.

            On the ridge of Mt. Nghia, at the temple dedicated to the Hung rulers, Chairman Ho [Chi Minh] met with fighters from the People’s Army preparing to liberate the Capital [Hanoi] after the renowned victory at Dien Bien Phu [in 1954]. He said:  “The Hung Kings had the merit of building the country, now you and I must protect the country together.”  [He also wrote that] “We have the right to be proud of the glorious pages of history from the period of the Trung Sisters, Lady Trieu, Tran Hung Dao [who defeated the Mongols in the 13th Century], Le Loi [who drove out the Ming in the 15th Century], Quang Trung [who defeated the Qing in the 18th Century], etc.  We must remember the meritorious efforts of our national heroes because they represent a heroic people.”

            Particularly since 1930 [the founding of the Indochinese Communist Party], under the leadership of our Party, headed by the great Chairman Ho, the people of our whole country have written the most glorious pages of our Fatherland’s history.  Under the glorious banner of the Party, “all that is greatest and most worthy of pride in our people has been brought together over the last forty years.  This is the time when our people, within the greater movement of progressive people [everywhere], have leapt ahead with the bold strength of a new era, with all the glorious traditions of our nation, and with a full consciousness of their destiny and their future” [quote by former Party Secretary Le Duan, writing in 1971].

            From the period of the Hung Kings to the time of Ho Chi Minh, through 4000 years of history, the life of our nation has been full of sacrifice and hardship, but it has also been full of a heroic spirit; at times there has been mourning and shame, but there have also been many glorious, shining moments as well.

            The most recent scientific findings have shown that Vietnam is in one of the earliest areas to have had human life, one of the cradles of humankind.  Vietnam is very rich in natural resources, but it is also a place where nature has placed many obstacles which are difficult to overcome:  rain, floods, storms, humidity, drought.  Having been born in such an environment, people have the necessary conditions to live and for their family lines to prosper, but they must go through a period of long and lasting, bitter, complicated struggle before they can gradually conquer nature.  Our ancestors’ spirit of patient struggle against nature has been popularized through the myth of the Mountain Spirit and the Water Spirit, one of the oldest stories [in Vietnamese culture], which may have appeared as early as the time of the Hung Kings, the beginning of Vietnamese history. Every time that the Water Spirit raised the level of the water, the Mountain Spirit would build mountains even higher, determined to defeat the Water Spirit [in their competition to win the hand of a princess] and

to protect the people from being flooded.  Once the Viet people no longer lived only by slash-and-burn and by hunting and gathering in the hills and mountains and had come down to the delta or else moved inland from the coast, they gathered together and settled over a wide area near big rivers—digging channels [for irrigation], building dams, planting mulberries, raising silkworms, farming, and raising animals on a large scale.  Among the fraternal tribes in these two regions—the mountains and the lowlands—mountain and river had been harmonized in the context of unifying the country, and the first nation of the Viet people took shape in embryonic form:  the country of Van Lang.

            Our country occupies a strategic position relative to the rest of Southeast Asia, and it is rich, so it has often been threatened with invasion.  During the period of the Hung Kings our people began to build the country, so they also had to begin protecting it, resisting the plots of foreign feudal powers to invade and occupy it, along with other fierce tribes.  Our ancestors also had to band together in solidarity to protect their native land.  One myth which is strange but also very much in the style of the people—the story of Thanh Giong—demonstrates the people’s powerful spirit of resisting foreign aggression; it is the manifestation of the tremendously rapid growth of our nation.  Giong was three years old but did not yet know how to talk; he would just lie around in a hammock.  Suddenly he heard that there were foreign invaders; he jumped up and grew immediately.  With the sacred call of the nation, he was fed by the people—only with rice, brinjal, and unboiled water—until he became a giant, and he received the mandate to defeat the invaders.  His weapons—an iron whip and iron horse—were forged for him by the people.  When he went into battle, the iron whip broke, so Giong used bamboo shavings to make a weapon to use against the enemy.  When Giong went into battle, he was followed by all the working people of all ages and occupations, including even the young buffalo boys.  When the enemy had been defeated, and the nation and people were once more at peace, Giong disappeared.

            These two legends emphasize the fighting spirit of solidarity of our people in their struggle against natural disasters and human enemies for the national cause of protecting their lives and the survival of the Fatherland as well as to utilize the legacy bequeathed by their ancestors.  Very early on, the Vietnamese people were able to link the interests of their country, their Fatherland with the interests of each family and individual, binding the country to the home and the village to the country in a very close relationship.  It was this environment that forged a national character which was industrious, intelligent, and flexible yet strong and determined not to be overcome by adverse circumstances.  The character of the

Vietnamese is founded upon two precious ideas:  loyalty (trung, Chinese zhong) toward the country and filial piety (hieu, Ch. xiao) toward the people.  For the Vietnamese, the country is the mother, and the people are the father.  When they have been born and nurtured, the highest principles in the hearts of the Vietnamese are to repay their debt to the people and to the country and to achieve independence for the nation; these are their duties.

            It is because of this that four thousand years ago, on the land where we are now living, building, and fighting, a relatively advanced culture appeared which is the pride of our nation and which was a contribution to the ancient civilization of humanity.  This represented a great victory by the ancient Viet against the forces of nature and aggression to stabilize their lives and to live according to established rules and customs.  That was the result of the creative labor of an entire large community, within which there were elements whose lifestyles and levels of development were quite different from each other.  However, during the long process of struggling shoulder-to-shoulder and sharing good and bad times, they drew closer and integrated with each other like branches on the same tree, living and dying in the same place [literally, sharing one place to be buried and to cut the umbilical cord]; all of them were people of the land of Viet.

            Ho Chi Minh upheld the solidarity among different parts of the Vietnamese nation:  “Whether Kinh [ethnic Vietnamese] or Tay, Muong or Dao, Jarai or Rhade, Sedang or Bahnar or members of other ethnic groups, everyone is a child of Vietnam, all are blood brothers and sisters.  We live and die together, we share joy and misery, and we help each other in times of plenty and in times of want.”  That is the voice of the Fatherland echoing from the distant past.

            Very early on our ancestors were able to join together in solidarity to preserve the country and victoriously oppose outside aggression.  When this principle was violated, the country was lost.  [When someone] turned the country into the private property of a clan, a lineage, or a family and failed to rely on the people to resist invasion, the consequences were even more tragic and disastrous:  families and lineages were wiped out.  This is the first major history lesson to be learned from the myth of My Chau and Trong Thuy.  King Thuc An Duong was the ruler of Au Lac, which had succeeded the country Van Lang of the Hung Kings; he built the strong citadel at Co Loa and knew how to use dangerous weapon technology:  the crossbow and bronze arrows (the sacred crossbow).  The Qin Dynasty was defeated when it sent troops, and the Qin general Zhao Tuo (Trieu Da) used the stratagem of “asking for peace”, asking for his son Trong Thuy to be able to marry Princess My Chau, the daughter of King An Duong, who fell for the trick.  King An Duong failed to rely on the people; he only depended on high walls, the precious crossbow, and a regular army. He treated the kingdom as his private property and thought that by marrying his daughter to the enemy, he would be able to hold on to his throne—he placed family sentiments and the interests of his lineage above his duty to the nation and above the interests of the people.  Unexpectedly defeated by the enemy, he fled and was forced to kill his unfortunate daughter—the victim of his selfish miscalculations, and he himself committed suicide by jumping into the sea.

            In addition to the strong national spirit of the Viet people during An Duong’s time, the story of My Chau and Trong Thuy also shows us something else:  within Vietnamese society at the time there was a clear class distinction.  When King An Duong took the throne and replaced the Hung Kings, he transformed the patriarchal country of Van Lang—basically [governed] by chiefs—into a relatively structured nation—the country of Au Lac.  The capital was moved down to the lowland area.  The large-scale construction of dikes and walls and the development of artisanry, especially the production of weapons, required a centralized state apparatus in order to mobilize and control a growing labor force. Under such conditions the ruling class could only be an aristocracy tied to the power of a monarchy with an absolutist orientation; this was the first stage of the relatively early emergence of feudal relations with an Asian character. Naturally, this ruling class was increasingly removed from the community of the people and came to the point of being cut off from them, in terms of its style of governing as well as its lifestyle.  The boundary [between ruler and ruled] is shown fairly clearly in the architecture of the citadel at Co Loa.  Military matters were the main priority, and the design of Co Loa shows a change in defense strategy.  It was no longer leaders from the people like Giong who led troops into battle, but rather professional officers commanding a standing army. Such changes did not take place overnight; they were the result of a long process within Van Lang society, linked to the gradual break-up of the patriarchal relations of the original communal society and the development of tools used for production, especially the knowledge of bronze technology.  Each threat of foreign invasion—beginning in the 3rd Century BCE, after a fierce feudal clique in the North [meaning the Qin Dynasty] had achieved hegemony in the plains [of China]—exerted pressure to accelerate this process of transformation in Vietnamese society.  Objectively speaking, this was inevitable; it represented a step forward for ancient Vietnamese society and [caused it] to gradually make the transition to a feudal system.

            However, if [rulers] only depended on developments in technology and did not rely on the people, if they were not able to mobilize the entire people to stand up and defend the nation as happened in Giong’s time, and if a ruling minority actually heightened its oppression of the people, then it became difficult to effectively resist the growing pressure of Northern feudalism [i.e., China]. Thus, from an independent country, Vietnam was turned into provinces and districts of foreign feudalism. This did not mean that the Vietnamese people were wiped out, however; this was only the first act of a huge challenge to the vital force of our nation.  History would show just how heroically our people were able to overcome this challenge.

            The policy of assimilation which was pursued after the Han Dynasty replaced the Qin, along with countless incidences of shame and suffering under the cruel and corrupt yoke of [local and Chinese] governors, served to strengthen the national spirit and the will of the Viet people to regain independence and freedom.  The uprising of the Trung girls was the first manifestation, extremely courageous and unique, of this spirit; it demonstrated a powerful force of great historical significance.  It showed the miraculous force of a people who for thousands of years had been the master of an area of land and who were proud of the advanced culture which they had created.

            This culture was built through the hard work, industriousness, and creativity of the Vietnamese people before they lost their independence.  That civilization had unique forms and very distinctive features, most notably the bronze drum. The emergence of this civilization was a major step forward in the progress of the Vietnamese nation from its primordial stage to the time of civilization.  The powerful vitality of the nation began at this point.

      It is rare, particularly in ancient times, to see a small people—the nation of Vietnam numbered only around a million people in the early Common Era when it was absorbed by feudal invaders from the North—able to preserve and develop their own character and identity even when under harsh foreign rule for thousands of years.  Even more special is the fact that that nation never gave up the will to regain its independence and sovereignty.  The close sense of solidarity in shared suffering of the nation and race, with the idea that “[We] live and die together, we share joy and misery, and we help each other in times of plenty and in times of want”; the deep sense of patriotism and an unbreakable will, nurtured by the essence of an ancient and unique culture; the determination to achieve independence combined with an unusual degree of flexibility in adopting good elements from outsiders in order to strengthen their own ability to liberate themselves—these were the fundamental elements which forged our nation’s strong vitality.

      Without such conditions it would be hard to explain the nation’s incredible strength and ability to leap forward after escaping from the yoke of northern feudal rule.  That liberation was also a shining page in history, one verse in the 4000-year heroic epic of the nation.  The glorious victory of Ngo Quyen [in the 10th Century] opened a period of flourishing development for the national culture which lasted nearly five centuries—from the 10th through the 15th Centuries, under the Dinh, Early Le, Ly, Tran, and Later Le Dynasties.  Of course, having just cast off the yoke of foreign rule in the 10th Century, Vietnam could take no other path than that of development according to the laws of the feudal mode of production.  For most East Asian countries at the time, Chinese-style feudalism was the model.  It is also natural that the organizational structure of the feudal Vietnamese nation in many ways absorbed the experiences and influences of the North in terms of form.  In terms of the nature [of these structures], however, we demonstrated our sense of independence, sovereignty, and equality vis-à-vis foreign countries.  With this idea in mind, the country was now known as Dai Viet (Ch. Dayue, “Great Viet”).

      After winning back independence, the national sentiment and national pride, along with strong determination, developed tremendously.  Even though Vietnam had regained its independence, the plots of conquest and the pressure from Northern feudal forces remained a long-term threat.  In order to preserve that independence, it would be necessary to build the country, to make it strong, rich, and solid in every way.


      “Like our country Dai Viet in the past,

      Which has long been known as civilized

      It has its own borders, rivers, and mountains

      Northern and Southern customs are different, too

      The Dinh, Ly, and Tran [Dynasties] succeeded each other in building the country

      They and the Han, Tang, Song, and Yuan Dynasties were each masters of their own area

      Although there were periods of strength and periods of weakness

      [Vietnam] has never lacked heroes”


      It is difficult to imagine the grief and suffering piled upon this small country by three horrible invasions by the Mongol-Yuan troops over a thirty-year period in the second half of the 13th Century, as well as the brutal invasion and occupation by Ming forces for two decades in the early 15th Century.  Determined not to be defeated and holding high the banner of the righteous cause of independence and freedom, our people produced, built, and struggled at the same time. Mainly because of this intelligent and heroic integration of the two tasks of building the country and preserving the country, the heroic spirit and creative strength of our people grew and were toughened, demonstrating the nation’s unusual vitality, pride, and ability to keep moving forward.  It was this that pushed our nation a great distance forward in protecting their right to live and to determine their own [fate]; all three Mongol invasions were crushed, and the evil rule of the Ming forces was broken and swept away.