Surprising facts about Vietnamese history and culture

On Vietnamese history, Bill Hayton was the BBC’s reporter in Vietnam in 2006-07 and author of the 2010 book “Vietnam: rising dragon” In a recent article he discussed some interesting things about Vietnamese history and culture that many are unaware of.

1. Though many still associate Vietnam with its war with America, the nation’s historical enemy is China. Though many similarities exist between  Vietnamese and Chinese culture, modern people in Vietnam basically define themselves in opposition to China. Every city has roads, buildings and statues named after real or mythical heroes who fought the enemy from the north. Today tensions still exist between the two nations in disputes over the oil and fish-rich South China Sea.

2. Though Ho Chi Minh is considered the hero and leader of the revolution, and he fought against the Japanese during World War II, the French, and finally the Americans. But Hayton says recent research indicates Ho was the front-man and not really in charge of North Vietnam during its war with the U.S., and it has long been debated whether Ho really was a hardliner.

Hayton says real power appears to have been held by Le Duan, general secretary of the Communist Party, who was a brutal, uncharismatic Stalinist. Le Duan controlled the security services and used it to wield more power than other leaders in the North, and to overcome all opposition to his all-out war against South Vietnam.

Vietnamese history-The 1975 victory of the North left Le Duan in control, but revenge and economic mismanagement resulted in an isolated and poverty-stricken nation. Vietnam only began the opening-up process after his death in 1986, dated Vietnamese history.

3. Go to the war relics museums in Hanoi or Saigon and you’ll see tank number 843 on display as the one that was the first to crash through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon on the day the South surrendered.

But photos from April 30, 1975 suggest Tank 843 was not the first one through the gates, but received this glory because it was the one used in a re-enactment for the movie cameras after the event. The Communist Party places high value on these war relics because its legitimacy depends on its claim to have liberated the country.

4. Vietnam’s tourist slogan today is “The Hidden Charm”, and the beautiful islands of Phu Quoc and Con Dao are popular destinations. But both islands histories of brutal prisons. Con Dao was used by the French from the 1860s to the 1950s to imprison Vietnamese rebels and political prisoners, and became infamous for its “tiger cages” used by the government of South Vietnam in the 1960s. An estimated 20,000 prisoners died there.

Phu Quoc was also used as the location for a prison used by the French, and later supervised by American interrogators. After the war, the communist government used the island as a site for harsh “re-education”.

5. The Vietnamese national dress, seen in postcards and paintings of women with long black hair and lovely silk dresses, was inspired by 1920s Paris fashion back when Vietnam was a French colony. The Communists sometimes condemned it as decadent, but it’s now back in fashion.

6. Hayton says that while Vietnam is not the police state is used to be a few years ago, the combined size of the several security services looking for signs of subversion is at least 6.7 million, which means one person in six works for either the regular army, the police force, a paramilitary group, a village militia, or a neighborhood warden. All of them keep an eye on the population, and all report to either the Ministry of National Defence or the Ministry of Public Security.

7. Ho Chi Minh correctly predicted, and told the French, that even if they kill 10 Vietnamese to every one French soldier killed, the Vietnamese would still win the war. But when the Americans  arrived, the ratio was closer to 50-1. The number of U.S. soldiers killed from 1955-75 was 58,220.

But estimates put the Vietnamese killed at 3 million, including 2 million civilians. This huge number is due to the Communists’ determination to win and the brutal tactics and hi-tech firepower of the Americans.

8. Fully half of the Vietnamese share one surname - Nguyen, and most foreigners cannot pronounce it. It’s a tricky combination of “ng”, tricky vowels, and unfamiliar tones. The best most foreigners can do is “nwee-yen or just “win”.

The name probably has Chinese roots, and over the centuries thousands of families either chose or were forced to change their name to Nguyen as a sign of loyalty to successive Vietnamese rulers.

9. Prior to the early 20th century, the Vietnamese language was written in Chinese-style characters known as Chu Nom. But in the 16th century Portuguese Christian missionaries wrote down the language in a Western script, and later a French Jesuit priest did the same.

The missionaries wanted a way to preach the gospel more easily, but in the 20th century Vietnamese nationalists realized the Western script was much easier to learn than the characters of the old language, and made it easier to spread their message.

Today Chu Nom has nearly died out, as few Vietnamese are able to read it. Image/

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