In a narrowest sense, the culture of a people can be defined as the way this people live, grow, expand and survive from generation to generation throughout their long history. Thus we can say that their culture is the national patrimony that has been constantly accumulated since the foundation of the nation-state.
Even as a small country, Vietnam has started its history more than 4,000 years ago with its distinct language, laws, customs, traditions, and administration. Facing its giant neighbour China, Vietnam has acquired both positive and negative aspects of this “big brother’s” influence.
Although they suffered almost a thousand years of Chinese domination, Vietnamese people have stubbornly succeeded in preserving their own national identity and sovereignty, no less than have the Japanese and the Koreans, both being also “little brothers” to the Chinese. One of the most fundamental notions of their history is their survival as a proud people that have not been absorbed or assimilated into the Chinese nation. And their most revered heroes are those who fought ferociously and successfully against the invasion from the north, i.e China. This collective pride has been a constant factor that miraculously helps to galvanize the nation against whatever menace from foreign powers such as China, France or even America.
Looking into other socio-cultural aspects, one can easily discern out the enormous difference between the Chinese and the Vietnamese. Such as the language, there is for example the purely Vietnamese side by side with the Sino-Vietnamese words with totally different pronunciation and writing ways, so that the Chinese can hardly understand what the Vietnamese say and vice versa. This distinction is also significantly seen in other areas like philosophy, literature, arts, music. Thanks to its geographical position, Vietnam also has had a long time relation with the countries to the west such as Thailand, India and also particularly Europe since the XVI century. This kind of relation has been a counterbalance to the dominating influence from China in the north and had a diversifying effect in the overall heritage of the country. We may note that the romanisation of the Vietnamese language initiated by Catholic priests from Europe, especially from Portugal and Spain in the late 1500s, has been a striking boost to the modernization of the country.
Since the mid-XIX century, the French occupation of the country, like the Chinese one earlier, has had both positive and negative influence in the cultural life of Vietnam. Later, it was the Japanese rule during the second world war and the American presence since the 1950s that brought about determiningly drastic changes in Vietnamese society and culture.
Since 1954, when Vietnam was divided into two regions, the north affiliated with the Soviet bloc, and the south aligned with western powers, the country has undergone profound change not only in political terms, but also in socio-cultural sphere as well. The civil war started early in the 1960s and ended in 1975 with the communist army from the north winning over the antagonist southern forces which were mainly supported by the US. This military victory has resulted in placing the southern part, usually known as “ The Republic of South Vietnam “ strictly under one unique communist administration. This “involuntary unification of the country” continued to have a lasting and devastating effect on the country, materially as well as morally and spiritually.
Since the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 and then the liquidation of the Soviet regime in Eastern Europe (and especially Russia), Vietnam has been undergoing a tremendous change in its economic “open door policy”, which is officially labeled by the leaders as “ a market economy with socialist orientation”. But unfortunately, the governing communist party still strictly adhered to the Chinese model of “totalitarian communist dictatorship”, and therefore mercilessly exercises severe restrictions on the social, political, cultural and religious life of the people. Numerous democracy and human rights activists have been constantly harassed and arrested. And there are evidently no basic freedoms for the people as a whole.
Virginia, May 2010
Doan Thanh Liem