Who are the Vietnamese in 2005?

Sophie Quinn-Judge
24 August 2007

Vietnam today is balanced between the old collectivist traditions of east Asia and the borderless world of global culture and cyberspace. Vietnamese identity is perhaps more than ever linked to language and its poetry, as opposed to political affiliations. The thirtieth anniversary of the end of the “Republic of Vietnam” (the separate South Vietnamese state) sees diehard members of the pre-1975 Saigon military and civil service demonstrating in Washington DC, to commemorate what is for them a day of national sorrow.

But a younger generation of Vietnamese Americans – part of Vietnam’s new, global, virtual, imagined community – is increasingly returning to a country they barely remember, or never knew, to study the language and explore their roots.

At the same time, Vietnamese intellectuals within the country are looking for ways to transcend their arid cultural climate, which gives writers freedom to write about whatever they like – as long as it is not politics. Many Vietnamese abroad claim that the most popular Vietnamese journal of culture is a website based in Germany, with the mongrel title “Ta la was? ” – a mixture of Vietnamese and German meaning “What are we?”

Talawas is a forum for ideas and opinion for Vietnamese from all over the world, even though it is sometimes firewalled in Vietnam. It is run by a prize-winning writer, Pham Thi Hoai, who studied in the German Democratic Republic in the 1980s, when a brief period of intellectual openness in Vietnam (under the doi moi reforms) coincided with the Gorbachev reform period that presaged the end of communism in east-central Europe. She says that in the rural district of North Vietnam where she grew up, as of 2004 there was no longer a single shop selling books and newspapers, or a library where anything other than the works of former ideologues could be found. Official, subsidised culture had melted away, with little to take its place.

Cyberspace seems to be the one place where Vietnamese have successfully achieved reconciliation, thirty years after the collapse of South Vietnam – the provisional and (as it proved) temporary state created by the 1954 Geneva Conference, which split Vietnam at the 17th parallel following the collapse of French colonial rule and the desire of the west’s great powers to hold the line against communism.

Today, historical revisionists are taking a crack at refurbishing the image of this semi-colonial entity, mainly by pointing out that it offered a legitimate alternative to repressive, communist North Vietnam. But try as one might, it is extremely difficult to find real evidence that this creation could have survived, given the American insistence that it avoid reconciliation with the communists, including those living on its own territory. Other historians point out that the north was shaped by the policies of Chinese and Soviet advisers, after both France and the United States refused to recognise the state governed by Ho Chi Minh.

The fact is that North and South Vietnam were each formed by the cold war. The competing ideologies that were once their raison d’etre are now both anachronisms, and it is likely that – eventually – the remaining supporters of both extremes will realise this. Class struggle, purification campaigns, communist elimination campaigns and the Phoenix Program are all now safely in the past – even if, like the Agent Orange victims and other legatees of the catastrophic violence of thirty years of war after 1945, the wounds are in many cases still raw and issues of justice and historical accounting unresolved.

What are we now?

Meanwhile, the diaspora created when the communists moved into Saigon on 30 April 1975 is now glittering with business and professional achievers, as well as increasing numbers of writers, filmmakers and other creative people. It is in this country of the arts that Vietnamese of all political and geographical backgrounds are meeting today as equals. These international Vietnamese may be far from the realities of the densely populated deltas and coastal plain of their homeland, but without question they will have a role in defining the Vietnamese identity of the future.

They are engaged in what might be considered a replay of the search for a “new culture”, which gripped east Asian elites in the late 19th century, and gathered force after their disappointment with the peace settlement that ended the great war of 1914-18. Those early modernisers, who included Ho Chi Minh, rejected Confucian patriarchy and stagnation at all levels of society. The freeing of women and the poor from superstition and rigid social hierarchies was a key element of their prescription for change. This search for cultural liberation, which strongly influenced the early communist movement, changed its focus in the 1930s to the struggle against imperialism and the evil influences of the west.

By the time that the Vietnamese had discarded their communist economic policies in the early 1990s, their culture was becoming a mix of communist Confucianism, requiring strict allegiance to the party, freewheeling capitalism, nationalism and reviving traditions of folk Buddhism, Taoism and ancestor-worship.

In 2005 a Vietnamese-American writer and poet, Linh Dinh, has said he wants to move beyond politics to look at fundamental problems of his society. One of these is the problem of domestic servants, which he has written a series of poems about. In a Vietnam where social inequality is growing, he believes that wealthier urban people are abusing the poor immigrants from the countryside who come to work for them.

Born in Saigon in 1963 and completely bilingual, Linh Dinh has translated into English one of the classic stories of post-war Vietnam: The General Retires , by Nguyen Huy Thiep. This story explores the conflicts in one northern family, caught in a status-conscious world where the amount of food served at a funeral absorbs more attention than human affection, for the dead or the living.

Another young Vietnamese-American artist is filmmaker Victor Vu. His film First Morning is a searing account of a refugee family’s tragedy, caused in part by their flight from communism, but also by the father’s infidelity to his wife and the parents’ inability to deal with their daughter’s psychological problems. It is a beautifully filmed dissection of social problems that goes beyond the political to their cultural roots. The best-selling memoir by Andrew Pham, Catfish and Mandala, is yet another example of this trend towards self-examination: the habitual violence practiced by the males in his family becomes the heart of his story, not the sense of a lost homeland.

Through the void

Vietnam itself is experiencing a void of belief, left by the long war and the fading away of communism, which these artists are investigating, even as they examine their own traumas. The government’s invitation to long-exiled monk, the Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, to return for three months in early 2005 to preach and lecture in all parts of Vietnam, is a recognition that the end of communist idealism has left a gap to be filled. His lectures on love, anger and mindfulness address issues left unexplained by nationalism and Confucianism, two of the traditional “isms” which on an official level can fill in for Marxist dialectical materialism.

Could this opening to modern Buddhism be a self-conscious echo of the 11th-century Ly dynasty, when Vietnam was consolidating its newly-won independence from Chinese rule? At that time Buddhist monks served the rulers as advisers and purveyors of culture from other parts of the world. Nowadays foreign culture is banging at the doors and Vietnam has its own diaspora and students all over the world, bringing back experiences and new ideas that are becoming part of the complex, febrile texture of Vietnamese national life.

Clearly the government in Hanoi fears uncontrolled change, and needs some credible moral force to mediate it. Vietnam has a tradition of absorbing new influences and making them its own – from Confucianism to French bread, from military technology to soccer. So one can imagine a time when the fertile and dynamic intellectual exchange of the virtual Vietnamese community is embraced in Hanoi. When it is, a new phase in the Vietnamese people’s 2,000-year history will begin, and the legacy of 30 April 1975 will have finally been overcome.

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