#AsiaNow Speaks with Christian C. Lentz

Christian C. Lentz is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author of Contested Territory: Điện Biên Phủ and the Making of Northwest Vietnam, published by Yale University Press and winner of the 2021 AAS Harry J. Benda Prize.

Cover of Christian C. Lentz, Contested Territory

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

Contested Territory analyzes the production of Vietnamese territory at a well-known but often-misunderstood place. A cold war hotspot and pivot in global history, Điện Biên Phủ achieved renown in 1954 as the battle that toppled France’s empire in Indochina and triggered the decline of colonial rule in Southeast Asia. But Điện Biên Phủ was and remains a place inhabited by ethnically diverse peoples concerned with more than warfare. So, my book examines how this place wound up situated on the margins of Vietnam but at the center of its national history. It tracks a longer period of anticolonial revolution, nation-state formation, and territorial construction from 1945 to 1960, when the larger Black River borderlands became known and governed as Northwest Vietnam. Examining everyday struggles over food, land, and labor during and after the First Indochina War, the book argues that Vietnamese and Tai elites constructed territory as a strategic form of rule, generating tense socio-spatial processes unfolding to this day. Drawing on sources from Vietnam’s National Archives and from the French military and overseas archives, Contested Territory conceptualizes territory as a contingent outcome of grounded and embodied spatial contests.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I first visited Điện Biên Phủ shortly after the battle’s 50th anniversary when I was studying Vietnamese in Hanoi and Saigon. Not surprisingly, all the memorials, monuments, and museums emphasized the town’s role in what is called “Vietnam’s great victory.” But I was struck immediately by the area’s geographic differences—topographic, cultural, agricultural—with respect to the country’s heartlands in the Red and Mekong River deltas. Located in rugged mountains near Laos and China where Tai, Khmu, and Hmong peoples practice swidden agriculture, this was not the “Vietnam” I had been learning about! Yet Điện Biên Phủ had somehow become central to Vietnam’s modern history, national identity, and territorial integrity. I thus began to wonder how and why this out-of-the-way place became Vietnamese—and on what terms.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

My original research plan was to study contemporary changes in rural society using ethnographic and survey methods with some background historical research. Once in Vietnam, however, my access to everyday social life in Điện Biên’s countryside was sharply restricted while my access to Hanoi’s National Archives grew in unexpected ways. For example, whereas district officials forbade me from spending the night and discouraged eating in villages, archivists eagerly provided me with documents, helped me interpret them, and invited me to take part in social and professional activities. So, my whole research plan flipped on its head: I wound up taking a deep dive into archival materials and learned what I could in the countryside through interviews, travel, and observation. Ultimately, Contested Territory foregrounds a formative moment in the past and highlights its historic and geographic significance.

What is the most outrageous story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

I made friends with a bus driver plying the Hanoi-Điện Biên Phủ route who shipped my stuff the 500-km distance so I could ride my motorcycle less encumbered. Once I arrived in the mountain town, I went visiting with my brother-in-law who had come to visit my field site. The bus driver was delighted to host us, and we were enjoying the customary tea and pleasantries when I remarked on the taxidermy decorating his living room. His face lit up, and he asked if we wanted to see more animals, bigger ones perhaps. He then led us outside to a large, concrete addition to his house where, behind a heavy caged door, he kept two live, full-grown sun bears! Jokingly, I asked if he hung out with them; often, he responded, just like what we were doing then, namely drinking and chatting, and occasionally, milking their bile. Not long after we snapped a few pictures, they made a move in our direction and we left in a hurry. Reflecting back on this experience, what strikes me as outrageous is not simply the cruel treatment of these animals and their subordination to market value but also our uncritical if slightly uncomfortable acceptance of it.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

Among others, four bodies of work inspired and came together in my own. First, I was very lucky to be working on highland Southeast Asia at a time of renewed interest in the region’s cultural, political, and economic situation. Jim Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed as well as articles by Willem Van Schendel and Jean Michaud proposed the Zomia thesis whereby highland Southeast Asia figures as a space of political refuge and cultural differentiation in relation to lowland centers of power and population. Like any new idea, the thesis had critics, and the ensuing debates opened space for me to make my own argument. Second, geographers like Stuart Elden (in The Birth of Territory) and Emily Yeh (in Taming Tibet) were revisiting the concept of territory, offering theoretically robust frameworks and opportunities for application and elaboration in Vietnam. Third, rereading Thongchai Winichakul’s classic Siam Mapped paid off in spades: his insights into cartographic knowledge, nationalism, Tai ideas of space, and, of course, the geobody, all figure in Contested Territory. Finally, I could not have done what I did without standing on the excellent groundwork laid by historians and geographers, namely Philippe Le Failler’s La rivière Noire, Bradley Davis’ Imperial Bandits, Cầm Trọng’s Người Thái ở Tây Bắc Việt Nam, Mai Na Lee’s Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom, and Nga Dao’s articles on contemporary resource exploitation, dam development, and population displacement.

What are you working on now?

Before Vietnam, I studied Indonesia. My next project aims to bring these two countries together into a comparative historical analysis of decolonization, both its promise and perils. I am intrigued by the linkages formed by anti-colonial activists across the region, especially in the wake of European empire and before cold war relations had yet to harden into blocs. Nationalism was a powerful route to independence but, as the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung illustrates, even new national leaders embraced a transnational solidarity that openly challenged great power alignments. How did Indonesian and Vietnamese folks imagine a region after Euro-American empire? What kind of south-south relationships did they forge? In short, what did postcolonial Southeast Asia look like before it became a cold war battlefield or a collection of competing nation-states?