By Charles Wheeler
Vietnamese and world history matter to each other. Yet, the images that popularize Vietnam suggest otherwise. One recurrent image familiar to textbooks and movie screens depicts anonymous peasants toiling in slow, silent rhythm over featureless rice paddies, surrounded by jungle. This image evokes pervasive assumptions that I choose to debunk. First, the icons of the peasant, the paddy, and the jungle suggest a Vietnamese people disengaged from the outside world, who change only when outsiders (friends or aggressors) compel them to do so. Second, this iconic trio implies that Vietnam is historically an earthbound society, its people uninterested in the sea. There has been little to refute either idea in academic, not to mention mainstream, discourse. But Vietnamese society was anything but isolated, changeless, or landlocked, as the recent historiography featured in this article will show. Vietnam’s ancestors (Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike) were integral to the creation of crosscurrents of people, goods, and ideas across Asian lands and seas before 1500—a phenomenon now better known as the “Silk Roads.” And as they interacted with the world, the world interacted with them. They changed one another as a result.