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The Story of Viet Nam: From Prehistory to the Present

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book cover for The Story of Việt NamThe Story of Việt Nam is an overview of Việt Nam’s history from the first days of village life along the Red River in the north to the rise of the modern mega metropolis of the south’s Hồ Chí Minh City. As the title suggests, the book is a tale—a narrative that is built around four themes: land and freedom, persistence of cultural values, shifting tides of global interests in Việt Nam, and the vital role Việt Nam will play in shaping the twenty-first century.

Việt Nam’s rise and fall have always been tied to the land. The earliest Vietnamese communities lived along the Red River, where they grew enough rice to survive from harvest to harvest. The economic freedom that rice gave the Vietnamese easily fit into the political autonomy that has been so valued in Việt Nam. The Story of Việt Nam demonstrates that though China and France temporarily ruled this part of the world, the Vietnamese never lost their innate desire for liberty and ousted every colonial power that occupied or dominated all or part of Việt Nam. Because of Việt Nam’s long history of both East and West colonial domination, this volume is an important study in tracing the evolution of nationalism in an imagined state.

Because of Việt Nam’s long history of both East and West colonial domination, this volume is an important study in tracing the evolution of nationalism in an imagined state.

The foreign intrusions into Việt Nam included the transmission of external ideas about spiritual, social, and political matters. The Story of Việt Nam carefully outlines the role that Confucianism, Buddhism, and Marxism played in shaping ancient and modern Việt Nam. In each case, these foreign ideas were accepted in Việt Nam but then shaped to fit indigenous values. The Vietnamese accepted Confucian dictates on the importance of rites and relationships but opposed its subordination of women. Việt Nam’s long coast invited foreign traders and missionaries. My narrative traces the steps of Buddhist monks who brought the belief system to Việt Nam and depicts how the Vietnamese integrated elements of Buddhism into their existing animistic spirituality. After 1986, the story of Vietnamese transformation of Marxism from largely a command economy to one with a substantial private sector constitutes yet another example of how the culture has modified foreign ideas to meet important needs.

A key to understanding Việt Nam is to see how it was been affected by world events, such as China’s expanding empire during the Han and Ming dynasties; the Catholic missionary enterprise during the West’s Age of Discovery; Western colonialism during the Industrial Revolution; the two World Wars; the Cold War; and the rivalry between the two Communist behemoths—the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. The Story of Việt Nam includes a rather poignant example of how Việt Nam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia between 1978 and 1989 was also due, in part, to much larger global considerations.

Four of the ten chapters of this KIAS volume are about the Socialist Republic of Việt Nam (SRV) or the post-1975 united Việt Nam. Despite the difficult and often tragic first decade of the SRV’s existence, the book’s thesis is that Việt Nam’s best days are ahead. With a thriving economy and its geographic proximity to East and Southeast Asia, it appears that economic stability, if not prosperity, awaits a population that is disproportionately young compared to many other nations. For the United States, the importance of Việt Nam is not in its past interactions but as a future ally, as both nations seek a Pacific not dominated by China.