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Travels in Vietnam’s Past and Present

December 11, 2011


© David Henley / CPA Media

Vietnam is a name that resonates in the US national consciousness.

Yet before the Gulf of Tonkin Incident in 1964, few Americans knew much about Vietnam, causing former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to comment that Americans were ‘almost completely ignorant of Vietnamese culture, knowing little of the language or long history of the country’.

By contrast, since the fall of Saigon in 1975 there can be few people anywhere in the world that do not know the name, location and recent history of Vietnam. Yet beyond the period of US involvement in what Americans call the ‘Vietnam War’ and Vietnamese call the ‘American War’, how much has changed?

The war was of seminal importance to the United States, and Americans inevitably tend to view Vietnam and matters Vietnamese through its prism. But is the same true, in reverse, for Vietnamese?  The answer, many in America may be surprised to learn, is a resounding “no”. Almost no Vietnamese bear a grudge against the USA, and the great majority of Vietnamese people are positively friendly towards Americans.

This is less true for China, Vietnam’s close neighbor, mentor and rival for more than two thousand years. In comparison with this long love-hate relationship, US involvement in Vietnam – so significant and painful to most Americans – is just a brief, albeit equally painful, memory to most Vietnamese.

This simple fact can be seen in the street names of Hanoi, Vietnam’s national capital and the oldest capital city in Southeast Asia. Vietnamese like to name their streets after what they consider to have been ‘acts of foreign aggression’, and in greater Hanoi no fewer than 119 streets are named after ‘acts of Chinese and French aggression’. And the number named for ‘acts of American aggression’? – tellingly, just two.

Based on an intimate personal knowledge of Vietnam extending over two decades, this book explores Hanoi and the North – Vietnam’s historic heartland and, conversely, the region most influenced by Chinese culture and most suspicious of Chinese intentions. It leads the reader not just across the contemporary north, but also through its long history, linking the present-day with the distant past.

This is the first of four volumes which will explore Vietnam’s past and present history through travels in 1: Hanoi and the North (the present volume); 2: Hue and the Centre; 3. Saigon and the South; and 4: Seas and Islands.

60,000 words, 2 maps, Glossary, Bibliography

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