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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

Writing on contemporary Vietnam: the history and geography of a nation-state

Benoît de Tréglodé

Texte intégral

1November 2004

2For a long time, historical research on Vietnam remained narrowly focused on the fact that the Vietnamese nation is characterised by homogeneity, and its history is based on the concept of continuity. The purpose of the studies on Vietnam carried out from the 1960s to the 1980s was aimed to demonstrate more than to understand. Since then, there has been a return to a more complex approach towards Vietnam. From now on, it is a matter of providing a vision of Vietnam since 1945 that goes beyond simple contrasts between the “winners/Communists” and the “defeated/non-Communists” within the country, or an analysis of the outside that remains limited by the contours of the Indochina and Vietnam wars.

  • 1 Heroes and Revolution in Vietnam, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001, preface by Yves Chevrier.

3A view of Vietnam from the inside enables one to grasp the social links and affiliations better, as experienced by the internal players (state, groups, individuals) through their role in a cultural space. My research on the figure of a “new hero”1 is a study of the phenomenon of the gathering of the working classes, which was widespread within the entire Communist bloc. My aim is to understand the collective representations that were linked to this gathering, the profile of a new elite and the evolution of these realities over time. In the case of Vietnam, the construction of a political history suggests acknowledgement of the way in which it was organised as a country. The Vietnamese nation-state is the exact opposite of a spontaneous result of revolution and national resistance. The unity of the people, bound together by revolution and (or) national resistance, was simultaneously the result of a construction process and the result of a myth, which greatly contributed to this process. From the initial guerrilla warfare in the north and the occupation of the south, up until the restructuring reforms, the opening up the economy and the establishment of today’s Vietnam, the country has not stopped being shaped by politics nor has it stopped shaping politics. The term “politics” should be understood here in a general way, as the “revolutionary” war, and the vagaries of social change should be included. Both empirically and problematically, study on territory is rooted in the “land” such as geographical surveys, examination of local archives and the carrying out studies on key players of the State and society. The objective is not to produce the work of local history, but to take this localised history and analyse the composition and changes of a strongly built national political field, and to show that one of the essential aspects of constructing a modern state and its long-term endurance, was the transformation of the government, whose power operated at a territorial level. This political construction is placed in its regional environment in order to compare its morphology to that of neighbouring constructions (in China, for example), and to study connections including the circulation of revolutionary models during the “heroic” era and the reconstruction of both the economy and the identity of the country today. It is a question of contextualising an approach to Vietnam in order to re-examine the issue of Communism and its relationship with Asia. This can be achieved by emphasising the way in which territories were established as geographical, institutional and symbolic areas, and simultaneously as local arenas, where interactions would take place between the authorities, their projects and the social players. The historian specialist of on Vietnam should recognise the obvious: the objective of his research is a construction, the essential elements of which are to be sought outside the national borders as much as within. Through the ages, these interactions between “indigenous” and exogenous factors, which corresponded to players belonging to different historical worlds, and the in-betweeners who connected these worlds, have defined a national space. Writing about the Communist nation-state leads, in a way, to the study of the “margins” of both the political and social construction of the state (the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, DRV, and from 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, SRV), as well as the reconstruction of its past through the ages, a true cultural and national replica of its internationalist and modernist ideology.


1 Heroes and Revolution in Vietnam, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001, preface by Yves Chevrier.

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