Written from a scholarly, academic perspective but remaining accessible, 2017-published The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam is a broad-ranging, detail-oriented history of Vietnam that goes well beyond the usual focus of the American War years so much favoured by Western authors. If you’re looking for an up-to-the-minute, sweeping history of Vietnam that honours its incredible complexity, you’ve found it.
Author Christopher Goscha draws on a vast array of primary sources in the book, providing a reinterpretation of histories past (to draw, say, parallels between French and US aggression there). The level of detail is exquisite, beginning with, naturally, what Vietnam actually means at all and a nuanced critique of how problematic American-centric interpretations of Vietnamese histories, like influential Fire in the Lake by Frances Fitzgerald have been: It was never a given that Ho Chi Minh’s communism was going to prevail. While the alternatives failed, Goscha writes, “their stories spanning more than a century deserve our attention if we are to understand today’s Vietnam”.
Similarly, Goscha places greater emphasis on the importance of Vietnamese structures that were already in place when the French colonised the country and recognises that the French grafted their own ideas of modernity onto these. This, he writes, is in contrast to other historians who insist the French brought modernity alone. In doing so, he places greater importance on other early Vietnamese leaders, such as 1791-born Minh Mang, whose administrative policies helped shape the nation well before the arrival of the French; even the brief Chinese colonisation of Vietnam in the early 15th century was important, Goscha says, as it delivered tools that shaped the country to come such as gunpowder, bureaucracy and a colonial ideology they drew on as their own. The book’s goal, he adds, is to provide a “nuanced account of the plurality of modern Vietnams, from the past to the present”.
Beginning with Dong Son and Coa Lo civilisations (from around the sixth century BCE), Goscha traces the ebbs and flows of power within Vietnam as it grows into a recognisable entity. While academic in tone, this isn’t an overly academic treatise, and even those with just a passing interest in Vietnam will be drawn into the country’s story. If you’ve suffered through the average historical explanations at, say, Thang Long Citadel or the Temple of Literature in Hanoi, and thirsted for more, this is essential (and enjoyable) reading. Still, the lead up to French colonisation is just a chapter... the focus is more modern times.
French colonisation is explored, and we particularly liked the context given in relation to Cambodia and Laos, with tens of thousands of Viets trained and sent to Phnom Penh and Vientiane to work in the administration. By 1937, Goscha notes, 10,200 Viet lived in Vientiane compared to 9,000 Laotians. “Far from stopping Vietnamese expansion westwards, French colonialism often promoted it,” he adds. The full gamut of abhorrent colonialist behaviour is explored, down to the awful fate of some “metis” children (born to French fathers and Vietnamese mothers): “They scoured the Indochinese countryside, removing dozens of metis children, sometimes by force, from their Vietnamese mothers and placing them in orphanages and special military academies, and usually bestowing French citizenship on them.” Think of the innumerable horror stories that lie behind the three words, “sometimes by force”!
The years of global war are covered, leading to the development of nationalism, the rise of Ho Chi Minh and civil war, reunification and the years afterwards. It’s all very readable.
Goscha ends with a brief look at the rise of social media and NGOs in Vietnam and suggests the communists face the same dilemma as the inter-war colonialists once did: “When does state-sponsored reformism risk turning into outright revolution?” He makes no predictions; his point, really, is that the history of Vietnam shows she is immune to being predictable.
We have not yet read Ben Kiernan’s highly regarded 2017-published Vietnam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present, so we can’t compare the two... yet. We do however suspect they are both excellent, each coming from academics who have devoted their professional lives to the study of the Southeast Asian region.
As far as Goscha’s history goes though, it makes a near-essential companion to any traveller with even a passing interest in the history of Vietnam. Given the often poor state of English-language explanations in museums throughout the country (and their often pro-government slant), it makes for a fine substitute.
Note: Goscha’s book was published, as far as we can tell, as Vietnam: A New History in the US in 2016.
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