Vietnam is a country not a war

Say ‘Vietnam’ to someone from Europe or North America and the word that is almost certain to come to mind is ‘war’. This lamentable tendency to focus on a narrow slice of the past ignores how important the country is likely to be in the future.

Homo sapiens have lived in the land that now constitutes Vietnam for more than three thousand years yet in the English speaking world we only seem interested in about 20 years of that history: those during which Americans were fighting there.

This fact became rather obvious to me when I started looking for books about Vietnamese history. The war is covered in exhaustive detail: if want a book about a particular unit or piece of kit then chances are it exists.* By contrast, I’ve so far found only a single English language history of Vietnam for a general reader. It’s over a 1000 pages long and a friend who’d read some of the authors other work concluded he was ‘a tool’. Which probably explains why I’ve not been able to motivate myself to get beyond page 85!

This neglect is lamentable – though one I didn’t even notice until I decided to move to Vietnam – because Vietnam is an important country in world affairs and is likely to become more so in the near future. Here are some reasons why:

  1. It’s big. It has a population of 90 million people which makes it the 14th largest country in the world. It’s therefore larger than any of Egypt, Germany, Turkey, Iran, France, Thailand and the UK and South Africa: all of which are discussed much more widely in the Western press.
  2. It’s a rapidly growing economy. Since reforms began in 1986, it has moved from being a closed socialist economy to an open market based economy. That has led to an impressive growth rate: it has taken it a little more than a decade for Vietnam to double the size of it economy. Therefore, knowing about Vietnam may be literally as well as figuratively profitable.
  3. It’s geopolitically important. The curse “may you live in interesting times” is supposedly Chinese. This is fitting because bordering the rising global superpower is making things ‘interesting’ for Vietnam. The BBC correspondent Mark Mardell has warned about it becoming ‘the Ukraine of the Pacific’. Watch with interest how Vietnam charts a course between China and the US.
  4. Political controversy. The desire on the part of the US and other NATO countries to pull closer to a potential ally against China has and is likely to continue to run into anxieties over the Communist Party’s less than stellar human rights record.
  5. There’s a large Vietnamese diaspora. Over 3 million people of Vietnamese ancestry now live outside Vietnam, many of them in those countries that routinely reduce their country to a historic battlefield.

So even if you are not planning to move to Vietnam, it’s still worth finding out about. As my struggles finding books implies I’ve not got a huge amount to recommend that might help you. However, I did find Vietnam: Rising Dragon by former BBC correspondent Bill Hayton a good place to start.


 Next on Matter of Facts: Why Britain needs more Vietnamese food.


*It’s largely besides the point here but when I say histories of the War are ‘exhaustive’, I actually mean books about the American side are. English language discussions of a war in which the majority of the combatants and casualties were Vietnamese often reduce them to cameo roles. Even the actual fighting and diplomacy are often to relegated to discussion of ‘Vietnam’ as an inspiration for protest songs, movies and talking back to your parents.


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