Interview: Lien-Hang Nguyen discusses the old and new in Vietnam
As the geographical hinge between Northeast and Southeast Asia, Vietnam is arguably at the epicenter of the major developments of the region. On a recent trip to Hồ Chí Minh City and Hanoi to dig deeper into Vietnam’s wartime past, Professor Lien-Hang Nguyen saw firsthand the future-shaping development taking place within the country.
Ahead of her upcoming international colloquium on the 50th anniversary of Hồ Chí Minh’s death, Nguyen, the Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the History of the United States and East Asia, sat down with the Weatherhead East Asian Institute to talk about her travels.
What took you to Hồ Chí Minh City and Hanoi, and how long did you spend there?
I went to Hồ Chí Minh City and Hanoi to carry out archival research for my second book project. I also met with Columbia alumni and various partners to promote Columbia’s Vietnamese Studies initiative, which we hope will evolve into a center for Vietnamese Studies. The trip lasted for two weeks and took place around mid-August.
Can you speak a bit about your research?
I’m writing a comprehensive history of the 1968 Tet Offensive, and I was given access to the private family archive of a general, Nguyễn Chí Thanh, who would have been the equivalent of William Westmoreland. Nguyễn Chí Thanh was the head of the Central Office of South Vietnam, otherwise known as COSVN, and was a member of the Politburo. He died on the eve of the Tet Offensive, but he was a very pivotal figure in its planning. Since these are private family archives, I was the first American scholar to gain access.
Has the archive been viewed by Vietnamese scholars?
The sign-in book included many leaders—prime ministers and secretary generals of the Vietnamese Communist Party. I didn’t see any scholars, but I would assume the high-ranking Vietnamese national scholars would have been able to view it. I was also told in passing that Chinese scholars have had access. Not many people know of it.
Why have so few American scholars had interest in or knowledge of this archive?
I don’t think it has been widely publicized. What struck me was that I had never seen a private archive and museum and library that grandiose. The only one I can think of that rivals it is Hồ Chí Minh’s!
While in Vietnam, I also met General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s daughter, Hoà Bình. Giáp has long been considered one of the most brilliant military strategists of all time, and most accounts attribute Hanoi’s war and victory to him and to Hồ Chí Minh. But in my first book I argue that they were not in charge; rather, they were marginalized in the party leadership and sidelined in Hanoi. Others including Lê Duẩn, Lê Đức Thọ and Nguyễn Chí Thanh were the ones calling the shots. This summer, then, was a fascinating and really precious experience for me to meet the daughters of these former generals [Giáp and Nguyễn] who have been so instrumental in Hanoi’s modern history.
You also met with various people to discuss Vietnamese Studies.
I met with some of our alumni, who have a very active association in Southeast Asia. They are really excited to see Vietnamese Studies at Columbia!
Olivier Đỗ, the head of the Columbia Alumni Association (CAA) in Vietnam and the founder and CEO at EZ Land Vietnam, introduced me to other alumni in the region while Peter Mach, a former vice-president of the CAA Singapore Board who now resides in Hồ Chí Minh City, hosted a lovely reception at his house. Michael Sieburg, a partner at Solidiance who helps head the CAA in Hồ Chí Minh City, arranged for me to give a “author’s event” at Old Compass Cafe. Together, we brainstormed about ways to expand Vietnam’s presence at Columbia and how to increase Columbia’s visibility in Vietnam.
What struck me about our alumni in Vietnam is that they hail from all corners of campus! Some were from Columbia College—they remember taking courses in EALAC and in History. Some have visited Weatherhead, so they know where we are in the International Affairs Building. We also had alumni from the professional schools. But at all levels what they remembered was how they wished there had been more classes on Vietnam. So they were really excited to hear what we were doing with Vietnamese Studies under the auspices of Weatherhead. They were happy to learn that we now have the two-part Vietnam civs course, that we’re developing more courses, and that we’re working on partnerships with schools within Vietnam like the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (USSH) and Fulbright University.
I traveled to Fulbright University in Hồ Chí Minh City, where I met the president, Đàm Bích Thủy, and Professor Nguyễn Nam, who heads the Vietnamese studies program there. When visiting their current campus in District 7, I had the opportunity to see the 3D model of their projected campus in District 9 (known as the new high-tech district), which is expected to be completed in 2021. It looks phenomenal! Fulbright University is the first private university in Vietnam and came about through the efforts of United States Secretary of State John Kerry and the late Senator John McCain during President Barack Obama’s tenure in office.
While in Vietnam, I also gave a talk at the US Consulate General in Hồ Chí Minh City. Although it was thrown together at the last minute, over 200 (mostly young) people attended. Professor Edward Miller from Dartmouth joined me and we talked about old myths and new war stories. I was amazed that an event on a historical subject drew that many people, and on a Monday night no less! It became clear over the course of the evening that the younger generation in Vietnam has a lot of questions about the war, its impact on the nation’s development, and its multifaceted legacies.
What is it like talking about the Vietnam War in Vietnam, as an American?
The history books used by a lot of the younger generation of Vietnamese students are quite different from ours (which I read somewhere numbers in the tens of thousands). I was very keen to impart to them that there is no such thing as objectivity; that what I was giving them that evening was my interpretation, based on the materials that I was able to access. After making the point that my perspective was subjective, I heard from the audience some criticism of the official narrative, of what they were taught from their textbooks and history books, as this interpretation has been presented to them as inalienable truths.
Did anything surprise you during your trip?
It’s been 10 years since I was last in Hồ Chí Minh City and the pace and scope of development took my breath away. The new districts are expected to really place Hồ Chí Minh City on the map as the new clean, green city (particularly Districts 2 and 9). Everything is about sustainability and ethical practices for the new urban space in the 21st century.
Right now Vietnam is at the crossroads of developments in Northeast and Southeast Asia; it’s at the epicenter of everything that’s a major issue right now in Southeast Asia at the regional level, at the global level; so it makes sense that Columbia would set its sights on Vietnam for expanded collaboration.