Vietnam through dialogue among Civilizations

Professor Vu Khieu

Vietnamese Hero of Labour

We understand that dialogue among civilizations is an essential need of our time, as it taps the boundless potential of knowledge and spirit of each and every civilization in order to serve the advancement, prosperity and well being of each person, each nation and the whole of humankind. 

As for Vietnam, dialogue among civilizations is what we have long desired. It enables us to expand our cultural exchanges with the world community. It helps our culture to develop continuously by further promoting our own values and at the same time absorbing the best values of all civilizations in the world. 


Throughout the history of Vietnam, culture has not only been a factor in development but also a sine qua non for the survival of the nation. If you have visited Vietnam or studied the history of the country, you may well see the big challenges that our country has been coping with. Natural calamities have devastated our country year after year. Floods and typhoons have swept countless crops, animals and lives away while sweltering heat has set fire to forests, dried up rivers, leading to disease and death. Worse still, our country has time and again fallen victim to foreign aggression. One thousand years under foreign occupation were followed by another thousand years during which we had to fight against the mighty armies of the world such as those of the Mongolians, the Chinese Ming Dynasty, the Chinese Ching Dynasty, the French, the Japanese and the Americans. The circumstances forced us to choose either to die or to stand united to fight for survival. Our country chose the latter and surmounted trials and challenges with the help of the most important weapon, the spirit. 

This spirit is composed of the solidarity of the 54 ethnic groups coexisting on the land of Vietnam, the mutual compassion, the courageous will and the creativity at work, in the battlefield and at school.

Those qualities have constituted the core of Vietnamese culture and Vietnamese identity. What we want to emphasize here, however, is not the internal factor but the external contributions to the establishment and development of the Vietnamese culture. 

Vietnam is located at the crossroads of many cultures. In early history, it was the site of interaction between the Southeast Asian and East Asian cultures and later that of interaction between Indian and Chinese cultures. In recent history, it has been the site of interaction between Western and Eastern culture and currently between Vietnamese culture and other cultures of the world. 

Cultural exchange between Vietnam and foreign countries has both advantages and difficulties, in which voluntary acceptance and imposition, absorption and elimination, dialogue and conflict are interwoven. 

Vietnam is situated in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian nations have long established close relationships among themselves and been influenced by Indian culture. Scholars worldwide find the cultures of these nations all share similarities in working, eating, dressing and housing practices, and in religious, ethical, artistic customs and habits. This is a process of exchange and mutual learning on a natural and voluntary basis. 

Vietnam and other East Asian countries later had deeper relations with Chinese civilization. However, the Sino-Vietnamese cultural exchange was not as smooth as the Indo-Vietnamese exchange. China boasts a flourishing civilization of more five thousand years, the most notable aspect of which is Confucianism. Yet, the Vietnamese people of the past were not enthusiastically responsive to the penetration of Confucianism and Chinese civilization. This is because they were introduced to Vietnam by aggressors who used them as objects of rule. Therefore, under foreign domination, Buddhism was more welcome than Confucianism. This indicates that a culture imposed through violence has no sustainability. 

This situation changed when Vietnam regained its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The State and the people of Vietnam, in the spirit of independence and self-reliance, further developed Buddhism and began to accept Confucianism as an important ideological system for political stability and social management. Along with Confucianism, Vietnam absorbed other achievements of Chinese civilization, such its arts and literature, and positive customs and habits. As in other countries in East Asia, such as Japan and Korea, Confucianism penetrated the lives of the Vietnamese people and became a leading aspect of the superstructure, creating a number of commonalties among these countries. 

However, the values imported had to be responsive to the need for development in Vietnam and subject to Vietnamization. Over thousands of years of history, those values have been selected and adjusted to fit in the Vietnamese context in order to become Vietnamese cultural values. 

We know that when the first Indians came to Vietnam to spread Buddhism and Indian civilization, they joined their followers, living closely with the ordinary people and they explained to the people benevolence and fraternity as well as advising them to lead a good lives and to avoid evil. 

It must added, however, that mutual compassion and fraternity are not values merely imported along with Buddhism. Rather, they are qualities that took root in Vietnamese society as moral requirements and conditions for survival in the face of the acute trials and challenges of natural calamities and aggression. The over-simplistic notion that Buddhism brought benevolence and fraternity to the Vietnamese people should be avoided. Instead, it should be understood that the benevolence and fraternity of the Vietnamese people were lifted to a higher plane with the help of Buddhist teachings, thereby adding positive humanitarianism to Vietnamese characteristics and becoming a factor in the sustainability of Vietnamese culture. 

This is also the case for Confucianism. Confucianism introduced to Vietnam did not retain its primitive features. It was Vietnamized as it was also modified in Japan and Korea. Vietnamese Confucians, in the interests of safeguarding and building the nation, made full use of the positive notions of Confucianism with a view to asserting the traditional values of their country.

Confucianism places three fundamental relationships in a society, namely king-subject, father-child, and husband-wife at the top of its teachings. The Vietnamese people do not accept all of those principles. While Confucius said the king has the authority to decide if a person is executed, the Vietnamese demanded democracy by asserting that king's rulings must succumb to village customs. Confucius provided that children must in all circumstances submit to the father while the Vietnamese say that if the child is better than the father, then the family is a happy one. Confucius believed the 'wife must submit to the husband in all respects’ while the Vietnamese demand equality between the two, saying that wife and husband in consent could even dry up the Eastern Sea. 

When the Chinese feudal authorities raised the flag of benevolence and righteousness of Confucianism to justify their invasion of Vietnam, a leader of the Vietnamese people declared that the key to benevolence and righteousness is to bring a peaceful life to the people and help them fight brutal forces - Declaration on the Victory over the Wu. 

Following a Vietnamized Confucianism, Confucian intellectuals made remarkable contributions to the consolidation of the positive national traditions, turning them into family-based thoughts on a higher plane, boosting national development and forging an indomitable strength for the country to preserve independence and defeat every aggressor. 

Despite the positive factors and contributions of Vietnamized Confucianism to Vietnamese culture, its negative elements were serious and Confucianism, therefore, became increasingly incapable of coping with the new challenges of the time. Ho Chi Minh was correct when he observed, “The strong point of Confucian theory is its emphasis on individual moral self-improvement.” He was fully aware of the great source of strength that Confucian thought could offer to the cultural life of Asian people. However, he pointed out that “Confucianism is only relevant to an unchanged and tranquil society.”

The unchanged and tranquil society based on Asian production methodology and Eastern culture was then faced with unprecedented challenges. That was the confrontation with the imminent invasion of Western civilization. The Japanese awakened quickly on the eve of the challenge. Under the rule of the Meiji Emperor, they soon accepted Western civilization, which was superior to others in the fields of industry, science and technology. As a result, Japan built up both its economic and military might. 

Meanwhile, Vietnam and other Eastern countries, driven by pride in their traditional values, became too conservative. They believed irrationally in the everlasting strength of Confucian deities. They maintained the belief that Eastern culture represented righteousness, Confucianism would be everlasting and Confucius would be the master of all times. The Vietnamese and many Asians saw Westerners as “savage white devils” who relied on weapons and machines, whose civilization was something threatening and despicable. Lulling themselves with in the conservatism of Eastern civilization, these countries, one by one, fell prey to colonialism and became colonies or semi-colonies. These countries were not able to free themselves as they were held hostage to Eastern civilization and unable to absorb the advances of human kind, part of which were the values of Western civilization. 

From then on, colonialism sullied Western civilization, trampling on the positive slogans of that civilization. Liberty, equality, and fraternity became clichés and unconcealed rhetoric for cruel oppression and exploitation. Meanwhile, the people in Eastern countries were living in hunger, poverty and stripped of dignity. They nurtured a hatred towards the colonists and their civilization. This situation led to an ever-widening gulf between Western and Eastern civilization. 

The Vietnamese people did not accept an absolute contradiction between Eastern and Western values but stood firm in order to preserve their national identity and at the same time take in the values of humankind from both the East and the West. 

Vietnam was lucky to have Ho Chi Minh who initiated and led the Vietnamese revolution and adopted a correct attitude towards national values and those of human kind, of the West and of the East. But for his attachment to the historical and social background of Vietnam and the preservation of the Vietnamese values, Ho Chi Minh would not have been able to absorb in a selective manner the values acquired by humankind. Had Ho Chi Minh not spent 36 years traveling to all continents in a quest for national salvation, and not taken in Western values and humankind’s values, the Vietnamese revolution could not have succeeded and there would be no country of Vietnam today. 

There is a quote by Ho Chi Minh that profoundly expresses the Vietnamese spirit in the cultural exchange between the values of the nation of humankind, and between the East and the West. “The strong point of Confucianism is its emphasis on the individual’s moral self- improvement. The strong point of Christianity is benevolence. The strong point of Marxism is the dialectic. The strong point of Sun Yat-Sen’s Doctrine is its relevance to Vietnamese conditions. I try to be a pupil of all these masters.”

From the Vietnamese land, Vietnamese and Eastern values, Ho Chi Minh absorbed the strong point of Confucianism in self-improvement of the individual. Yet, this self- improvement was not enough to combat colonialism. Ho Chi Minh left the East in a quest for Western values. He overcame Eastern prejudices and recognized the strength of Christianity in its respect for benevolence. But this benevolence was not enough to bring humankind out of the suffering caused by oppression and exploitation. 

He encountered Marxism and dialectic methodology. Yet, he adopted Marxism not in a dogmatic, but in a creative spirit. As early as 1924, noting that Marxism was established against the background of a traditional Western society, he stressed the need to supplement Marxism with Eastern knowledge. 

Back to the East, he recognized the relevance of Sun Yat-Sen’s Doctrine to Vietnamese conditions and noted Sun Yat-Sen’s experience and policies and the differences between the Chinese and the Vietnamese contexts. 

Ho Chi Minh’s success lies in the combination of national values and humankind’s values, aiming at establishing a value system relevant to the contemporary development of Vietnam.

In addressing the issues concerning the relationship between Eastern and Western values, the Vietnamese people bear in mind an immortal quote by Ho Chi Minh: “The Vietnamese culture is the outcome of the interaction between Eastern and Western cultures. We learn the good things from both the East and the West in order to create a culture for Vietnam.”

These viewpoints expressed by Ho Chi Minh more than half a century ago remain our code of conduct in this broad dialogue among civilizations of the world. The world is experiencing unprecedented changes. The 20th century marked the biggest turning point of humankind. The scientific-technological and social revolutions of the 20th century placed the world in a new circumstance. Man is witnessing miraculous intellectual development. Nation states are profoundly aware of the rewards of independence and freedom and of their boundless potential. 

Globalization is an inevitable trend that is drawing all nations into competition, but globalization also contains an array of injustices. Conflicts of interests are occurring between the rich and the rest of world, the strong and the weak, the north and the south. It is a common desire of nations and human conscience that globalization must have a human face and be aimed at common goals, and realize the best values opted for by the whole of humankind.

The awakening of nations means the awakening of civilizations. Western civilization is no longer in the position of sole player. Other civilizations of the world must share the common responsibility of humankind and assert themselves through the development of their own and of the entire world community. 

Vietnam is fully aware of the importance of dialogue among civilizations and has been contributing actively to the promotion of this process. Almost 30 years ago, after the reunification of the country, the Government of Vietnam declared “Vietnam wants to be friends with all countries in the world.” Realizing this declaration, Vietnam has steadfastly expanded its cultural exchanges and actively sought to learn more about other civilizations and to be known by friends the world over. 

Vietnam is grateful to the friends who have approached the history and the society of Vietnam and been sympathetic with the hardships and the restless efforts of Vietnam in its national building and civilizational development. For thousands of years, the Vietnamese had to resort to weapons to fight against foreign aggressors, but they have always turned their thoughts to peace and friendship. It is for this reason that Ho Chi Minh, who led Vietnam’s protracted wars of resistance, was honored with the title of an eminent man of culture and peace. Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam where the fiercest fighting took place was honored with the UNESCO City for Peace Prize. The world gets to know us better when they discover that words such as peace and friendship are commonly used to name cities, provinces, and districts in Vietnam. Amidst the tension of war, many parents chose to name their children Peace. 

Those countries that invaded Vietnam have found that it did not take Vietnam long to restore relations of friendship with old adversaries. They also found that Vietnam always gave humanitarian treatment towards prisoners of war. The Vietnamese people always wish to put an immediate end to bloodshed. Ho Chi Minh once said “the blood of the French legion troops and the blood of the Vietnamese soldiers are both human blood and both deserve compassion.” 

Everyone sees that Vietnamese emotion demonstrates the unity between humanitarianism and patriotism, between just wars and the desire for peace, between national interests and humankind’s interests. 

We believe that the aforementioned qualities will prove a solid foundation upon which to enter today’s dialogue among civilizations.

(Proceedings of the International Ministerial Conference on the Dialogue among Civilizations Delhi, India 9 & 10 July 2003)



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