The name Vietnam has historically caused confusion, and
for good reason. The mixed ethnic population has seldom known long
periods of freedom, security, or peace. There is South Vietnam and North
Vietnam. Originally the area was known as French Indochina. In fact,
just before 1800, the area known as South Vietnam was called Cochin
China and South Annam while North Vietnam territory was known as Tonkin
and North Annam.
The huge S-shape of North and South Vietnam, curving from
the Gulf of Tonkin and bulging outward to the South China Sea, is the
home of a population made up of 90 percent Annamite stock from the
Hindu-Buddhist Kingdom of Annam. These peoples are believed to have
migrated as a Paleomongoloid people from the area that likely was the
flat wooded swamp of lower Tonkin, long ago called Yue state, in the
Vietnamese language, Viet state; and so the people came to be called
The first capital of the Vietnamese Kingdom of Nam Viet
or South Yue was Hanoi. By 42 C.E. Nam Viet had become a Chinese
province and in the almost thousand-year occupation by China both the
people and the country reflected the powerful 'elderly brother'
influence in every aspect of daily life.
Chinese influence in the countryside remains to this day.
Chinese-style villages, autonomous leadership, ancestor worship, and the
patrilineal kinship system, coupled with a high degree of nationalism
and individual reserve, characterize most of the South Vietnam villages.
Dikes and canals constructed against annual floods, layout of irrigation
patterns for the fields, the introduction of fertilizing fields with
human faces as well as the use of the iron plowshare and the
bucket-wheel all greatly increased rice production. In fact, some areas
were able to glean two annual crops with the use of these methods. The
Chinese also introduced and helped to develop crafts and craft guilds,
which promoted the rapid development and pride in creativity.
To the basic animism, the Chinese introduced Taoism,
Mahayana Buddhism, and the morals philosophy of Confucianism. As in
China, government officials were a hierarchy of Confucian intellectuals.
Temple, pagodas, and gracefully curved roof lines (warding away evil
spirits) became a part of the skyline just as the Chinese vocabulary
permeated the Austro-Asiatic language of the Vietnamese.
Even today, Chinese influence is clearly distinguishable
at the table as well. Most Vietnamese eat their foods with chopsticks.
Only in scattered mountainous regions, where the Chinese influence did
not penetrate, do people eat with their fingers as is customary in most
of Southeast Asia. Chinese cooking implements, which include charcoal
braziers, ladles and stirring spoons, many bowls and woks, knives and
choppers, are as familiar and lovingly used as in any Chinese kitchen.
Vietnamese prefer their rice served plain and white. The northerners
show a preference for long grain rice (tamthom); the southerners prefer
short grain rice (nanhchon) served separately rather than mixed with
Yet while Vietnamese enjoy many fried foods and
stir-fried dishes, they have a further distinct preference for lean
meats (lean chicken and pork) and fatless soups, and a dislike for foods
that taste greasy. Because of this, most dishes are steamed or boiled or
very quickly stir-fried, and all foods that may have any suspicion of
grease are skimmed, trimmed, or otherwise handled to remove grease.
By the late 900s CE Vietnamese drove out the Chinese and
extended their sense of strength by pressuring their southern neighbors
in the Kingdom of Cham (predominately under Indian influence). The
population of Malayo-Polynesian origin engaged in rice culture soon came
under Vietnamese domination. By the 1600s Viets have annexed the entire
"rice bowl" of the Mekong Delta region. It is probably that Viets might
have even gone further in their "annexing" had it not been for the
incredible influence of both the Catholic French missionaries and the
development of the French East India Company in the 1600s, which helped
to engage France's interest in this area.
It was the French who moved into the Mekong Delta and
established the colony of Cochin China and the protectorate of Cambodia
in 1865. Gradual French influence was seen in the extension of
industrialization and in the spread of Roman Catholicism. Gradually too,
Vietnamese of means began sending their children to study in Europe.
French culture, language, cuisine, and religion found a place in the
Vietnamese lifestyle. The increase of these overseas educated led to a
small middle class and a gradually burgeoning intelligentsia soon joined
by Chinese moving into the cities and towns as traders, crafts-people,
clerks, and merchants. Saigon's twin city of Cholon was founded by the
Although the French united much of the area for
administrative purposes, a slow-simmering nationalism brewed. Ignoring
the French extension of ports, canals, highways and railroads, the
Annamese pressed for independence of their Vietnam or "Indochinese
Union", as it was called by 1900.
France's collapse to Germany in 1940 gave further impetus
to the nationalistic tide but was quelled when the Allies divided
Indochina arbitrarily into a northern zone to be held by the Chinese and
the southern zone to be held by the British-Indian troops pending the
arrival once again of the French.
The embattled Vietnamese, torn by strife, starvation, and
corruption from within, and tugged by opposing outside forces, became
the pawn in a chess game called the Cold War. In the belief that it
could contain the Communists (under Ho Chi Minh in Northern Vietnam),
the Americans poured men and arms into South Vietnam.
From the earliest Hindu-Buddhist to Chinese to French,
the Communists and most recently the Americans - these historic
influences and upheavals have left their imprint on the land, and almost
every aspect of the people's culture. Ethnic antagonisms and deep
contrast between the rich and the poor, the various religions and
between the lowlanders and the mountain people will take kinder turns of
history to heal.