Thais can learn much from Vietnam

Posted on August 26, 2012

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AMONG other Asean members in the era of the AEC, Vietnam looms as a major competitor for Thailand in numerous areas such as tourism, the manufacture of electronics and textiles, and the export of rice and other food (including seafood). For example, several decades ago, Thailand was a major supplier of Nike products.

Now much of that production has shifted to Vietnam.

An economically dynamic Vietnam, however, should not be viewed as a threat but as an opportunity for Thais to invest and market their fine products and services.

To understand contemporary Vietnam, it is critically important to study its long and special history. Like Thailand, Vietnam’s history goes back several millennia. The first Vietnamese state was the Van Lang kingdom from 3079 BC to 258 BC.

There are four major themes of Vietnamese history. The first and most important is the Vietnamese history of defeating external invaders such as the Chinese, the Mongols, the French, and more recently the Americans. In defeating these enemies the Vietnamese demonstrated impressive ingenuity and creativity. The Trung sisters are famous for their courage in fighting the Chinese.

The second theme is the threat of natural disasters such as floods and typhoons. The massive dykes that the Vietnamese built to protect Hanoi from potential floods of the Red River are truly amazing.

The third theme derives from Vietnam having been under Chinese rule for almost 1,000 years. Thus, there are many Confucian influences on Vietnamese culture and society that particularly shape Vietnam’s education and the highly positive attitude of the Vietnamese toward teachers and learning.

The fourth theme is that the heart of Vietnam’s special culture is in its villages.

Reflective of Chinese Confucian influences, Vietnam was the first Southeast Asian country to open a university in 1076 in Hanoi, now called the Temple of Literature.

Another major influence on Vietnamese education was the introduction by missionaries of a Romanised Vietnamese writing system, Quoc Ngu, which is that used today. Prior to that time the Vietnamese had originally written in Chinese characters.

Then they later developed their own Vietnamese character system called chu nom.

The introduction of Romanised Vietnamese was to have a major impact on literacy, the development of a reading culture, and political mobilisation.

Only 11 years after the unification of Vietnam and the return of peace, Vietnam in 1986 introduced a new system called doi moi, roughly translated as economic renovation. The model was to combine a market-driven capitalistic economic system with a socialist political system and one-party state.

Since that time, Vietnam’s economy has grown rapidly and steadily. With a population of 91.5 million, the second largest in Asean after Indonesia, it has abundant supplies of cheap, but highly motivated, labour to work in its rapidly growing industrial and modern sector.

To understand contemporary Vietnam, it is important to understand Vietnam’s history and culture. America’s failure in Vietnam is attributed to the problem that the Americans were largely ignorant of Vietnamese history, culture, and language. As with Myanmar there are also complex naming issues. Thais often refer to Vietnamese as “uan.” Instead they should be called khon Viet. In dealing with officialdom and government it should be Ho Chi Minh City, but in dealing with the private sector or with overseas Vietnamese (Vi t Ki u), Saigon can be used.

Fortunately for Thais who want to learn more about Vietnam there are many valuable resources available. In terms of literature the Vietnamese epic, “The Tale of Kieu”, written by the great Vietnamese poet, Nguyn Du, is dear to all Vietnamese people. Excellent English translations are available.

Another extremely valuable book is “Wandering through Vietnamese Culture” by Huu Ngoc. This is basically a highly readable encyclopaedia of Vietnamese culture which won the Vietnam Gold Book Award in 2006. It is available in English and should definitely be translated into Thai.

Films can also be a good way to learn about Vietnam and its culture while at the same time improving English proficiency. Three recent valuable films are: “Pao’s Story,” (2006) about a Hmong girl in Vietnam showing impressive mountainous landscapes. With 54 different ethnic nationalities, Vietnam has great ethnic diversity.

There was a 2007 release, “Saigon Eclipse” (Sai Gon Nhat Tuc) inspired by the epic “Tale of Kieu” mentioned above. Major themes are filial piety, redemption, and submission of women. A major motif in both literature and film is “loss and longing.” Also ancestor worship is an extremely important part of Vietnamese culture.

More recently in 2011 a valuable documentary was produced, “Vietnamese Girl,” directed by Tara Miluti, showing diverse lives of Vietnamese women.

In many ways the Vietnam of today reminds me of Japan in the past. The topography of both places is similar with relatively little cultivable land relative to a large population. Thus, there are tremendous incentives to use land creatively and efficiently.

Also facilitating relations between Thailand and Vietnam, there is a significant Vietnamese diaspora in Thailand primarily in Nakhon Phanom, Sakhon Nakhon, and Chantaburi provinces. Few Thai realise that Ho Chi Minh spent considerable time in Isan in the period 1928-1931 as a Buddhist monk hiding from the French colonial police. He made serious efforts to learn the Thai language. Ban Tan Ho Chi Minh (Ban Nachok) in Nakhon Phanom has been preserved as his former area of residence. Vietnam has already achieved some remarkable successes in international education competitions reflecting its Confucian heritage and respect for learning and teachers.

As Vietnam continues its rapid economic advance as a “rising new tiger,” it represents many challenges and opportunities for the Thai.

GERALD W. FRY
Distinguished International Professor
Department of Organisational Leadership, Policy and Development
University of Minnesota

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