Sunday, June 30, 2019

Relics of Triumph in Điệnbiệnphủ

                                               by Jim Goodman

Vietnamese tourists playing on a tank
        Đinbinph today is a quiet town in northwest Vietnam, close to the Lao border and straddling the Nm Rm River.  It lies 478 km from Hanoi and around the turn of the century, when I first visited, took two all-day bus rides by land.  I flew the first time, which is a better way to arrive anyway, as it gives a much broader view of the landscape, important because of its historical context.  Đinbinph is famous as the site of the 1954 battle that ended French colonialism in Vietnam.  Flying in reveals the whole setting.
       The city lies in the Mường Thanh Valley, heart-shaped and roughly 20 km by 6 km.  High, rugged mountains surround it.  When General Henri Navarre decided in late 1953 to make Điếnbiếnphủ a last stand against the Việt Minh he had to parachute six battalions of French troops into the plain.  The previous year he had defeated Vit Minh assaults on a French base near Sơn La by luring the Vietnamese into set battles in which French firepower could be decisive.  He assumed he could do that again here.
the countryside beyond Điệnbiệnphủ
       After the Sơn La campaign stalled the Vietnamese turned to other fronts like Lai Châu in the north and, with their Pathet Lao allies, Sam Neua province in Laos, adjacent to Điệnbiệnphủ.  They also continued harassing the French garrison at Sơn La.  In August 1953 Navarre abandoned the Sơn La base in favor of a new one at Điệnbiệnphủ.  He knew the Việt Minh would follow, but here he believed he could repeat his Sơn La strategy, lure the enemy onto the plain and prevail with French artillery.
       What Navarre never considered was the possibility that the Việt Minh would be able to haul artillery pieces over the mountains and besiege the French.  But that they did, with the help of ethnic minority allies.  General Christian de Castres, the commander of the new French garrison, probably didn’t even suspect he was actually trapped.  In an interview with the Australian reporter Wilfrid Burchett at this time, Hố Chỉ Minh took off his helmet, placed it upside down and pointed out to Burchett that the French were at the bottom of the helmet, the Viêt Minh on the rim.  There was no way out for the French.
the Nậm Rốm River at Điệnbiệnphủ
       Replicating their strategy at Sơn La, the French established three complimentary defensive sub-sectors.  The central one, surrounding the city center and airport, held two-thirds of the 16,200 troops under de Castries’ command.  Troops manned various resistance positions around the city that de Castries named after the mistresses he’d had in his life—Éliane, Dominique, Béatrice, Gabrielle, etc.  When the Vietnamese began moving through the mountains the French launched artillery and air strikes.  Yet they did not disrupt the transport of heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns.  In fact, they were not even aware of it.
       On 13 March Việt Minh forces, now swelled to over 50,000, launched their attack.  Thanks to their totally unexpected use of artillery and anti-aircraft guns, within four days they had captured the northern sub-sector and penetrated the central one.  By the end of the month the Viêt Minh were battling the French for control of the central sub-sector.  Meanwhile they took over the southern sub-sector and on 7 May captured the central command post in the city, as well as General de Castries and all of his staff. 
main street in Điệnbiệnphủ
       The remaining 10,000 French soldiers surrendered, but only after blowing up the prison and killing all of the anti-French prisoners they’d been holding.  But the French sued for peace at the just-convened Geneva Conference and not long afterwards the victorious Viêt Minh paraded through Hanoi.
       Among the captives murdered by the French just before surrender were many ethnic minority supporters of the Viết Minh, especially Thái and Hmông, both of whom outnumber the Vietnamese in the province.  The Thái are actually the dominant ethnic group in the plains of northwest Vietnam, of two main sub-groups—White Thái in the north and east and Black Thái in the west.  In pre-colonial times they had a loose autonomous federation called Sipsong Chutai. 
Việt Minh warriors
       This did not evolve into a proper state, however.  Clan loyalties were more important than any sense of pan-Thái identity.  The same held true for the Hmông, who were split up among numerous sub-groups.  If the clan chief backed the French, they fought on the French side.  If the clan chief opposed the French, they joined or supported the Việt Minh.
       As it turned out, though, the great majority backed the Việt Minh.  The colonial government had already experienced Black Thái uprisings at Sơn La in 1897 and 1914-1916, as well as a revolt by the Hmông around Điệnbiệnphủ 1918-1922.  Antipathy to the government increased in the following decades, due to the ruthless exploitation by the French-recognized Thái lord of Sipsong Chutai, the Depression and the harsh years of Japanese occupation. 
Việt Minh troops marching through Hanoi
       The post-war Việt Minh campaign was slow to start in the northwest, but after the siege of Sơn La began picking up rapidly.  The guerrillas could count on widespread sympathy from the minorities.  In the preparations for the Battle of Điệnbiệnphủ, Thái, Hmông, Dao, Sila and others joined Vietnamese peasants making up the 200,000 non-combatants in the ‘Brigade of Iron Horses’ that carried heavy artillery, anti-aircraft guns, ammunition and other supplies over the mountains on foot or bicycle.
       For a long time Điệnbiệnphủ served as the capital of the sprawling northeast province of Lai Châu.  In 2003 the government separated the southern half and created the new province of Điệnbienphủ, with the same city as capital.  It is one of the four provinces in the country where ethnic Vietnamese (Kình) are a minority, accounting for just 20% of the population, mostly in the towns.  The Thái comprise 38% and the Hmông another 30%.  The remainder consists of 19 other recognized minorities, including a community of ethnic Lao.
Vietnamese villagers selling farm produce
Flowery Hmông in the market
       Thái of one kind or another dominated the Mường Thanh plain for over a millennium.  From the 9th-13th centuries it was the center of a Thái Lu kingdom until supplanted by a Black Thái state.  In the early 1700s Thái Phẽ invaders from China conquered it, but later that century the local Thái, led by the Vietnamese insurgent Hoàng Hông Chất, evicted them.  He also built a citadel 11 km south of Điệnbiệnphủ, but only a few stones and the lower part of a rampart have survived.  A temple erected to Hoàng Hông Chất still stands in the vicinity, though.
White Hmông woman
White Hmông in the market
       Hoàng Hông Chất soon became the de facto ruler of a large swath of the northwest.  After his death in 1767 the Vietnamese government in the north, then in the last stages of control by the Trính Lords, moved to reassert its authority.  But then came decades of chaos--the collapse of the Trịnh government, the Tây Sơn Revolt and the slow consolidation of national territories during the establishment of the Nguyễn Dynasty.  Faraway places like the northwest frontier became prey to bandits and foreign aggressors.
village in the Mường Thanh Valley
       To deal with Siamese and Chinese incursions, the Nguyểb government in 1841 established the fortified post of Điệnbiệnphủ.  But peace prevailed only so long as the government was strong.  By the 1870s the Nguyễn regime had fallen into terminal decline.  Renegade soldiers from the failed Taiping Rebellion in southern China moved into northern Vietnam and formed various bandit gangs that ravaged the area.
       The following decade, when the French conquered Hanoi, Siamese forces in 1884 attacked Điếnbiếnphủ in a three-year campaign to claim sovereignty over the Thái of Sipsong Chutai.  Local resistance kept the invaders at bay and a French military campaign in the northwest 1888-89 cleared the area of both foreigners and bandits.  The colonial government established a garrison at Điệnbiệnphủ that terminated invasions and roaming bandit gangs, but left the administration of the area largely in the hands of the Thái lord Đèo Văn Trị, recognizing him as the head of Sipsong Chutai.
Black Thái houses
       Revolts against the Đèo family and the colonial authorities broke out in the early 20th century.  But after the suppression of the Hmông revolt in 1922, Điệnbiệnphủ and vicinity enjoyed three decades of relative peace and stability.  After the commotion of its brief years in the historical spotlight, it reverted to its role as a sleepy provincial town, only with Vietnamese administrators instead of French officials or Thai lords.  It did not suffer from bombing in the American War, for it was far from the Hồ Chí Minh Trail.
       The population today is about 150,000, mostly Vietnamese, who either work for the government or run the businesses.  A short distance from the town lie a few Vietnamese farming villages as well and residents often come to the city to set up produce stalls on the streets.  I was the only foreigner around at the time, but the people were universally friendly—150 ‘hellos’ a day.
Thái women in the market
       There was very little vehicular traffic back then, not even many people riding bicycles.  It was not a large town anyway, and less than an hour’s walk from one end to the other.  The main activity was in the central covered market, a warren of shops and stalls selling a variety of goods.  This was also the best place to see ethnic minorities from the outlying villages and surrounding mountains.  Some of them even ran a few of the stalls.
       Most were Black Thái from the plains and two kinds of Hmông from the nearest hills.  One was the Flowery Hmông, the same sub-group as those around Bắc Hà, whose women wore pleated batik skirts and side-fastened embroidered jackets.  The other was a branch of the White Hmông.  Their women dressed in black jackets, trousers, long aprons and a conical cap festooned with red tassels.
a former French command post
       The Black Thái inhabit most of the villages of the Mường Thanh Valley.  They grow rice and vegetables and live in sturdy stilted wooden houses.  They are animist, not Buddhist, and the only religious structures in their villages are the ancestral shrines and the altar to the local guardian spirit.  A conservative people like the Hmông, their women almost all prefer the traditional dress.  This consists of a pastel colored, long-sleeved blouse, fastened with silver buckles down the front, worn over a black sarong and with a black headscarf, embroidered with bright geometric designs.
       Black Thái villages are within walking distance of the town, separated by rice fields and grazing areas.  And punctuating the spaces in between, still in place after 65 years, stand the intact war debris of burnt out tanks, field posts and bunkers of the fateful battleground.  These, not the ethnic minorities, are what the Vietnamese tourists come to see.  For its national significance, Điệnbiệnphủ attracts a steady stream of them, even the youth.  They inspect the command posts and trenches, explore de Castries’ bunker and crawl over the tanks for photographs. 
typical bunker from the battlefield
       The most important place for visitors pursuing the city’s historical legacy is the Victory Museum.  In a city characterized by modest-sized buildings, the museum is quite extravagant, occupying 22.300 square meters.  It’s shaped like a truncated cone, resembling the netted camouflage hats worn by Việt Minh soldiers.  Erected in time for the battle’s 60th anniversary in 2014, it replaced a much smaller museum and has a greater number of exhibits.
       Tanks and artillery used by both sides stand on the grounds outside the museum.  Rooms inside include lists and portraits of the Việt Minh participants, photos and dioramas of military and Party leaders planning strategy and old photographs and paintings of key decision moments.  Other exhibits display military field gear, weapons, uniforms and conveyances used to porter supplies.
artillery from the battlefield
       By far the most interesting exhibit is in the largest room, containing a huge relief map of the Mường Thanh Valley.  It indicates the positions of the French and Vietnamese forces by the placement of little green and red lights.  Then a narration begins recounting the course of the campaign.  Flashing lights mark the battle sites, followed by an illuminated display of the two sides’ positions afterwards.  The narration is in Vietnamese, but even without a translation it is easy to follow the story.
       After this comes a video of Vietnamese filming of the events, with a little footage from the French spliced in.  Once again, lights flash on the relief map following scenes in the film.  After this show, a visitor knows exactly how the Battle of Điệnbiẹnphủ turned into a tremendous Vietnamese triumph.  The only thing missing is a clip of Hồ Chí Minh turning his helmet upside down in the interview with Wilfrid Burchett. The French are at the bottom.  We’re on the rim.  They can’t get out.  It’s only a matter of time.

graves of fallen Viêt Minh soldiers

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Friday, June 14, 2019

Education in Imperial Vietnam

                                                                by Jim Goodman

laureate's procession, depiction inside Quốc Từ Giám
       After over a thousand years of Chinese administration, in 938 Vietnam won back its independence.  But after five years the new nation’s first ruler Ngô Quyn died and more than two decades of poly-sided civil war ensued.  Eventually Đinh Bộ Lĩnh prevailed and in 968 moved the capital to his hometown Hoa Lư.  After eleven years he was assassinated and the throne passed to Lê Hoàn, the military chief, just in time to repel a Chinese invasion.  He also defeated the Chăm on the southern front, but died in 1005.
       Four years of chaos followed until in 1009 Lý Thái Tô founded a new dynasty, stable enough to last over two centuries.  Buddhist monks had supported his enthronement and Buddhism became the state religion.  Government administrators came from the royal and aristocratic ranks and monks were in charge of education.
the Temple of Literature at the turn of the century
       But over time the Court came to the conclusion that, as an ideology for running the country and stabilizing society, Confucianism worked better.  It had been the ideology of statecraft in China since the Han Dynasty and the Vietnamese had had several centuries of experience living under it.  They may have revolted against individual Confucian administrators, but believed the system was the best way to hold a nation together.  Confucian ethics would guide the behavior of citizens towards the state and each other, with everyone aware of their place in society and their responsibilities to it.  Men familiar with the classics of Confucian principles would know how to properly manage state affairs.
entrance to the Văn Miếu compound
       This line of thought elevated education to a level of prime importance and respect.  It culminated in 1071 when King Lý Thánh Tông, in the final year of his reign, ordered the construction of the Temple of Literature on a small island in the big lake that existed then just south of the Citadel. In 1075 the Court began the tutoring of royal princes in the compound of Văn Miếu (as the Vietnamese call the Temple of Literature).  The following year the Court inaugurated the National School (Quc T Giám) on the Văn Miếu premises to educate members of the aristocracy in order to appoint them as mandarins to administer the country and manage affairs at Court.  In subsequent years it established the examination system.

pond in a Văn Miếu courtyard
       The Temple of Literature we see today is no longer on an island.  Only a small pond opposite the entrance remains of the lake that once surrounded it.  Modeled on the temple to Confucius in his hometown in Qufu, China, the walled, rectangular compound encloses five courtyards.  A tall, columned, ornamented gate marks the entrance on the south side. 
      The first three courtyards were basically gardens beside artificial ponds.  These were the places where the students indulged in quiet, private study.  The temple to Confucius stood in the fourth compound, where mandarins and princes came to make offerings and honor the sage.  The fifth compound housed the Quc T Giám buildings and halls.  Here the tutors worked directly with the students, imparting their lessons in reading and writing, overseeing their compositions, quizzing them, preparing them for the examinations.
courtyard tower, Văn Miếu
Confucius image in the Temple of Literature
       To enter the service of the Court, monks and priests took the Tam Giáo (Three Religions) examinations, while sons of aristocrats, who were to hold most high mandarin positions, took the Thái Hc Sinh exams.  The most prestigious examination system was for attaining a doctorate (tién sĩ) and was open to any landowner or his son who had already passed the lower level of exams.  As the prevailing inheritance system was division among the children (including the daughters) rather than primogeniture, the class of eligible hopefuls constantly expanded.
private classes in the old days
       To pass the series of exams and make it to tiến sĩ required a sophisticated knowledge of the Chinese classics, Confucian mores, history, literature, philosophy and statecraft.  The arts and sciences were not part of the curriculum.  The emphasis was less on practical matters and more on molding a character and worldview proper for a socially responsible administrator. 
       Those who got high marks in the provincial examinations (thi hương) won the title of cứ nhân and were eligible for the next level--thi hội.  If they passed four rounds of thi hội exams they won the coveted title of tiến sĩ and eligible for the final, royal set called thi đình, carried out to rank the tiến sĩ and apportion honors and positions.  Even those who failed at the thi hội level were still compensated, for they usually wound up being teachers, still a prestigious occupation and sometimes very well paid.
Quộc Từ Giám, the National University
        Thăng Long played host to all three of these examinations. The thi hi examinations were held in the lakeside Giáng Võ palace, southwest of the Citadel. The site for the thi hương examinations, like the thi hi examinations held every three years, though not the same year for each, was the spot now occupied by the National Library on Tràng Thi street, off the southwest corner of Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  Ordinarily a vacant lot, at thi hương time it became the intellectual and social focal point for all of Thăng Long.
       Two thick fences and a moat lined with rows of pikes surrounded the examination grounds.  The compound was divided into four equal parts, all fenced in with a gate surmounted by a watchtower.  City authorities posted guards around the camp’s perimeters.  An office in the center of the compound stamped the examination papers, announced the subjects and collected the candidates’ compositions.
huts and beds in the examination ground
       The Ministry of Ceremonies organized the event, though the king himself appointed the inspectors and the mandarins in charge of supervision and control.  The ministry announced the list of examiners ten days prior and they immediately were locked in seclusion inside the camp, cut off from contact with the outside world.  When the candidates arrived camp guards searched their belongings three times before letting them in to find which quarter of the camp to which they had been assigned.  All this searching and sequestering was intended to eliminate any chance of cheating in any way.  The government viewed these examinations with the utmost gravity.  The candidates themselves were equally serious.  Since their whole future depended upon their performance, no event in their lives until now was as important.
punishing violators of the examination rules
       Citizens of Thăng Long were also well aware of the importance of these examinations and enjoyed the excitement when the scholars thronged the city every three years.  The candidates were recognizable by the baggage they lugged into the city’s inns and hostels, containing the set of items they would live off during the days they were ensconced in the examination camp.  A tent of lacquered cloth and a bamboo bench were the most obvious items, things only ever toted by examinees.  They also carried some clothes, a water canteen, a wooden cylinder for storing exam papers and a wooden box with paper, ink and brushes, which doubled as a table for meals.  Thăng Long residents were especially hospitable to them.  After all, today’s noodles customer might one day be the mandarin governing this district.
examination day
       Candidates had to write four successive compositions (they had a full day for each) in addition to fielding questions from the examiners.  A serious mistake in a composition meant failure.  As a result, as time progressed, there were fewer and fewer candidates remaining, so less time waiting around to be scheduled.  By law, though, the maximum time permitted between the first and last exam was twenty days.  When the examinations were concluded some candidates returned to their villages, while others waited around for several days for the posting of the results.
       The urban mood was at its liveliest and merriest at this time.  With the immediate pressure off, the candidates relaxed at the West Lake pavilions, went boating on the lake around the Temple of Literature after visiting the shrine to Confucius, indulged in their famous propensity for pranks and practical jokes, visited theaters and dined and drank in the inns.  Finally the results would be known and those who passed and attained the c nhân degree filed off to the palace, from where mandarins led them in a well-observed procession through the city.  High-ranking families with marriageable daughters paid particular attention to which of the cnhân were single.
honoring the scholar and his horse
       The treatment accorded those scholars who went on to make tin sĩ and pass the thi đình examinations at the palace was even grander.  The king awarded them ceremonial clothing and the Ministry of Ceremonies hosted a banquet in their honor.  Mandarins gave them a guided tour of the royal gardens and the streets of the capital, lined with citizens applauding their success. 
       Then officials led them in a procession all the way back to their villages, led by drummers and including separate palanquins for the scholar’s teacher and parents, the tiến sĩ riding in the last, most elegant palanquin or on a specially outfitted horse.  If he scored extraordinarily high marks, at the entrance to the village four men grabbed the horse’s legs and carried both the animal and the seated scholar to the village center, thereby honoring both horse and rider.  This theme of the successful scholar’s return home has inspired countless paintings and carvings over the centuries and is one of the most common skits presented in shows by contemporary water-puppet troupes.
stele house at Văn Miếu compound
       Upon arrival the laureate performed rites to his ancestors.  His village organized a welcome ceremony and feast in his honor.  They also granted him certain favors and honors.  They invited him to direct village affairs, to have the seat of honor at assemblies and rituals at the đình (communal house) and to supervise the distribution of votive offerings to the villagers at festivals.  Meanwhile, unless he had already made employment arrangements as a tutor he awaited his appointment to office by the Court.  When it came he was not given a salary, but instead an estate in which he collected taxes and services from its serfs.
       The system continued through the Lý and Trn Dynasties, was interrupted by the two decades of Chinese occupation early 15th century, and after their expulsion, revived by the Lê Dynasty.  Confucianism then became the official state ideology.  In 1475 the dynasty’s most accomplished emperor, Lê Thánh Tông, began the custom of erecting steles inscribed with laureate’s name, on the grounds of the Temple of Literature (which are still there).   
steles honoring tiến sĩ ar Văn Miếu
entrance to Văn Miếu at Huế
       In the early 16th century the Lê government, plagued by a succession of incompetent, cruel and lecherous teenage tyrants, fell to Mác Đăng Dung in 1527.  Lê forces retreated, but eventually launched a long campaign against the Mc that restored them in 1592.  Yet throughout the turmoil the examination system continued in the capital, even under siege.  And with the Lê restoration it was back.
scholars' steles at the Huế Văn Miếu
       The restored Lê emperor was just a figurehead, though, and in the 17th century the country split into administrative halves.  The Trnh Lords ruled the north and the Nguyn Lords controlled the south.  The Trnh Lords continued to rely on the examination system for their officials and after 1695 the Nguyn Lords adopted the system.  The Tây Sơn Revolt (1778-1802) destroyed both administrations, but after Nguyễm Ánh, the last surviving Nguyễn Lord, reunited the country, classic Confucianism made a comeback.
       Now known by the royal name Gia Long, the new emperor made Huế the national capital and in 1808 built a new Temple of Literature on the Perfume River a few km downstream from the Citadel.  National examinations took place here until the end of the system entirely in 1919.  Gia Long also continued the custom of erecting steles inscribed with the names of the laureates.  Today, two rows of these, plus two compound entry gates, are all that remain on the site.
compound gate to Văn Miếu at Huế
       In contrast, the original Temple of Literature in Hanoi still stands, albeit with renovated buildings, but still roughly in the original layout.  It’s naturally a top tourist attraction, but is also revered by Hanoi residents.  In the past, the examination system was more than just a tri-annual season of intellectual and social excitement.  It instilled a sense of status and respect for education that has persisted through to the 21st century, even though it’s an entirely different system of education now.  It made residents feel that their city was the epicenter of culture and civilization in Vietnam, the major source of its intellectual ferment, artistic innovation and cultural inspiration.  It’s a claim that can still be made. 

the tiến sĩ's triumphant procession--popular water-puppet skit

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The Temple of Literature is one of the stops in Hanoi on Delta Tours Vietnam's visit to the city. See the itinerary at