VN scholar publishes trusty culture guide

VietNamNet Bridge – If I were to choose one person to accompany visitors on their first trip to Viet Nam, my choice would be Huu Ngoc. If I were to choose one book for those about to visit Viet Nam or those unable to visit, my choice would be Huu Ngoc’s Viet Nam: Tradition and Change.

Vietnamese Culture, Cultural Charity Fund, Vietnamese Literature, Vietnam economy, Vietnamnet bridge, English news about Vietnam, Vietnam news, news about Vietnam, English news, Vietnamnet news, latest news on Vietnam, Vietnam

Bicycling forward: The cover of Huu Ngoc’s book.

At age ninety-eight by Western counting (ninety-nine accord¬ing to Vietnamese), Huu Ngoc is among Viet Nam’s most famous general scholars. Born with limited eyesight, he reads by holding a text three inches from his near-sighted eye. Yet with his unusual linguistic ability, prodigious memory, and his longevity, he is among Viet Nam’s keenest observers of traditional Vietnamese culture and recent history. For twenty years, Huu Ngoc wrote a Sunday column in French for Le Courrier du Vietnam (The Viet Nam Mail). An Eng¬lish version appeared as “Traditional Miscellany” in Viet Nam News, the national English-language newspaper. He collected 1,255 pages from these essays into Wandering through Vietnamese Culture, the only English-language book to win Viet Nam’s Gold Book Prize.

Viet Nam: Tradition and Change is a selection from the many treasures in Wandering through Vietnamese Culture.

Huu Ngoc was born on Hang Gai (Hemp Market) Street in Ha Noi’s Old Quarter in 1918, when Viet Nam did not yet have its own name on world maps. At that time, the French name for Viet Nam was Annam, which was also the French name for one of Viet Nam’s three regions—Tonkin (Bac Ky, the Northern Region); Annam (Trung Kỳ, the Central Region); and Cochinchina (Nam Kỳ, the Southern Region). The Vietnamese people in all three regions en¬dured colonialism’s rigid and often lethal grasp. The literacy rate among Vietnamese was from 5 to 10 per cent. The schools recog¬nised by the French provided education in Quoc Ngu (Vietnamese Romanized script) and French to train a small group of Vietnam¬ese students to be administrators at French offices. The curriculum in the country’s few high schools centred on French literature, French history, mathematics, and the sciences, with Vietnamese taught as a foreign language.

During Huu Ngoc’s student years, Ha Noi had only two state-run high schools—Buoi School for Vietnamese and Lycée Albert Sarraut for French children as well as for Vietnamese children from the privileged class. Huu Ngoc was one of two students from Buoi along with several from Sarraut to place highest in the special examinations. The prize was a ride in the first airplane to circle above Ha Noi.

“This was 1936,” Huu Ngoc says. “Airplanes were rare in Viet Nam. How extraordinary, how amazing to be up in the sky! Such a wide-open view!”

Viet Nam was still under French rule when Huu Ngoc com¬pleted a year of law school in Ha Noi and taught French in Vinh and Hue, two cities in the Central Region. Viet Nam’s Declaration of Independence placed the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam (DRVN) on the world map on September 2, 1945. Huu Ngoc joined the Revolution that same year.

However, nationwide independence was short-lived. The French re-invaded Viet Nam’s Southern Region on September 23, 1945, three weeks after the Declaration of Independence, arriving on British ships carrying American materiel. Then, in late 1946, the French re-invaded Viet Nam’s Northern Region and its Central Region, again with American materiel. By this time, Viet Nam was divided into two shifting zones—French-occupied and liberated.

Huu Ngoc was in the liberated zone. There, he took an exami¬nation with forty candidates to choose four who would become English teachers. He placed first. He laughs about this now: “The examiner for the verbal section asked about Wordsworth’s The Daffodils, my favourite poem. I could be unusually fluent, and so I placed first. Wordsworth changed my life!”

He taught English in Yen Mo District, Ninh Binh Province and in the liberated zone of Nam Dinh Province, where he also served as chair of the Cultural Committee for the Nam Dinh Province Resistance. While in Nam Dinh, he created, wrote, and edited a French agitprop (agitation and propaganda) newspaper intended for troops in the French Far-East Expeditionary Corps. Only one known copy of the newspaper remains. Its red banner proclaims L’Etincelle (The Spark). That issue has an article about General Vo Nguyen Giap, complete with a photograph.

Huu Ngoc would tie his contraband newspapers to his bicy¬cle’s luggage rack. He remembers passing through a Catholic vil¬lage. He was biking down a narrow alley when he spotted several French-affiliated African troops, who had arrived for a mopping-up operation. They were on foot and heading toward him.

“Halt!” the soldiers shouted.

“I had to remain calm,” Huu Ngoc says. “I ducked down an alley. I heard the click of gun triggers engaging. I was sure the soldiers would shoot me in the back. But I was lucky. I had just enough time to turn into another lane and disappear.”

In 1950, the DRVN government called up adult men in the lib¬erated areas to join the army. By then, the French had re-occupied the liberated areas in the Red River Delta. Huu Ngoc walked hun¬dreds of kilometres out to the Viet Bac Northern Liberated Zone in the mountains. As an army officer, he supervised the Section for Re-Education of European and African Prisoners of War (POWs). At that time, the DRVN kept the POWs at houses of local Tay and Nung ethnic-minority people in “prisons without bars”. Huu Ngoc remembers sitting with three POWs around a hearth in a house-on-stilts. “One POW was French,” he says, “one was an Eng¬lish former officer who’d served in the Royal Air Force, and one was German. We were chatting about anything and everything. I was speaking three foreign languages in the same conversation! I learned a great deal about foreign cultures from the POWs.”

Several thousand Germans had joined the French Foreign Legion, a French mercenary force, after World War II for assign¬ments to Viet Nam. Some deserted to the Viet Minh side.

“I worked closely with Chien Si (Militant, aka. Erwin Borchers), an anti-Nazi German intellectual,” Huu Ngoc says. “Chien Si had joined the French Foreign Legion and then deserted to the Viet Minh before our 1945 Revolution. He handled our agitprop among Ger¬man POWs. We were close friends. That’s how I learned German.”

The Foreign Legion and the French Far-East Expeditionary Corps in Viet Nam had nearly twenty different nationalities. Many POWs had come from the French colonies in northern and Cen¬tral Africa. Huu Ngoc and his colleagues organised lectures and printed training materials on nationalism to persuade POWs (par¬ticularly those from other French colonies) that they had been as¬sisting the French in an unjust war.

Then the Vietnamese periodically released their “best students” back to the French side to organize within French ranks. The French soon caught onto the scheme and sent the newly released POWs back home. Once they were back home, many of these liberated Af¬rican POWs began to organize for their own national revolutions. Perhaps it is no accident that some Algerians identify the beginning of their revolution as May 8, 1954, the day after the Vietnamese vic¬tory over the French at the famous Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Huu Ngoc received a People’s Army Feat-of-Arms Order for his agitprop work. His assignments during the French War had taken him between POW camps-without-bars to staff headquar¬ters and to other sites in liberated Viet Bac. Like many other army officers, he hiked along mountain paths. One day, at an intersection between two trails, he met one of his former Nam Dinh students, a lovely young woman, who by then was an army nurse and who, before long, would become a pediatrician. The two courted in the mountains and married in a simple wedding with tea, cigarettes, and their friends’ congratulations. They shared three days off in the special honeymoon hut Huu Ngoc’s colleagues had built. Then he and his wife returned to their assignments, seeing each other whenever possible. Their first child was born in the mountains.

After Ha Noi was liberated in October 1954, Huu Ngoc and his family moved back to the capital. These days, he and his wife live with one of their sons and his family. Without fail, their chil¬dren, grandchildren, and great grandchildren gather each Sunday for lunch, rotating from one household to another. Over the years, foreigners from many countries have joined Huu Ngoc’s family for Sunday lunch, formerly sitting in a circle on a reed floor mat but now sitting around a large, polished table, yet always conversing in many languages.

During the American War (the term Vietnamese use for what Americans call “the Vietnam War”), Huu Ngoc was deputy director of Viet Nam’s Foreign Languages Publishing House. He and Nguyen Khac Vien, the publishing house director, edited and translated Vietnamese poetry and prose for their thousand-page Literature Vietnamienne (Vietnamese Literature, 1979). Publication of this work was a major cultural event. Le Monde (The World), the leading newspaper in France, noted: “Every day, a hundred American B-52s pummeled North Viet Nam. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese did the work to publish this major anthology of their literature in French.”

The Foreign Languages Publishing House (also known as Red River Press) printed books in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and other languages, in¬cluding Esperanto (a constructed international language).

“The Esperanto period was so interesting!” Huu Ngoc says. “Not many people knew Esperanto, but those who did were fa¬natical. They would translate from Esperanto into their own lan¬guages. Esperanto multiplied our efforts at the publishing house because Esperanto translators worked in both the communist and the capitalist blocs.”

Huu Ngoc was director of the publishing house from 1980 until his retirement in 1989. When Viet Nam began to open, he changed the name to The Gioi (World) Publishers because all countries in the communist/socialist bloc had a Foreign Languages Press. Huu Ngoc wanted to signal that Viet Nam was not only unique but also open to the whole world, including the West.

During the American War, the publishing house had paid particular attention to English. Those books and Vietnamese Studies—a quarterly founded by Nguyen Khac Vien in 1964 and still published today—reached American activists and scholars.

Between the end of the American War in April 1975 and Sep¬tember 1989, Viet Nam faced war on two fronts: the Khmer Rouge incursions into southern Viet Nam with the subsequent war in Cambodia and the Chinese invasion into six Vietnamese border provinces. The then US government politically backed the genocidal Khmer Rouge and the Chinese invasion. Thus, although many say the American War ended in 1975, in truth, re-unified Viet Nam first enjoyed peace only in 1990.

The United States responded to the war in Cambodia by en¬forcing an even stricter embargo, which entangled all Western countries except Sweden. The embargo kept out not only Western goods and spare parts for any machine produced or patented in the West but also books, including medical journals. Viet Nam’s leadership had already instituted a rigorous, intensely collectivised socio-economic system, which stymied individual incentives in agriculture, trade, business, education, and scholarship. Although Viet Nam received military aid from the former Soviet Union, with the exception of Sweden, the country essentially had no out¬side assistance for food, medicines, and post-war reconstruction. Everything was rationed. Everyone was gaunt. Typhoons, floods, and droughts compounded the stress. Nevertheless, by the mid-late 1980s, Huu Ngoc was already looking ahead to normalised re¬lations between Viet Nam and the United States. He had published works about French, Japanese, Lao and Swedish culture. Now, he wanted to write about American culture.

Huu Ngoc often cites this caution: “You can go to Paris for three weeks and write a book, but if you live there thirty years, you dare not write a word.”

With his own caveat in mind and long before the Internet, Huu Ngoc read everything he could about American culture. He asked any Americans he met to send books with the next visitor and to write articles. He went on to create a thousand-page vol¬ume in Vietnamese with essays from friends, summaries from his own research, and a very extensive bibliography. Ho So Van Hoa My (A File on American Culture) remains in print today after twenty years. Huu Ngoc’s oeuvre also includes many books about Vietnamese culture. Perhaps most important among them is his Dictionary of Traditional Vietnamese Culture, which has been available in Vietnamese since 1994 but was published in English only in 2012. This must-have book holds gems on every page.

When Huu Ngoc was still in his late eighties, he walked to work, carrying his bag of books and covering the five kilometres in a little more than an hour. He used his far-sighted eye to nego¬tiate Ha Noi’s famously horrendous traffic while reciting poetry in Chinese, English, French, German, and Vietnamese, with Wil¬liam Wordsworth still among his favourite poets. And so, it is no accident that Huu Ngoc’s Wandering through Vietnamese Culture opens with his favorite lines from Wordsworth’s The Daffodils.

Several years ago, Huu Ngoc’s family moved too far from World Publishers for him to walk to work. Now, for exercise, he walks forty-five minutes every day, covering three kilometres in¬side his house, often reciting the ten Buddhist precepts. He begins with the first precept, then recites the first and second precepts, then the first and second and third. When he finishes all ten pre¬cepts, he starts over again. Then Huu Ngoc continues his day, writ¬ing his essays in heavy black ink, a felt-tip marker as his pen.

Huu Ngoc has a rather wry approach to his prolific writing.

“Do you know why I write?” he will say, pointing to the shelves of books he has written and edited. “When I need to check some¬thing, I know where to look!”

Three days a week, Huu Ngoc rides on the back of his son’s motorbike to his office at World Publishers. He is a mentor to many. His door is open. Whoever pops in is welcomed, introduced, and linked to anyone already in the room. His open door empha¬sizes the great role of “the random” in life. Huu Ngoc says his own life has been a continuous series of random events. As a youth in Ha Ni, he dreamed of marrying a girl from the mountains and nesting in a house by a stream. However, the random from an in¬terview question and lines from his favourite Wordsworth poem led him to teaching. In 1945, he joined the Viet Minh because of random events of history. His limited eyesight and assignment to work with POWs and the random in life led him to a career as a researcher in culture. Yet, despite his belief in “the random”, Huu Ngoc recognises opportunity without being an opportunist. Those who take advantage of his open door know that he has an unusual ability to discern and develop a new idea or a novel approach.

After retiring as chairman of the Vietnam-Sweden Cultural Fund and of the Vietnam-Denmark Cultural Fund, in 2012 Huu Ngoc established the Cultural Charity Fund to provide children in remote areas with world literature. The translated books range from works by American John Steinbeck to Russian Boris Paster¬nak to the newest Harry Potter books. He has also given rural chil¬dren the chance to study English first hand by organizing courses taught by English-speaking volunteers.

Huu Ngoc continues to give his ever-changing lecture, “Three Thousand Years of Vietnamese History in One Hour". He will hand Wandering through Vietnamese Culture to a listener in the first row. “Take a look,” he says. “Pass it around.” One by one, members of his audience marvel at the book’s weight and peruse its 1,255 pages, pausing here and there to measure the book’s depth.

For this volume, Professor Elizabeth Collins from Ohio Uni¬versity has worked with Huu Ngoc to select essays from Wander¬ing through Vietnamese Culture. This was a huge task, one I had seen as important for years but had found overwhelming. Huu Ngoc worked over successive drafts of the Contents, restructur¬ing some sections, making minor changes in other sections, and adding a few pieces, which do not appear in Wandering through Vietnamese Culture.

A weekly newspaper column is like a ticking metronome rush¬ing the writer on and leaving little time to ponder chords, trills, and grace notes. However, collecting columns into a book of essays gives the writer a chance to revisit his work—to consolidate some pieces, expand and tighten others, and to play with the melodies and har¬monies of language. At ninety-eight, Huu Ngoc is still writing weekly essays and assembling books. He is busy moving forward. For that reason, he asked me to assume responsibility for shifting his selected newspaper columns into the essays that appear in this volume.

That task provided me an opportunity for many random dis¬cussions of this text in Huu Ngoc’s office. In consultation with the author, I have updated paragraphs, made corrections, and inserted some sentences and phrases for clarity and context. I have left in repetitive details because readers may approach the essays out of order. I have also added a note on the Vietnamese language, a his¬torical timeline, and an index.

Vietnamese Literature, the English version of the French an¬thology, was the source for many of the excerpts from poetry and prose that Huu Ngoc quoted in his newspaper columns. The Vietnamese works in Vietnamese Literature had been translated sometimes from Chinese (Han) or Vietnamese (Nom) ideographic script into Romanized Vietnamese script (Quoc Ngu), then into French, and, only then, into English. As a result, understandably, many English translations in Vietnamese Literature and in Huu Ngoc’s original newspaper columns were rather distant from the original texts.

For this reason, I have re-translated all the quotations from Vietnamese works, returning to the original Romanized Viet¬namese versions and, when relevant, to the transliterated Han and Nom versions of the ancient poems and prose. By adding the Romanized Vietnamese titles, I hope to encourage interested readers to explore the original texts, many of which are avail¬able on the Web at in Quoc Ngu and, for the ancient works, also in Han or Nom at that same website. Some of our translations in this volume appear in our other books and ar¬ticles and will appear in the new edition of Vietnamese Literature.

Huu Ngoc chose not to read the final manuscript for this book because he wants to conserve his time to work on new projects. His son, Huu Tien, read the manuscript and alerted me to several errors. Pham Tran Long, deputy director of World Publishers and the book’s editor in Viet Nam, is always a careful, helpful reader. Tran Doan Lam, the director of World Publishers, is well versed in Chinese Han script and Vietnamese Nom ideographic script. In addition, he is fluent in Russian and English and can read French. Mr. Lam has checked our translations with the original texts (Han, Nom, Quoc Ngu, and French). As director of World Publishers, he is also the book’s final Vietnamese reader. Tran Doan Lam brings to any text an extraordinary ability to think broadly yet concen¬trate on the smallest detail.

This book does not attempt to be a systematic study of Viet¬namese culture or of Viet Nam’s traditions and changes. Rather, it is a compilation of some of the essays from Wandering through Vietnamese Culture that reflect that theme. As a result, there may be important events, people, and issues not covered in this collection.

Now, with many of us working together and with assistance from many other colleagues in Viet Nam at World Publishers and in the United States at Ohio University Press, we have Viet Nam: Tradi¬tion and Change, an accessible and absorbing tour of Viet Nam’s his¬tory and culture with scholar-writer Huu Ngoc as our guide.

by Lady Borton

related news

Culturist Huu Ngoc a man who links Vietnamese culture with the world


Vietnamese Culture, Cultural Charity Fund, Vietnamese Literature, Vietnam economy, Vietnamnet bridge, English news about Vietnam, Vietnam news, news about Vietnam, English news, Vietnamnet news, latest news on Vietnam, Vietnam