A story of Viet Nam
By TRU'O'NG BU'U LAM
Denver, CO: Outskirts Press, 2010. Pp. 372. Index.
A well-known peculiarity of the field of Vietnamese history is that there are very few English-language histories of the country which provide any kind of detailed treatment of the pre-colonial period, and the number of these written by scholars who know the Vietnamese language is even smaller. (In fact, the most comprehensive Western-language history of Vietnam before French colonisation remains Le Thanh Khoi's Histoire du Wet Nam: des origines a 1858 [Paris: Sudestasie, 1981]). Tru'o'ng Bu'u Lam, best-known for his collected translations of key source materials for Vietnamese history, has helped to fill this gap with his Story of Viet Nam. Roughly one-third of the book covers the period before 1858; more than half of the remaining material focuses on colonialism and anti-colonialism, and the remainder covers the decades since 1954.
The author has consciously chosen an informal narrative style, interspersed with proverbs, snippets of folk songs and literary texts, and--for the period of his own lifetime--memories and anecdotes. This makes for a highly readable and accessible text, although academic readers may frequently find themselves wishing for a more comprehensive discussion of complex issues, such as the origins of the Vietnamese people or the relationship between Confucianism and Buddhism in pre-modern Vietnam. (Nor are generalities such as the statement that 'as far as culture was concerned, Vietnam had become a little China or ... a smaller dragon' [p. 42] particularly helpful.) The treatment of Vietnam's relations with its neighbours tends to be superficial, and the very brief observations on the Cham in particular reflect a rather incomplete and outdated understanding of their history. To be fair, however, the book's focus is the Vietnamese themselves, and the reader does come away with a reasonably coherent picture of how Vietnam evolved over the centuries. Moreover, there is no attempt to squeeze all of Vietnamese history into a single constructed narrative such as 'resistance to foreign aggression' or 'struggle for the nation'.
The chapters on the colonial period and the First Indochina War (1946-54) are particularly useful since English-language works often rush through these decades in order to focus on the Second Indochina War (1954-75). Ironically, although the author is not particularly sympathetic to the French and their Vietnamese allies, he spends more time discussing them, and we learn much more about the political twists and turns of former Emperor Bao Dai's State of Vietnam than about Ho Chi Minh and his Democratic Republic of Vietnam resistance government. …