A trip back to the source

Before 1975, we often organized research field trips (doing research while travelling) for the students of the History-Geography Department of Saigon University’s Faculty of Letters. Now, living abroad, in memory of past experiences, we produce this work, under the form of research field trips, as a guidebook for Vietnamese youth, who either desires to understand the culture of our country or just intends to come back and wander around the fatherland.

No matter you came to this country with your parents as refugees at your very early age or you were born here, when you reach your adulthood, you can’t help thinking about your Vietnamese origin and at times longing to come back for a visit of the beloved fatherland. On your trip back to your source, we hope that this small book will help you understand, through what you hear and what you see, the Vietnamese culture in order to have a greater love for your people and your fatherland, and especially not to let yourselves be in the same situation as the young Japanese in the following story.

The glorious Japan of the Second World War has awakened the Japanese origin in a Japanese young man from a family that has lived many generations in America. This young Japanese proudly took a flight to Japan to visit his relatives and to see his beloved fatherland. At Tokyo airport, since he could not speak his mother-tongue, the language barrier has already prevented him from communicating with his fellow-countrymen. Everybody looked at him as a foreigner who did not speak Japanese. In the end, he was also able to see his relatives, but no one understood him because he spoke only English, and thought and acted like an American. Once again, he was a stranger among his own relatives right in his fatherland, on which he had dreamed of setting his foot for many years. On his sad trip back to the U.S., he was again annoyed during the flight by a charming American girl sitting next to him, who thought he was a Japanese 100% and thus asked him incessantly about his Japanese fatherland. He could not answer her questions because he knew nothing about Japan. The story of this young Japanese has been told and retold innumerable times to describe what was called “the banana culture,” since that young man was Japanese only by his banana-like yellow skin with all his remaining inside parts, his heart, his thoughts, being American, just like the white inside of the banana.

For the Vietnamese kids, who have been assimilated in the English, or French culture, exposed daily to the English, or French language at schools, by TV, Ipad, Iphone, etc., the above-cited story will be repeated when they come to visit their fatherland but do not speak their mother-tongue and do not know anything about the Vietnamese culture. Then they become conscious that they are seen by the new society and the Vietnamese community as Vietnamese who neither speak nor write Vietnamese but have an American or Canadian soul or way of life. They still are strangers to Canadians with their black hair and their yellow skin, and more strangers to Vietnamese in Vietnam with the language barrier. At this point they realize that they are the symbol of the “banana culture” and sighed like what poet Bắc Phong has written:

Bỗng nghe buồn ngây ngất,

(Suddenly you feel terribly sad,)

Về đâu cũng tha hương

(Wherever you go back, you are in a foreign country.)

The concept of culture

The term “culture” was imported from Europe and has hundreds of definitions[1].

Each author can choose a definition in determining the direction to follow in his work.

In the Western world, the Latin noun cultus (or culture in French, or Kultur in German) is used in two meanings: cultus agri, cultivate in the fields, and cultus animi, cultivate mentally by education, nourishing men’s soul. The culture, in the second meaning, therefore, is closely related to the education of good people for society. The concept of culture has changed through many centuries, with several authors having considered culture as a multi-sided mirror reflecting the spiritual life.

Nguyễn Trãi’s concept of culture

While the Chinese character văn (文) means “beauty, literature, education, sophistication,” hóa (化) means “to change, to educate.” Thus, văn hóa means “makes changes to become better[2]”).

The concept of Vietnamese culture was only clarified and clearly oriented in the 15th century under the Lê Dynasty by Nguyễn Trãi[3] .

Before him, the consciousness of the Vietnamese culture was always cross-referenced with the Chinese culture, based on the behavioural standpoint “Southern man with Northern orientation.” In fighting against that tendency, in his Bình Ngô Đại Cáo (Great Proclamation of Victory Against Ngô; Ngô meaning the Chinese), Nguyễn Trãi was the first person to affirm that Vietnam was a country with a culture on the same level with China:

Duy ngã Đại Việt chi quốc, thực vi văn hiến chi bang

(Như nước Đại Việt ta, thật là một nước văn hiến)

(Like our country Great Viet, really a civilized country)

The cultural policy of Đại Việt

“Lấy đại nghĩa ( ) [4] thắng hung tàn, dùng chí nhân (  ) [5] thay cường bạo” (Winning over cruelty with great uprightness, using ultimate compassion instead of brutality) was implemented in our dealing with the Ming (i.e., Chinese) forces that have surrendered.

From the 15th century, the Vietnamese culture, based on great uprightness, has survived through several dynasties and foreign invasions. Unfortunately, this traditional culture has been lost after the Vietnam War in 1975, when an oppressive regime started ruling the unified country. This tragic event led to the great movement of the “Boat People” involving millions of South Vietnamese people, and, thus, to your presence overseas right now.


According to the UNESCO concept, there are two types of cultural heritage:

– The tangible cultural heritage (architecture of the Huế imperial city, community halls and pagodas, mausoleums, etc.)

– The intangible cultural heritage, which includes songs, musical scores, festivals, poetry, philosophy, traditional songs and dances, literature, custom, folklore such as folk poetry, folk songs, proverbs, people’s jokes, legends, Đông Hồ paintings, people’s or community’s conventionalities.

When UNESCO’s newly-elected Director-General Federico Mayor launched the World Decade for Cultural Development on January 21, 1988, the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Javier Perez de Cuellar, issued a declaration, which included the following definition of culture: “Culture may now be said to be the whole complex of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features that characterize a society or social group. It includes not only the arts and letters, but also modes of life, the fundamental rights of the human beings, value systems, traditions and beliefs.” This definition had been adopted by UNESCO at the World Conference on Cultural Policies, held in Mexico City in 1982.

The intangible culture is reflected in people’s non-material spiritual life. The concept of culture in this book is imbued with that concept of intangible culture and understood in the broader framework of social sciences: The concept of non-material culture includes works of literature, arts, architecture, philosophy, religion, manners, custom, and conventionalities… Culture is the non-material spiritual life of each person, of each people. Culture is present right in personal lives, in families, in communities, etc.

When you spend your leisure time in listening to music, to poetry recital you live your personal non-material spiritual life. When you stand and then prostrate in front of your ancestral altar with your parents on the occasion of giỗ (death anniversaries) or Tết (lunar calendar New Year), you are displaying your family cultural life. When you joined the Montreal youth parade in New York on June 10, 2018 together with the Nationalist Vietnamese Community of Montreal, for the Hùng Vương Day[6], you were participating in the community cultural life of the Vietnamese people.

Cultural research field trip program

The contents of this book are presented as guided cultural research field trips. This educational journey includes the following trips:

Trip 1: Going back to the origin of the Vietnamese people within the cradle of the Đông Sơn culture in order to observe the cultural heritage left by the Hùng Vương kings: bronze drums, bronze jars, Mẫu (Holy Mother) cult, the custom of chewing betel, skirt wearing, bánh chưng bánh dầy rice cakes, etc.

Trip 2: Research field trip to the 1000-year Chinese domination era to understand how the Vietnamese people fought against assimilation.

Trip 3: To learn the influence of the Far Eastern culture on the Vietnamese culture by observing two cultural centres: the community hall and the capital city Thăng Long.

Trip 4: The cultural centre of Huế with its culture spreading to all parts of the country through áo dài (traditional robe), Huế foods, music, architecture…

Trip 5: A visit to the “Bắc Bộ-Tonkin” countryside to learn about the “achievements” of the socialist cultural revolution.

Trip 6: Ending the research field trip program by visiting a tea room and enjoying the “golden music” in order to hear the sound and see the images of the current culture of Saigon.

  1. In the old days, the Vietnamese people only had the notion of văn hiến: văn means the beauty, literature, educated, polite; hiến means talented people, good people, a country having good custom, rules, and literature … also means helping people in the future aware of old stories.

  2. The concept of văn minh (civitas) is also originated from the West, denoting the level of development of technology, sciences with impact on the nature in order to conquer it. Văn means the beauty, literature, educated, polite; Minh: bright. Văn minh means the high level of development, bright, beautiful, of a material and spiritual culture of a people. When the urban civilization is expanded the concept of civilization is mixed up with the concept of culture, as in the case of the United States.

  3. Nguyễn Trãi is recognised by UNESCO as a world cultural icon.

  4. Đại () là lớn (great), nghĩa () là lẽ phải, đúng đạo lý (reason).

  5. Chí () là nơi để tâm vào đấy; nhân () là lòng nhân từ, lòng thương yêu (compassion).

  6. From time immemorial, on the 10th Day of the 3rd Month in lunar calendar, the king designated a mandarin to represent him at the ceremony at the Hung Temple, in the province of Phú Thọ. The 3rd Month was selected because it was the Month of the Dragon but the explanation that the 10th Day was selected because it was the Day of the Fairy according to the I Ching is not totally acceptable.