Cultural Research Lesson 6

Bắc Bộ countryside field trip

On the research field trips back to our homeland, those of you from families of “Bắc Kỳ di cư 1954 = 1954 North Vietnamese refugees,” should make a visit to the Bắc Bộ countryside. Why? Because of the 1954 Geneva Accords dividing our country into two parts, about more than half a million North Vietnamese people have emigrated to the South. Now they had to emigrate one more time, this time overseas. Some of you, from these families, might have heard from your parents or uncles of horrible scenes of the Land Reform in the North, such as these denouncements, children denouncing parents, peasants denouncing their landlords, or these destructions (of temples and pagodas) or these prohibitions (of traditional ceremonies, of folk songs like “ca trù”, of Mẫu Cult …).

Today, if you come back visiting your places of origin, villages in North Vietnam, you will be surprised that the temples and pagodas are still there, that the traditional ceremonies, festivals are still organized annually, that the villagers still own their lands, that “ca trù,” medium sessions are still allowed and encouraged to develop … It is completely different from what you have heard, and you might wonder if your parents and uncles have engaged in some form of “propaganda.” OK, we will lead you in your search of the truth.

From 1945 to 1986, the North Vietnam countryside has gone through two very important cultural, social, and economic events:

– The period of destruction of the traditional culture (1954-1986)

– The period of restoration of the traditional culture.

Period of destruction of traditional culture


Beliefs, custom, village festivals … are non-material culture, the soul of the countryside, created by people, transferred from generation to generation, and considered as paragons for the spiritual and economic life. This traditional culture has accumulated spiritual values from the country-founding era to the August 1945 Revolution when it was destroyed and replaced by the “Proletariat culture” with the co-operative economic structure.

To impose a new soul (the proletariat culture) on the people, the first action that had to be done was to destroy the pillars of the old soul built from the country-founding era. The destroyed pillars were:

– The administrative, political structure

– The religious, cultural structure; temples/pagodas, ancestors’worshipping were seen as relics of the feudal culture

– The land ownership structure by the bloody Land Reform (1953-1956) aimed at eliminating the elites

– The cultural centres (community halls, pagodas) of the countryside.

Abolition of the administrative, political structure

The August 1945 Revolution abolished all village councils, officials, families, guilds, and the execution of the village contracts (rules) and replaced them with People’s councils, People’s committees (having subordinate sections and services) under the Party’s organization.

Annihilation of the upper leadership structure, i.e., the elites (former mandarins, village officials, rich landlords …) controlling the rural cultural structure, by giving them all kinds of labels: henchmen of imperialists, cruel, evil residents of villages, reactionaries, anti-revolutionaries in order to deprive them of their properties and to redistribute to the poor peasants … After that, they would be denounced, sentenced to death, and executed within the Land Reform policy.

Land reform

The Land Reform was implemented in blood and tears by denouncing four categories of people: intellectuals, wealthy people, landlords and evil village members, by abolition of family farming, confiscating and redistributing land to form farming co-operatives. The main objective of the Land Reform is the destruction of the old government in the villages, suppressing the old classes of landlords and intellectuals. Once the old system was abolished, the newly built government structure would be absolutely loyal to the new order imposed by the Communists.

Destruction of material cultural structure

Annihilation of the material culture: destruction of community halls, pagodas and village temples, many books written in Chinese and Nôm characters, horizontal plaques of parallel sentences were burned, festivals suspended[1]… The destruction was originated from the application of “lý luận kinh điển = classical reasoning.” In the Communist Manifesto, in answering the question of why communism abolished old religions and morality, Marx and Engels have stated: “The socialist revolution is the most absolute breaking-off with the traditional ownership system; it is no surprise that in its process of development, it broke off absolutely with traditional thoughts.” (Nhà XBST, 1974, p. 78). President Ho Chi Minh said: “The big family (the whole country) and the small family, which one is heavy? which one is light? The revolutionary chooses the big family.” (HCM, Selected works, Vol. 4, p. 389).

Period of restoration of traditional culture

After the economic crisis and the collapse of the Communist regimes in Europe, the “innovation” policy was put into application from 1986 and aimed at restoring the cultural roles of community halls, village contracts, village management … which were destroyed by the Communists[2]. The Communists now understand that a country without traditions, without history, without ever-lasting values cannot have a present, let alone a future. This restoration was the first failure of the proletariat culture in the countryside marked by the following deep changes:

– Going back to the village contracts following the Resolution no. 05-NQ/HNTW of June 10, 1993.

– The role of the self-government at the level of villages like in the old days was determined through many documents such as the Resolution no. 17-NQ/TW of March 18, 2002.

– Restoration of the retro-development of the community festivals, and of the ceremonies of the traditional regime.

– Restoration of the pre-1945 traditional economic, social, and cultural structure in the countryside.

– Disbanding of the agricultural co-operative system (1981-1990), moving to the type of family, i.e., private production (abolished during the period of agricultural co-operatives) with individual ownership was re-established according to the Resolution of the Politburo, no. 10 of April 5, 1988.

– Re-establishment of individual land ownership. The Land Laws of 1993 and 2003 determined the right of land ownership in the countryside and that helped develop the family-centered economy.

Gates of villages

Countryside landscapes

Types of rural houses

Current cultural situation in countryside

The 30-year innovation (1986-2015) within the background of urbanization, industrialization, and globalization has led to the migration of rural population to cities resulting in changes of social demographics. This migration has caused the “sóng ở trong làng = the wave in the village” to be activated because of the urban cultural and economic impact on the villages.

Population changes

According to the census data, the number of people moving to cities:

– 1999: 855,943 or 7.2% of urban population,

– 2009: 2,062,171; urban population increasing 9.2% annually,

– 2014: urban population: 30,035,400; rural population: 60,693,500.

Changes in the countryside

The rural life has changed greatly due to migration changes, the economy, the cultural vacuum, and negative impact of the market economy …

Migration changes

Having moved to cities, being in contact with urban culture, the rural adults have brought back to the countryside civilized thoughts and way of life (TV, electronic communication, foreign movies …), which are totally different leading to the creation of several intertwined social classes within the family and community background. Within one family, the members, who live together, may include intellectuals, workers, retired persons, farmers, children causing many possible life impacts especially in terms of traditional cultural issues such as corruption of filial piety toward parents and brother-sister relationships.

Rural habitat changes

The development of the market economy has greatly impacted on villages especially on architecture: each village builds on its own, each household builds on its own, following no professional guidance. Building on their own dream of “lên phố = moving to the more floors” the farmers concern only with the concrete and adding more floors, they do not care about communication and transportation, and because of that, the traffic system becomes interlaced, scattered, and cramped, lacking any vision toward the future.

Economic changes

After the disbanding of the co-operative economy and the restoration of the family economy, each household has the right for the long-term use of land, and becomes independent in the production process. Within the community, as the family economic prevailing, many heads of family move to the cities and find work in the factories. They have to lease their lands, at the same time they also send back home the money they earn in cities. Their families build new brick houses. All of these activities make big changes in the countryside habitat.

Administrative changes

The village self-government and village contracts are re-established.

Religious and cultural changes

Although the traditional cultural role of the community halls has been restored it is in fact downgraded. Its traditional cultural function has been transferred to the people’s committee and a new unit called “nhà văn hóa = the cultural house.” The village activities, such as ceremonies and festivals (Lễ tế Thành Hoàng = worshipping ceremony for the Village God; tổ chức Tết = Tết ceremony), are now responsibilities of specific agencies or organizations.

The phenomenon of returning to spiritual life with ancestor worshipping, with ancestors’ tombs, with genealogical tables … is the signal of the restoration of the traditional culture within the background of the ruins of old soul (traditional culture) and new soul (proletariat culture).

The village soul vacuum is described by a person coming back to the village to celebrate Tết as follows:

“Nhưng Tết quê giờ đã khác xưa. Người làng đã có tiền để ăn Tết cho thật đàng hoàng. Không mấy người rủ bố tôi lên núi chặt đào phai nữa. Một chậu quất trĩu quả hay một cành đào đất Bắc tuy đắt nhưng sang hơn nhiều. Hàng xóm đã thôi giã thịt, quay bột làm giò. Bánh chưng gói ít thôi, vì gói nhiều cũng không ai ăn, hoài của … Bạn bè tôi, mỗi đứa một phương, nhờ Tết mới hội ngộ. Nhưng gặp nhau thật không dễ. Muốn tìm bạn, chỉ còn cách đến quán café. Bạn đến thăm nhà, ngồi chưa ấm chỗ đã rủ tôi “đi quán.” …

Đêm xuống, làng vắng hẳn. Không còn những cảnh chúc Tết thân mật như thuở trước. Có chăng chỉ người lớn đi thăm nhau. Thanh niên dồn lại trong các tụ điểm café, karaoke. Cha mẹ muốn tâm tình với con cái cũng chịu, lặng lẽ ngồi bó gối xem tivi và chờ điện thoại những đứa ăn Tết ở xa gọi về. Trẻ con miễn cưởng xách bánh trái đi mừng tuổi người quen. Vì tiền lì xì không hấp dẫn bằng phim hoạt hình, nhạc Xuân Mai, quán nét. Chiều mồng Bốn Tết, không khí được hâm nóng chút ít nhờ trận bóng giao lưu giữa kẻ ở người về. Nhưng tan bóng thì tan vui, ai về nh2 nấy. Mấy người xa xứ lâu ngày, gặp bố tôi phàn nàn: “Tết bây giờ khác quá anh ạ. Chẳng hơn gì cuộc giỗ, ngày rằm. Biết thế bọn em đã không về. = But Tết in the countryside is very different now from the old days. The villgers now have more money to have a decent Tết. Not too many people invite my dad to go with them to the mountain to cut the cherry tree. A pot full of tangerines or a cherry branch from the North is quite expensive but a lot classier.The neighbours have stopped to grind meat to make sausages.They also make less “bánh chưng = traditional rice cakle,” because making more and nobody wanting to eat them would be a waste of money … My friends are now living everywhere, and Tết is an occasion for reunion. But coming to see each other is really not easy. Going to the cafe is the only way to see them. Even when they come for a visit, before the seat is warm, they already say: “Let’s go the café.” …

In the evening, the village is completely deserted. No more scenes of intimate Tết wishing like in the past. Only the older people go visit each other. Young adults are concentrated in coffee and karaoke shops. Parents cannot have intimate talks with their children even if they want to, they seem resigned to sit alone and quietly watch TV and wait for phone calls from other children celebrating Tết far away from home. Unhappily, young children have to bring cakes and/or fruits as gifts to friends of their parents. The reason: getting envelopes containing lucky money are not as attractive to them as watching animated movies, or listening to Xuân Mai (Spring Cherry Blossom) music, or going to internet shops.

In the afternoon of the Fourth Day of Tết, the ambiance is warmed up by the soccer match between local people and visitors. But when the match is over, so is the joy, everyone going home. Some people living far away for a long period of time, come visit my dad and make the following complaint: “Tết is now so different, brother. It’s no big different from death anniversaries, or the fifteenth day of the month. If we knew it in advance, we did not come back”.

All the beautiful characteristics of the traditional culture (the community spirit, the neighbourhood relationship, sentimental relationship, customs and practices …) were all erased and now restored in circumstances of “no faith, no law,” no new orientation, on the ruin of the proletariat culture, leading to the impossibility of standardization for the rural life. No behavioural standards in addition of absence of clear and just law for behaviour guidance undoubtedly have resulted in spreading social vices in the countryside called “sub-standard culture” by the Communists, opening the door for the capitalist urban culture to freely invade.

This restoration can be seen as a victory for the traditional culture but a bitter victory. It is bitter because it occurs in a soulless vacuum and in “in a society of slaves, even if they are free, it is still a society with no order, totally chaotic and in ruin.”


  1. From 1950 onward, the principles of the proletariat culture have gradually influenced the Vietnamese culture. According to the two memoirs of author Võ Văn Trức (Chuyện làng ngày ấy = Story of my wvillage the other day, and Cọng rêu dưới đáy ao = The algea stem at the bottom of the pond), in Nghệ An, his home province, community halls and pagodas were destroyed, people’s ancestors’ tombs were collectivized, and many customs and practices considered as backward were changed. In other areas, nobody has ever written anything concrete, but generally speaking, the situation has been quite similar. After 1975, the cultural leaders in Thừa Thiên – Huế still used old palaces / pavilions as paper storage rooms and ordered the abolition of Đàn Nam Giao leading to the people’s anger and reaction resulting in several protesting folk poems.

  2. What was destroyed by the August 1945 Revolution are now almost restored such as “ca trù” in music; works from Tự Lực Văn Đoàn were re-printed by Nhã Nam Publishing and Communication Company in Hà Nội.