China in the World

China's little brother

China in the World

Walter Fung reviews China's changing attitudes to its southern neighbour Vietnam. The article first appeared in SACU's China Eye magazine 2006.

This records a visit to Vietnam during February 1997. Vietnam is very much influenced by Confucianism and Chinese Culture. Some aspects of traditional Chinese culture are better preserved outside of China and in overseas Chinese communities because of the Cultural Revolution.' and other happenings on the Chinese mainland. Following the Vietnam War, over half a million people left Vietnam, as the 'boat people' and more than half were ethnic Chinese. Many came to the UK and the Vietnamese community is closely associated with the Chinese community. (A version of this article first appeared in 'Brushstrokes' magazine during 2002.)

We flew into Hanoi from Bangkok on an Airbus A300 operated by the national carrier, Vietnam Airlines. Tropical weather was expected, but it was a cold grey day and the journey from the airport to the City of Hanoi was drab and colourless taking us through poor villages with single storied buildings and people wearing the traditional Chinese conical hats. It could well have been in China as we were only 70 miles from the Chinese border. When we arrived in Hanoi we were met with run down buildings and an overpowering dank, stale smell, in certain areas.

Our guide in Hanoi was Mr Van, who on first seeing me asked if I was Vietnamese. Having being told that my parents were from China, he immediately said, 'Ah! From Vietnam's big brother!' Mr Van seemed dissatisfied with the present state of his country and believed other South East Asian countries were laughing at Vietnam's present backwardness. However we reassured him that nobody was laughing at a country that had seen off the Japanese, French and Americans all within 60 years. We stayed at the Planet Hotel which had a logo similar to the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain but I do not know if there was any connection.

The streets and pavements in Hanoi city centre, although clean were in need of repair in many places and there were light trucks and cyclists with hardly any private cars. The shopping centre was spread over several narrow streets with small individual shops; we did not see any departmental stores. One street had at least half a dozen shops selling little red plastic home shrines, images of Chinese gods, red banners with Chinese proverbs on them, joss sticks, paper money for worship and other goods including New Year cards. No fireworks were on sale-they had been banned by the government. I did not know whether government policy had just changed allowing people to have shrines in the home again and people were buying them to replace ones destroyed or confiscated, but there were so many on sale. It was Chinese New Year and an interesting time of the year to visit Vietnam. There were orange trees in all the foyers of all the major buildings and hotels and notices saying Happy New Year in both Vietnamese and Chinese characters.

One of the largest temples in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature, sometimes called the Temple of Confucius. The first university in Vietnam was established here in 1070 for the sons of mandarins. At the entrance to a large temple reached by a bridge over a narrow river was the Chinese character for happiness (fu in pin yin-Romanised Mandarin). There were about six other large temples open to the public in the centre of Hanoi. We saw statues of the red faced Chinese god of war Quang Cong (Guan Gong in pin yin* see page 11)

They resembled Chinese temples anywhere else in Asia and towards the rear of the temple were ancestral tablets and near the door, there was generally a list of persons' names in Chinese. Presumably they were the founders or benefactors of the temple. I looked carefully for any Fungs and there were some but very few compared to Chen, Li and Huang. In some temples could be seen the 'Chinese Buddha' with an enormous fat stomach signifying happiness and optimism quite unlike the slimmer Thai or Burmese Buddha. Tortoises and cranes, both symbols of long life in Chinese culture were in seen some shrines.

The highlight of our stay in the Hanoi area was undoubtedly a 'free' day on our itinerary when we were offered the use of the car and driver to go where we wanted - but at a price. We paid $70 US dollars for half a day-the same price you would pay in the west. Just like in many Third World countries, the price is set according to the means to pay - not according to actual local cost. We decided to visit the Thay Pagoda, quite far outside of Hanoi so we would see the countryside. We stopped in one large village and walked around the market. There was obviously no food shortage and it was notable that quality meat and vegetables were available to all. In other Third World countries, I have seen only poor quality food on sale in markets-the best quality had already been taken by the government for export to earn foreign capital-sometimes to buy luxury goods for the leaders. This did not seem to be the case in Vietnam.

It was a public holiday and there was some sort of fete taking place. In a small square a game of chess was being played with very large chess pieces labelled in Chinese characters. Our presence seemed to create some interest; one man even announced our arrival over a PA system. On the edge of villages were burial grounds with some of the tombstone inscriptions in Chinese characters. Astonishingly some graveyards were flooded and it appeared that rice or some other crop was being grown in between the tombs. Some tombs were huge, highly ornate with bright colours others were much more humble with very small headstones.

Hanoi has pleasant suburbs with lakes and some have a 'French' flavour. One district is occupied by foreign embassies and 'high class' people (our guide's words!). Situated in the suburbs is an Acupuncture Institute. Before leaving Hanoi, we visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh-the father of the Vietnamese people. He spoke Chinese and was a close companion of some of the Chinese Communist leaders who were in France at the same time as he in the 1920s. They included Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping.

We queued for a short while and entered single file closely watched by armed soldiers. Everything seemed so small, considering that this was the Vietnamese Tiananmen Square. Nearby was the War Museum where evidence of American chemical warfare was displayed. It is of course impossible to know the authenticity of these exhibits. Our guide told us that as relations were improving with the Americans, the language used to describe the war was becoming softer. This War Museum, was at one time called the 'Museum of American War Crimes.'

In the War Museum, these are a range of exhibits taken from captured American soldiers, they include letters and some notes recording their thoughts, 'Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery with today-the golden age in between' and 'You have never lived until you have nearly died'. One of the main exhibits in the museum is a reconstruction of the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu which effectively ended French rule in Indo-China. This was a turning point in Vietnamese history of which the Vietnamese are immensely proud.

Chairman Mao
Chairman Mao (1893-1976) pictured at a rally in Beijing in 1965 in support of the Vietnamese People.

We travelled south spending some time in the old imperial city of Hue and site of one of the most bloody battles during the American war. The Viet Cong took the city and held it for 25 days. Much of the fighting was amongst the historic monuments, including the Forbidden City which suffered extensive damage. The similarities to Beijing are clear, although it is very much smaller in every way to the Chinese capital. There is a Palace of Supreme Harmony and Hall of the Mandarin. Some gates and buildings bear Chinese characters. Slightly further south is Hoi An, a most interesting place for Chinese people. The name is actually Cantonese Chinese for 'peaceful sea' and it was where large numbers of Chinese from Guangdong and Fujian Province settled during the mid 18th Century. There are assembly halls for the Cantonese congregation' and Fukien 'congregation'. In the temples were shrines to Chinese deities including Quan Cong (Guan Gong) and Tian Hou, (popular in Hong Kong and south China . There were also images said to be Khong Tu (Confucius) and also Lao Zi and his disciples. The town had much of interest with 'Chinese style' houses in wood, with twin Yin and Yang symbols arranged like a pair of eyes in prominent positions; the purpose being to protect the family from evil spirits.

I visited the Tran (Chan) Family Ancestral House, my mother's name was Chan and it was therefore of special interest. We were conducted around by the owner's daughter, a young lady who wrote her name in Chinese characters, (Chen Qi Zhong in Mandarin pin-yin) and also in Vietnamese, Tran Ki Trung. She said that the Vietnamese are fond of English culture and Emily Bronte is a favourite.

She showed the Tran Family shrine, which had a portrait of the first male member of the family to come to Hoi An in 1802. He left Fujian in south east China where he was a mandarin. The shrine contained numbers of small wooden boxes which each contained a short biography and some relic of a deceased family member, such as a ring. Each box was opened by a male member of the family on the anniversary of the death of the deceased person and at New Year. We were told that the umbilical cords of the family members were buried in the garden, which we could see had risen in height. Our guide said that this symbolised the high aspirations of the family.

The final stage of the tour took us to Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City (the two names are interchangeable) where the Chinatown area called Cholon still houses about 250,000 Chinese people even though a third or the country's ethnic Chinese left Vietnam after the anti-capitalist campaign of 1978-9 and to become the 'boat people'. We visited a number of pagodas, a hive of activity at that time because a Buddhist festival was taking place. Crowds of people were carrying large bunches of joss sticks and the air was thick with incense making the eyes stream with tears.

The Viet Cong's success over the Americans was due in part to the Viet Congs' skill in tunnel warfare. Tunnels stretched for miles and in some areas were built so deep they were on four or five levels. The Americans actually built a base over one tunnel network and could not understand how the enemy consistently managed to get in to mount hit and run raids and then disappear without trace. We visited the well know Cu Chi Tunnels near Saigon. Some guidebooks criticise tunnels that have been enlarged and restored with concrete for being 'unrealistic', but these tunnels were too realistic for the vast majority of people! Just thirty seconds of walking in complete darkness, bent double caused most of us to suffer from claustrophobia and we called out frantically to our guide telling him that we had had enough! At least one person nearly fainted and took a while to recover-it was a most unpleasant experience.

The traffic in Ho Chi Minh City consisted mainly of cyclists which moved as a continuous stream making crossing the road impossible if you waited for a gap. The only way to cross, was to walk slowly forward, no sudden movements, and let the cyclists avoid you. This was best accomplished by walking across with a crowd of locals and looking forward only! Cars and buses just pushed out into the traffic from side streets and the cyclists passively and uncomplainingly gave way to the larger vehicle. There was vitality about Ho Chi Minh City. It was significantly more colourful, prosperous and cleaner than Hanoi and the people were much better dressed. Saigon was the capital of the whole of 'French Indo-China' from 1859 and has many fine buildings and wide boulevards dating from this era. For a Third World country Vietnam is has a very high literacy rate of 94% and there are plenty of bookshops, some selling manuals on the latest computer software. The city central market was very extensively stocked with meats, vegetables, and Chinese herbs, spices, and dried foods. All tourist guides take you to the presidential palace and tell you about that day in 1976 when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates while the last American helicopter was taking off from the roof of the building.

The Chinese are well known for their industry and entrepreneurial talent in South East Asia. About half of the Vietnamese economy was in the hands of the ethnic Chinese and after the American withdrawal they became the target of an anti-capitalist campaign in 1978. Many, perhaps half a million fled the country as the 'boat people'. This became a disaster both for the country as well as for the individuals involved and many Vietnamese officials now acknowledge that it was a tragic mistake. The persecution of ethnic Chinese was also a factor influencing the Chinese invasion in 1979.

There are similarities between Cantonese and the Vietnamese language. Buddha is 'Phat', Confucius is 'Kong Tu', Uncle Ho (Chi Minh) is referred to as Bac Ho. In pin yin, Vietnam is written Yue nan and in Cantonese Yuet nam. It can be translated loosely as 'further south'. The hills around Ha Long Bay resemble Guilin in China and 'Ha Long' is Cantonese for 'dragon descending'. The Romanised Vietnamese language was actually developed in the 17th Century by a French Jesuit, but has only been in widespread use since the early 20th Century. Before then, Vietnamese was written in Chinese characters.

Similar to China, there are only a relatively small number of surnames-about 300 in fact and half of all Vietnamese have the surname, Nguyen. Despite their cultural similarities, Sino-Vietnamese relations have been far from cordial over the years. Vietnam was under Chinese rule for many centuries up to about 900AD, but has been generally an independent country since then-until the French came in the mid 19th Century; the rest is recent history. Similar to China, Vietnam began 'restructuring' (doi moi) and opening to the outside world in 1986. Foreign investors, initially mainly Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan have set up businesses and factories. Trade is building up between Vietnam and China and also between the USA and Vietnam. At this time, 80% of people still live in rural areas but the country's economy is growing rapidly, currently 7% (2005) and the population (2005) is about 85 million. The country should join the World Trade Organisation during 2006.

* Guang Gong was a general in the 'Three Kingdoms' period of Chinese history. Later he became a god and is said to have saved Korea from the Japanese in their invasion in the 16th Century. Guang Gong, also called Guan Yu or Kwan Yu was one of three 'blood brothers', which included Zhang Fei and Liu Bei. Their exploits are recorded in the Chinese classic, 'Romance of the Three Kingdoms'. Many of the deeds described took place in the 'Three Gorges Dam' area of the Yangtze River- indeed the Zhang Fei Temple had to be relocated before the river water rose in height.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's China Eye magazine Issue 9, 2006

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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