April 30 And The Lost Chapters Of Vietnam’s History

April 30 And The Lost Chapters Of Vietnam’s History
Photo: Phil Eggman, Willie Vicoy/Bettmann/Corbis. Graphics by The Vietnamese Magazine.

The decision [1] from the Vietnamese Ministry of Education and Training to make history a subject of choice rather than part of the country’s compulsory teaching curriculum has become one of the most controversial topics in Vietnam’s online discussions over the past few weeks.

According to the new education reforms, Vietnamese high schoolers are offered several preset “courses of study” which consist of different subjects categorized based on their educational functionality. The student is then asked to choose which course they want to add to their curriculum. Regrettably, the study of history was deemed to be unessential by the Ministry and is no longer a required subject.

This decision worries many educators, teachers, and the general public alike, who feel that if history were to become an optional subject at Vietnamese schools, few students would even bother to choose this as part of their studies. Some online commenters even go as far as to say that history lessons could possibly vanish from the country’s high schools in the near future since no students would want to learn about the past.

These are rational worries but the blame should not be placed on high schoolers or their history teachers.

The way historical events have been taught and portrayed in Vietnam’s official textbooks makes learning history a burden for a majority of students.

Instead of the subject’s role in informing a student’s perspective and outlook on the world [and] educating them on patriotism, humane and community values, as zealously glamorized [2] by the education ministry in the face of public disagreement, the study of history has become a series of recalling endless facts and dates.

During my school years under the roof of the socialist educational system, the method of teaching history lessons was mostly carried out through indoctrination and memorization.

Our teachers would write down historical events on the blackboard and our job was to remember these prewritten facts “by heart,” or học thuộc lòng, and to repeat what we had previously learned in the next lesson.

Needless to say, there was no space for critical thinking or constructive arguments in the classroom.

The kind of “history” that was taught in Vietnamese schools is not the objective documentation of what happened in the past. Instead, carefully crafted propaganda and strategic censorship are utilized in order to consolidate the legitimacy of the ruling Communist regime.

“Boat people” leaving Vietnam via the South China Sea were rescued by the medical humanitarian organization Medecins du Monde, or Doctors of the World, in 1982. Photo: Michel Setboum/Getty Images.

The manipulation of facts and the distortion of real events also extended to one of the most disturbing chapters of modern Vietnam’s history – the Vietnam War.

The dominant stories peddled in state-owned newspapers, television, and history textbooks on the war would boast about the revolutionary government’s victory in “liberating southern Vietnam and reunifying the nation,” whereas the Saigon government was disparaged as an “American puppet” who ruled with repression and exploitation.

Those who seek to challenge or revise this master narrative will be branded as “reactionary forces,” harassed, or even detained by the authorities.

This binary and hostile approach has created gaps of knowledge in the minds of several generations of students in postwar Vietnam; we are completely unaware of countless other lost chapters in Vietnamese history which were not mentioned in history textbooks.

For example, many Vietnamese students might be familiar with the term “vượt biên,” which means “crossing the border.” In class, we were taught that this expression is used to describe the hundreds of thousands of people who ventured out of Vietnam after the war ended. Yet, we remain uneducated as to why our countrymen needed to leave their homes and embark on such a journey fraught with great personal risk.

Many of us have also been told the stories of economic failures, hunger, and hardships endured by our grandparents in the 1980s when socialism and a planned economy were implemented all over Vietnam. And yet, we are still unsure of the reasons why the country’s leaders ardently vowed to achieve socialism at any cost while boasting [3] that it is the “only righteous path chosen by the Vietnamese people.”

It was not until I attended college that I started to learn more about what actually happened during the Vietnam War. Aside from being able to access information written in English from foreign newspapers and magazines, I was lucky enough to fill my incomplete picture of the war through the voices of survivors, postwar songs, and high-quality journalism from independent Vietnamese newspapers.

From those “unofficial” materials, I learned about the tragic lives of many North Vietnamese who were forced to flee their hometowns twice through the harrowing song1954 Cha bỏ quê, 1975 Con bỏ nước” (In 1954, My Father Left His Village, In 1975, I Left My Country) composed by Phạm Duy, [4] a famous songwriter known for composing as many as 1,000 songs in Vietnamese about peace, love, and history.

I also came to know about the secrets behind the horrendous war crimes committed by leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in the Mậu Thân Massacre (Tet Offensive) in 1968, which was recounted by the late Communist dissident Bui Tin during one of his interviews with the BBC. Bui Tin was forced to live in exile, until he passed away in 2018, because of his opposition to the postwar policies of the VCP.

Chợ Lớn, Ho Chi Minh City, after the Tet Offensive in 1969. Photo: Wikicommons via Hong Kong Free Press.

And thanks to well-documented analysis and constructive criticisms [5] from independent Vietnamese language newspapers, such as Luật Khoa Magazine, I finally understood that South Vietnam was indeed an independent state recognized by the international community, with its own Constitution, laws, and a democratic governance system.

These publications have debunked many of the propaganda deliberately created and spread by the Communist authorities inside Vietnam after its takeover in 1975.

It might sound ironic but I have learned a great deal about Vietnamese history from these unofficial channels of information, instead of what was taught in history classrooms during my high school years.

And the joy of learning history, in my opinion, comes not from the memorization and repetition of facts, but from satisfying one’s own curiosity through the discovery and understanding of historical events that progressively helped shape the world we live in today.

I believe that all Vietnamese students have these seeds of inquisitiveness hidden deep inside themselves. In order to help these seeds sprout, we need to water them with truth, facts, and the freedom to challenge what was previously accepted and learned. For that reason, a more objective and nuanced approach to the Vietnam War can be an ideal starting point.


[1] VNS. (2022, April 25). MoET responds to plans to drop history in schools. Vietnam News Agency. https://vietnamnews.vn/society/1175572/moet-responds-to-plans-to-drop-history-in-schools.html

[2] Ibid., [1]

[3] Hoa, T. (2022, February 17). Chủ nghĩa xã hội là con đường duy nhất đúng mà nhân dân Việt Nam đã lựa chọn. Voice Of Vietnam. https://vovworld.vn/vi-VN/binh-luan/chu-nghia-xa-hoi-la-con-duong-duy-nhat-dung-ma-nhan-dan-viet-nam-da-lua-chon-1074617.vov

[4] Do, A. (2013, January 28). Pham Duy dies at 91; Vietnam’s most prolific songwriter. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-xpm-2013-jan-28-la-me-0128-pham-duy-20130128-1-story.html

[5] Luat Khoa Magazine. (2022, April 26). Ra mắt Luật Khoa – Số tháng Tư 2022 – Ấn phẩm đặc biệt về Việt Nam Cộng hòa. Luat Khoa Magazine. https://www.luatkhoa.org/2022/04/ra-mat-luat-khoa-so-thang-tu-2022-an-pham-dac-biet-ve-viet-nam-cong-hoa/

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