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Topic:  What do you think has been the main impact of colonialism on local communities in the so-called “ Third World ”?  How have these communities responded to these forces of social change?

            Although only one can be truly classed as ‘colonialism,’ Vietnam has suffered through four major periods of domination by another country.  The first was at the hands of the Chinese, from 111 BCE until 939 CE (Yeager 1987: 11), the second period of domination they spent under French colonial rule.  The third period, although it only lasted a limited time was spent under the domination of the Japanese, while the fourth and last, was spent under the influence of the North Americans, directly preceding, and during, the time of the Vietnam War.  It was only under French rule however, that Vietnam was truly a ‘colony’.  I will, however, during the course of this essay, be making reference to the impact of the time Vietnam spent under Chinese domination. 

Historical Background:

            Much of the culture of Vietnam is based on Chinese culture, from the time that Vietnam spent under Chinese domination, from 111 BCE until 939 CE.  They had adopted the Confusian Philosophical system, were intensely hirearchical, and thereby resistant to any changes not in accordance with their traditional past (Yeager 1987: 11).  The first real move to colonise Vietnam occured in 1858, with the French attack against Da Nang , and then became the first colonial posession in 1897, with the appointment of Paul Doumer, as Govenor-General of Indochina .  This definate brand of ‘colony’ was implemented by him in that same year as he once again decreed to institute the old French Indochina Union, which resulted in a successful pacification campaign (Lam 2000: 1).

            The French however, were not new to Vietnam at this time.  As early as 1630, missionary work had begun with a man named Alexander de Rhodes being expelled from Vietnam due to his conversion attempts.  However, before he was expelled, he managed to convert thousands of Vietnamese to Christianity (Yeager 1987: 14).  Rhodes initial work led to the founding of the Société des Missions Etrangères, under which many missionaries travelled to Vietnam in the succeeding years (Yeager 1987: 15).  This work presented a clear challenge to many Vietnamese societal beliefs, and the government recognised it as such.  It was seen as a rejection of the traditional rites and doctorine of the country, as almost all Vietnam ’s social structures were based on the philosophy of Confusianism, a cult of the ancestors and the Emperor (Yeager 1987: 14).  This was the forerunner for the official colonisation of Vietnam .

            After the official French incursion in 1897, the first half of the twentieth century saw the French planning the best methods through which to exploit Vietnam ’s resources, and the best methods through which to keep the country submissive.  This sparked many Vietnamese patriots to argue against the French, in an attempt to provoke rebellion amongst their fellow countrymen (Lam 2000: 1).  It was from the 1930’s onward that the Communist movement rose to the fore, with a new sense of nationalism.  The French were also proved vulnerable, as Vietnam found themselves occupied by the Japanese duing World War II, and not by the French (Yeager 1987: 19).  This promoted a new sense of the power that Asians held in the world order, and so, after the Second World War, with the subsequent surrender of Japan at its culmination in 1945, Ho Chi Minh declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).  The French however were not willing to give up their colony so readily, and recaptured Saigon , executing suspected nationalists, and sparking the onset of the first Indochinese War by using force in the North.  This war lasted seven and a half years, and ended with the unexpected Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu on May 7, 1954 .  The French finally withdrew and Vietnam suffered a Military separation at the seventeenth parallel, according to the Geneva Agreement of 1954, and North Vietnam , along with Cambodia and Laos , finally gained its independence (Yeager 1987: 20).

Main Impacts at the time of Colonisation:

The Vietnamese experience of colonialism can be perfectly summed up in an exerpt from an article published in the newspaper La Cloche Fêlé on December 24, 1925 :

               Vietnam was an empire, an independent state; France reduced it to slavery by making it a colony...The Vietnamese had the liberty to educate themselves; at present, the French colonial government detains the monopoly of education and takes advantage of that power to hinder the evolution of the Vietnamese people through a very smart system of obscurantism...France has reduced [Vietnam] to the the status of the most ignorant and the most backward land in all of Asia...There are...the state monopolies of alcohol and opium.  The Vietnamese people are oppressed by the heavy weight of taxation and contributions while French civil servants gobble up each year 80 percent of the budget’s revenues.  (Lam 2000: 70/1)

            Already with the Missionary Alexander de Rhodes, a clear impact on Vietnam ’s society can be seen.  With the baptism of so many Vietnamese into the Christian faith (Yeager 1987: 14), it shows the already overwhelming impact that Western society had on the Confusian belief system of Vietnam .  When the French finally moved in to Vietnam officially, they took all Vietnamese religious and public holidays, and replaced them with their own, leaving the Vietnamese only their Vietnamese New Year.  The Vietnamese people however would not let their culture be completely overwhelmed, and they adapted the French Joan of Arc day, to celebrate their own heroines, the Trung Sisters, who until this time had never had a festival dedicated to them (Lam 2000: 54).  This is a clear indication of how the Vietnamese chose to respond to their colonisation.  While some attempted rebellion, they were quickly quashed, and so, most Vietnamese chose instead, to incorporate elements of the dominant culture, and adopt it to fit their own.  They took from the colonisers what they needed, and essentially, ignored the rest.

The Vietnamese culture had already adopted many aspects from the Chinese.  The main adaptation was the adoption of the Confuscianist philosophies, which governed Vietnam ’s religion and politics (Yeager 1987: 11).  The Chinese mode of governance had already proved itself to be effective, and so this was adopted, with the succession of Vietnamese Emperors following, ruling in a pro-Confuscianist manner (Yeager 1987: 13).  Up until the eighteenth century, Chinese characters were the most prominent form used in the creation of literature, and for centuries was in fact the only written form used in Vietnam (Yaegar 1987: 23).

            The Vietnamese, in light of Western technological superiority, began to see themselves as an inferior group.  The French held all major positions of responsibility, and there was virtually no indigenous administration (Lam 2000: 9).  The French were immediately treated better, both by their fellow Frenchmen, and also by the indigenous (Lam 2000: 53) Schools taught in French, and taught French history (Lam 2000: 53/4) resulting in the adoption of many of France’s cultural intricaies.  Along with this, the architecture of the cities also began to change.  The French built in the European style, which contrasted starkly to the already existing Vietnamese buildings (Lam 2000: 55), and the streets were named in French, and after people, or places etc. of France (Lam 2000: 54), furthering the already existing Vietnamese sense of alienation in their own country.

            The French permeated every aspect of Vietnamese life, monopolising their economies, and exploiting the people by recruiting them to work in appalling conditions of plantations, and recruiting them by lot to serve in the Army.  Many of their own cultural aspects seemed to be disappearing, being replaced by those of the French, who practiced an autonomy over almost every part of Vietnamese life, even to the extent that the Vietnamese began to adopt western dress (Yeager 1987, 18).

To some extent the Vietnamese felt they had lost their country through the effects of colonialism.  The Vietnamese felt, and to some extent still feel they no longer control their own country (Lam 2000: 80), especially with the rise of globalisation, which once again sees their country controlled by foreigners.  There was also a sense of lost freedom, and the loss of human rights (Lam 2000: 84/5), as their colonial masters tended to treat the Vietnamese no better than animals.  Even their freedom of religion had been taken away from them (Lam 2000: 85).

            The Colonial government monopolised the important trades in alcohol, salt and opium.  The people reacted to this by moonshining, and smuggling (Lam2000: 47).  Opium introduced Vietnam to import and export, which is still in use today.  Alcohol moonshining on the other hand was prominent, as French alcohol was not seen to be pure enough for religious purposes.  The moonshiners therefore were assured of a rural clientele.  Salt on the other hand was not illegally produced, but instead, illegally witheld.  Both these aspects gave the colonial customs officers the right to enter and search any Vietnamese households at any time (Lam 2000: 48), resulting in punishment if any illegal commodity was found, and regardless, resulting in an invasion of the privacy, much valued by the Vietnamese.  Officers generally worked on tips provided by neighbours, thereby if something was found it was often planted there (Lam 2000: 49).  Regardless of this, the practice still continued, as it was a way for the colonial government to assert their authority, and keep the indigenous subservient, which was also asserted through the variety of exorbitant taxes that the Vietnamese were forced to pay on almost every aspect of their lives (Lam 2000: 87).

Lasting Impacts and Response:

            French colonial rule made many impacts on Vietnamese society, some of which can still be seen today.  Perhaps one of the most prominent of these impacts, is the rewriting of history that occured after the colonisation ended.

            After 1954, there was an intellectual assault in Vietnam , where an abundance of histories, ethnographic works and folkloric studies emerged.  It was difficult for these writers, and they were still operating in a world organised by colonial norms, and yet were attempting to contest and challenge the conclusions come to by their colonisers.  Colonial writers had protrayed Indochina as a people who lacked real civilisation, and it was the task of post-colonial writers to dispute this view (Pelley 1998: 374).  They did this often by constructing folktales, and depicting Vietnam as an innovator rather than an imitator of first, the knowledge of the Chinese, and secondly of the French (Pelley 1998: 375).  The country was required to be protrayed largely as a harmonius and homogenous society (Pelley 1998: 375) rather than the geographically divided range of ethnic minorities that had in fact existed

The French were responsible for the beginnings of archaeological discoveries in Vietnam , which served to build a national history for the country (Pelley 1998: 374).  The French also served to create a physical boundary for the country.  Before colonialism there had been no physical sense of the boundaries of where one could, or could not tread, and so mass relocation of nomadic people was undertaken after colonialism ended (Pelley 1998: 384).  Thus the French were responsible for the first geographic, and political maps of the country.  These boundaries have been retained by the Vietnamese, and furthered by the divisions of the 1954 Geneva agreement.

French was the most prominently written language in colonial times.  The Vietnamese chose French, rather than their own language as their main means of communication (Yaeger 1987: 2).  The missionary Alexander de Rhodes was one of the first men to modernise the Romanised writing of Vietnam (Yeager 1987: 26).  Before this time Vietnamese had been written with Chinese characters.  During the colonial period the Romanised style of writing was taught in schools, in order to lessen the great void between the inigenous, and their French occupiers (Yeager 1987: 17).  This form is still used widely in Vietnam today.

References to French occupation are still used in other elements of the Vietnamese language.  The word Tây in Vietnamese means ‘Western,’ and thereby denotes anything French, and has ultimately come to mean anything big, powerful, or out of the ordinary.  The Colonial mindset can also clearly be seen through the language, and naming of things.  The Vietnamese Onion for example is weak and fragile, whereas the French Onion is the bigger and more powerful of the two families of onion.  The word also can mean good-looking.  To certify that a product is of good quality, it must simply be designated ‘Western-Merchandise’ and all doubts will cease (Lam 2000: 52/3).  Scientific language too, has changed almost in direct response to colonialism, as, in order to escape from their now French heritage, the Vietnamese were forced to adopt many scientific terms from China, in order to express the ideas, that until colonisation they had had no inkling of.  It was noted in 1960, by Pham Van Dong that “our language is still impeverished regarding the different sciences – natural science, technical work, economics studies, and philosophy – and we mush borrow foreign words” (Duong 1965: 39).

On the otherhand, agriculture in the colonial period before 1954, suffered from a low level of organised change (Woodside 1970: 705).  It was for this reason, directly against the colonisers, that post-colonial cooperative associatons emerged, which served purely to further Vietnam ’s agriculture.  The agricultural reform in fact began as early as 1945, against the famine of 1944-45, which killed between 400,000 and 2,000,000 Veitnamese peasants (Woodside 1970: 706).  The agricultural sector appeared to be the prime reason for growth and transformation in the country (Lavigne 2000: 1). 

This growth in turn is linked with both foreign and direct investments (Lavigne 2000: 2), which themselves are resulting from the French, through their colonialising, opening Vietnam up to foreign correspondence.  Vietnam ’s status of a colony, and also the Vietnam War, proved to promote an emotionally favourable prejudice from donor organisations.  Their annual committments to Vietnam exceed $2b (Lavigne 2000: 2).  Reform in Vietnam however still remains backward compared to their Asian counterparts.

Even some colonial mindsets still exist in Vietnam today.  Although the French built roads, which made areas throughout the country more accessible, furthered communication, and made travel easier, the Vietnamese were afraid to travel on them, as automobile accidents often occured, most likely with a pedestrian, or their livestock.  While the roads are still used, the fear that they instilled still exists to some extent.  Peasants can still be seen today, walking very carefully along the sides of the main roads, with their livestock (Lam 2000: 47).

One of the main adoptions, while small, yet culturally very important, is the adoption of the Chirstian dating system.  The Vietnamese now use the Christian notions of dating in terms of Christ’s birth and death, rather than their traditional dating system, which relied on the cycle of the emperors’ reigns (Yeager 1987: 16).

Post-colonial Vietnam was also left their resources which had been inexpertly exploited under the French.  The DRV promoted the forestry, and new techniques, not before explored, such as animal husbandry, and planted new crops, such as tea, tobacco and sugar.  They developed a vast industrial network, which catered generally for steel, plants, coal, tin and iron mines, and also housed a hydroelectric power plant (Pelley 1998: 381).  This was all made possible by the French’s introduction of the railway to Vietnam .

French colonialism was also indirectly responsible for the increased autonomy of women.  Through the ‘coolie trade’, where many male workers were recruited to work on plantations, there was a rise in women-dominated households, especially during the 1930’s (Woodside 1970: 710).  This in turn led to the development of new technology, to cater for the newly acquired female working class.  Some of these developments included smaller boats ‘straight sowing sampans’ which women could use to sow rice without having to wade in water, the ‘straight transplanting yardstick’ which made it possible for women to plant in straight lines without having to stretch wires and strings through the fields.  There were also new weeding hoes produced, and smaller machines for repairing and husking rice, all for the easier use of women (Woodside 1970: 711) many of which are still in use in the more peasant-dominated villages.

Colonialism has had many impacts on Vietnam , which have facilitated social and cultural change.  While some have been more influential than others, they have all contributed to the current cultural definition of Vietnam .  The Vietnamese have responded to colonialism, by first, fighting for their independence, and then using what it gave them to develop their own country.


Lam, Truong Buu.

2000    Colonialism Experienced:  Vietnamese Writings on Colonialism, 1900 – 1931, The University of Michigan Press , USA

Lavigne, Marie.

2000    Structural Transformation, Opening Up and Catching Up in Vietnam , Comparative Economic Studies, XLII (4), 1-5

Pelley, Patricia.

1998    ‘Barbarians’ and ‘Younger Brothers’:  The Remaking of Race in Post-colonial Vietnam, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, v29 (2), 374-38

Woodside, Alexander.

1970    Decolonisation and Agricultural Reform in Northern Vietnam , Asian Survey, v10 (8), 705-723

Yeager, Jack A.

1987    The Vietnamese Novel in French:  A Literary Response to Colonialism, University Press of New England , London


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