Vietnam in transition: reflections on Change (2)

Impact of Change on Personal Transformation

Relating to my personal experience is the easiest way to start. I was one the first very few successful candidates from South Vietnam with a French school background among the 43’000 applicants nationwide to enrol on the post-war first batch of students. Therefore, my experience as a first-generation post-war freshman was unique.

With the new political paradigm that shaped this historical period, the change that the University of Social Sciences and Humanities Studies underwent was a typical example of change management in the Higher education sector in Southern Vietnam in terms of the transition process.

The role of the post-war University was not to form thinkers but to train workers who would serve the objectives of the post-war economy. Therefore, in this discussion, I will focus only on the restructuring of the faculties of the former Saigon University of Literature (Dai Hoc Van Khoa Saigon), which included four main faculties: the Faculty of Foreign Literature (Khoa Ngoai Van), the Faculty of National Literature (Khoa Ngu van), the Faculty of Political science (Khoa Kinh te Chinh tri), and the Faculty of History and Geography (Khoa Su Dia).

The gradual ‘approach to change’ in restructuring the University aimed to develop a new worker’s class with political training for a new generation of leaders. Except for the curriculum in foreign language studies that retained most teachers among the former staff, all other curricula offered a higher portion of political training per the Party’s official and exclusive political agenda. For example, the studies of Philosophy mainly consisted of the study of Marxism, combined with disciplines that glorify the role of the Party, such as History of the Party, Linguistics and Political Studies delivered by teaching staff from Hanoi. Courses for Russian language learning were mandatory and taught by highly trained Russian-speaking teachers from Hanoi. Extracurricular activities that included military training, field practice, physical education, sports, music, team building, leadership, and political indoctrination sessions were part of the curriculum. In particular, the extracurricular activities occupied a high priority in my training schedule, as political engagement through pro-active participation in teamwork and teambuilding counted for graduation grading.

In terms of continuity, although the new curricula differed in content from what was available in the pre-75 period, the former Dai Hoc Van Khoa students could finish their study program and graduate without disruption. However, the focus of the training was mainly to form the new batch of students destined to be the elite for the new administration. In this process, former students and faculties of the old regime were not excluded from the new system, allowing a smooth transition from an old system to the new one. Regarding faculty deployment, teachers came from Hanoi to deliver more formal political-oriented syllabi, while local teachers had to undergo a reeducation session to teach in the new configuration. In either case, at a personal level, students and teachers had to adapt to the new structure with a new mindset and the ‘right attitude.’

Changed perception as a result of changed values

During this transition period, although spiritual practices such as ancestor worship and traditional Lunar Year celebrations were still allowed, the public manifestations were more oriented toward youth and workers’ activities. Regarding religious studies, monks and nuns could follow the entire curriculum in religious institutions such as Van Hanh University.

However, due to the new social configuration and the decline in living standards, family ties and the sense of belonging to a community seemed to loosen up, resulting in fewer opportunities and time spent for family reunions and celebrations to pay tribute to our ancestors. As a full-time student, my monthly allowance was equivalent to One (1) US Dollar, which would allow me one meal a day at the school canteen on the campus, ten kilometers away from our university. With our meagre allowance, we (my roommates and I) had to walk to school as we could not afford to take the bus and would have our first meal around Sunset after a full day of activity. Our weekends were fully scheduled for public manifestations at different levels and required our full attention and dedication. There was hardly any time for privacy or room for any negative state of mind. Looking back to this period of my student life, I still keep a vivid memory of the combat-in-arms enthusiasm that animated my school days.

On the other hand, the practice of the Tam Giao tradition remains deep inside each of us. Religious practices among communities such as Buddhists, Phat Giao Hoa Hao, Cao Dai or Christians continue to flourish, especially with the growing overseas Vietnamese communities who wish to keep Vietnamese spiritual traditions and beliefs alive through family ties. With the internet, the online diffusion of faith and spiritual teachings remains popular among followers with significant audiences. These teachings guide ethical behavior according to the respective scriptures of each religion. They also provide vital spiritual support to the uprooted and lost souls of wanderers and exiled communities who long to return to their homeland. The vast repertory of this ‘distance learning program’ includes lessons for life with anecdotes from Vietnamese literature, a mixture of sociology, psychology, and ethical education adapted to the needs of Vietnamese in terms of personal self-development.

Ven. Thich Tu Thong, who had been teaching Buddhism to a large congregation for over sixty years, started his weekly podcast program at age eighty from his remote refuge in the highlands of Lam Dong and regularly delivered his teachings through the internet. His courses encouraged thousands of followers, who enjoyed the anecdotes on real-life issues and the moral messages accompanying the sessions. So although I was thousands of miles away from my homeland, this spiritual training  strongly impacted my Buddhist practice and understanding of my compatriots’ living conditions at home. The example set by Ven. Thich Tu Thong is one of the many cases that are typical examples of hidden treasures in Vietnam’s cultural grove. Likewise, other learning resources on Vietnamese traditions and ethics have contributed significantly to preserving spiritual values among the younger Vietnamese generations born overseas. With the development of the socio media and usage of wifi and open source education, there is now a multitude of distance learning solutions that helps to keep the Vietnamese spirit alive.

In summary, although the change impacted by the changing living conditions has led to a new worldview among the Vietnamese generations, there seems to be a constant in the mind of Vietnamese thinking thanks to the millennial learning traditions that result from the Nho spirit. In essence, although modern education has replaced the old way of learning, values-based integrity criteria are still alive and thriving in many literary works. According to Tran Trong Kim, the impact of Nho Studies on Vietnamese thinking is still valid regardless of configuration changes in the social structure. These values are still visible in Vietnamese postmodern Literature and keep the Vietnamese spirit alive. This spirit still prevails through the legacy of pioneers in Education such as Tran Trong Kim, Truong Vinh Ky, Dao Duy Anh and many others who were strong supporters of the new way of learning.

Among the novelty was a new genre in literature critics by Author Thieu Son, who published his book on methods of literary review and critique (Phê bình và Cảo luận) in 1933. In addition, Kieu Thanh Que’s brief overview on the evolution of Vietnamese Literature (Cuộc Tiến Hoá Văn Học) written in 1943,  was a first attempt to record step-by-step the transition of the Vietnamese literature from the Han-Nom tradition to Quốc văn or national literature of the pre-war period. Similarly, Moc Khue’s compilation of the first thirty years of Literature (Ba Mươi Năm Văn Học) published in 1941, was a tribute to many generations of authors who had embraced modernity through their contribution to the literary treasure of pre-war Vietnam. 

Another genre that significantly contributed to postmodern Vietnamese Literature is journalists’ writings in the early days of the Quoc-ngu. Truong Vinh Ky’s Nam Phong Tap Chi was the first media that helped the proliferation of this new medium for learning. The articles not only related to the people’s daily lives, but they also brought news from the outer world through the translated articles introducing Western authors that became references for the younger Vietnamese generations eager to embrace new ideas and new horizons. In all, Truong Vinh Ky remains the most outstanding contributor in terms of media literacy of this period.

To be continued ./.

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Published by Anita H.

Expert in Intercultural Communication, navigating between 4 cultures and 5 languages which I use daily for work and leisure. Author of blogs on wordpress and blogspot on SBI Training Solutions Projects: vietnamhoc, yourvietnamexpert, yourvietbooks, sbi-training.com.

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