Vietnamese national identity has been forged in opposition to foreign invaders. But while a united Vietnam is a recent development, the country has long been coloniser as well as colonised.
Most readers outside Vietnam will still chiefly associate this small, coastal country with the decade-long war that bogged down the United States army in a struggle to prevent communist North Vietnam taking over its non-communist southern half. The Vietnam War ended in a humiliating defeat for the US in 1975. Loss also marks French memories of its former colony. The embarrassing defeat France suffered during the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when Vo Nguyen Giap’s troops brought an end to 80 years of colonial rule, resonates in French politics to this day. In Vietnam, the theme of heroic victory dominates the nation’s image of itself. Every year, millions of school children and cadets learn that their Vietnam, stretching in the form of an ‘S’ from the Red River in the north to the Mekong delta in the south, owes its existence to a long tradition of resistance to foreign invasion. Before the Americans and the French, the Vietnamese had driven out the Chinese and the Mongols. Ho Chi Minh is just one of many heroes to have secured Vietnam’s independence. The French and the US had only themselves to blame for ignoring the lessons of history.