Connecting Flights: Day 7 - Annam or Van Lang

Hà Nội is the administrative center of Việt Nam. According to A Brief Chronology of Vietnamese History, by Hà Văn Thư and Trần Hồng Đức the region that was originally Vietnam was the northern part and referred to asAnnam. The book recounts the many invasions by the “northerners”—various dynasties from China, as well as the dynastic chronology in and around Hà Nội. Wikipedia, the corroborating source, mentions the region was called Van Lang, likely from the Sino perspective. Hà Văn Thư’s book would more accurately be titled “A Brief Chronology of Vietnam’s Dynastic History.“ 

Now, it should be noted that today, the administrative center is Hà Nội and the publishing center as well. Together, it’s no wonder that the narrative centers the origins of the Việt state (Đại Việt) there. Throughout the history of dynastic struggle, the regions referred to stretch down to modern day Hội An, which is about half way down the country. 

According to a recent archeological find in northern Laos, the oldest human remains found in Southeast Asia date to around 60,000 years and mysteriously have sub-Saharan features. The remains were found in a cave called Tam Pa Ling (Monkey cave), not far from the border of Vietnam and Hanoi. Yet the fact that this person was a mountain dweller (the cave being located at the top of a mountain) is prescient since many ethnic minorities in Vietnam today continue to live in the mountains. 

The largest ethnic group in Vietnam are the Viet or Kinh, who originated in southern China and northern Vietnam, making them a mixture between East Asians and Southeast Asians. But the Kinh were not the first nor most predominant throughout the region’s history. Today, they certainly are the majority but most importantly they dominate the historical narrative in the form of publishing and educational dissemination. Yet even reading a more neutral history of Vietnam in Wikipedia an anthropological rather than political story is told. 

Hà Văn Thư’s book is told from the perspective of the Hà Nội-based Kinh, who defended themselves and their culture from invading Chinese, Mongols, French and Americans but excludes any of the expansion, domination and subjugation of the 50+ethnicities of the rest of the country, or the Champa and Khmer Empire. Through this blindspot, the “War of American Aggression,” becomes something of a civil war. 

Hà Văn Thư’s book is very useful to make sense and give life to the street signs around cities in Vietnam. Yet continuing the previous point about the overall bias of the perspective, it also frames even the street names as part of a larger, totaling propaganda environment through which one history is aggressively told while others are completely ignored. 

In the context of dynastic warfare, the prevailing history is written by the Kinh and even the side stories of conquered dynasties which are mentioned only to further legitimize the ruling ethnicity are left out. For example, the Champa kingdom that occupied Central Vietnam is mentioned only in relation to their ultimate loss to the northern Kinh. The Montagnards of the mountains who sided with the Americans position the War of American Aggression into a larger ethnic struggle that has divided and unionized, ultimately recomposing the very definition of Việt Nam.