The divisions in the EU-Vietnam FTA ratification vote

The European Union – Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA) was ratified by the European Parliament on 12 February, 2020 in a vote in the European Parliament. Vietnam is the second largest trading partner of the EU in ASEAN, and is also the second ASEAN country to have concluded a free trade agreement with the EU (both after Singapore) after the failure of ASEAN to negotiate a bloc-wide agreement. The EVFTA was signed after three and a half years of negotiation in December 2015, and is touted as the “most modern and ambitious agreement ever concluded between the EU and a developing country”. The conclusion of this agreement is yet another major milestone for Vietnam, which already has a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Union and is a member of the CPTPP despite having been largely economically and diplomatically isolated as recently as the 1990s.

Because I am a huge nerd, right after the vote, I found the data on who voted for and against the ratification of the free trade agreement on the EU Parliament website and divided them up by both the bloc and the country they represent (the bloc data was already included in the original document, while I generated the country variable from the EU Parliament’s MEP directory), and since we’re all stuck in quarantine anyway, I thought this would be a good time to write about it. As always, I must preface this all with the caveat that I most emphatically not an expert in either European politics or legislatures in general, so this is more a case of me playing with data and commenting on trends and changes that I observed.

The European Parliament consists of 705 members is organised into parliamentary groups, similar to parties in national parliaments. Each parliamentary group consists of MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) belonging to national parties from each individual member states that share a similar ideological outlook. As of February 2020 (9th European Parliament), the voting blocs include the following:

  1. European People’s Party (EPP): A centre-right grouping consisting mostly of Christian democrats, liberal-conservatives, and conservatives; examples of member parties include the Christian Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union, Germany), Fine Gael (Ireland), the Fidesz (Hungary), and the People’s Party (Partido Popular, Spain).
  2. Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D): A centre-left grouping consisting mostly of social democrats; examples of member parties include the Socialist Party (Parti socialiste, France), the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, Italy), the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (Partido Socialista Obrero Español, Spain), and the Labour Party (Partij van der Arbeid, Netherlands).
  3. Renew Europe (Renew): a liberal, centrist, pro-European grouping; examples of member parties include the Republic on the Move (La République en Marche.(France), Citizens (Ciudadanos, Spain), the Free Democratic Party (Freie Demokratisch Partei, Germany), and Venstre (Denmark).
  4. Greens-European Free Alliance (Verts/ALE): a grouping consisting of green and regionalist parties; examples of member parties include Alliance ’90/The Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, Germany), Ecolo (Belgium), and the Czech Pirate Party (Česká pirátská strana, Czechia), and the Latvian Russian Union (Latvijas Krievu savienība, Latvia).
  5. Identity and Democracy (ID): a grouping consisting of nationalist, Eurosceptic, and populist parties, often described as far-right in orientation; examples of member parties include the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, Germany), the League (Lega, Italy), National Rally (Rassemblement national, France), and the Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang, Belgium).
  6. European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR): a grouping of centre-right, Eurosceptic, anti-federalist parties (prior to Brexit, the UK Conservative party was in this grouping); examples of member parties include Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Poland), Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, Sweden), Freedom and Solidarity (Sloboda a Solidarita, Slovakia), and IMRO – Bulgarian National Movement (ВМРО – Българско Национално Движение, Bulgaria).
  7. European United Left/Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL): a grouping of socialist and communist parties, ranging from left-wing to far-left; examples of member parties include Syriza (Greece), La France Insoumise (France), The Left (Die Linke, Germany), Progressive Party of Working People (Ανορθωτικό Κόμμα Εργαζόμενου Λαού, Cyprus), and Podemos (Spain).
  8. Non-Inscrits (NI): the remaining MEPs who are unaffiliated with any grouping; examples of member parties include the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, Italy), the Communist Party of Greece (Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδας, Greece), Jobbik (Hungary), and Human Shield (Živi zid, Croatia), along with independents.

In the current European Parliament (9th European Parliament), the groupings have the following shares of seats:

From left to right: GUE/NGL (39), S&D (147), Verts/ALE (67), Renew (98), EPP (187), ECR (61), GUE/NGL (39), NI (29).

While I am not familiar with a lot of the rules or protocol of the European Parliament (or parliaments in general – legislatures are not my research focus), those who are curious about EU parliamentary procedure and vote breakdowns can peruse the EU Parliament’s website (all votes can be found at https://www.europarl.europa.eu/plenary/en/home.html, but do note that the notation does take a little bit of getting used to). The overall breakdown of the ratification of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement was as follows:

The website also helpfully provided a list of who voted for and against, but did not list the country that the MEP represented, so I cross-referenced the names with the European Parliament’s Directory. The percent for was calculated as the number of for votes as a percent of the total that voted (i.e. excluding abstentions).

Map of countries’ MEP votes for EVFTA ratification
COUNTRYFOR AGAINSTABSTAINTOTAL VOTEPERCENT FOR
Austria10801856%
Belgium7651854%
Bulgaria14111693%
Croatia8111089%
Cyprus4026100%
Czechia14422078%
Denmark11201385%
Estonia6006100%
Finland5611245%
France254627335%
Germany463648656%
Greece7711550%
Hungary11131592%
Ireland6501155%
Italy303366948%
Latvia410580%
Lithuania8301173%
Luxembourg510683%
Malta6006100%
Netherlands16912664%
Poland45114798%
Portugal16402080%
Romania280129100%
Slovakia90615100%
Slovenia710888%
Spain391235476%
Sweden14401878%
GRAND TOTAL40119240633
MEP votes for EVFTA by country

Remarkably, out of the twenty-seven countries of the EU, the MEPs from twenty-four countries voted for ratification, with only Finland, France, and Italy voting against, and the margin of vote from French MEPs being substantially larger than that of Italian or Finnish MEPs. While conventional wisdom would expect old colonial ties, the existence of a large Vietnamese diaspora (the largest in Europe) in France, and strong trade ties to push for French enthusiasm for this free trade agreement, this discrepancy may be explained by the fact that the French MEPs are disproportionately dominated by the far-right populist National Rally, which is staunchly anti-free trade (Italian MEPs are similarly dominated by the far-right League). Statistically, France is the third largest European destination for Vietnamese exports (behind Germany and the Netherlands), although it is the second largest European origin of exports to Vietnam (also behind Germany); in turn, Vietnam is the fifth largest Asian origin of exports to France, behind China, Japan, Turkey, and India. Comparatively, Vietnam is the fifth largest Asian origin of exports to Germany, behind China, Japan, Turkey, and South Korea). Interestingly, Vietnam is the second largest Asian origin of imports to Slovakia, just behind China.

Among the countries that voted for, the strongest support appeared to be from Central and Eastern Europe along with other newer members of the EU, with the strongest for votes recorded from Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Malta, Cyprus, Poland, and Hungary. On the other hand, the most marginal votes were from Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Germany, and Greece. This difference may be explained by the remaining ties that the Vietnamese state has with the old Eastern Bloc as well as the overall pro-free market stance of Central and Eastern Europe along with Western European posturing on human rights. That said, these voting patterns can also be interpreted as counter-intuitive, as Vietnam’s main exports to Europe will compete in lower-wage sectors and has the potential to hurt members with lower average wages; however, this is not borne out by the voting results even beyond the new members, as MEPs from 11 out of the 12 countries with the lowest nominal GDP per capita all voted strongly for the agreement (with the exception of Greece).

BlocForAgainstAbstainTotalPercent For
ECR41835284%
GUE/NGL0313340%
ID125136619%
NI13842562%
PPE14931016298%
RENEW82359096%
S&D103261114080%
Verts/ALE1621642%
GRAND TOTAL4011924063368%
Voting for the EVFTA by bloc

The voting blocs appear to be consistent with expectations. Both the centre-right blocs (EPP and ECR) voting strongly for the agreement, showing that differences on European integration do not necessarily extend to trading beyond the bloc; however, it should be noted that the ECR vote was also split by country, with five of the eight No votes from the MEPs from the Brothers of Italy party (Fratelli d’Italia) (the rest came from the lone MEP from the Bulgarian National Movement, one of the two Spanish MEPs from Vox, and a lone dissenter from Poland’s Law and Justice Party). Given that Renew is a liberal grouping, it is also not surprising that the group voted overwhelmingly for the agreement. On the left, opposition to the agreement generally stems from environmental concerns of free trade (hence the negative vote from the Verts/ALE, with a lone holdout from one of the two MEPs from the Socialist People’s Party of Denmark) or the impact on domestic labour (explaining the unanimous negative vote from GUE/NGL). The views from the centre-left also reflect these concerns, as reflected by the somewhat split vote of the S&D bloc, with S&D MEPs from France, Austria, Belgium, and Netherlands voting overwhelmingly against, the rest overwhelmingly for, and German S&D MEPs split down the middle. However, while these views are consistent with the political orientation of the blocs, Vietnam’s status as a Communist State complicates these considerations, as historically, it could count on the support and solidarity of left-wing parties in Europe; after all, Ho Chi Minh himself was a founding member of the French Communist Party. Nevertheless, these results show two important considerations. First, the votes seem to reflect domestic politics more than international relations, which is not atypical of legislative action. Second, with the waning importance of ideological divides since the end of the Cold War, it would appear Vietnam is first and foremost a trading partner, and the country’s political alignment is secondary.

While the ID group’s overall voting against the free trade agreement seems to be consistent with the group’s general orientation as being Eurosceptic and anti-globalisation and immigration, the vote was not unanimous. Notably, two-thirds (6 out of 9) of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) voted for the free trade agreement, along with the entire three-member delegation from the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). In addition, the sole members of the Danish People’s Party (DF), the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia (EKRE), and the Freedom and Direct Democracy Party of Czechia (SPD) also voted for the agreement. This meant that they diverged the other right-wing populist movements around Europe, who appear to be uniformly staunchly protectionist on this issue. This vote is also a useful reminder that while these parties are often grouped together as part of a broad European right-wing populist surge due to significant overlap and cooperation, they do differ considerably on some issues. Populism overall is also not a good indicator of voting patterns on ratification – the entire delegation from the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S), which falls under the NI group, voted for the agreement.

These are some very rough and non-expert impressions that I had of the ratification process. Overall, to me, the EVFTA vote is emblematic of the changing position of Vietnam in the global economy. From a country that was still under a US embargo until 1995, Vietnam has become an open trading country, with trade reaching up to 200% of GDP in recent years. The transformation is apparent both within Vietnam and around the world – as a child, I remember seeing very few imports available, and my exposure to many imported goods was through luggage brought in by friends and family who lived abroad. From the other side, when I first moved abroad, Vietnamese goods were very uncommon. Now, Vietnam is flooded with consumer goods from around the world, and Vietnamese goods from numerous sectors are ubiquitous in many markets (I even found Vietnamese instant noodles in a supermarket in Brazil). Vietnam’s global position has changed significantly, and in a way, the EVFTA shows that this also changes the way the country interacts with domestic actors around the world.

Vexing Vietnamese #2: Food name origins and the pitfalls of grocery shopping

Names of things often tell a great deal about the origin of the item, or the paths through which it reached the homeland of the language spoken. Vietnamese is no exception, and the names of certain plants and animals in Vietnamese can reveal a lot about Vietnam’s historical position in trade networks.

In Vietnamese, items from Europe or the New World are often called “Western” or “Siamese”. The Western label is obvious – many of these products were brought in by western merchants or came with colonialism and were named accordingly (with tây, meaning west or western) . Because of this, potatoes are Western sweet potatoes (khoai tây), asparagus is western bamboo shoot (măng tây), etc. The Siamese appellation is a little more confusing and requires some historical background. Ayutthaya was a major trade centre in Southeast Asia, and many of these products came to Vietnam through Siam (now Thailand), leading them to be called Siamese. Examples include Siamese duck (vịt Xiêm, or Muscovy duck in English, which is equally confusing, as these ducks came from Mexico, not Moscow) and Siamese sugar apple (mãng cầu Xiêm, known as soursop, graviola, or guanabana in English, with origins in Central America). Some New World fruit, while widespread, retain their native names through loanwords, with Mexican sapodillas known as sapôchê (from French sapotier, which ultimately is derived from Nahuatl tzapotl; however, following the Siamese theme, it is also known as hồng Xiêm, or Siamese persimmon), and the South American lúcuma retains its name as lê-ki-ma (also known as quả trứng gà, or chicken egg fruit, due to the yolk-like consistency of the fruit’s interior).

Lúcuma to the uninitiated, courtesy of Wikipedia

Oddly enough, that perennially famous new world fruit, the pineapple, somehow manages to have at least THREE names in common use in Vietnamese, none of which indicate an obvious foreign origin (dứa in the North, thơm in the centre, and khóm in the South, although some southerners have told me khóm can refer to a particular cultivar). Fruit and vegetables, whether native or imported, seems to have confusing names in general in Vietnamese – a plum is called mận where I’m from in central Vietnam and đào in southern Vietnam, while a water rose apple is called đào where I’m from and mận in southern Vietnam (northerners call them mận and roi, respectively, and đào usually refers to a peach in the north). Cassava? Take your pick between sắn and khoai mì. Mint? To this day, I still am unsure what Southerners actually call mint; when I use the word from Central (and Northern) Vietnam, bạc hà, I end up with something quite unlike mint. All those fresh vegetables that accompany Vietnamese dishes? Good luck trying to replicate them in another region without knowing the local names. Even tofu gets a few names – in the North, it is referred to as đậu phụ (Sino-Vietnamese reading 豆腐); however, it is called khuôn đậu in Central Vietnam, and tàu hũ in Southern Vietnam (possibly from Cantonese influence due to the number of Cantonese immigrants in Saigon). Soy-derived products in general seem to fall all over the place. Dessert tofu? Tào phớ in the North, đậu hũ in the Centre, and tàu hũ in the South (although they are prepared slightly differently). Soy sauce? Choose between nước tương and xì dầu (the latter is based on the Cantonese reading of 豉油, which is incidentally is also used by Peruvian Spanish under the spelling sillao). Confused yet? I know I am – along with any Saigonese grocers unfortunate enough to deal with me. Language often is just simply weird.

Wait, what am I even buying?

Naming foods after their perceived place of origin not a phenomenon exclusive to Vietnamese. The orange is a great example of this. While some languages allude to the fruit’s Chinese origin (such as appelsien in Dutch or апельсин/apel’sin in Russian), others refer to oranges with names deriving from Portugal, presumably because the Portuguese were among the first to bring the fruit to several regions (portakal in Turkish or portocală in Romanian). Similarly, the innocuous turkey seems to have a bewildering range of names (and is native to the Americas, not Turkey), including dinde (d’Inde, from India) in French, hindi in Turkish, and perú in Portuguese (Vietnamese, incidentally, simply calls turkeys gà tây, meaning “western chicken”). Another well-known example is the names for tea around the world, which is generally derived from either cha (from Cantonese) or teh (from Hokkien), both of which are simply different readings of the character 茶. This reflects classical trade routes – most western European countries use some variation on teh (tea in English, thé in French, te in Spanish, Tee in German, etc.), with the notable exception of the ever enterprising Portuguese, who use chá. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East, names are generally derived from cha, such as Turkish çay or Russian чай (chay). Vietnam does not fit neatly on this divide due to extensive historical ties with China, and tea can be called chè or trà based on dialect and variety of tea (trà being the Sino-Vietnamese reading for 茶 and thus is another variation of the teh vs. cha theme, whereas chè appears to be native and gets its own Nôm character 𦷨); in my experience, Northerners tend to use chè to refer to both the plant and the drink, whereas people in the Centre and South tend to use chè for the plant and trà for the drink. That said, I have also heard trà used for the drink in the North, and I would also use chè to refer to a drink made from fresh tea leaves. However, my knowledge of tea is limited, so use my guidelines with caution when talking to a real Vietnamese tea connoisseur.

So next time you’re doing your groceries (also known as having your weekly dose of public interaction/anxiety attack during social distancing), pay attention to the names of what you’re buying – they might reveal a lot about how they ended up at your grocery store.

Vexing Vietnamese #1: What’s in a country’s name?

Country names is one of those lessons that invariably come up when learning a new language, as each language seems to have its own conventions on naming. Vietnamese is no different – official country names run the gamut from Sino-Vietnamese readings of Chinese country names to transliterations of Spanish and French. It’s amazing how much this reflects Vietnam’s history, from the strong influence of classical Chinese to French colonisation and alignment with the Eastern Bloc. The names adhere roughly to the following conventions:

  1. Sino-Vietnamese: Many countries are referred to by Sino-Vietnamese readings of their Chinese names, which themselves are frequently transliterations, meaning that they often bear little resemblance to their original versions. Many of these Vietnamese names are also shortened or modified versions of the Chinese original, adding further confusion. This grouping can mostly be found in the Indo-Pacific region, such as China (Trung Quốc), South Korea (Hàn Quốc), North Korea(Triều Tiên), Japan (Nhật Bản), Mongolia (Mông Cổ), India (Ấn Độ), Australia (Úc) or in/near Europe, such as the United Kingdom (Anh), France (Pháp), Germany (Đức), Spain (Tây Ban Nha), Portugal (Bồ Đào Nha), Netherlands (Hà Lan), Belgium (Bỉ), Switzerland (Thụy Sĩ), Sweden (Thụy Điển), Norway (Na Uy), Denmark (Đan Mạch), Finland (Phần Lan), Poland (Ba Lan), Italy (Ý), Greece (Hy Lạp), Egypt (Ai Cập), Turkey (Thồ Nhĩ Kỳ), and Russia (Nga). The United States (Mỹ/Hoa Kỳ) also fall into this category, along with South Africa (Nam Phi) and the Central African Republic (Cộng Hòa Trung Phi). Many other countries, such as the Philippines, New Zealand, Mexico, Ireland, Argentina, and Iceland used to be referred to using Sino-Vietnamese names but common usage has shifted to versions that match their native names more closely. Sino-Vietnamese names are distinct in that they are not hyphenated (Vietnamese orthography dictates that multi-syllabic western loanwords be hyphenated).
  2. French: Due to the legacy of French colonisation in Indochina, several countries’ names are simply Vietnamese transliterations of their French names. This group consists mostly of former French colonies, such as Algeria (An-giê-ri), Tunisia (Tuy-ni-di), Morocco (Ma-rốc), Lebanon (Li-băng), Syria (Xi-ri), Guinea (Ghi-nê), Benin (Bê-nanh), Cote d’Ivoire (Cốt-đi-voa), Mauritania (Mô-ri-ta-ni), and Gabon (Ga-bông), along with several countries (mostly located near the Mediterranean) that are not former French colonies such as Libya (Li-bi), Jordan (Gióoc-đa-ni), Albania (An-ba-ni), Bulgaria (Bun-ga-ri), Romania (Ru-ma-ni), Luxembourg (Lúc-xem-bua), and Cyprus (Síp). The French version of some countries’ names, such as Singapore, used to be more prevalent but has fallen out of use.
  3. Spanish: Countries in Latin America are usually referred to by their Spanish names. Examples that are most obviously Spanish include Mexico (Mê-hi-cô) and Argentina (Ác-hen-ti-na).
  4. Russian: Former Soviet republics are usually referred to using their Russian names. Examples that are most obviously Russian are Lithuania (Lít-va) and Georgia (Gru-di-a).
  5. Countries’ native names: Cambodia (Cam-pu-chia) and Laos (Lào) are both referred to by their native names (in Khmer and Lao, respectively)
  6. Mixed: Some countries mix Vietnamese words with foreign names, usually when the Vietnamese word refers to directions, geographical features, or conjunctions. Examples include Equatorial Guinea (Ghi-nê Xích Đạo), Trinidad and Tobago (Tri-ni-đát và Tô-ba-gô), Solomon Islands (Quần đảo Xô-lô-mông), and Timor-Leste (Đông Ti-mo).
  7. Indeterminate: The remaining countries are referred to using names that are similar to their English counterparts but may have origins from other languages that also use these names (e.g. when the French or Spanish name is largely indistinguishable from the English name).

For example, here is a map of Europe colour-coded by the most likely name etymology in Vietnamese (in several cases, such as Estonia and Latvia, where the name in Russian and English are similar, I made the judgement call of labelling it as Russian, as Lithuania is referred to as Lít-va, which is clearly based on the Russian Литва. Other cases for this are Armenia and Azerbaijan, where Georgia is also referred to as Gru-di-a, based on the Russian Грузия). Ireland and Iceland used to be referred to by Sino-Vietnamese names (Ái Nhĩ Lan/爱尔兰 and Băng Đảo/冰岛, respectively), but neither name is the most common usage at this point. Interestingly, both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia had SIno-Vietnamese names (Nam Tư/南斯 and Tiệp Khắc/捷克, respectively).

European country name etymologies in Vietnamese

Here is the map for Asia. As in Europe, usage has changed over the years; for example, the Philippines used to be known as Phi Luật Tân/菲律宾, Myanmar as Miến Điện/缅甸, and Singapore as Xanh-ga-pua/Singapour. Cambodia may also occasionally be referred to as Cam-bốt/Cambodge, or, more rarely, using the pre-20th century name, Cao Miên/高棉. Thailand is an interesting case, as Vietnam uses Thái Lan/泰兰 instead of the name that China currently uses, which is 泰國/Thái Quốc.

Asian country name etymologies in Vietnamese

These maps were labelled to the best of my knowledge, so please let me know if I got anything wrong!

The Imperial City remembers

This morning, as I headed to Thuan An Beach (14 km from Hue) for my usual sunrise swim (the sea is calmest at sunrise here, and the heat of the midday sun makes swimming uncomfortable), I noticed that a shrine by one of the entrances to the beach was laden with offerings and had prayers playing all morning. I was mystified until I remembered that today is the 23rd day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar, the day when the city of Hue commemorates the failed attack on the French garrison in Hue in 1885 that marked the beginning of French control over the last free part of Vietnam, Trung Kỳ in Vietnamese (also known as Annam).  The day is known in Vietnamese as Kinh Đô Thất Thủ (京都失守).

While northern Vietnam and southern Vietnam had already come under the control of the French (the north as the Protectorate of Tonkin and the south as the Colony of Cochin China), central Vietnam was still under the control of the Nguyen emperors. When the Emperor Hàm Nghi (咸宜) was crowned, French forces declared the coronation unsanctioned and marched to Hue from Tonkin and took over a section of the walled city of Hue (known as Mang Cá, which translates to ‘fish gills’).  After a defeat of French forces in Lang Son in northern Vietnam, the war faction of the imperial government requested that the French withdraw from the citadel, which prompted the French to plan for an attack of the citadel.  In addition, the French demanded that the imperial government order the acquiescence of all subjects to the French forces and planned to capture the leader of the war faction, Tôn Thất Thuyết (尊室説), during negotiations.

Tôn Thất Thuyết, knowing this, had secretly moved weaponry to a strategic location and tried to preempt the French by attacking the French garrison first. However, the attack failed, and afterwards, French forces rampaged through the city and massacred over 1500 of its people. After this failure, Tôn Thất Thuyết fled with the 12-year-old emperor Hàm Nghi and issued the Cần Vương (勤王) edict to call for a general uprising and restore the full power of the monarchy.  The French, on their part, installed the emperor Đồng Khánh on the throne, ending any meaningful autonomy of the Vietnamese crown.

The day is remembered as one of the darkest periods in the history of Hue.  In 1894, the Ministry of Rites constructed an altar, known as the Âm Hồn (陰魂) altar (Altar of the Spirits) on the spot where Tôn Thất Thuyết commanded his forces next to the city walls. In Hue today, the day is commemorated as a collective day of mourning, with offerings akin to those made during death day commemorations. The offerings are made to the spirits of those who died on that day, and the beach town of Thuan An has a particularly large commemoration due to the large number of people who perished there (the town lies at the mouth of the Huong River and guards the entry to the city of Hue from the sea).  The commemoration is a testament to the fact that despite the city’s brief tenure as the national capital (only 150 years), it witnessed some of the most important events in Vietnamese history and has a unique and complex culture as a result of this history.

This event is even remembered in a nursery rhyme and children’s game, which I remember playing with my dad as a child.  The game is usually played with little children, with the adult prodding the palm of the child for the first five lines, and the child trying to catch the adult’s finger on the last line. However, the lines have more meaning than that. The first line, Chi chi chành chành, sets up the story (a type of “Once upon a time). The second line, Cái đanh thổi lửa, means “the đanh blows fire” (I’m not sure what đanh translates to), refers to Tôn Thất Thuyết firing on the French garrison. The third line, Con ngựa đứt cương, translates to “the horse has lost its bridle” refers to the death of Emperor Tự Đức in 1883, which led to considerable turmoil in the imperial court. The fourth line, Ba vương lập đế, translates to “three kings crowned emperors”, refers to the year 1883, where Vietnam had three different emperors. The fifth line, Bắt dế đi tìm, translates to “Catching the dế (which I would translate as cricket, but may be a variant on đế, or emperor) to search” refers to Tôn Thất Thuyết fleeing with Emperor Hàm Nghi. Finally, the last line, Ù à ù ập, is an onomatopoeia of a trap springing, refers to the capture of Emperor Hàm Nghi in 1888 (Hàm Nghi was eventually exiled to Algeria).

Reflections on Điện Biên Phủ

Like generations of Vietnamese school children, I was taught from a young age that the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, where Viet Minh forces defeated the French Empire, “shook the globe”. As children, we are all familiar with the sense of pride as we see the famous photo of the flag of the Viet Minh flying over the headquarters of the French forces in the valley at Dien Bien Phu. It was, after all, possibly the most prominent example of an indigenous army in a colony defeating an imperial power in a conventional modern battle and marked the end of the First Indochina War and the collapse of French Indochina. The war was not kind to Vietnam – in addition to the military losses, the French also made an effort to destroy priceless cultural relics that had little military value, beginning with much of the Imperial City of Hue (including the priceless scrolls in the Imperial Library) upon reoccupying the country in 1946 (aided by the British, who were tasked with disarming the Japanese south of the 16th parallel) and ending with the One-Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi as they withdrew – the pagoda had been constructed in 1049. More than simply smashing the myth of French military supremacy – after all, the French Empire was defeated even when 80% of the French war effort was being funded by the United States – the First Indochina War was the final nail on the coffin for French claims of cultural and moral superiority; after all, such wanton destruction inflicted by a losing army seeking to reimpose control over a colony spoke not of dignity or cultural refinement, but rather of a desperate moral bankruptcy.

But I write this not as an attempt to list the crimes of French colonial system; the sins are self-evident and have been enumerated by much better scholars. The legacy of Dien Bien Phu extends much further than its influence shaping the political future of Vietnam. Paradoxically, I never truly understood Dien Bien Phu’s impact on the rest of the world until I left Vietnam. Even as we commemorate almost sixty years since the battle, the memory of it lives on beyond our shores. I still remember the first moment I realised this, when I talked to an old Algerian couple on the shores of the Red Sea in Egypt. When they had heard that I was from Vietnam, they immediately recounted to me their memory of receiving the news of Dien Bien Phu on that fateful day in May 1954. The man told me he still remembered waking up to the news as a teenager and what it symbolised for Algeria. The French Empire in all its might was defeated by some indigènes in Indochina! The names Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap were on everybody’s lips. If it could happen in Indochina, it could happen in Algeria! Dien Bien Phu became a beacon for decolonisation all over the world. I felt pride mingled with humility and awe with this realisation. We fought to liberate ourselves, yet our actions had great repercussions for the rest of the world. Even as we struggle in our corner of the world, we do not stand alone, and our struggle carries meaning beyond our borders. We were the fabled city on the hill, and I only hope that since then, we have managed to live up to our reputation.

It wasn’t until later that Dien Bien Phu began to carry even more meaning to me. In Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu is often talked about as the moment when we gained our political freedom. However, as I progress further in my studies and my travels, Dien Bien Phu has taken on new meaning. As I became exposed to post-colonial studies, I often found that despite coming from a former colony myself, the social structures and attitudes described in these texts often seem very foreign to me. The remaining deference to the white man despite independence did not seem reminiscent of the people I grew up with. Yet, as I travel to other former colonies, vestiges of the colonial system still lingered in many places, internalised by post-independence elites, whether through the continued use of the colonial language, the maintenance of the colonial political system, or the implicit elevation of the white foreigners above natives. It was through this experience that I realised that Dien Bien Phu did not just liberate us politically; more importantly, it liberated our minds. How could we continue to perceive Europe as superior if it could be defeated so utterly in open battle? How could Europe claim to be morally and culturally enlightened when its actions in defeat spoke of such terrible moral corruption? Through Dien Bien Phu, we as a nation found the courage to break the bonds of colonialism and smash the colonial system to reclaim our destiny. Perhaps on that day in May, we gained not just our political independence, but also a psychological freedom that allows us to perceive ourselves as an equal member of the global community. It is a freedom so complete that millions of us who grew up with it do not even realise the incredible privilege that it has brought us. We see the right to be masters of our own fate as a birth right and our self-assurance as equal to anyone in the western world to be self-evident. The rest of the twentieth century was not kind to us, but nothing could take away our dignity and our sense of self. We have been through destructive war and crushing poverty, but we remain confident in our ability to stand on our own two feet and stand proudly as an equal in the world.

Today (7th May, 2018) is the fifty-fourth anniversary of the battle, and while we commemorate the great losses we suffered during the French War, we must also remember that we freed our minds that day. That hard-gained freedom is priceless, and as we look towards the uncertainties of the future, I hope that independence continues to be an anchor for us to remind us that we are privileged in being the sole masters of our own fate.