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.