I worked with Julie Delettre and Francois Chambe – Elephant Adventures, France for filming Vietnamese culture & history as a fixer in Vietnam for a 12-day filming trip from Mar 3rd to Mar 14, 2020.
We produced 4 different films for arte channel. It was supposed to extend until Mar 17 but was cancelled due to the crew has to fly back to France urgently due to the pandemic.
Story of Quoc Ngu In Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh city
The evolution of a language is sometimes very closely linked to its writing system. This is the case for the Vietnamese language which, before adopting Latin writing, was known in ancient times, during the colonization of the Red River delta by the Chinese, as a mix of another language and a graphical system.
- The idea is to start the story in Hanoi, at the Temple of Literature. This monument dedicated to Confucius, dating from 1070, was founded under the Ly dynasty and became the first national university. For centuries, the temple has been home of scholars who form the country’s elite.
This temple, which had no strictly religious purpose, served as a Confucian academy. Once graduated from their schools, the aspirants to become great mandarins (vice-king) followed a rigorous 3-year course with exams on literature, philosophy and the ancient history of China and Vietnam, topics that the masters considered indispensable for the training of the future administrators of the nation.
We could tell here the history of Chinese writing called Han and how then it became Nom, how Vietnamese people transformed those characters to match their spoken language.
Informations: When the Chinese first conquered the Viet tribes north of Hanoi in 179 BC, the Viets had a rich oral tradition, hence the many historic legends still told to Vietnamese children, but they had no written language. Therefore, although Vietnamese is a completely different language from Chinese – they only seem to have tonality in common – when they were conquered by the Chinese, the Viets were forced to adopt the Chinese system of writing: calligraphy. All official government documents and scholarly literature in the North, Central and South Vietnam, were written in Han Chinese known as chu Han or chu nha.
The Viets in the North threw off Chinese domination in 938 and sometime between the 10th and 13th centuries, Vietnamese scholars devised a new-old system of writing, still using Chinese calligraphy – ideograms – but this time using Chinese ideograms to express Vietnamese words and meanings, as well as modifying and adding new ideograms to express particular Vietnamese words or concepts. This Sino-Vietnamese form of writing became known as chu nom. To be sure, after a 1000 years of Chinese domination, the Viets had adopted many Chinese words, but their own language remained intact.
The European Jesuits are present in this region since the 17th century and when Portuguese, Spanish and French arrived for the first time in what they call the “Annamese territory”, they didn’t understand the Nom. To convert Vietnamese people, the Jesuits find as only solution to transcribe the sounds they hear in the Latin alphabet and invent the Quôc Ngũ. Codified and standardized by the Frenchman Alexandre de Rhodes through the writing of a dictionary, this simple and monosyllabic transcription will not come out of Catholic religious circles before the twentieth century.
When the Catholic missionaries arrived in Hoi An in the early years of 17th century, they soon realized that if they were to succeed in proselytizing, they would have to learn Vietnamese. The Jesuit priests made use of their experience in transcribing Chinese and Japanese into a Romanised script and over the years, devised a Romanized version of Vietnamese.
It was not an easy task. One French priest, Alexandre de Rhodes, recounted how once when he asked his cook to buy fish, ca in Vietnamese, the cook returned laden with a basket of aubergines – the difference of pronunciation being only in the tones. He also recalled ordering his men to cut down some bamboo, chem tre in Vietnamese – and all the children ran away. In his mispronunciation, the missionary had ordered the men to “kill the children”.
This Romanized script which was not adopted as the official language until 1919 – by order of the French – is known as Quoc Ngu and somewhat modified, is the national language used today.
Schedule filming Vietnamese culture & history
* At Hanoi:
+ March 3, 2020: filming at Saint Joseph Cathedral Hanoi and interview Ms. Phạm Thị Kiều Ly – Doctor of Language Science at Sorbonne Nouvelle University about Chữ Quốc ngữ (the current modern language of Vietnam).
> Where are we? What is the story of that place?
> Why did the Jesuits / Catholics come to Vietnam?
> Why is the catholic influence such important in the history of writing in Vietnam? To convert Vietnamese people, the Jesuits find as only solution to transcribe the sounds they hear in the Latin alphabet and invent the Quôc Ngũ.
> Why did they decide to create a new language?
> Who is Alexandre de Rhodes and why his role was important?
> Was it difficult to make this new language part of the daily life in Vietnam?> Do you have anecdotes?
It was raining hard.
+ March 4, 2020: It was raining hard in the morning, the film crew can’t film, they have to go back to the hotel.
– filming and interviewing Mr. Trần Trọng Dương – Institute of Sino-Nom studies http://hannom.org.vn/ about Sino-Nom at 29 Văn Miếu street.
> Where are we? the description of the place and why it was built, a little bit of history (temple dedicated to Confucius, who is he, why is he an important figure for Vietnam,..) Why was that Temple built for? Why is it dedicated to Confucius? (Inspiration chinoise et pourtant vietnam plus occupé par Chine en 1070?)
> How would you you describe the architecture? A monument built under Chinese influence?
> What is the story of Vietnam under the influence, controlled by China? How the country looked like when it was under Chinese domination? Who were the people living on the territory before Chinese arrival? Religion? Writing? What did change with Chinese domination?
Viet culture was born in Red river basin and existed since Bronze age, way before Chinese empire was created
> What is the beginning of the history of writing in Vietnam? (No writing system at the beginning, just an oral tradition?)
> Were Vietnamese people forced to learn Chinese language?
> What is the history of Chinese writing called Han and how then it became Nom, how Vietnamese people transformed those characters to match their spoken language?
– filming and interviewing Mr. Lưu Đức Hạnh – 29 Văn Miếu about Sino-Nom calligraphy.
> Why do you like calligraphy?
> Old oral stories from the ancient time (before Chinese domination) were translated in calligraphy? A way to perpetuate the traditions? If he could write in callygraphy and old story maybe? And tell it
> Is calligraphy still being used in some cases? Or disappeared?
> Why is it important to preserve this tradition of calligraphy?
(it was raining hard so it’s hard for the film crew to film)
+ March 5, 2020: filming and interviewing Ms. Mai Thị Thuỷ – History teacher at Đại Kim secondary school about West lake and Trúc Bạch lake in history and literature. We were standing at Thanh Niên road, filming toward the two lakes.
It wasn’t raining, but gloomy, the light wasn’t good, we can’t fly the drone.
+ March 6, 2020:
– morning: filming and interviewing Mr. Nguyen Thanh Binh – Freelance literature tutor at Hanoi about French Quarter in history and literature under French colonization time (at Opera House area).
– afternoon: filming at Metropole hotel Hanoi about architecture.
It wasn’t raining, crew was able to fly the drone at the Opera House.
+ March 7, 2020:
– morning: filming and interviewing Ms. Pham Thanh Binh – Literature teacher at Bo De secondary school about Old Quarter (36 streets) in history and literature under French colonization time. Filming happened at Ta Hien str, Hang Buom str, Lan Ong str and Ancient House 87 Ma May str.
The day we made the appointment to interview Ms. Binh was a special day. It was special because just a few hours before, Hanoi discovered the Covid case number 17. The city was in panic, everyone went shopping and stored food and goods.
The whole crew was scared, not because of Covid, but that Binh might cancel the interview.
That morning, March 7th, 2020, Binh still appeared.
Not only that, she was so beautiful in our traditional clothes, Ao Dai.
She was so confident and prepared her answers very well.
And she was so proud to be able to introduce the image of Vietnam, and the story of a famous Vietnamese writer, Vu Trong Phung, to the world (on arte channel)
And the filming scene at Ma May Ancient House was so suitable with her.
– afternoon: filming Mr. Nguyen writing calligraphy at Temple of Literature and interview Ms. Do Thi Tam – Vice Director of the Center for Scientific and Cultural Activities of Temple of Literature.
+ March 8, 2020: flying to Huế
* At Huế:
+ March 9, 2020:
10am: filming cooking class with 02 British at Y Thao garden restaurant, 03 Thach Han street.
3pm: interview of Ms. Trương Thị Minh Thư – Y Thao garden restaurant, 03 Thach Han street about Hue royal gastronomy.
4.30pm: returning to Ngô Thế Lân street, Tây Lộc market for filming, and film sunset at Hàn Mặc Tử road (Vỹ Dạ bridge / Cống market)
+ March 10, 2020:
– morning: interviewing Mr. Nguyễn Xuân Hoa – Former Director of Huế Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism about Tiger Arena.
-afternoon: interviewing Mr. Đỗ Hữu Triết about Pháp lam drawing at his workshop 66 Chi Lăng street.
+ March 11, 2020: filming at Huế Imperial City and interview Mr. Trần Đại Vinh – former Professor at Hue University of Education about Huế Citadel
+ March 12, 2020: filming & interviewing Ms. Hồ Thị Tâm – Literature teacher at Huế Highschool for the gifted and some of her students at the school and at the library in Hue Imperial City.
+ March 13, 2020: filming at Minh Mạng Royal Tomb, filming on boat on Hương river.
March 14, 2020: flying from Huế to Ho Chi Minh city. In Ho Chi Minh city, we were supposed to film:
March 15: filming small alleys in Ho Chi Minh city (Lão Tử street and Bình Tây market) and interview Director Phan Đăng Di about the movie “The scent of a green papaya” of Director Trần Anh Hùng.
March 16: interviewing Asscociate Professor, Doctor Tôn Nữ Quỳnh Trân – Center For Urbanism And Development Studies about French architecture.
March 17: interviewing Mr. Trần Minh Tuấn – University of Social Sciences and Humanities –Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh city about housing architecture in Saigon in 1950s.