Quotations: medieval and colonial Vietnam

This selection of quotations from medieval and colonial Vietnam has been researched, selected and compiled by Alpha History authors. It contains statements and remarks about the Vietnam conflict by notable political figures, military commanders, contemporaries and historians. If you would like to suggest a quotation for this collection, please contact us.

“I’d like to ride storms, kill sharks in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer our country, untie the binds of serfdom – and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man.”
Attributed to Lady Trieu, 3rd century Vietnamese resistance leader

“The Cochin-Chinese [Vietnamese] are more gentle and courteous in conversation than any other nation of Europe… They stand much upon their valour… They ask us many questions, they invite us to eat with them, usually all kinds of courtesy, civility and familiarity… It seemed to us as if we were among ancient acquaintances… There is a fare gate opened for the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ among them.”
Christofori Borri, Italian Jesuit missionary, 1633

“[Foreign Catholics] invented the doctrines of Heaven and Hell in order to stupefy the people, to make them behave as if insane. They are so impregnated with these notions that this becomes their habitual behaviour. They become corrupted, and yet they are unaware of their corruption.”
An edict from Emperor Gia Long, 1804

“The Western heterodox religion intoxicates the hearts of men, making it truly the most dangerous of all superstitions… We have abolished their churches and forbidden them to assemble for worship… It has long been known that the followers of the Western heterodox religions steal people’s eyes.”
Phan Ba Dat, Vietnamese imperial mandarin, 1835

“The French are truly a gang of barbarians. Their crimes cannot be pardoned. Any commercial or military ship coming to our shores should be chased away and prevented from landing… Erect more fortifications and artillery of all kinds to protect our coastal defences.”
Thieu Tri, Vietnamese emperor, 1847

“Your county belongs to the Western seas, ours to the Eastern. As the horse and buffalo defer, so do we – in language, literature, customs. If you persist in putting the torch to us, disorder will be long. But we shall act according to the laws of Heaven, and our cause will triumph in the end.”
Emperor Tu Duc to France’s Admiral de Genouilly, 1857

“The Emperor rules Vietnam
Our destiny has been written in the soil of our country.
The Chinese were defeated.
How dare you bandits trespass on our land?
You shall meet your undoing by our hands.
You cannot put a western mask on an eastern face.”
Nguyen Trung Tuc, Vietnamese resistance leader, 1860

“France is doing its best to promote the prosperity and security the goodwill of the natives. The land tax… has been lowered, municipal government has been secured to the native towns, and corporate and personal rights have been respected… The colony, far from being a source of profit for France, is kept at a heavy loss…”
Isabella Bird, English visitor to Saigon, 1879

“My people live in an era of sadness. I am speechless, I am guilty, my heart is troubled. There is evil in our land which I cannot control. Somehow we must overcome our fear and woe. Others will follow me. May they work together to regain our freedom.”
Emperor Tu Duc’s final statement, 1883

“We have been forced to flee the French and now live in great shame. With one unity of mind, body and spirit, we shall resist. All Vietnamese shall fight back. Do you fear death more than you love your country? Will you live under the shadow of the French, or join us? Come and live in the jungles. Obey our righteous appeal for freedom.”
Hang Nghi, former emperor and resistance leader, July 1885

“Whether we like it or not, among the pagans, Catholic is synonymous with friend of the French, and whoever embraces the religion is regarded as an enemy.”
The Bishop of Vinh, 1895

“When France arrived in Indochina, the Annamites [Vietnamese] were ripe for servitude.”
Paul Doumer, governor-general of French Indochina 1897-1902

“Indochina began to serve France in Asia on the day that it was no longer a poverty-stricken colony, reduced to begging for alms from the motherland. Its strong organisation, its financial and economic structures and its great power are being used for the benefit of French prestige.”
Paul Doumer, speaking in 1902

“Just as Rome civilised the barbarians beyond its borders, we too have a duty to extend French culture and religion to the backwards peoples of the world.”
Paul Doumer

“In Vietnam today the opinion of the common people, whether they be intelligent or stupid, is that the protecting power mistreats the Vietnamese, that it does not consider them as human beings… For the Vietnamese people, that represents the designs of colonialism.”
Phan Chu Trinh, 1906

“In the past our hamlet was rich… After becoming Catholic we were forced to undertake heavy burdens. Pagodas and sacred objects… were taken away to benefit the Church… During the harvest, we were forced to work in the fields… Because of such intolerable things, our resources are enormously diminished. We now feel it was a mistake to have let ourselves be influenced… to follow this religion.”
A petition of Catholic villagers from Ha Dong, 1909

“How healthy and beautiful are the rubber trees!
Under each one of them, the corpse of a worker is buried.
The rubber trees enjoy much better conditions
When they are sick, they rest right away
Eastern doctors, Western doctors fuss busily around them
We can die of exhaustion and of sickness
No coffin will receive our dead bodies.”
Vietnamese labourers’ song, early 20th century

“We have houses of bamboo and straw which the lightest wind blows down. The mandarins live in pagodas of precious woods covered with tiles, which will withstand the strongest typhoons. The French? Oh the French live in splendid palaces where it is warm in the winter and cool in the summer… We pay taxes to the mandarins and the French… The French get our taxes, our gifts and those of the mandarins as well, and take from our land whatever they want.”
A Vietnamese labourer from Hue, c.1910

“Rubber is now king. Our production quotas are nearly met. Coolie workers are harvesting some 1,000 litres [of rubber] a day. They work, on average, 11-12 hours per day and are paid well by local conditions. They have adequate food and well ventilated barracks to live in. Medical practitioners are present. There are few security problems.”
Henri Duval, French colonial official, 1912

“We lived in dirty rooms not fit for four people. Ten of us had to sleep here every night. We get two francs per month, two bowls of rice per day. Everyone is hungry. Everyone is sick. No medicine, no doctors. I have not seen my wife since two months ago. They took her to work on a tea plantation.”
Tran Binh Don, Vietnamese labourer, 1912

“Saigon is the jewel of the Orient. On Rue Catinat are luxurious hotels whose verandahs on every evening are home to military officers, bankers, plantation owners and those in government. We have transformed this backward territory into a rich prize. Many of the [Vietnamese] refuse to accept our superior culture, but thousands of others see in us a way of improvement… No true Frenchman would ever consider all of them as anything better than les enfants inferieurs (‘inferior children’).”
Claude Robbard, French banker, 1914

“On May 5th [1916], 2295 new conscripts underwent a close physical examination before basic training… Army doctors immediately rejected 1287 men because of eyesight or hearing problems, malnutrition, malaria or skeletal deformities… These men were transported to the local docks, where they awaited shipment to Europe to work in French munition and aviation factories.”
A French army report on Vietnamese forced labour, 1919

“Sadistic acts of colonialism are innumerable and of incredible cruelty. [In one village], at the arrival of the soldiers, the entire population was found to have fled, with the exception of two old men, a girl and a woman nursing a newborn infant and holding close to her a girl of eight or nine. The soldiers demanded money, alcohol and opium, but as no one understood French, they became angry and beat to death one of the old men with the butts of their rifles… The young girl, the mother and the little girl were raped… They also cut off the [girl’s] finger to get a ring, and severed her head for the necklace she wore.”
Nguyen Ai Quoc, later Ho Chi Minh, 1925

“If the streets of Saigon are not named after French generals who have served France well, then they are given names of those who have bravely risked their lives to conquer this very piece of land and made it into a French colony. One or two streets are given names of those Vietnamese who have been loyal to the French mission in the Far East.”
French magazine report, March 1926

“In one and the same day, I saw the tribunal of Hanoi condemn a young Vietnamese student, who has committed the crime of writing a patriotic song, to three years in confinement… and a French foreman, who has killed for a trifle a worker, by kicking him with his boots, with a suspended sentence of three months in prison.”
A report in Le Petit Parisien, May 1930

“Living in two-metre cages, colder than rock hollows
Days without sunlight, nights without fire
Breathing nothing but human stink and sweat.
Lying on muddy wooden boards.
Fighting with rats, my friends are the earthworms.
Rotten fish and filthy rice.
Interviews at night: nobody wants to go.
Another room, an earthen floor and a metal bed with ropes.
They tie you to it and turn on the electricity.
They call our screams ‘prison music’.”
Nguyen Thi Ngia, Indochinese Communist Party member, executed in 1933