Scientific Research and Education in Vietnam: A Speech and Interview with Dr. Nguyen Van Hieu

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Scientific Research and Education in Vietnam: A Speech and Interview with Dr. Nguyen Van Hieu

by Dr. Nguyen Van Hieu (Transcript)

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 4, July/August 1979, p. 27–32

Science for the People was founded in the late 1960’s by a group of scientists and engineers opposed to U.S. intervention in the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation. Now, almost ten years later, we are pleased to report on science education and scientific research in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The slightly edited text of a talk given on November 4, 1978 in San Francisco, by Dr. Nguyen Van Hieu, a Vietnamese scientist, appears below. Although Dr. Hieu’s was a private visit, it is an historic occasion, for he is one of the first Vietnamese officials to be awarded an American visa since liberation. With minor stylistic changes, the text presented below is a transcription of Dr. Hieu’s talk. We have, however, reorganized the question and answer session so that related questions appear together. We feel these changes are consistent with the spirit of Dr. Hieu’s presentation, and his call for continued support for reconstruction and scientific development in Vietnam. At the end of the report readers will find concrete suggestions for increasing contact with and support for the Vietnamese scientific community. Since Dr. Hieu’s visit was in November, 1978, readers will also note there is no reference in either the text of the talk or in the question and answer session to the recent struggle in Kampuchea (Cambodia). 

Dr. Hieu is introduced by a representative of the Association of Vietnamese Patriots in the United States. 

Women of Vietnam

In the three years since the complete liberation of our country, the Vietnamese people have devoted tremendous effort to defending and rebuilding their homeland, despite numerous difficulties, including national calamities and attacks by imperialists and international reactionaries. In the socialist construction of our country, the role of scientific and technological revolution is of prime importance. The speaker for tonight is an active participant in these scientific efforts. Dr. Hieu is presently the Deputy Director of the Vietnamese Science Institute and the Director of the Institute of Physics. Dr. Hieu received his degree in theoretical physics and mathematics in the Soviet Union and has since held many high scientific and administrative positions, not only in Hanoi, but Ho Chi Minh City. Dr. Hieu has attended many conferences overseas, but this is his first visit to the United States. Accompanying him is Dr. Nguyen Van Quy, a civil engineer and a cadre in the Vietnamese Science Institute. It is therefore an honor for me to introduce our speaker, Dr. Nguyen Van Hieu.

Dr. Nguyen Van Hieu: 

Ladies, gentlemen, and dear friends: 

Before beginning my talk I would like to express our deep gratitude for your support of our people’s struggle for independence and freedom, for your sympathy, and your readiness to continue helping us in the reconstruction of our country. This is our first visit to the United States, and I hope that in the future we shall see each other again and again. I should mention that this is only a private visit. 

I am a physicist, and this is the first time I have given a talk about some general topic in English. I have many friends in the United States whom I have known for a long time, having met them at many international conferences. This time I was invited to attend an international conference on high energy physics near Chicago, and I and my colleague are using this opportunity to visit different cities, laboratories, and universities in this country, to meet old friends who supported us for so long, and also to meet you and know you. Since I am a science worker, I cannot tell you very much about general conditions in the country, because my data are not exact on all these general things. But I can tell you about the present situation in the domain where I am working. I would like to tell you about education and scientific research in Vietnam. 

I think that the development of public education in our country has been richly successful. Before 1945, the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, 95% of the people were illiterate. The number of high schools in the whole country could be counted on the hands. Similarly, the number of people with university degrees was less than ten. At that time, under such conditions, we could not say anything about scientific research. After the founding of the Republic, President Ho Chi Minh said that one of our urgent tasks was to liberate the people from illiteracy. 

As you may know, a few days after the founding of the Republic the war against French colonialism began. In the hard conditions of this war, which began first in the South and then involved the whole country, we worked to develop public education. More and more new schools were organized, and through the efforts of the government and the whole people, we have developed very quickly. In 1954, at the time of the Geneva Agreements, we organized schools for children in many parts of the liberated regions. In 1975 in the north of Vietnam all children were required to finish seven years of education before they could go to professional school or work in factories or on collective farms. Our government wanted to be able to give all children a high school education (i.e., up to ten years of schooling). but it was a difficult goal. We did not have enough schools. and there was a shortage of teachers. Thus, only about 40-50% of the children who finished the seven year school were able to go on to the school of the third level (i.e., grades 8-10) which is a prerequisite for going to the university. We are now trying to organize more and more schools. and to establish pedagogical institutes for training teachers. We hope in the near future to give ten years of schooling to all children in the country. As well as organizing public schools for the children, we created evening schools of complementary education for people who before had no possibility of becoming educated. Many engineers, doctors, and teachers were trained this way. Attending school in the evenings, after some years they are able to finish high school, and after high school they can continue on to study, either directly at the university, or in the university of complementary education. 

During the war against the French we also organized the medical school. This university was founded in the jungle, because at that time all our cities were occupied by the French. In 1954, following the Geneva Agreement, our government came back to Hanoi and we organized the new pedagogical university for training high school teachers. I am a student of the first year of this pedagogical university. 

In 1956 the government decided to organize three new universities – the University for Science in Hanoi, the Polytechnical University for Engineering, and the Agricultural University. Since then from time to time other new universities were founded, and by 1975, before the liberation of the South, we had in the North a total of 38 universities. With the liberation of the South we gained some universities which already existed there, and also founded others, so that at this moment in our country we have altogether sixty universities. 

Many universities in the North were founded during the war, and throughout the war all of them continued to operate. When we suddenly found that we could not live in the cities and towns, all the universities were evacuated to the jungle, and there, under the hard conditions – bombing, no electricity, no buildings – we lived and we taught the students. We continued our training of the people in very small houses of bamboo with leaf roofs, lit by petrol lamps at night. Under these conditions, by 1974, before the liberation of the country and thirty years after the founding of the country, we had in the North of Vietnam 100,000 scientific workers at the university level of education. We consider this a very great success. Since 1960 our government has every year sent post-graduate students abroad for training, and in 1974 we had 1,500 scientific workers at the Ph.D. level, a number which has been doubled since then. 

As well as creating universities during the war, we also organized many scientific research institutes and laboratories, and we now have about sixty research institutes in the country. During the war, scientific research, and in particular the applications of new techniques in agriculture and scientific research in medicine, contributed very significantly to improving the lives of the people. Now that we have begun some very nice programs for the reconstruction of the country, scientific research has become more and more important. We now have many laboratories, many universities. But in fact this number of universities and laboratories is very small. It is not enough for our needs. And so we must concentrate all our effort, all our potential – scientific potential – on some scientific program. At this moment we cannot study just any program we like. We must choose some specific problem for research. I would like to tell you about the directions of scientific research in our country. 

One of our most important scientific programs is devoted to the study of Vietnam’s natural resources and natural conditions. We are now looking at the mineral resources of the country, at the richness of the Vietnamese forests, at the sea of Vietnam. We are studying the country’s geography in order to determine which regions can grow what kind of plants. All this research will be the basis of a long-term program for developing our economy, and we are trying to update our techniques for this research. The Western countries, the highly developed countries, have already had hundreds of years to do this work of learning about their countries. For us, this work must be done in a very short time, and we think the new methods and inventions of the sciences can be applied to this end. For example, in studying the natural conditions of the country, we are going to organize some laboratories which will use data from satellites, allowing us to study the whole and to gain general knowledge about the country. This research program is supported by the United Nations. 

Our next important program is devoted to researching problems which will serve the development of agriculture. Up till now we have not had enough food for the people. But we think that with the effort of the people, with the new progress of the sciences and technology in the country, we can solve the food problem after some time. 

During the war we did much research in medicine, and we are now continuing to develop research in this direction. Along with the scientific problems closely connected to the needs of the people, the government is also supporting scientists to do research in some fundamental scientific field, so-called pure science. We think that in order to have good teaching in the university, in order to have a high level of science and technology in the country as a whole, in order to be able to apply the new advances of technology made in the war to the conditions of Vietnam, research in fundamental fields, research in pure science is also needed. However, we cannot have too many people working in the basic fields; we must concentrate the country’s forces on applied research. But we are still keeping a few people, a small proportion, to study the fundamental sciences. And the few people who are working in this field receive the support of the government, and so they can feel enthusiasm for doing work not closely connected with the reconstruction of the country. But in fact all this work is important and has some long-term direct contribution to reconstruction also. 

Today I would like to tell you that for the development of education in our country, for the training of the scientific worker of our country, for the development of science, the international cooperation of our country with other countries – with the progressive scientists in the world – plays a very important role. During the war, as well as training undergraduate students in Vietnam, we also sent a very large number of students abroad. Each year our government sent to the Soviet Union and other socialist countries about three or four thousand students. Now we are still continuing to send students abroad, though not such a large number, because in peacetime conditions we have the possibility of training them ourselves. But we do send a small number of undergraduates abroad to study, and we send about 400-500 people to many other countries for the Ph.D. degree. We also invite many scientists from other countries to come to Vietnam to give lectures and to help us do experimental work. Many scientists came, even during the war, and they did not come to work with us in Hanoi, but to the jungle, to work with the people. Since the Paris Agreement of 1973, when the bombing was stopped in the North, we have been able to invite many, many scientists from other countries, and since the reunification in 1975, we have had a very large program of cooperation with the Academy of Science of the socialist countries – the USSR, the GDR, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Bulgaria – and have enlarged our international cooperation with other countries as well. We began a very nice program of cooperation with France, an official program with Holland, with Sweden, and with the United Kingdom. 

Within the framework of the Dutch-Vietnamese cooperation program, scientists from Amsterdam have sent to Hanoi the equipment for a very nice laboratory in physics, and also equipment to help physicists in the Polytechnic Institute organize a new laboratory for microelectronics. Each year many Dutch scientists come to Hanoi to work in these laboratories, and each year the Polytechnic Institute in Hanoi and Hanoi University also send many young scientists to be trained in the corresponding university in Holland. France has also sent equipment to Vietnam. We now have a very nice laser physics laboratory, thanks to help from France, and with French help we have also been able to organize a small number of other new laboratories. Since 1975 we have been able to send scientists to France for training, and now each year we have about fifty Vietnamese postgraduate students going to France, and we invite about twenty-five or thirty professors from France to Vietnam to lecture and do experimental work. 

We have also begun a program of scientific research with some Southeast Asian countries – Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. I think that the international cooperation of scientists in Vietnam is very large and very profitable. As of now, Vietnam and the United States still have no official diplomatic relations. Even under these circumstances, though, we have begun some programs of action with United States scientists. During the war many delegations of American people, many delegations of many progressive organizations in the United States, visited Vietnam. All these visits were visits for political purposes. But in fact since 1975 we have had a small number of scientific visits with scientific purposes only. 

At the National Center for Scientific Research, where I am working, we have organized a very, very modern laboratory in tissue culture, with the help of Arthur Galston, a professor of biology at Yale University. Work begun in this laboratory three years ago is soon going to yield concrete results in agriculture. Another professor from the United States helped us to apply nuclear physics to geology in order to study the mineral resources of the country. Soon this scientist, Edward Cooperman, from California State University at Fullerton is going to return to Vietnam to help us put this work on a higher level. So in fact, even without official relations between the two countries, the Vietnamese scientists already have some relations, some actions, with United States scientists. 

United States scientists have made very important contributions to the development of science in our country. As well as equipment and direct help, they have sent us many scientific books and journals, so that we now have many complete sets of many important journals. For example, in physics we have Physical Review, in chemistry we have Chemistry Abstracts – in several libraries. These libraries were organized with the help of scientists from many countries. 

During this visit I have had the opportunity to discuss Iscientific cooperationI with our American friends, in order to push for this very nice, very beautiful work. We think we now have some good libraries in Hanoi. With the help of American friends we are going to organize new libraries in Ho Chi Minh city. I would like to emphasize that our visit is the first one of Vietnamese citizens coming to the United States with the American visa. 

We are glad the United States State Department supported this visit, and in fact assisted us very much during our visit. So we believe that a new period, a new time is coming. This is a time of improved relations between the two countries, and in these conditions our sincere friends in the United States can contribute more and more to the reconstruction of our country. I believe that this cooperation, this contribution of American scientists to the reconstruction of the country, will be also a contribution to the friendship of the two people. Thank you very much for your actions. 


Q: How have scientists in the U.S. responded to your visit? 

NVH: I would like to tell you that the purpose of my tour in the United States is to establish contact with American scientists in some universities and laboratories, and to know who wishes to help Vietnam actively – who can visit Vietnam and which U.S. laboratories are now ready to accept Vietnamese students for training. 

I must tell you that in my very short visit of only three weeks (a very short visit for such a very big country that has so many universities and laboratories) we met many scientists who are ready to go to Vietnam next year. We are now preparing a list of those scientists who can go to Vietnam, and we now know exactly what kind of experiments they can do there, and what lectures they can give. I must now find the corresponding body in Vietnam and try to organize the appropriate contacts with scientists in the United States. 

In the United States a new organization has been founded, the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation with Vietnam, which many American scientists have joined. Heading the committee we have professor Arthur Galston from Yale University, who has already been in our country twice, and professor Edward Cooperman from the California State University at Fullerton. 

Women in Science 

Q:· Are many women entering the sciences? 

NVH: Oh, many. This depends on the branch of science. In medicine, in biology, in agriculture, I think there are many, many women – at least 40 to 50%. In other sciences – in particular in technology, in high industry – the number of women is very small, because the work is very hard. 

Q: In the United States, as the technology advances the work place becomes more and more dangerous for the worker. What is happening in Vietnam? 

NVH: I think that in Vietnam technology is now a very powerful tool of the people in the reconstruction of our country. Now it is not dangerous, it is needed for the development of the country. But if we do not look out for the future, if we do not predict the dangerous consequences of the technologies, in the future our technology could become dangerous. So we must learn the experience of the highly developed countries in order not to repeat the same mistakes. I think in the conditions of Vietnam, in the conditions of socialism, we can further the development of agriculture and the use of science in industry while still avoiding all the dangerous consequences of very big industry. 

Socialist Character of Science 

Q: What is the socialist character of science in Vietnam? And in the training of the scientist in Vietnam and in the scientist’s experience in Vietnam, what steps are taken to prevent an elite of scientists from forming? 

NVH: I think that in Vietnam today, and also in the future, that scientists do not form a privileged class, you see, because of the policy of the government. In the social activity, in the life, in the distribution of the social product there is not a big difference between the scientist of a high level and the worker. So I think that in our country to be a worker or to be a scientist is only some division of work. I must tell you that, for example, at this moment the life level of the worker and of the scientist are almost the same. And many workers if they want to become a good scientist can learn at the university in the evening, and eventually the worker too can receive the degree of the engineer and then he can also become an engineer. So I think that the educational system in our country is organized in such a way that there is very little difference between the people who are working in science and the people who work as the worker.

Q: Is there a government policy with regard to who is selected to be trained to become scientists? Do you consider class background or is it based on a person’s individual ability? 

NVH: The selection of the people to be trained in the university is done by the admission examination – we choose the best student with the largest mark. 

Q: What kind of political education do students get as they go through secondary school and the university? 

NVH: Political education is a part of the general education. So we have the lecture, the lessons in economy, in political economy at the start. 

Q: Back on the question of how you go about preventing an elite, are students graduating from the secondary schools required to put in a certain amount of time in national service, for example, one or two years? 

NVH: I think that in order not to have a big difference between the worker and the scientist, first we must create the conditions so that anyone who wants to study science – so every worker, along with factory work – can study and become a scientist. Second, in the social and economic life of the people, there is no difference between the worker and the scientist. So many people prefer to be the worker rather than to be the scientist – they want to work by hand and there are no economic attractions to be a scientist. Which people want to be workers, which painters, which musicians, which scientists, that is determined by the whole of the people. 

Q: How are decisions made about the priorities in various scientific fields? 

NVH: In order to determine the priorities in science we must know the decisions of the government as to the main directions of the economy. Science and technology must be a part of the whole life of the people: science for the people, for the economy, for the life of the people. So we must start from the program for economic development in order to decide the program for science. We have no science for science, but only science for the life of people. 

That is only the principle; but how do we do it? First, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the government must set some program for the country’s economic progress. For example, the Vietnamese Communist Party decides that by 1980 we must produce 21 million tons of rice per year. After the Congress of the Party we have the Congress of All Sciences and we discuss how to organize the scientific work given our condition: what problems do we work on in order to have 21 million tons of rice per year? So you see, the scientific problem, the division of the work and the methods of organization of the research, the network of the laboratories and the institutes – all were decided by the Congress of scientists. But the purpose of scientific research was decided by the government and by the Communist Party. 

China and the Soviet Union 

Q: What can you say about the relations between Vietnam and China? 

NVH: Until 1964 we had very good cooperation and exchange with the universities and the laboratories in China. In 1964, with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese closed the universities – as you know – and so we had no people with whom we could cooperate. So almost all cooperation between scientists and almost all university activity were stopped at that time. We hope that we can resume cooperation when all the universities in China begin to work once more. Unfortunately the political relations between the two countries now are very bad, so we do not think we can have good exchanges in science. 

Q: What about relations between Vietnam and the Soviet Union – in particular, are most of the postgraduate students who go abroad going to the Soviet Union now? 

NVH: I think that the relations between the scientists in Vietnam and in the Soviet Union are very good, very good indeed. I think that about 70 or 80 students get their Ph.D. degree in the Soviet Union. Many laboratories were constructed with the help of the Soviet Union. And last time when Vietnam became a new member of Comecon, the Soviet Union decided to help Vietnam construct several modern institutes for scientific research. So I think that relations are very good and they are becoming more and more important in the scientific life of our people. 

Agriculture & Mining 

Q: What are the areas of research in agricultural sciences and how are the people who work on the farms involved in that research? 

NVH: The people who are working on the collective farm are not involved so much in the scientific research, but they apply it. They learn the new techniques and they apply them in their work. Scientific research in agriculture is now done mainly in the big national institutes of agricultural research. But we have also organized many stations, many small laboratories in different provinces, in order to study various problems and to check the new technology before training the people in the collective farm to use it. 

Q: Could you speak a little about what you’re doing in mining and mineral processing and how many students are being trained in those areas? 

NVH: I think that the mining engineering in our country at this time and in the near future is very important. We have organized many institutes for research in this field and we also have a separate university for mining and geology. So I think that for our country’s reconstruction we must have something to export in order to buy the equipment and the other things we need, and mineral research is one such resource. 

Nuclear Power and Energy 

Q: Does Vietnam have any plans to go into nuclear reactor construction as an energy source? What are some of the energy projects in Vietnam? 

NVH: For about 10 years in the future we do not consider it a possibility. I think there are, however, some projects for energy development. The first is to have a good program of industrial development so that we do not need too much energy. Before we try to find new energy sources we must find ways to economize. In the future we think that we shall continue to have more and more energy from thermoelectric stations, because we have good coal and we think that the country’s oil is also a big asset. We have already done some work together with the French to develop our oil industry and we plan in the near future to extract oil from the sea in the south of Vietnam. With the help of the Soviet Union we are presently constructing new hydroelectric stations in the north – and this is also a very important source of energy in our country. So we think that we have two realistic forms of energy: thermoelectric and hydroelectric energy. Together with this kind of energy we have also begun some programs of research in solar energy and energy from biomass. And I think that in all these areas of research the United States is the country which goes before all other countries. So what we learn from U.S. scientists in solar energy and energy from biomass will be very important for Vietnam, and we hope that with the help of U.S. scientists, in the future we can apply the advances of research in this field. 

How Can We Help? 

Q: What are some of the ways, that as scientists, we can assist the reconstruction of Vietnam? 

NVH: In the past, U.S. scientists have helped in at least three ways. First, some scientists have already come to Vietnam to work together with us and to contribute to the reconstruction of our country. Second, the universities and the laboratories in the United States have received Vietnamese scientists for training, and these Vietnamese scientists have already put their experience to work for our country. Third, books, journals, a small amount of chemical material, scientific equipment, etc., have been sent to libraries and laboratories in our country. In the future, perhaps there will be some official help of the government, that would be better. 

* * * * * 

Following the talk, the Association of Vietnamese Patriots in the U.S. read an urgent message asking for direct assistance to Vietnam. Since September of last year Vietnam has suffered its worst natural disasters in 35 years. Typhoons and unusually high floods swept the entire country, leaving a wake of countless deaths and immeasurable destruction of crops and physical property. Thus the Association earnestly asks for any form of assistance individuals or organizations can give. To expedite the process of assistance, the Association has asked that checks be sent to:

Flood Fund
The Association of Vietnamese Patriots in the U.S.
P.O. Box 16332
San Francisco, CA 94116

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