Obituary: Nguyen Khac Vien

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The Independent Online
Nguyen Khac Vien was one of the Vietnamese scholars who did most to interpret Vietnam for the West.

The son of a mandarin from central Vietnam, he went to France in 1937 and studied medicine there. By 1947, two years after the declaration of Vietnamese independence by Ho Chi Minh, Vien had joined the French Communist Party. Between 1953 and 1963 he became the leader of the Vietnamese liberation movement in France, in the beginning living clandestinely, travelling round the country talking to Vietnamese in the French army, and persuading them of the importance of supporting the liberation of Vietnam.

By that time, however, he was already suffering from tuberculosis; in 1951, one lung was removed and half another lung was declared useless; he was told that he had two years at most to live. He spent one whole year in a convalescent home without speaking at all and adapted the methods of yoga and traditional exercises to use his lungs as little as possible; his later catchphrase was "breathe with the stomach". His continuing survival was described by friends in the 1970s as the "third Vietnamese miracle", the first two being the Vietnamese victories over the French and the United States.

In 1963, Vien was expelled from France and returned to Vietnam, where he headed the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Hanoi, which published translations of Vietnamese books, novels, a newsletter (the Vietnam Courier) and an academic journal, Vietnamese Studies. He wrote in French a History of Vietnam (1974, which was translated into English), many articles on Vietnamese culture and in 1974 translated the great Vietnamese epic poem of the 18th century, Kim van Kieu, into French. An important work of the publishing house during this period was an anthology of Vietnamese poetry, published in French in three volumes as Anthologie de la Litterrature Vietnami- enne (1973) and in one volume, as Glimpses of Vietnamese Literature (1977), in English.

Perhaps Vien's main importance at this time was as an interpreter of Vietnamese history, culture and the Vietnamese struggle to the many intellectuals, militants and journalists sympathetic to Vietnam who visited Hanoi during the Vietnam War, from 1965 to 1975. It was important that his intellectual breadth and learning about Vietnamese history and literature was combined with an openness and understanding of Western society and a not uncritical approach to what might be wrong in Vietnam - bureaucracy, dogmatism. His openness played a large part in winning American and Western friends for Vietnam's struggle.

In 1981, Vien wrote a seven-point letter to the National Assembly, with a copy to the Minister of Culture (who was in charge of the Foreign Languages Publishing House), profoundly critical of the lack of freedom of expression and of the bureaucratic control of Vietnamese society by the Communist Party, of which he was still a member, and calling for reforms. This letter became famous: news of it soon spread abroad, it was passed from hand to hand and excerpts were quoted by the BBC. With a strong reputation abroad and numerous friends among Westerners who had supported Vietnam in the war, Vien, though officially disapproved of by those he criticised, nevertheless remained untouchable.

In 1983, at the age of 70, Nguyen Khac Vien retired from the publishing house and gave himself up to other pursuits, writing and publicising breathing, yoga and gymnastic exercises. In 1989 he further stretched the bounds of what was then permissible in Vietnam by founding probably the first non-governmental organisation in Vietnam - NT, an organisation to carry out research into child psychology, to train child psychologists and psychiatrists, and to help disturbed children.

In his very soft, fluent voice he would talk at length, with brilliance and gentle humour; he had time for everyone from distinguished foreign researchers to peasants in from the country and, of course, for children. His figure was wraith-like; he helped preserve his health by never showing anger or impatience. He opposed bureaucracy but, jokingly putting it into historical and Vietnamese context, he would neither appear angry at bureaucratic stupidity nor give in to it.

Nguyen Khac Vien, writer and campaigner: born 6 February 1913; Director, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi 1963-83; Grand prix de la francophonie, Academie Francaise 1992; married 1966 Nguyen Thi Nhat (one adopted daughter); died 10 May 1997.