Vietnam students give history a modern twist

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 A look of Tran Han Phong's Genealstory website a social network of genealogy. Phong is a senior student with the Saigon Technology University in Ho Chi Minh City / PHOTO COURTESY OF TRAN HAN PHONG

In early April, a video clip that showed hundreds of twelfth-graders at Nguyen Hien High School in Ho Chi Minh City tear up and throw away documents on the subject of history went viral on the Internet.

The incident happened after it was announced that history would not be included in the high school graduation exam.

In response to the clip, people lamented the fact that young people are giving history the cold shoulder.

It was not the first time such disappointment was reported in the media. Many years ago, when studies showed the high prevalence of below-average results in history at the annual university entrance exams that are attended by more than one million students on average, there was much wringing of the hands as well.

But some experts like well-known historian and legislator Duong Trung Quoc have defended the youth, saying that the problem lies with the Vietnamese educational system's failure to teach students properly and make the subject interesting.

While there is a big debate going on about poor history results in schools and universities, some young people have started proving that the assumption history studies are in a dire situation is not necessarily true. They have implemented projects in which they approached history and other traditional subjects in their own ways.

In January, a ten-minute information graphics (infographics) clip that summarizes the history of Vietnam, including its foundation and resistance against French and American domination, was posted on the common video sharing site YouTube.

It was produced by a group of students with the Saigon Technology University in HCMC who said they wanted to "introduce a new approach to transmitting and receiving knowledge of Vietnam's history to benefit young people."

The clip quickly drew a great deal of attention, firstly netizens and then the media. The young people were praised for animating historical information and figures, making them more interesting and memorable.

Quoc, the historian, told online newspaper VnExpress that the work was "creative," a "good application" of technology, and should "wake up" the Ministry of Education and Training's attention to the importance of visual devices in teaching.

A few months after the famous clip took netizens by storm, Tran Han Phong, a junior student with the same university, wrote a plan for building a social network of genealogy in Vietnam as his graduation project.

Called Genealstory, the website would not only allow people, especially youngsters, to learn about their family history, and share what they are proud of about their families, it would also help them find lost relatives, Phong said.

The Genealstory, which incorporates massive infographic applications, will be "a big archive of Vietnam's history through each family's historical records," he said.

After getting 9.07 out of 10 for his project, the 22-year-old man said he planned to actualize the project and hoped that the website will be established soon.

Phong said that before he started the project, he always wondered how to make young people learn about their country's history and traditions in an "active" way.

After reading some articles about studying history through genealogy on foreign websites, he searched and read about the subject and decided to make it the theme of his graduation project.

Phong's instructor Nguyen Phan Thuy Duong said the project's concept was to target young people's confidence and awareness that they are different individuals.

Phong compared the concept to the QR Code a type of matrix bar code, meaning that each human is unique, because everything about them like looks, personalities, and talents is the "random synthesis" of many generations, Duong said.

Painter Nguyen Tri Phuong Dong also appreciated Phong's project in an article published by weekly magazine Tuoi Tre Cuoi Tuan, saying that the website will help foster family relationships.

New turn

 
The popular image of an unknown lady on sugarcane pushcarts across Ho Chi Minh City is reproduced by Huynh Hieu Nhan with phap lam decorative pattern / PHOTO COURTESY OF HUYNH HIEU NHAN

In the article, Dong also praised Huynh Hieu Nhan, a junior student with the HCMC Architecture University, for using traditional patterns to display images typical of Saigon, present-day Ho Chi Minh City, also for his graduation project.

The young man found his inspiration in phap lam items that have a vitreous enamel coating an integrated layered composite of glass and metal made by fusing powdered glass to a substrate by firing.

Historical records say the art of making enamel-coated items was introduced into Vietnam by Chinese during the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945). Later a distinctive Vietnamese style emerged. It is usually called phap lam Hue, as most of the items like bowls and vases were used and displayed only at imperial places in the former capital of Hue.

Many experts believed that the art had disappeared for more than 100 years.

However, it did not stop Nhan, who wanted to undertake a project on "something that is highly traditional" but also "new, approachable and applicable for the Vietnamese modern society," from digging the art up.

Nhan said that during his visits to Hue, he was attracted by phap lam items, so he sought the opinion from his instructor.

After studying every aspect of the art, he used its typical decorative patterns to display 12 things that young people "especially care for" in Saigon, like xe om (motorbike taxi), banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches), sugarcane pushcarts, pushcarts of hu tiu go (tap noodle soup), and even traffic jams.

Dong said Nhan's project was a success because it had both traditional and modern aspects, something that is not seen often.

Nhan said he hoped to make real products with his phap lam patterns sometime in the future.

Asked about the public's lament over young people's indifference to history, Nhan said: "Young people are not turning their back on history, they only want new approaches. ["¦] Approaches [to a subject] need to be changed in line with time, because the society changes endlessly."

Duong said young people need "guides" who can direct them toward "sustainable values."

She explained that at first, adults need to learn to communicate with young people in their language after observing their thoughts and behaviors.

Duong also said that the projects showed that Nhan and Phong really cared about traditional values, which is "a good sign."

"There is still hope," she said.

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