Vietnam’s national flag, anthem, emblem and their lesser-known facts

Vietnam’s national flag, anthem, emblem and their lesser-known facts

Written by Dinh Nguyen
Photos by Sha, Phan Đan
Translated into English by Dinh Vu Nhat Hong
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The national flag, anthem, and emblem – the trio that have represented the identity of Vietnam through the revolutionary wars to today. Yet perhaps they have been “taken for granted”, and people might “forget” that behind them is a grand and meaningful history of origins and development. The talk “The National Identity of Vietnam” presented by Friends of Vietnam Heritage (FVH) and National Archives Centre III, an event within the Vietnam Festival of Creativity & Design 2020, was designed for local and expat audiences who wish to learn more about the history and meaning behind each symbol.

The talk took place on 14 November with the moderation of Ms. Tran Viet Hoa, Director of National Archives Centre III; and Ms. Le Thi Ly, Archivist, Vice-Head of the Promotions Department, National Archives Centre III; with a special appearance from Ms. Bui Minh Thuy, daughter of the late-artist Bui Trang Chuoc, the author of Vietnam’s national emblem.

The talk began

The talk began with Ms. Tran Viet Hoa delivering a presentation on the history and development of archival centres in Vietnam as well as the current mission of National Archives Centre III. For further details, please refer to our article on the centre. From their tasks and the responsibilities they carry, the importance of archiving could be seen and so is the acquisition of rare documents – including the late artist Bui Trang Chuoc’s historical text “I Draw the National Emblem” donated and exhibited at the Centre.

The trio of symbols and their stories

Going into the main topics, the talk brought us back to the early days of the Revolution. The flag design most similar to the current one, with a golden five-pointed star on a red background, first appeared in 1940 in the Southern Revolutionary war. As Ms. Le Thi Ly shared with the audience, “golden star on red” had the colours of Vietnamese’s people skin and blood, and the five-pointed star represented the solidarity of five social classes – intellectuals, peasants, workers, traders and soldiers, united in the star shape, determined to fight and sacrifice for the freedom and independence of the nation.

The original design has been kept since, with only small changes added. In its early stage – from the first appearance to 1955 – the golden star shape on the flag was more inflated, amusingly dubbed the ‘fat-star flag’.

“There are many theories and conjectures about its author, however, as an archives centre which bases its work on data and science, we could not say for sure who the original author of the national flag is”, said Ms. Ly.

On the other hand, not only do we know who the composer of the national anthem is, we also know in what circumstance Van Cao wrote it. It was in the year 1944 at the address 45 Nguyen Thuong Hien street, a house that still remains to this day. “Van Cao wrote the national anthem, formerly called Army Marching Song, in quite a special circumstance. He wanted to go to the battlefield, but was tasked with writing songs for the revolutionary army. He was assigned to compose a song encouraging the revolutionary spirit, and that is the origin of the Army Marching Song”, shared Ms. Ly.

The National Flag design, adopted by the National Assembly in 1955.
Source: National Archives Centre III, National Assembly Dossier, File 15, Sheet 04.

The Army Marching Song was not yet made the national anthem then. By the time President Ho Chi Minh approved the song as Democratic Republic of Vietnam’s national anthem on 13 August 1945, the piece had undergone several modifications in its lyrics. For example, the phrase

“Thề phanh thây uống máu quân thù”
(“We swear to flay the enemies and drink their blood”)

expressing the hatred towards the enemy who caused a severe famine at the time, was changed to

“Đường vinh quang xây xác quân thù”
(“The path to glory is built by the bodies of our foes”)

Or another:

“Tiến lên! Cùng thét lên!
Chí trai là nơi đây ước nguyền!”
(“Onward! All together roar!
Here is where sworn man’s will.”)

became

“Tiến lên! Cùng tiến lên!
Nước non Việt Nam ta vững bền.”
(“Onward! All together advancing!
For one eternal Vietnam.”)

(Translator’s note: In the Vietnamese version, there is a slight nuance when the word “núi sông” was changed to “nước non”. In English, both words bear the same meaning of “mountains and rivers” in the literal sense – and “one eternal Vietnam” in the broader context).

The song was also almost replaced in 1981, when the 6th National Assembly decided to open a campaign to find a new national anthem that would better fit the new era. The competition attracted thousands of entries with 17 selected as the finalists, but following the people’s wish, the Army Marching Song remained as the national anthem. National Archives Centre III still kept many of those entries, as well as the original version of the Army Marching Song with the lyrical modifications penned by the late composer Van Cao himself.

The national emblem was the last to be created among the three elements, and also one with a tortuous history. In 1953, artist Bui Trang Chuoc, who was previously designing postage stamps and banknotes for the State Bank of Vietnam, was assigned to the Legal Department in the Prime Minister’s Office to create certificates and merit medals for the Government. Here, he entered the campaign to design Vietnam’s national emblem. He created 112 sketches, researches and dozens of detailed designs he wanted to include on the emblem. His daughter, Ms. Bui Minh Thuy shared with us: “To design the national emblem, my father looked for the images closest to Vietnamese people’s heart, the ones linked to Vietnam’s villages, the rice agriculture, or symbols rich in historical and cultural values of the Vietnamese. My father even went out into the rice fields and studied the ripe crops to accurately depict them.”

In October 1954, of more than 300 entries sent by various artists, only 15 designs of Bui Trang Chuoc were selected to present to the Government. At last, the design most similar to the current national emblem, with the circular shape, rice crops and anvil, was meticulously selected. In the text “I Draw the National Emblem” on display at National Archives Centre III, Bui Trang Chuoc wrote: “A copy was given to comrade Con to present to Uncle Ho, which received his suggestion as followed: the anvil represents individual crafts, thus it should be replaced with a symbol of the modern industry.” Since then, the emblem design has had the cogwheel like it does today, with the circular shape propped up, creating a strong, solid feel.

Later on, due to a confidential mission, artist Bui Trang Chuoc was sent abroad. The editing task was reassigned to artist Tran Van Can, who was mistaken as the original author for an extensive period of time. Artist Bui Trang Chuoc’s writing and design modifications through the years are currently being stored at the Centre, in the exhibition area.

Vietnam’s national emblem with the writing of artist Bui Trang Chuoc

Shared feelings

Towards the end of the talk, the audience actively voiced their questions. Several expats asked about the meaning of Vietnam’s five-pointed star, the colours of the flag, as well as the meaning of the national anthem lyrics. An older audience member, in reply to the aforementioned expat, believed that Vietnam’s flag is rich in Asian philosophies, with the five-pointed star possibly representing the Five Elements (Fire, Water, Wood, Metal, and Earth) with the colours red (representing Fire) and yellow (representing Earth) at the centre of the flag. It was a lively discussion, with stories of the late artist Bui Trang Chuoc shared by his daughter herself.

Vietnam’s national emblem, approved following the Decree no. 254-SL on 14th January 1956 issued by the President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Source: National Archives Centre III, Official Gazette, 1956.

The talk ended with a visit to the exhibition of this iconic trio. Here, we had the chance to see original writings preserved by the Archive. The exhibition also featured videos which highlight special occasions in relation to these three symbols in recent years, including the first appearance of Vietnam’s flag at the United Nations headquarters, or the cornerstones imprinted with the national emblem at Truong Sa archipelago. The audience, although many of whom are not Vietnamese, all felt a grand and rich national spirit, the quintessence of Vietnam’s traditional culture.

An expat, who has been living in Vietnam for many years, emotionally spoke to the audience at the end:

“I have lived in Vietnam for quite some time and often come across the national flag and anthem, but I’ve never known they have such interesting stories. You must be very proud of your history, because these are indeed the proof of a self-reliant, independent nation.”

Another senior audience member shared: “I cancelled my plans with friends to come here today, it’s totally worth it! Let me tell you more about Van Cao… I knew him back in the days!”

The audience at the event
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