Spanish Also Spoken in Vietnam. Hanoi University’s Spanish Department

Raúl L. Parra
Nguyen Thi Thanh Huyen’s first contact with Hispanic American culture was as a child, through television. Like millions, she was captivated by the ball skills of a man named Diego Armando Maradona during the 1986 World Cup. It was also the first time she heard the word Mexico, the host country of the tournament.

As happened to Thi Thanh Huyen, a large number of Vietnamese have some knowledge of Spanish America thanks to soccer, a very popular sport in Southeast Asian country. La Liga, the Spanish soccer league, has taken advantage of this by publishing a brief Spanish-Vietnamese dictionary of soccer terms.

Outside of everything related to soccer, there is generally little knowledge in Vietnam about the Spanish-speaking world. It is thought that Argentines speak Argentine and Mexicans speak Mexican. Some Vietnamese are surprised to discover that Spanish is a language spoken in 21 countries, not to mention the Spanish speaking communities in the United States of America.

When Huyen saw the Argentine star play, she had no idea that his native language was Spanish. Learning this language was not her first choice. She first chose to study English Philology and later decided to study Spanish as a professional alternative, as she perceived that it was barely studied in her country and therefore she would have more job opportunities. She was right: her path led her to continue her education in Spain, where she obtained a master’s degree.

English is the predominant foreign language in Vietnam as it is an obligatory subject starting in third grade of elementary school. Chinese has gained relevance in recent years, not only because of the historical and linguistic roots that connect it with Vietnam but also because of trade exchanges and the fact that they are neighbors of the second largest economy in the world. Japanese and Korean languages are studied because of their cultural influence; in the case of Korean, mainly because of the popularity of K-Pop music. Korean is followed in popularity by German and French.

Although Spanish is a not so interesting foreign language in Vietnam compared to other languages, learning it is steadily becoming more attractive year after year. This is corroborated by Huyen, who now serves as dean of the Hanoi University’s (HANU, as it is commonly known) Spanish Department.

HANU is the first and most prestigious institution in Vietnam where Spanish is studied as an undergraduate degree. The Spanish Department celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2022, although the history of Spanish language learning dates back to the 1960s, with the first Vietnamese students who traveled to Cuba.

The First Vietnamese Spanish Scholars
In 1961, a group of 23 Vietnamese arrived in Havana with the mission to learn Spanish. They achieved scholarships as part of an exchange program between the socialist governments of Cuba and Vietnam. President Fidel Castro promoted the initiative to train Spanish-Vietnamese interpreters, after observing that in the first official visits between the two countries, the parties had to resort to English to communicate. Since no one spoke the language of their counterpart, official conversations were translated from Vietnamese to English, then from English to Spanish, and vice versa, as a member of that first generation of Vietnamese students, Vu Van Au recalls.

At the age of 91, Vu Van Au recently presented the first Vietnamese-Spanish dictionary to be published in Vietnam, by Vietnam National University Press, teamed with Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications.

The dictionary compiles more than 4000 entries. The author built over the structure of the Vietnamese-French dictionary, and developed his own using his knowledge of the Spanish language and the contributions of other Vietnamese Spanish scholars, including dean Huyen and other HANU colleagues.

As a journalist and translator, Au has devoted his entire life to studying Spanish and moving among the Spanish-Vietnamese world. He has held many positions: he was the first leader of the Havana correspondent office for the Vietnamese News Agency (VNA), created to report on events in Latin America. As a translator, he has converted into Vietnamese several books on Fidel Castro and has been interpreter for Ho Chi Minh, among other leaders of the Revolution.

Literature in Spanish goes Vietnamese
According to dean Huyen, there are very few direct translations of literary works from Spanish into Vietnamese and what has been translated comes mainly from Spain.

Fifteen years ago, she translated the novel The Speed of Light by Javier Cercas, which refers to the Vietnam War. Her HANU colleagues translated the novel Gunter’s Winter by Paraguayan writer Juan Manuel Marcos, as well as Hachiko - The Waiting Dog, by Spanish writer Lluís Prats.

Cervantes’ Quixote has been translated into Vietnamese from the French and English versions and is known at basic educational levels as part of the universal literature.

In the absence of specialized Spanish-Vietnamese translators, indirect translation is a common phenomenon when it comes to literary works that are part of the universal canon, such as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which can be read in Vietnamese but in a translation from English, according to Huyen.

There is no record of Vietnamese literary works translated into Spanish. Most of the Vietnamese books with direct translations into Spanish are political writings and speeches by Ho Chi Minh, produced under the auspices of the central government. The dean comments: “I prefer work more with books on politics like Firm Steps on the Path of Doi moi by our Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong.”

HANU’s Spanish Department 20th Anniversary
Although the first generations of Vietnamese interested in Spanish began their studies in the sixties, it was in the seventies and eighties when formal teaching of this language began at the University of Foreign Languages, which later became Hanoi University.

At that time, courses were aimed at students returning from Cuba and scholarship holders who were about to pursue their studies on the island or in other Spanish-speaking countries. In response to the growing demand to train professionals with proficiency in Spanish as a foreign language, in 2002 the Division of Spanish was transformed into HANU’s Spanish Department, and the first degree was founded. In this way, HANU became the first institution in Vietnam to offer an Hispanic Language and Culture degree.

Speaking with UNAM’s Office in China, dean Huyen comments that since the founding of the Spanish Department, 17 generations of more than 600 people have obtained this degree, which takes four years of study. It has two specialties: Translation and Interpreting, and the recently opened (2017) on Tourism.

Students must pass a general admission exam that includes knowledge of English, literature, and mathematics. The student who enters the program can work in English but starts with Spanish from scratch.

Students are encouraged to spend a semester, a year, or even two in a Spanish-speaking country, and their academic credits are recognized to facilitate the completion of their degree. In the beginning, only 50 students were accepted each year; now 100 students are accepted from all over the country. Currently, enrollment is 350 students divided into four years, with 30 to 35 students each.

Beyond learning the language and getting to know different cultures, one of the main incentives to enter the program are job opportunities. The dean says that 95% of the graduates find jobs upon completion of their studies:

When they reach level B1, students can choose between two specialties: Translation and Interpreting, and Tourism, a key industry in Vietnam. We receive many tourists from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, so human resources in this field are required.

Regardless of the specialty they choose, students can work in any sector. However, Huyen thinks that those who study Translation have a more complete training that allows them to develop in the tourism sector as well. In the last semesters of the program, students have professional internships and most of them finish their studies with a secure job. Women are usually the majority in the Spanish degree, but more men work abroad because it is easier for them to adapt.

Many graduates remain in large cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. However, since Vietnam has a large territory, language professionals are also required in virtually all parts of the country to serve the tourism sector.

Graduates of the Spanish Department frequently work as translators, secretarial assistants, tourist guides, interpreters, tour operators, tourist sales, teachers, and members of the Department of International Relations, among others.

All students reside in the university dormitories, so they are full-time students (Vietnamese educational environment is highly competitive). Students tend to be disciplined, a characteristic that Asian countries have in common.

HANU has a staff of 12 Vietnamese teachers, all of them women. They have all graduated with honors, and must have master or doctoral degrees from universities in Spanish-speaking countries. This is a significant fact considering that in 2017 they did not have doctorate teachers. One of the teachers, by the way, studied Spanish at the Taxco headquarters of UNAM’s Teaching Center for Foreigners (CEPE).

Since the founding of the Spanish Department, HANU has had at least one visiting professor to assist with teaching, thanks to agreements with Spanish-speaking universities. Huyen recalls that 15 years ago, they received a professor from UNAM who worked with that Department, and two professors from Spain are currently collaborating with HANU. The dean identifies that one of the main challenges to learning the language is the lack of teaching materials in both Vietnamese and Spanish (most materials are in English, and importing them is more expensive than the book itself).

For the Vietnamese, Spanish phonetics is not complicated because they have all the sounds of Spanish in their own language (plus others that are not used in Spanish). However, listening comprehension is more difficult for them, mainly because their reference is the variant spoken in Spain, and ”Spaniards speak very fast“, says Huyen.

Spanish, a Growing Language
There is interest in increasing the study of Spanish, mainly driven by the central government, to train professionals specialized in translation, international relations, and international trade. The State has official media in Spanish. It launched the Spanish edition of the Communist Party of Vietnam Online Newspaper in 2021. Nhan Dan newspaper, the VNA, and Voice of Vietnam radio broadcasting also have Spanish-language services.

The study of Spanish American language and culture has also been boosted by the presence of diplomatic representations in Vietnam. There are 10 embassies from Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico.

According to the paper El español en Vietnam (Spanish in Vietnam) by Nguyen Thi Kim Dung (2021), an academic at the University of Hanoi, studying Spanish was triggered in the institutional academic environment after the opening of the Spanish embassy in that city in 1996. In recent years, there has been a growth in the academic offer to learn Spanish, both in public and private institutions and even in foreign schools, especially in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Since 2000, Spanish as a second foreign language has been taught to Vietnamese university students. The program started at HANU, then Vietnam National University (VNU-ULIS), the University of Foreign Languages and Information Technology (HUFLIT), and Ho Chi Minh City Open University (HOU) joined.

In 2001, the Cervantes Classroom, which is part of the Cervantes Institute was opened and housed at HANU, with an open public offer. In 2010, the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (UCSH) of Vietnam National University opened its academic program for the degree in Spanish.

In international high schools, Spanish is offered as an elective subject, as a second or third foreign language, mainly at the Lycée Français Alexandre Yersin and at the United Nations International School.

Collaboration opportunities with UNAM
Through the intermediation of the Mexican Embassy in Vietnam, in coordination with UNAM’s Office in China (which, being the only representation of our university in Asia, also extends its links to several countries in the region), HANU initiated the first contacts to explore ways of collaboration. Thanks to this, HANU’s Spanish Department and CEPE are talking in order to undertake joint academic projects including the adaptation of CEPE’s first levels books for learning Spanish with their translation into Vietnamese, in addition to the exchange of teachers and student mobility. Huyen continues to reflect:

For us, UNAM is a prestigious university with which we seek to carry out exchanges at both the teaching and student levels. We hope to have an exchange of Spanish teachers and we can also offer Vietnamese classes for Mexicans who are interested, as we have good relations between our countries and business relations. We also want to collaborate with UNAM to design Spanish teaching materials for Vietnamese and we welcome Mexican students.

Vietnam, an Undiscovered Country for Spanish-Speakers
Despite countless films and books dealing with the Vietnam War, which in Vietnamese is called War of Resistance against the United States of America (Kháng chiến chống Mỹ), little is known about modern Vietnam.

The official name of the country is Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Its political regime is described as a socialist State with a central government headed by the Communist Party. The country has a population of 102.7 million people and is considered a young country; the average age of Vietnamese is 31. Fifty-four ethnic groups are recognized in Vietnam, and it has one of the fastest-growing economies in Southeast Asia (estimated to grow at 7% in 2022). Its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is made up of services (51.3 %); industry (33.3 %) and agriculture (15.3 %).

Regarding international relations, it is worth mentioning that Mexico was one of the first sovereign states in Latin America to establish diplomatic relations with Vietnam on May 19, 1975. In 2002, the Mechanism for Bilateral Political Consultations was established to provide an institutional framework for high-level dialogue between governments. Both nations are part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). In fact, in Latin America, Mexico is the main market for Vietnamese products. Trade exchanges between the two countries have grown exponentially in recent years; the volume amounts to nine billion dollars. In 2021, the Vietnam government proposed to Mexico to elevate relations to the level of a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership and bilateral negotiations are currently moving in that direction. Regarding cultural exchanges, according to dean Huyen, there is a stronger connection with Hispanic culture than Anglo-Saxon culture:

When I studied English, I detected many cultural clashes but with Spanish it is not the same. We have many similarities. Mexico has the Day of the Dead; in Vietnam we have a similar festivity (Vu Lan festival). Mexico celebrates it in November, we celebrate it in July and August. We place incense and offerings to the ancestors of our families and in our festivities, we follow the lunar calendar.

We are also open. I don’t see any cultural clashes with Spanish-speaking countries. In Vietnamese, we say that to conquer somebody’s heart, you have to start with the stomach, that’s why we invite visitors to taste our gastronomy. Many people who do not have access to information think that Vietnam is still at war. But other people are curious to know what the country is like after the war.

Huyen sees great potential for deepening university collaboration with Vietnam and strengthening personal exchanges between Mexicans and Vietnamese. 
Raúl L. Parra studied Communications (bachelor’s and master’s degrees) at UNAM, specializing in political Communication and digital media. He has been foreigner expert at the Spanish Department of China’s International Radio. He is Coordinador for Communication and Liaison, and editor of the electronic newsletter En el ombligo de la luna, published by UNAM’s Mexican Studies Center in China.

Dung, Nguyen Thi Kim (2021). “El español en Vietnam”. In Instituto Cervantes, El español en el mundo. Anuario 2021 (https://cvc.cervantes.es/lengua/anuario/anuario_21/asia_oceania/vietnam.htm).

Loi, Pham Dinh (2022). Diccionario vietnamita-español. Vietnam: Vietnam Plus
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