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Vietnam’s educational philosophy: from tradition to Ho Chi Minh era

(LLCT) - Ho Chi Minh’s educational philosophy is continued in Vietnam, shifting from traditional techniques to modern practices and contributing to the unique values of Vietnam. Today, the Party and State are further researching and applying Ho Chi Minh’s educational philosophy to the formulation of guidelines, policies and laws about education in Vietnam, keeping his revolutionary ideas alive during this era of national renewal.



From the past, Vietnam has a traditional philosophy of education, which has been developed and amended to suit each stage of the nation’s progress throughout history. This continuous development has culminated in Ho Chi Minh’s educational philosophy, which the Party and State creatively apply to the national education system.

Philosophy of education is generally a philosophical theory of education based on fundamental rules of teaching. In a broader sense, it represents the views and the principles that direct the establishment of objectives, materials, and methods in the learning process.

Thus, if understood in its broader sense, an educational philosophy may be established by any nation in any era as a complete theory, or summarized in sayings, slogans, folk songs, and proverbs that contain certain hidden philosophies of societal expectations.

In Vietnam, the traditional educational philosophy is expressed and shown in a natural, simple way: “No teacher, no success”; “We learn not at school but in life”; “Hands-on learning”; “Learning going hand in hand with practice”; “First code of conduct, second knowledge”. Therefore, Vietnamese traditional concept of education and teaching methods are reflected quite clearly as cultural tools for social success, which are to pass on an enormous wealth of knowledge to the next generation. However, the difference between Vietnam’s traditional educational philosophy with the methodologies of the West is the lack of a unified doctrine, a single approach to education. Yet, this historical difference does not mean that Vietnam has an inferior educational history or that it lags behind the West. On the contrary, it has enriched the concept of knowledge as well as the educational philosophy of the world.

1. Vietnamese traditional philosophy of education

Vietnam’s feudal dynasties accepted Confucianism soon after gaining independence in the 10thcentury. From that time, the Confucian educational philosophy was gradually incorporated into Vietnamese education. The main objective of Confucianism was to nurture a true gentleman according to the Confucian template of “three moral bonds and five constant virtues”, men who knew how to “cultivate themselves, manage their home, rule the country, and pacify the world.” Such an education was considered a pathway for a Confucianist to become a mandarin or revered teacher. In Confucianism, teachers indoctrinated and their students perceived; words that were considered to be from the “sages” were meant to be discussed and understood, not criticized or changed. The educational materials were primarily “The Four Books and Five Classics” in addition to a very limited knowledge of traditional medicine, geomancy, and fortune-telling.

From a purely historical perspective, Confucian educational methods offered many advantages by meeting the social needs of the time. One of the most prominent values of Confucianism was its appreciation for knowledge and experiential learning and the importance of morality in gentlemen, which helped train “loyal subjects, good mandarins”, and scholars with a sense of uprightness.

Under French colonial rule and their policies of obscurantism, the French authorities continued to maintain Confucian educational activities and examinations (abolished since 1919). The French needed a great number of people with knowledge in modern science, technology, language, and medicine in order to continue their ruling policies and colonial exploitation strategies, so they gradually replaced Confucianism with modern Western education. French and Vietnamese Romanized script replaced Han (old Chinese) characters. This educational background (called Modern Education) was based on the philosophy of Enlightenment ideas formed in the industrial civilization, with human rights and civil rights at the forefront of democracy and the law-ruled state. The French introduced these educational programs slowly, first by opening France - Vietnam primary schools in a few provinces, then secondary schools in big cities, and finally several colleges and universities.

Objectively, despite a slowly developing semi-feudal colonial society, where the rule of the colonial government opposed noble, traditional philosophy, Vietnam’s education system experienced some positive reforms. French professors brought advanced enlightenment philosophies, gradually awakening the progressive scholars and allowing them to overcome discrimination and follow the advanced education systems of the West. Great examples of this are the Duy Tan (Renovation) movement and the establishment of Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc (School for a Just Cause). Phan Chu Trinh advocated for polices that should improve people’s awareness, spirit, and civil rights, and criticized “corrupt learning” while supporting “true learning, true business”. He proposed to replace Han script with Vietnamese script, respected professional apprenticeships (including commerce) rather than mechanical reading of the “sages” scripture. This shift in the educational philosophy of contemporary Vietnam prompted the rise of an elite intellectual class, suitable for leadership roles in this modern era of industrial civilization. Among them were patriots who fought against French colonialism and sacrificed themselves for the independence and freedom of the Fatherland.

Phan Chu Trinh’s progressive ideas about education received the support of many patriotic scholars, who developed them further. The schools of Lien Thanh Thu and Duc Thanh were opened to develop economic understanding and “enlighten” the people. Nguyen Tat Thanh (later Ho Chi Minh), as an assistant teacher at Duc Thanh School, read new progressive books and became inspired to travel to Western countries, observe their operations, and then return to help the Vietnamese people. However, French colonists quickly closed Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc School and the Duy Tan (Renovation) movement was suppressed. Movement leaders were arrested and exiled to Con Dao and the new educational philosophy was weakened. However, the progressive elements of these reforms were inherited and developed with the spread of Vietnamese script. This history was an important factor in shaping the educational philosophy of Ho Chi Minh.

2. Ho Chi Minh’s  educational philosophy

The educational philosophy of Hồ Chí Minh represents a vision beyond the era when the educational issues that he mentioned so far remain valid and topical.

The position and role of education

Education plays a vital role in the development of humanity and society. It directly influences a nation’s prosperity, awareness of the world, and ability to change. Acknowledging the tradition of academic excellence in Vietnam and respecting the national education and progressive ideas of the ancestors, Ho Chi Minh iterated: “For the sake of ten years, plant trees, for the sake of 100 years, cultivate people”(1). Given its incredible potential for national dynamism, education must be regarded as a leading national policy. Ho Chi Minh placed his trust and great expectation on the younger generations, who are being educated according to the philosophies of a new society. On this matter, he said, “Could the homeland of Vietnam become beautiful and glorious? Could Vietnam nation stride toward a bright future as other powers in the world? It is all depending on  a large part of your contribution and education”(2).

For Ho Chi Minh, educational issues were closely related to Vietnam’s revolutionary cause. From his point of view “an illiterate nation is a weak nation”(3). Ho Chi Minh condemned the policies of “obscurantism” enacted by the French colonial administration in Vietnam. In 1930, during his call for the establishment of the Communist Party of Vietnam, he raised the slogan “Educate all the people”, a demand for universal education.

Regarding education goals

Ho Chi Minh set many goals for the new education system, all with a common consideration for issues of humanity with an eye towards a representational system for people, by the people. The comprehensive development of the people is not only for the purpose of creating abundant and well qualified resources to develop the country, but also a matter of ensuring human rights and values, working towards a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all people”. Thus, shortly after gaining independence, Ho Chi Minh paid special attention to the issue of “anti-illiteracy” in order to raise the people’s cultural standards. He also issued many decrees related to education, such as the decree on the establishment of a “Vietnamese Anti-illiteracy Campaign Department” (September 6, 1945), the decree on the establishment of an autonomy fund for Vietnam University (October 10, 1945), and the decree on the establishment of the Advisory Council for Education (October 10, 1945).

The comprehensive perspective in the educational philosophy of Ho Chi Minh has led to a qualitative change from Confucianism. Now, people do not mechanically learn from old scriptures or learn to become an examplary gentleman and mandarin, but instead learn to improve their background knowledge of science and technology, foreign languages, history, culture, organization and management. Education gives people new understandings in all aspects of life to master themselves and the destiny of their country. Therefore, the development of comprehensive education is a progressive step in the history of educational philosophy in Vietnam, marking a shift from traditional to contemporary society.

Ho Chi Minh’s educational philosophy marks not only a shift from the traditional Confucian ideals, but also a rejection of certain fundamentals of French-imposed educational programs. In his words: “Education today will be different from the system of the feudal colonial regime. Now, to learn is to love the homeland, love the people, love labor, love science and ethics. And for whom are you learning? You learn in order to serve your country and people, to bring prosperity, and to make the country stronger”(4). To meet the objectives mentioned above, “The essence of education is to teach students to love their country and to sympathize with others. It is best to teach them to become independent, self-reliant, and determined, not to be outdone, and not to be slaves”(5).

A core goal of Ho Chi Minh’s educational philosophy was the establishment of an equal system for “everyone to be well-educated”(6). This objective demonstrates an advanced way of thinking compared to previous educational practices. It is clear that humanity, justice and democracy were the lifeblood of the ideology and orientation behind Ho Chi Minh’s dedication to the revolutionary cause.

The role and position of teachers

Ho Chi Minh appreciated the dedication, and unspoken sacrifice of those committed to teaching jobs. In a letter to the teachers involved with anti-illiteracy campaign classes, he said, “You are the ‘anonymous heroes’- anonymous but helpful. Part of our country’s future lies in the efforts of educational programs”(7). These anonymous heroes have contributed to the development and strength of Vietnam, bringing the light of civilization to shine into the souls of the country’s young generation.

Education has the power to diffuse important ideas and strongly influences all aspects of social life. Therefore, the teacher holds a very important role in maintaining social order and the persasive effects of morality. During a visit to Hanoi National University of Education, in which he talked to teachers and students, Ho Chi Minh demonstrated his appreciation for the teaching profession: “Is there anything more glorious than a job that educates the next generation and contributes positively to socialism and communism? A good teacher - a teacher that deserves his or her status of authority - is the most glorious. Although their names are not mentioned in the newspapers, and they do not receive medals, those good teachers are the unsung heroes”.

Regarding educational methods

Ho Chi Minh attached great importance to the methodology of education, because an optimal educational program achieves the best results in practice. In his opinion, it is necessary to focus on both the student and the instructor in evaluating educational strategies.

For the teachers, Ho Chi Minh reminded them to constantly innovate the content and method of teaching methods, to keep looking for creative ways of effective teaching, to combine theory with practice, and to pay more attention to teaching morality. Ho Chi Minh wrote: “In school, the teacher should try to find practical teaching methods that are easy to understand, easy to remember”. And while teaching, “teachers should use simple words and practical examples to explain”(8). To achieve academic results and create psychological encouragement for learners, he also wrote: “Teaching methods should be based on the principles of volunteering, self-discipline, explanation and discussion rather than a cramping style”(9).

To extend education circumstances to the situation of the country and nation, Ho Chi Minh required teachers to enhance their practical reasoning, “to make a habit of combining education with production. Regarding labor, it is essential to assign tasks appropriate with the age and health of the students. Teaching should be devoid of “cramping pupils” or “rote learning”; the current curriculum appears cumbersome”(10).

For the students, he said, “Students should not be confined to rote learning. Learning is to think, to engage in the practice, to experiment. Learning and experiencing in reality should be combined”(11). This problem is old but still burning and topical in the current era.

In recent years, we have organized many workshops and seminars on teaching methods and effective learning to seek the most efficient teaching techniques. However, the results have been very modest. Techniques of “cramping”, “rote learning”, and “mugging” are still common in today’s schools.

To promote the movement of experiential learning, preserving discipline, and pacticing thrift among students, Ho Chi Minh said, “Students should compete in learning in addition to using stationary economically and maintaining discipline”(12).

Ho Chi Minh’s educational philosophy offered his own visionary concepts, such as the idea of student self-study and “taking self-study as a ground”. This was a popular way of learning that provided many advantages, and is now being widely applied around the world. Secondly, students must enhance their independence in thinking and freedom of thought. “It is better to deeply understand documents and not blindly believe every sentence of the material”(13). Here, Ho Chi Minh emphasized the importance of independent thinking, autonomy, and creativity of students, avoiding ineffective scholastic methods that had become traits of Confucian education. Thirdly, he said, “Learning is a lifelong ambition. No one can claim to know enough or know all”(14). Ho Chi Minh was an example of the spirit of lifelong learning: “I am now 71 years old, but I still keep learning every day”(15).

UNESCO proposed a new slogan of “lifelong learning” in 1996. However, Ho Chi Minh introduced this idea of “lifelong learning” 35 years earlier. The purpose of this comparision highlights the fact that many aspects of Ho Chi Minh’s educational philosophy have remained unchanged because they are so visionary. In 1996, UNESCO proposed four pillars of education for the twenty-first century, which are: “learn to have knowledge, learn to work, learn to live together, and learn to shape personality”. These four pillars can be seen as the truth and philosophy of education around the world in the modern era. In fact, these principles were also proposed by Ho Chi Minh in September of 1949, on the front page of The Yellow Book, when he visited Nguyen Ai Quoc National School: “Learn to work, learn to be humans, and to be cadres. Learn to serve the masses and all classes of people, for the fatherland and mankind.” Such a statement reveals the incredible insight of Ho Chi Minh’s philosophy and its persistence in the face of global change and national renewal.

Ho Chi Minh’s educational philosophy is continued in Vietnam, shifting from traditional techniques to modern practices and contributing to the unique values of Vietnam. Today, the Party and State are further researching and applying Ho Chi Minh’s educational philosophy to the formulation of guidelines, policies and laws about education in Vietnam, keeping his revolutionary ideas alive during this era of national renewal.


(1), (13) Ho Chi Minh: Complete works, vol. 11, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2011, p.528, 98.

(2), (3), (6), (7)  ibid, vol. 4, p.35, 7, 187, 556.

(4) Ho Chi Minh: Complete works, vol. 9, ibid, p.178.

(5), (8), (12), ibid, vol. 5, p.120, 120, 120.

 (9), (14)  ibid, vol. 10, p. 378, 337.

(10), (11) ibid, vol. 14, p.746, 402.

 (15) ibid, vol.13, p. 273.

Dr. Nguyen Xuan Trung

Institute of Ho Chi Minh and Party leaders

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics


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