Gaza war evokes Vietnam's own struggle, past unity with Palestine

Vietnam sees rare political activism in support of Palestinians as war on Gaza recalls once-shared solidarity in fight for national liberation.

Palestinian President Yasser Arafat walks with Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong as he inspects an honour guard at his formal welcoming ceremony in Hanoi April 9. Arafat has been on a whirlwind international tour aimed at gauging support for a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence once an interim self-rule agreement with Israel expires in May. AJS/DL
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat inspects an honour guard with Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong in Hanoi in 1999 [File: AFP]
Palestinian President Yasser Arafat inspects an honour guard with Vietnamese President Tran Duc Luong in Hanoi in 1999 [File: AFP]

Hanoi, Vietnam - At a private venue tucked away in a narrow alley in Hanoi's city centre, a group of more than 20 people listened attentively to Saleem Hammad, a charismatic, 30-year-old Palestinian man, as he spoke in fluent Vietnamese.

Hammad, who runs a business in Vietnam, shared an incident from his childhood in Jenin in the occupied West Bank.

Those present listened as he recounted a vivid memory of being awoken one night as Israeli soldiers surrounded and raided his family home.

Earlier, he had told those attending the discussion that Vietnam’s history of fighting for liberation against the United States had inspired Palestinians in their struggle against Israel’s occupation of their lands.

"Vietnamese people, with their painful and glorious history, have always been the source of inspiration for the Palestinians in our struggle for justice,” Hammad told his audience.

“We always look up to you as the role model.”

Horrified by Israel’s war on Gaza and the spiralling death toll, primarily young Vietnamese people have begun to raise their voices in support of Palestinians. In the process, they are discovering historical ties between Vietnam and Palestine and their shared fights for national liberation.

But the decades-old relationship between the two nations has been overshadowed by more recent promotion of Israel’s business culture to a younger generation of Vietnamese.

Focused on achieving success in Vietnam’s fast-growing free market economy, many have been inspired by Israel's startup business culture while knowing little about the darker side of Israel's success in terms of its long occupation of Palestinian land.

Organised late last year by pro-Palestinian activists Trinh* and Vuong*, the gathering where Hammad spoke was inspired by the student activism the pair encountered while studying in the US.

Trinh and Vuong are part of a burgeoning grassroots movement among Vietnamese youth who have been drawn to the Palestinian cause since the war on Gaza started in October.

But Vietnam's strict policies against public assemblies and political activism means pro-Palestinian campaigners have to come up with low-key and creative ways of organising events without attracting the unwanted attention of Vietnamese authorities.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Trinh and some friends have organised discussions on Palestine and drawing classes with a Palestinian theme. A designer by training, Trinh has also worked with fellow creatives to design pro-Palestine merchandise, political art and fanzines.

Vietnamese youth create art in support of Palestine [Courtesy of Cat Nguyen]
Vietnamese youth create art in support of Palestine [Courtesy of Tu Ly]

In November, a screening of documentaries and films on Palestine, the Nakba and the history of Israel's occupation of Palestine took place under the title Films for Liberation: Palestine Forever with the aim, according to the organisers, of undoing "the demonising descriptions of the Palestinians" by "Western and imperialist" actors.

On social media, a host of Vietnamese-language fan pages has sprung up featuring translated Palestinian poems, pro-Palestine artwork and analyses on the history of the conflict while the embassy of Palestine in Vietnam invited former veterans of the war against the US, academics, activists and members of the public to a commemoration for those killed in Gaza.

On November 29, which is the United Nations-designated International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, Vietnam’s government also published a message from then-President Vo Van Thuong in which he spoke of the long history of fraternity between Vietnam and Palestine and "Vietnam's strong support and solidarity with the Palestinians in their struggle for justice".

But the relationship between Vietnam and Palestine is not as it once was.

'Every day in Gaza, there's another Kham Thien'

Israel's destruction of Gaza reminds Vietnamese of US bombing campaign targeting Hanoi's Kham Thien neighbourhood in 1972 .

Then and now Caption: A slide at the teach-in in Hanoi, drawing analogies between Vietnam and Palestinian's suffering in their respective struggles for liberation (credit: Tứ Ly) (Restricted UseRestricted UseRestricted Use)
A projector slide juxtaposes images from the US war on Vietnam with Israel's war on Gaza during a discussion in Hanoi focused on Palestine and the war on Gaza [Courtesy of Tu Ly]
A projector slide juxtaposes images from the US war on Vietnam with Israel's war on Gaza during a discussion in Hanoi focused on Palestine and the war on Gaza [Courtesy of Tu Ly]

Projected on the wall at a meeting of pro-Palestinian Vietnamese activists were two images of war: one of Gaza in 2023 after an Israeli air strike and another of the rubble left after the bombing of the Kham Thien neighbourhood in Hanoi more than 50 years ago.

Then-US President Richard Nixon had ordered the Christmas period bombing of the North Vietnamese capital in 1972, and Kham Thien suffered the most severe devastation. Over 12 consecutive days and nights starting on December 18, about 20,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Hanoi as well as the busy northern port city of Hai Phong and several other localities.

The juxtaposition of the two images and the historical echoes of the two wars – whether to "flatten Gaza" or "bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age" – form part of a reservoir of shared symbols that have fuelled the current mood of Vietnam-Palestine solidarity among young Vietnamese.

History is on repeat, said Hung*, a 20-year-old student whose father and grandparents lived through the 1972 Christmas bombings by US forces.

"Looking at what's happening in Gaza, I couldn't help thinking of the story my father told me of a day during his childhood when he watched in horror as bombs were dropped near [Hanoi's] West Lake and shortly afterwards he felt a gale blowing in his direction and the shockwave pressing against his chest,” Hung told Al Jazeera.

“Now, precisely that is happening to everyone in Gaza day in, day out," he said.

"Every day in Gaza, there's another Kham Thien."

At pro-Palestine meetings across the country, similar links between Israel’s war on Gaza and the US war on Vietnam are being made and wartime analogies are being used by young activists to introduce the Palestinian cause to new audiences.

Images of a Vietnamese female fighter from the war years wearing a traditional "ran" scarf and standing alongside a female Palestinian fighter in a keffiyeh are being printed on tote-bags and stickers. The fighters hold a door key aloft, symbolising the homes Palestinians lost in 1948 during their forced removal by Israeli forces in the period known as the Nakba, or “catastrophe”, when at least 750,000 Palestinians were violently displaced and dispossessed.

The words below the fighters in Arabic and Vietnamese declare: "From the river to the sea".

Pro-Palestinian artwork on display in Hanoi features a fighter from the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and a Palestinian fighter above the words in Arabic and Vietnamese: "From the river to the sea" [Courtesy of Cat Nguyen]

Through art, discussion and other means of expression, pro-Palestinian activists in Vietnam are helping their peers understand concepts such as Zionism, the Nakba, the Oslo Accords and settler colonialism.

And step by step, they are reasserting the context and history of Palestinian loss and removal that narratives in Vietnam in local media and books omit in their telling of Israel’s emergence as an economic success story.

Phuong, a Vietnamese painter based in Italy who launched the online fan page Palestinian Poems, said she has been deeply distressed by what has unfolded since October in the Gaza Strip.

Phuong said she turned to translating poetry as a way to protest and channel her grief over the war in Gaza. She has now translated more than 50 poems by Palestinian authors such as Mahmoud Darwish, Fadwa Tuqan and Ghassan Zaqtan from English to Vietnamese.

Phuong hopes she can help her readers appreciate the universal humanism of Palestinian culture and society, as reflected in the poems of Darwish and others.

"Palestinian are not only victims of war,” Phuong said. “They are also a people with a rich and beautiful heritage, with sophisticated philosophies and arts. Vietnamese people need to know that.”

Nguyen Binh is another young translator who has become well known for their translations of Vietnamese works, such as translating the classical Tale of Kieu into English.

Binh is now working on a translation of Rashid Khalidi's book The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine into Vietnamese to "raise the voice of the unheard" and to fill the gap in Vietnamese understanding of Palestinian issues.

Selling Israel’s ‘startup’ image

The popular Vietnamese edition of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle presents a flattering image of Israeli business success.

A Vietnamese translation of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle [Courtesy of Tu Ly]
A Vietnamese translation of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle presents a flattering account of Israeli business success [Courtesy of Tu Ly]

Le Hong Hiep, a senior fellow and coordinator of the Vietnam Studies Programme at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, described Vietnam’s support for the Palestinian people and their struggle for liberation as “unwavering” during the Cold War and into the 1990s.

"This was partly due to the Vietnamese leadership's belief that the Palestinian cause mirrored their own fight for unification and independence against foreign powers,” Hiep told Al Jazeera.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) established relations with North Vietnam in 1968 and set up a resident representative office after the end of the war in Vietnam in 1975. The office soon became the embassy of Palestine in Vietnam.

“In the 1990s, Vietnam also welcomed Palestinian leaders, including Yasser Arafat, on many occasions. The official stance of Vietnam on the Israel-Palestine conflict has consistently been in favour of Palestinian self-determination and the establishment of a Palestinian state," Hiep said.

On the Palestinian side, the bonds of that friendship were summed up by Darwish in 1973 as the war in Vietnam entered its final phase with the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, which ended direct US military combat in the country.

"In the conscience of the peoples of the world, the torch has been passed from Vietnam to us,” the poet said.

But times have changed.

So has Vietnam’s memory of its solidarity with Palestine.

Pro-Palestine activists whom Al Jazeera interviewed said they had a hard time persuading their parents that the Palestinian cause was just.

Hung said his parents had initially reacted to the war on Gaza by blaming “those terrorists” who had “started it first”.

“I myself have to spend time explaining to them the history of the matter going back to 1948. Only after that did they change their minds," Hung said.

Saadi Salama, the Palestinian ambassador in Vietnam, said local media bear a large degree of responsibility for a lack of public awareness in Vietnam about events in Palestine.

Ambassador Saadi Salama delivering his speech the event in commemoration of lives lost in Gaza held in Hanoi [Courtesy of Tu Ly]
Salama delivers a speech in Hanoi during an event in November to commemorate the Palestinians killed in Gaza [Courtesy of Tu Ly]

Initially working at the PLO residence in Hanoi as secretary of information in the 1980s, Salama has decades of experience in Vietnam. But over the past 10 years or so, he said, information on the Palestine issue has appeared much less frequently in local media. What does appear is presented in a perfunctory way, he said.

"Most people have a vague notion of what is actually happening in Gaza and the West Bank," Salama told Al Jazeera, explaining that local journalists often lack expertise on the subject of Palestine and Middle East issues.

“As a result, they shy away from writing deep analyses on the matter, opting instead to uncritically copy and paste from Western sources without providing context to the readers,” he said.

There are rare exceptions, Salama admitted, but not enough to make a difference to a generally negative impression of Palestine at a time when there is a positive impression of Israel in Vietnam.

"For Vietnamese, Israel is now the symbol of development, a ‘startup nation’,” Salama said.

“They don't see Israel's undersides.”

Dinh Le, a well-known book market area in the centre of Hanoi, is located just a short walk from the venue where Hammad spoke about Palestine and his childhood.

While a visitor would be hard-pressed to find books about Palestine here, there is no shortage of Vietnamese-language copies of Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, a 2009 book by Dan Senor and Saul Singer.

Republished by AlphaBooks, which is best known in Vietnam for its business and pop science titles, Start-Up Nation has become a best seller in Vietnam.

According to figures available on the website of Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communication, the book has enjoyed more than a dozen reprints with more than 2 million copies published.

More than 1 million copies of Start-Up Nation were, according to the ministry, ordered for distribution by one of Vietnam’s leading entrepreneurs who runs a project to distribute inspirational books free of charge in fields such as business, science and philosophy.

Some see the popularity of the book in Vietnam as central to a flattering image of Israel among the public and often a positive characterisation of Israel in Vietnam’s media.

Israel’s popular appeal also coincides with a critical juncture in Vietnam’s modern history, experts said.

Since the late 1980s, Vietnam has carried out economic reforms, known as Doi Moi, which have seen the country embrace free market-oriented development and the promotion of entrepreneurship.

At the same time, Vietnam’s foreign policy has prioritised national interests and independence over what once would have been described as "ideological purity" during earlier, revolutionary times.

Although officially called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the country has long welcomed foreign capital and has worked to normalise relations, mostly on the basis of economic cooperation, with countries and blocs previously considered in bygone times to be enemies.

U.S. President Joe Biden raises a toast with Vietnam's President Vo Van Thuong in Hanoi, Vietnam, September 11, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein
US President Joe Biden raises a toast with Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong in Hanoi, Vietnam, on September 11, 2023, after the two countries and one-time enemies elevated diplomatic and trade relations to their highest level [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Vietnam’s policy approach, known as "bamboo diplomacy" owing to its flexibility and pragmatism, has allowed the country to forge a significant partnership with Israel in the “areas of economics, technology and security”, Hiep said.

And it is likely the fear of jeopardising ties with Israel that explains why “Vietnam has been more hesitant to express strong support for Palestine despite maintaining sympathy for their cause." he added.

Vietnam and Palestine: 'Similar struggles'

'The more I learn about the history of Palestine, the more I realise how similar our struggles are,' Vietnamese activist Trinh says.

Street info People in Hanoi flocking to the Palestine's Ambassador's house in commemoration of the lives lost in Gaza assaults. (Credit: Tứ Ly)
Visitors look at images from Gaza at a commemoration event in November at the Palestinian embassy in Hanoi [Courtesy of Tu Ly]
Visitors look at images from Gaza at a commemoration event at the Palestinian embassy in Hanoi [Courtesy of Tu Ly]

Since October, Vietnam has called out atrocities committed against civilians in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

At a news conference shortly after the war began, a spokeswoman for Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Vietnam "strongly condemns the violent attacks against civilians, humanitarian workers, journalists and essential infrastructure facilities".

Before that, in an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly on October 27, Vietnam joined the majority of member states in voting for a resolution demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, protection of civilians, the unconditional release of captives and humanitarian aid access.

Hanoi, however, has also been careful not to put its relationship with Israel at serious risk by openly naming Israel in its criticism. Even so, a former Israeli ambassador to Vietnam still called Hanoi’s stance on Gaza  "disappointing" in an interview.

For some, such gestures in support of Palestine are not enough to make good on Vietnam's historical debts to Palestinians and the PLO’s support for Hanoi during the Cold War.

Yasser Arafat (L), commander of Al Fatah Palestinian movement, receives an album on the creation of the North-Vietnamese army with a picture of Ho Chi Minh on the cover from North-Vietnamese Defense Minister General Giap, during his visit in North-Vietnam 08 April 1970. AFP PHOTO (Photo by RADIOPHOTO / AFP)
PLO leader Yasser Arafat, left, receives an album on the creation of the North Vietnamese army with a picture of Ho Chi Minh on the cover from North Vietnam's defence minister, General Vo Nguyen Giap, during Arafat's visit to North Vietnam in 1970 [File: AFP]

Vu Minh Hoang, a diplomatic historian of 20th century Vietnam and the Asia Pacific, noted that the PLO was among the small minority of groups and countries in the Global South who openly stood up for their Vietnamese friends and condemned China for its invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

The decision, Vu said, cost the PLO much-needed aid and political support from China. The PLO had maintained a 14-year friendly relationship with China until standing with Vietnam over the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979.

"The PLO bravely stepped up for Vietnam when it needed it the most,” Vu, who is currently based at Columbia University in New York, told Al Jazeera.

Although Vietnamese statements and votes have supported Palestine, Vu said, overall, Vietnam’s stance in practice appears to be more “pro-Israel”.

To understand why, one needs to “follow the money”, he added.


From 2015 to 2019, Vietnam was among the top three buyers of Israeli arms, accounting for 8.5 percent of total sales by Israel during that period, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported in 2022 that, over the past decade, Vietnam purchased an estimated $1.5bn in defence equipment from Israeli, including ground-to-air missile systems, phone-hacking technology and drones.

In the past two years, however, there were no recorded arms deals between Vietnam and Israel, according to recent SIPRI data.

The Vietnamese government declined to comment on the reasons for the apparent slowdown, the Reuters news agency reported this month. Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher at SIPRI, told Reuters that the lack of public arms deals may be the result of ongoing hard negotiations as Vietnam - which needs warships, fighter jets and drones - considered competing offers.

Vu describes himself as a progressive member of the Communist Party of Vietnam who believes in the ideals of international communism and human rights. He also belongs to a minority of Vietnamese scholars who are dissatisfied with the country's uncritical embrace of "bamboo diplomacy".

The pragmatism and flexibility of the “bamboo” approach has a cynical side because it allows for the overlooking of principled political positions in pursuit of "narrow national self-interests", even if that means working with partners that grossly violate human rights, Vu argued.

"It's the credo 'no eternal allies, no perpetual enemies, only interests' that carries the day,” Vu said, quoting the words of former British Prime Minister Henry John Temple.

Such a policy stands in stark contrast to Vietnam in the heyday of revolutionary politics and its fight for liberation, he said.

"Say what you will, in the Cold War, Vietnam had real friends and real loyalties," he added.

But even Vietnam's old friends have their own interests to pursue now too.

In the past decade or so, Cambodia and Laos, once Vietnam’s closest allies, have entered China’s sphere of influence and have backed Beijing on its territorial claims in the South China Sea - an issue that strikes at Vietnam's core interests.

Vietnam has learned a lesson, Vu said, that “good deeds and sacrifices” can go “unappreciated even by your friends”.

Vietnam’s embrace of a foreign policy defined by pragmatic flexibility, he said, was a natural response to decades of crushing economic sanctions imposed on the country by the West as punishment for Vietnam intervening in neighbouring Cambodia in late 1978 to remove the Khmer Rouge, under whose rule about two million people died.

But Vietnam should still try to do better in terms of its political principles, he added, recounting a well-known Vietnamese saying: “Stay clean even if hungry. Stay fragrant even if ragged."

“Vietnam still can and should live up to that ideal,” he said, referring to the country's revolutionary past and its fight for national liberation.

Young pro-Palestinian activists know that Vietnam's revolutionary past is not without its own problematic history as a one-party state with strict control over society and the people.

But it was Vietnam’s struggle for liberation that Palestinians identified with, and it is that history that younger Vietnamese activists are now rediscovering and have come to admire in recent months during the war in Gaza.

"The more I learn about the history of Palestine, the more I realise how similar our struggles are,” Trinh said.

“The better I understand Vietnam's resilience and bravery in our fight against imperialists, [the more] I take great pride in our victories," Trinh added.

Now, Trinh said, she wants "the same for the Palestinians".

*Trinh, Vuong and Hung are pseudonyms created to respect the interviewees' request for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Courtesy of Tu Ly
A monument built on a plot of land where an entire family lived and were killed during the US bombing of Hanoi in 1972 [Courtesy of Tu Ly]
A monument built on a plot of land where an entire family lived and were killed during the US bombing of Hanoi in 1972 [Courtesy of Tu Ly]
Source: Al Jazeera