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ILR Fellowship in Vietnam: Liberal Ideas in Vietnamese Constitutional History

November 06, 2023

The International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship offers Penn Carey Law Students financial support for a short-term summer legal research project abroad.

By Hau Le SJD ’25

Trips to Vietnam have always signified relaxation and leisure for me—time spent enjoying the warmth of friends, family, delicious cuisine, and familiar customs. Never did I imagine that a summer in Vietnam would entail immersing myself in the bureaucratic ambiance of the National Archives in Hanoi, forsaking the idyllic beaches for sweltering temperatures and intensive research into my nation’s constitutional history.

As an SJD candidate studying the development of the constitutional law of Vietnam as a bigger project, such trade-off made a lot of sense. But the unconventional summer experience not only helped me with knowledge that is useful for my bigger SJD project, but also, as a pleasant surprise, enabled me to understand more about my own country’s complex but vibrant constitutional history.

Today’s Vietnam is far more intricate than meets the eye. Though on the surface it is one of the last surviving socialist regimes in the world, suggesting that it must be politically closer to China than to the United States, a closer examination of Vietnam’s contemporary history reveals a fascinating paradox. Despite his Communist identity, Vietnam’s founding father, Ho Chi Minh, drew inspiration for his nation’s modern Declaration of Independence from the American equivalent. His inaugural words, “All men are Ho Chi Minh (third, standing, from the left), together with his legendary general Vo Nguyen Giap (fifth, standing, from the left), posed ... Ho Chi Minh (third, standing, from the left), together with his legendary general Vo Nguyen Giap (fifth, standing, from the left), posed for a photo with six OSS officers who trained their small guerilla forces during the World War II created with equal rights and … they are endowed by the Creator with unalienable rights. Among those rights are the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to pursue happiness,” painted an optimistic picture. A historic moment of note is the warm morning of September 1945 when Ho Chi Minh, flanked by two OSS officers, proudly announced those words to his people and gave birth to the modern Vietnam.

The course of history took an unforeseen turn, however. A mere nine years later, following a brutal colonial war culminating in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which the defeat of the French paratroopers by the Vietnamese Communist guerillas marked the end of the colonial era, the United States became embroiled in one of the bloodiest conflicts of the twentieth century, resulting in the loss of over 58,000 American lives and two million Vietnamese. Vietnam emerged from the war as a Communist nation, discarding notions of separation of powers, judicial independence, and multi-party democracy. Sadly, liberalism waned.

But how did liberalism die out, exactly, in Vietnamese legal history? This paradox ignited my curiosity and compelled me to transition from my role at an American law firm in Vietnam to undertake a profound intellectual pursuit as a SJD candidate with Penn Carey Law School. My central question became: What traces of liberalism persist within Vietnamese constitutionalism? Answering this question demanded an ethnographic exploration of both Vietnamese society and the nation’s constitutional evolution, a journey that inevitably began at the National Archives of Vietnam. Thus, my unconventional summer expedition was set in motion.

Ho Chi Minh reading the Communist-run People's Daily on the anniversary of the Russian October Revolution Ho Chi Minh reading the Communist-run People's Daily on the anniversary of the Russian October RevolutionYet, given Vietnam’s Communist status, accessing the National Archives proved to be a formidable challenge, particularly without local connections or institutional endorsements. Being a SJD candidate and an aspiring researcher alone wasn’t always sufficient. The International Legal Research (ILR) Fellowship from Penn Carey Law School provided not only vital financial support for my travel and accommodations (nearly 1,000 miles from my hometown), but also the academic validation that persuaded two Vietnamese law schools to sponsor my endeavor. The two-month expedition that ensued was more rewarding than I could have imagined.

To start with, I was struck by how few legal scholars in Vietnamese constitutional law depend on archived documents. Though legal studies primarily emphasize interpreting contemporary legal texts and extracting norms, historical documents offer invaluable sociological insights. Legal norms are not conjured from thin air or from legislator’s whims; they emerge, evolve, and adapt through societal discourse and historical context. The past provides a context for understanding the present.

And this is exactly what I discovered. Archived documents, such as past constitutional debates, handwritten notes of national leaders, and recordings of leadership’s meetings—documents that are closely kept and may not have been accessible without the credential of the ILR Fellowship—unveiled a nuanced account of liberalism’s rise and fall in Vietnamese constitutionalism.

Unlike China or the Soviet Union, countries where liberalism was abruptly discarded, Vietnam engaged in a more complex discourse that both challenged the dominance of the Communist Party and reshaped the concept of liberalism. Consider human rights: Whereas China celebrated “lawlessness” during its infamous Cultural Revolution, Vietnam’s constitutional debates in the 1970s showcased a passionate endeavor to protect human rights—a unique interpretation centered on political, social, and economic rights and positive liberties, which the constitution’s drafters believed to be superior to the Western notion that tended to prioritize political liberty and negative rights disproportionately. Drafters introduced concepts like “collective ownership” and “political consultation” to ensure equitable liberties and public input, striving to overcome potential wealth disparities and the disenfranchisement of constituencies, issues that we now see marring the fabric of American democracy.

The project’s shortcomings can be debated, but its significance cannot be ignored. Recognizing that even Communist drafters could display genuine ardor for the protection of human rights could encourage Western scholars to approach their exploration of familiar concepts with a more balanced and neutral perspective. This revelation serves as an invitation to adopt a pluralistic understanding, transcending ideological boundaries and fostering a deeper appreciation for the intricate tapestry of human rights and constitutionalism.

This revelation is just a glimpse of the profound insights I derived from studying the writings of previous generations. It’s a bit surreal to realize that a project sponsored by Penn Carey Law School could deepen my understanding of my own country. This, however, is the essence of academic freedom. The knowledge and perspective gained from my unconventional summer, dedicated to unraveling liberalism within Vietnamese constitutionalism, represent a single step toward the completion of my SJD thesis on Vietnamese constitutional law.