hanOi, the old and the new

by Dr Ron Clarke


In May this year I had the privilege of giving a lecture course on chemical thermodynamics to the first class of bachelor students at the newly established University of Science and Technology Hanoi (USTH) in Vietnam.

USTH was established in November 2009 through a joint agreement of the governments of Vietnam and France. Prof. Pierre Sebban, of the University of Paris XI in Orsay, was appointed as the new university’s first rector, i.e. the equivalent of vice-chancellor in the Australian university system. Pierre would be known to many of the staff and students here at the School of Chemistry. He’s been a frequent visitor to the School over the last 10 years and together we’ve been collaborating on research in the areas of photosynthesis and the active transport of ions across biological membranes1-4. Two of Pierre’s students, Anne Pilotelle-Bunner and Anthony Bocahut, have also carried out major parts of the research towards their PhD theses within the School of Chemistry.
When Pierre invited me to give a course at the USTH I was very keen to accept, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was an opportunity to renew my friendship with Pierre and at the same time make some contribution towards the success of the new university in Hanoi. But I also had other personal reasons for wishing to visit Hanoi. My wife Binh Pham, a researcher within the Key Centre for Polymers and Colloids, comes from Hanoi and, therefore, I already have a strong Vietnamese connection. In March this year our second daughter, Violetta Frances (see Fig. 1), was born. Hence a visit to USTH was simultaneously an opportunity to show off our new daughter to all of the Vietnamese relatives. She certainly got a lot of attention while we were there.

Figure 1: Violetta Frances Clarke

At USTH I lectured to a class of just under 20 students (see Fig. 2), with 3 hour lectures (interspersed with problem-solving sessions) every day for two weeks. We covered the same amount of lecture material that first year students at Sydney Uni would cover in two months. At the end of the course the students had a weekend to digest the material and then they were given a two hour written exam. That might seem pretty tough, but at USTH its currently normal practice. Because USTH is such a new university, it doesn’t yet have a lot of permanent staff. Therefore, the lecturers consist predominantly of friends or colleagues of Pierre, like myself, flown in from overseas, e.g. France, the USA, and Australia. All of the invited lecturers of course have commitments at their home universities. Therefore, the crash course approach is the only feasible one at present. This situation will probably change as the university develops, but at least by having such a short space of time between the lectures and the exam it gives the students little time to forget the material before being examined. In any case, none of the students complained of the intense nature of the course. I did occasionally see students resting their heads on the desk in the breaks, having a short nap, but when I was lecturing they were one of the most attentive and friendliest classes I have ever taught.
Although USTH is one of Vietnam’s newest universities, Vietnam and Hanoi, in particular, does have a long academic tradition. Many people are probably not aware what an old city Hanoi is. In Western countries the most common associations people would have with Hanoi would derive from the 1960s-70s during the time of the Vietnam War (called the “American War” in Vietnam, because prior to that the Vietnamese had been fighting the French, Japanese and the Chinese many times). Some readers, for example, might recall the “Hanoi Hilton” (otherwise known as the Hoa Lo prison), in which many American prisoners-of-war were accommodated for lengthy periods. One of the Hilton’s guests was the prominent US senator John McCain, who was fished by Hanoi residents out of a lake in central Hanoi after parachuting from his aircraft.

Figure 2: The author lecturing at USTH; proof that he wasn't simply on holidays

The name of Hanoi (meaning “between rivers”) was given to the city in 1831 by the Vietnamese ruler of the time. However, the history of Hanoi goes back just over 1,000 years. In fact Hanoi celebrated its millennium in October 2010. In 1010 it was established as the capital of Vietnam by the first ruler of the Ly dynasty, Ly Thai To, who named it Thanh Long (meaning “rising dragon”), because he claimed to have seen a dragon ascending the Red River which flows past the city. The name of Thanh Long is still used as a poetic reference to the city, but since that time its official name has changed many times: to Dong Do, Dong Quan, Dong Kinh (or Tonkin), Bac Thanh and finally Hanoi. The habit of changing city names appears to be a Vietnamese custom that has persisted into modern times. The most recent example is the renaming of Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City after the overthrow of the South Vietnamese government in 1975. The many name changes does cloud general perception of the age of the cities. Nevertheless, the long prominence of Hanoi in Vietnamese history is evidenced by one of its older names being used today to refer to the large section of the South China Sea adjacent to North Vietnam, i.e. the Gulf of Tonkin.

In contrast to the recent founding of USTH in 2009, Vietnam’s oldest university was founded in 1076 on the site of its Temple of Literature, Van Mieu, to educate Vietnam’s mandarin class. Although the official dates of foundation of universities are often disputed, Vietnam’s oldest university is thus older than virtually all of Europe’s universities. For example, there appears to be no clear evidence that teaching at Oxford University occurred any earlier than 1096, and Cambridge University wasn’t established until 1209. Hanoi’s Temple of Literature and its grounds can still be visited today, and its well worth doing so. Its beautiful courtyards, gardens and ponds are a haven of peace within the bustle and noise of modern Hanoi’s traffic chaos with countless motorbikes, many with up to five passengers plus cargo, apparently following no road rules whatsoever.

A major treasure of Vietnam’s oldest university is a collection of stone steles, each sitting on a stone tortoise (see Fig. 3), which record the names and places of origin of graduates awarded doctorates there from 1486 to 1780, i.e. until the capital of Vietnam and the national university was moved further south to Hue. The tortoise has particular significance for the city of Hanoi. Giant tortoises can still be seen surfacing from time to time in the city’s central lake, Hoan Kiem (“Lake of the Returned Sword”). According to legend, in the 15th century the Vietnamese emperor Le Loi used a sacred sword that he’d received from the Golden Tortoise God to defeat Chinese aggressors. One day, when he was out boating on the central lake, a giant tortoise surfaced and asked for the sword to be returned. The emperor unsheathed the sword and threw it to the tortoise, which returned with it to the depths. The story sounds very reminiscent of the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur. Its occurrence in such widely separated cultures as those of Vietnam and England perhaps lends support to Carl Gustav Jung’s hypothesis of archetypes belonging to a collective unconscious of the human race5.

Figure 3: Nam Clarke in front of stone steles at the Temple of Literature, Hanoi, commemorating doctoral graduates of the National University

Returning to the present, our visit to Hanoi culminated in a very happy occasion because it coincided with the marriage of Pierre to his Vietnamese partner, Hoa (see Fig. 4). So we were able to spend our last night in Hanoi before returning to Sydney celebrating with Pierre, Hoa and all of their family and friends. It was a beautiful way to end our stay in Vietnam.

Figure 4: Pierre Sebban with his wife Hoa on their wedding night


In the future I hope to continue my involvement with university education in Vietnam. Perhaps the experience may provide ideas that could be incorporated into the Australian university situation. The commemoration of School of Chemistry doctoral students on the backs of stone wombats is perhaps one suggestion which could be considered.         

The author thanks Prof. Pierre Sebban for the opportunity to travel to Hanoi and contribute to the teaching at USTH.


  1. S. Amoroso, V. V. Agon, T. Starke-Peterkovic, M. D. McLeod, H.-J. Apell, P. Sebban and R. J. Clarke, Photochem. Photobiol. 82 (2006) 495-502.
  2. A. Pilotelle-Bunner, J. M. Matthews, F. Cornelius, H.-J. Apell, P. Sebban and R. J. Clarke, Biochemistry 47 (2008) 13103-114.
  3. A. Pilotelle-Bunner, F. Cornelius, P. Sebban, P. W. Kuchel and R. J. Clarke, Biophys. J. 96 (2009) 3753-61.
  4. A. Pilotelle-Bunner, P. Beaunier, J. Tandori, P. Maroti, R. J. Clarke and P. Sebban, Biochim. Biophys. Acta Bioenerg. 1787 (2009) 1039-49.  
  5. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Fontana, London, 1986.


Back to top