Rabbi Alexandes de Rhodes talks about Vietnamese people in the 17th century

W.Minh Tuan


I teach Vietnamese at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.

The first time I visited the school’s library, I saw a large glass cabinet in the entrance hall, inside there were a few books that seemed like old books. I stopped by to see if there was anything interesting, and was surprised to see a book with some Vietnamese-sounding words, a very old book.

I carefully read the 2 pages that the book opened, and found that it was a Vietnamese-Portuguese dictionary of missionary Alexandres De Rhodes, published around 1600, more than 400 years ago.

Since then I have researched the missionaries for this era, and below is the information I found about the missionaries.

If it weren’t for him, perhaps we Vietnamese today would not use alphabet like today, but use Chinese characters like in the past.

We Vietnamese must thank the missionary Alexandres De Rhodes very much.


France cleric Alexander De Rhodes, born in 1593, died in 1660.

He came to Vietnam for the first time in 1625 in South Vietnam, in the land of Dang Trong -South of Vietnam- Lord Nguyen, to preach.

On July 3, 1645, he was permanently expelled from Vietnam, because Vietnam also banned the transmission of religion.

He lived in Cochinchina (the South of Vietnam) for about 5 years and 7 months, and lived in Cochinchina (the North of Vietnam) for about 3 years and 2 months.

After 6 months in Vietnam, he learned Vietnamese and spoke fluent Vietnamese, and began to evangelize in Vietnamese.

He and other missionaries created the Vietnamese script Quoc Ngu (Vietnamese language) today.

In 1661, he published the first Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin Dictionary, nearly 500 pages thick. (Dictionarium Annamiticum, Lusitanum et Latinum).

In this dictionary, there is also the book Vietnamese Grammar (Linguae Annamitiacae seu Tunchinensis Brevis Declaratio). This is the first Vietnamese grammar book in Vietnam.

Historically, he wrote a History of the North (Histoire du Royaume du Tonkin) in Italian in 1650, and Divers Voyages et Missions in French, in 1651.

In the book History of the North, he commented on Hanoi (then called Ke Cho) as follows:

The city of Ke Cho (Ca-cho) in terms of area is comparable to many Asian cities; it is more than most of those cities in terms of population, especially on the first and full moon days of the lunar calendar, when there are markets and sales, people from neighboring villages flock to goods, crowded with people. together.

Many streets are very wide, but crowded with people, so it takes half an hour to walk a hundred steps.

Each street trades in a particular kind of goods, and those streets are divided into wards where only people in their wards are allowed to shop in their wards, like the corporations in European cities.

He commented on the Vietnamese custom of eating betel nut as follows:

Local people have the custom of eating betel nut (blau areca), if the family is well-off, servants, servants or family members have to buy betel nut. “One can count up to 50,000 people selling betel nut at a cheap price, in various locations in the city, thus the number of people buying betel nut is immeasurable.”

Regarding Vietnamese food, he commented:

Certainly the land here does not produce wheat, grapes, or olive oil, but don’t think living here is miserable. They have what we don’t have, so their meals are not inferior to that of Europeans. They don’t drink as much fat as we do, so they are healthier, and avoid many of the diseases we often get.

“,,, a lot of pepper sold to the Chinese, a lot of silk used for common things like making fishing nets, or fishing boats, many export routes to Japan, only 2 cents for a half kilogram, but the quality is still good, although not as white as our sugar,,,. Sugar cane is plentiful and delicious, people eat sugar cane like we eat apples”.

Regarding the military of the Vietnamese, he commented that the Trinh Lord in the North had about 600 ships, and the Nguyen Lord in the South had about 200 ships. And rowers are not despised as in Europe. Every soldier considers rowing. Vietnamese soldiers were armed with rifles and muskets, and they shot very well.

When performing, or going to war, the boats usually sailed in three, or annually, uniformly, with no boat rising more than a meter.

Regarding the relationship between people in the Vietnamese army, he commented:

“Never seen anyone arguing, or saying angry, contemptuous words; No one has ever heard them fight swords or shed blood, so different from soldiers in the West.”

“Although they fought the enemy very well, disregarding the enemy’s life, they loved each other like brothers and sisters, and I have never heard of a soldier using a weapon to hit a comrade.”

Comparing the Vietnamese with the Chinese, Rabbi Alexandre De Rhodes commented that the Vietnamese are not as arrogant as the Chinese, and are easier to socialize with than the Chinese.

Regarding the education of Vietnamese people, he commented:

“There is not a single citizen, rich or low, who does not let their children learn kanji from an early age, so that no one in the country is without some knowledge, no one is completely ignorant.”

More than 50 years after Missionary Alexandre De Rhodes, another missionary named J.P. De Marini also commented that “seven public schools and universities, divided into one school in each province, anyone with talent can enter, the number of students can sometimes be up to 30,000 people”.

Regarding the law of Vietnam, Mr. Alexandre De Rhodes commented:

“Justice in this country is, in my opinion, as perfectly looked after as in any other country in the world. It was the King who gave the salaries to the officials, and forbade them to take any profit in any case, so that the people did not have to spend anything when they had to defend their interests.

Therefore, there are no documents and procedures that are costly and troublesome like in the West. If the people here knew how the Courts work, and the troublesome procedures in our country, I don’t know what they would say about me.”

He is very impressed with an unwritten rule in Vietnam, which he considers the best, is: if one of them has a dispute that needs to be resolved, the head of the family will handle it, not the judge. judgment.

“If that were the case in our country, it would save a quarter (three-quarters) of the lawsuits.”

He also highly commended the law of Vietnam, which prohibits people from working as mandarins in their own hometowns, and forbids getting married in the places where they do mandarins, in order to maintain objectivity and integrity for the mandarins.

When he was expelled from Vietnam on July 3, 1645, Mr. Alexandre De Rhodes wrote the following about his feelings for Vietnam:

“I leave the South with my body, but not with my mind, nor with the North. In fact, my soul is completely in those two places, and I thought my mind could never leave them.”

In 1660, at the age of 70, he died in Iraq, when he was a missionary there.

It is said that in Saigon, the street was named Alexander De Rhodes, but the State of Vietnam has so far not made an official decision to recognize the merits of creating the Vietnamese words-letters today by the missionary Alexander De Rhodes, and of other French and Western missionaries. ///

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