Bui Vien and Cleopatra’s Nose

Vietnam Historical Figure Bui Vien

Whenever I think of Bui Vien, the first Vietnamese to travel to the United States, I am reminded of “Cleopatra’s nose”.
Pascal’s witticism seems to be quite appropriate. “If Cleopatra’s nose had been shorter”, wrote that Jansenist philosopher, “the whole face of the earth would have changed” (Pensees).

Pascal wanted to stress the insignificant causes but terrible effects of love.
True. If Cleopatra’s nose had not bewitched Caesar and Antonius, the physiognomy of the Mediterranian world in the time of undent Rome would have been shaped otherwise.

The ways of history, sometimes disconcerting, are a permanent challenge to Nostradamuses of all colors.
If Bui Vien’s mission to the United States had been successful the fate of Vietnam would have been different, for better or for worse only God knows.

Who was Bui Vien then?
Bui Vien (1839-1878) was born into an educated but poor family in Thai Binh province in the delta of the Red River. As a youth he lived among fishermen and merchants, and whatever he learned from them was turned to good use in his mandarinal career, which commenced after he had become a cu nhan (Master of Arts).

Bui Vien Street now in Vietnam
Bui Vien Street now in Vietnam

It was the time when colonial powers were carving up the Asian continent. In Vietnam the French had begun their conquest. In 1858 their gunboats shelled Da Nang and occupied the harbor. In 1859 they took Sai Gon and by 1867 they had seized the whole of Cochinchina (South Vietnam proper).

The Court of Hue, with its conservative Confucianism, was caught in a dilemma. It turned a deaf ear to the call by reformist scholars who wanted to save the country by Westernizing it – at least at a technical level.

It was not until the last minute that King Tu Duc turned to Bui Vien a man of action, with a practical mind who had distinguished himself with projects such as the construction of Hai Phong, the creation of a coast guard with 200 combat sail boats and the establishment of trade posts in coastal provinces.

In 1873, as Jean Depuis, an adventurer, was attacking Hanoi with the support of Francis Garnier, Bui Vien was entrusted with the mission of contacting other Western powers in a bid to halt the French advance.

Bui Vien sailed forth from Thuan An (Hue) and arrived in Hong Kong two months later. There he made the acquaintance of the American consul and decided to go to the United States to make a plea for assistance.

Equipped with a letter of introduction from the American diplomat. Bui Vien travelled to Washington via Yokohama and San Francisco. He was able to arrange an audience with President Grant.

But as Bui Vien did not carry proper credentials it was impossible to arrive at any formal agreement between the two countries. And by the time Bui Vien returned to the United States, again alone but with due credentials from the Court of Hue, the colonial powers had already established their respective zones of influence.
Now if Bui Vien had been duly accredited on his first trip, relations between the United States and Vietnam could have been very different.

Or, if d’ Argenlieu had been gravely sick in 1945 and been replaced by Leclerc, the latter would have negotiated honestly with Ho Chi Minh and perhaps two Indochina wars would have been avoided.
“If Cleopatra’s nose…”