Religious education, training, culture between Hanoi and Rome
by J.B. An Dang

Rome and Hanoi have recently boosted cultural cooperation. Italian universities are favourites among young Vietnamese who want to study in Europe. Pontifical institutes and universities play the same role for priests. After 60 years without educational freedom under the communist regime, the Church opened a local Catholic college in 2015.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – Vietnam benefits the most from its ties with Italy in the cultural field, in particular at the level of university education and clerical training.

The two countries marked 45 years of diplomatic relations last Friday, 23 March. In 1973, Italy officially recognised North Vietnam, a move seen by many as a slap against South Vietnam, which at that time was fighting against Communist forces that had infiltrated from the north.

Within two years, Saigon was overrun and South Vietnam capitulated. However, ties between the two countries remained largely symbolic until the early 1990s, when political relations began to develop and consolidate.

Following an official visit by then Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis to Vietnam in December 1989, Rome and Hanoi undertook regular diplomatic relations.

Over this period of time, Vietnam has become Italy’s main partner in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Bilateral trade continues to grow at an annual rate of almost 9 per cent, reaching US$ 4.7 billion in 2016, which is expected to rise to US$ 6 billion in 2017-2018.

Vietnam exports to Italy mainly footwear, fish products, coffee and clothing, whilst it imports mechanical and transportation equipment and leather materials.

Rome and Hanoi have recently boosted cultural cooperation, agreeing to 72 projects in education and training.

Italian universities are a favourite choice for many young Vietnamese who want to study in Europe in fields like architecture and mechanical engineering.

The Association of Vietnamese Students in Italy, an organisation funded by the state, claims to have 4,650 members.

Thanks to generous scholarships by Pontifical institutes and universities, Italy is also the most important destination for Vietnamese priests.

A priest who obtained a licentiate in Theology at the Lateran University told AsiaNews that the Italian language is a major obstacle for those who want to study in Italy.

"The language itself is among the most difficult to learn,” he said. “When I prepared for my trip to Rome, I did not find any Italian course in Vietnam. However, now things have changed: since October 2016 a course is available by Uni-Italy and the Italian Embassy in Hanoi. That is a great move.”

Vietnam’s Communist authorities have also authorised the Church to set up a Catholic college, which opened on 6 August 2015 under Mgr Joseph Đinh Đức Đạo, bishop of Xuan Loc and president of the Education Commission of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam (CBCV), the first facility of its kind in 60 years.

Before returning to Vietnam in 2009, Bishop Đạo received a doctorate in Moral Ethics from the Alphonsian Academy and one in Missiology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.

Later he lectured at the Faculty of Missiology and the Institute of Catechesis of the Pontifical Urban (Urbaniana) University in Rome.

In North Vietnam, the Church lost the right to educate in 1954 after the Communist takeover. This was extended to the south in 1975.

At that time, Catholics ran more 2,000 educational facilities, from kindergartens to higher education institutions, all seized by the government.

In all, the Church had 1,060 primary schools, 145 high schools and four universities, including the Saint Pius X College and the prestigious universities of Saigon and Da Lat.

The latter remains at the centre of a dispute with government authorities and, even today, it is not clear whether it will be ever returned to Catholic control.

Ownership of land and buildings remains another unresolved issue in the relationship between Church and state in Vietnam.