From 207 B.C. to 939 A.D., the rule of several Chinese dynasties had a profound influence on the Vietnamese literature and language. As a result, the official Vietnamese language was originally written in Classical Chinese (chữ Nho) before the development of native Vietnamese script (chữ Nôm) and the adoption of the Latin alphabet (Quốc Ngữ).1
Starting in the ninth century, under the control of the Chinese, all government and official documents in Vietnam were written in Chinese ideographs called chữ Nho (scholars’ script), also referred to as chữ Hán (Han script). Even after Vietnam declared its independence in 939, chữ Nho was a common written language among scholars and in official papers until the beginning of the twentieth century. Today, chữ Nho is still used on calligraphic banners for special occasions such as festivals, funerals, Lunar New Year (Tết), and weddings. Although chữ Nho was held in high regard—because being chữ Nho literacy was the key to power, wealth, and prestige—Vietnamese scholars wanted to develop their own writing system very early on called chữ Nôm.2
Chữ Nôm is a writing system in Vietnamese based on Chinese ideographs. Even though there is no known record of when the Vietnamese began creating a system to write their own language, chữ Nôm was well established by the eleventh century. Due to its complex use of Chinese characters to form Vietnamese phonemic values, chữ Nôm was much more difficult to learn. Only a few dozen Vietnamese around the world today can read chữ Nôm, and publications written in Nôm characters are rare. Only small samples were found in Quốc-âm Thi-Tập (Collected Poems in Native Words) written by Vietnam’s national hero Nguyễn Trãi (1389–1442) and the poetry of famed female poet Hồ Xuân Hương (1592–1788). 3
The Romanization of the Vietnamese writing system began in the seventeenth century when Catholic missionaries needed to transcribe religious texts for their new converts. As chữ Nôm was used only by the elite and privileged, the missionaries wanted to introduce religious texts to a broader population, including lower-class people who would not have been able to read Nôm ideographs.
Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary and a lexicographer, learned Vietnamese at an astonishing speed. He mastered the language within six months and laid down the groundwork for the Romanized writing system known as Quốc Ngữ (national language). Unlike chữ Nôm, which required extensive study and practice to master, the new Latin-based writing system was much more direct, approachable, and accessible. Vietnamese people could learn to read and write their own language in a few weeks instead of years.
Even though Quốc Ngữ made it possible to spread literacy and education to a large population, it didn’t become the official writing system until the early twentieth century under French colonial rule (1864–1945). The rise of Latin-based writing system opened the door to print publications. On April 15, 1865, Gia Định Báo (嘉定報), the first newspaper in Vietnam, published its first issue in Quốc Ngữ. 4 Today, Quốc Ngữ, also known as chữ phổ thông (standard script), is the official orthography of Vietnam.