Planting Seeds: Mandarin Education in Vietnam


2016 / March

Chang Chiung-fang /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Scott Williams

In some ways, Taiwan and Vietnam share very similar cultures. For example, both celebrate the Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, and both are dotted with popular, incense-filled Confucius Temples. Indeed, traditional Chinese characters are still displayed on signs all over Vietnam in spite of the politically driven restrictions on Chinese language education that used to exist there.

That cultural affinity has been fortuitous for Taiwan’s education industry, which in recent years has begun taking steps towards selling its “product” overseas. Happily, Taiwan’s interest in “exporting” Mandarin has coincided with international interest in learning Chinese. Though a relative latecomer to international Mandarin education, Taiwan has grand ambitions in the field.

Taiwan’s efforts to export educational products have been helped by the rapid spread of measures aimed at promoting Chinese language education and Chinese language proficiency testing across Southeast Asia. Vietnam has proved particularly fertile soil: when this international fervor for Chinese language learning reached the country, its deep and longstanding ties to Chinese culture caused it to burst into flame like a spark on dry tinder.


Thang Long (“ascendant dragon”), one of the old names for Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, has a strongly Chinese flavor. According to legend, it was given to the city by Ly Thai To, the founder of the Later Ly Dynasty, more than 1,000 years ago when he had an auspicious vision of a golden dragon flying through the sky.

Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, an imperial academy located at the heart of the city, is Vietnam’s oldest extant Confucius temple. Built in 1070 CE, it was designed to be an exact copy of the Confucius Temple in Confucius’ home town of Qufu, Shandong Province. Elegant and dignified, the temple was Vietnam’s first university. Nowadays, it is also seen as a symbol of traditional Confucian culture. 

The temple has survived numerous wars and reconstructions over the last 900-plus years, and even today retains a certain Chinese atmosphere: its gates are still inscribed with traditional Chinese characters, and temple staff still maintain their custom of writing New Year’s couplets in Chinese for visitors. Clearly, written Chinese remains somewhat familiar to many Vietnamese, even those who can’t read it.

Cultural seeds

Richard Shih, head of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Hanoi, notes that Taiwan and Vietnam have very similar customs, which helps Taiwanese businesspeople feel very much at home there. Vietnam’s geographical and psychological proximity to Taiwan has also made it a natural focus for Taiwan’s efforts to export Mandarin education. Shih says that Vietnam is a close partner with Taiwan, and is widely recognized as a country on the rise. In March, some 30 Taiwan universities will stage an education fair in Vietnam. He is highly confident of the prospects for Mandarin education there.

In fact, the Ministry of Education began implementing a joint effort with Vietnam to promote Chinese language education there in 2007. The program, which involves assigning Mandarin teachers from Taiwan to teaching positions at Vietnamese universities, was folded into the ministry’s eight-year plan to export Chinese language education in 2013.

Lai Yi-fan, a section chief from the MOE’s Department of International and Cross-Strait Education, explains that the MOE selects Chinese language teachers to promote the use of traditional Chinese characters abroad; partially subsidizes the costs of a round-trip airfare, teaching materials and living expenses; and sends them to nations in Southeast Asia, Europe, the Americas and Africa to teach. 

The program placed 34 teachers in Vietnam in 2015, including Jian Wanru.

Jian, who was sent to Hanoi last September and teaches introductory Chinese at the University of Languages and International Studies there, says she makes a point of speaking slowly and clearly in class.

Jian is well liked by the dozen or so students in the class, most of whom are high-school graduates planning to attend university in Taiwan. Nguyen Ngoc Anh is pretty typical of them. Just 18, she plans to study restaurant management at Taichung’s Chaoyang University of Technology. But Vu Thi Thuy Trang, 22, is a little unusual. Already a graduate of the economics department of mainland China’s Chongqing University, she has begun studying traditional Chinese characters because she plans to return to the mainland to pursue a graduate degree in Chinese culture and classical Chinese. “Traditional characters are difficult. They’re so much more complex!”

Talking about Taiwan

Huang Yunling, 32, teaches Mandarin classes in the Oriental Studies Faculty of the University of Social Sciences and Humanities (USSH) Hanoi. “My duties involve speaking with students,” says Huang. “They need to practice their listening skills. I don’t teach reading or writing.”

Huang’s students listen with keen interest as she offers seniors specializing in Chinese “Impressions of Taiwan,” describing landmarks such as Taipei 101, pop icons such as Jay Chou, and delicious snacks like bubble tea, salty deep-fried chicken, stinky tofu, and minced-pork rice.

Nguyen Minh Quy, who last year earned a scholarship from the Ministry of Education to study Mandarin in Taiwan, loved the nine months she spent as a student at Fu Jen Catholic University’s Center of Chinese Language and Culture. “I really miss the Taiwanese accent. It’s so nice listening to you speak.” Nguyen says the biggest difference she found between Taiwan and Vietnam was in the learning environment. “Fu Jen has four libraries, each of which is five times the size of our school’s library.”

Hua Thi Anh, a senior in the Oriental Studies Faculty specializing in Sinology, would also like to study in Taiwan. She says that her mother went to Taiwan 12 years ago to work as a caregiver and only returned to Vietnam three years ago. “She was there so long, she’s practically Taiwanese!”

Language teachers assigned to Vietnam have a dual mission: promoting Mandarin and introducing students to Taiwan. But contending with an unfamiliar environment forces them to grow as well.

“My mother didn’t want me to come to Vietnam because of the anti-China protests [in 2014], but I was determined to come.” Peggy Tsai remarks that while she’s teaching Mandarin, she’s also learning Vietnamese from her students. She believes she’s gaining a lot from the experience.


Aaron Chen, director of TECO Hanoi’s education division, says that promoting Taiwanese higher education abroad requires supporting measures. One of these is the Test of Chinese as a Foreign Language (TOCFL) developed by the Steering Committee for the Test of Proficiency – Huayu. Available in Vietnam for nine years, the TOCFL has gained widespread acceptance among schools and businesses, and looks set to take a leading position in the Chinese language proficiency testing market in Vietnam.

Chen says that while mainland China’s Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), which has been around for more than 20 years, tests only simplified characters, Taiwan’s TOCFL offers both simplified- and traditional-character options.

“More Vietnamese used to take the HSK, but we’ve been catching up. In fact, in 2014 and 2015, more Vietnamese took the TOCFL.” According to Chen, nearly 3,000 people took the TOCFL in Vietnam in 2015.

The TOCFL’s strengths are its accuracy and its universality. Chen argues that the HSK is a simpler and less accurate test. And he explains that TOCFL’s universality stems from its adherence to the Common European Framework’s standard of six levels of proficiency. “The HSK’s highest level is roughly equivalent to only level four [of six] of the TOCFL,” adds Chen. 

Competition in the foreign market for Chinese language proficiency testing is really about linguistic dominance. “Test questions involve cultural content and narratives,” says Chen, explaining that the two tests’ content naturally differs. “Mainland China’s HSK uses mainland Chinese content. Our TOCFL brings in Taiwanese issues.”

For that reason, all TOCFL questions have to be reviewed before being placed in the test. “The idea is that questions can’t include reactionary ideas or injure the feelings of our diplomatic partners.”

A different sort of export

“Mandarin proficiency testing could eventually develop into an industry.” Chen says that the TOCFL has existed for 13 years, and that 30-some nations currently use it. “If the test grows to the point that the international community all use it to evaluate Mandarin proficiency, it will become a kind of educational export.”

The TOCFL is aimed at students and working people, and provides evidence of their Mandarin proficiency.

For many students, the test is more than simply a measure of their skills or of their progress: it is often a graduation requirement. Chen says that achievement of the TOCFL’s highest proficiency level (level six) requires knowledge of roughly 8,000 characters and, for students in a non-Mandarin-speaking area, at least 3,840 hours of study. Those who reach it are capable of doing translation work. Individuals teaching Mandarin at a secondary-school or university level should also hold a level five or six certification.

Vietnamese students coming to Taiwan to pursue their educations need proof of their Mandarin proficiency. The current requirements are that degree-seeking students have at least a level-two certification, while those coming to study Mandarin should have at least a level one.

Mandarin proficiency certifications are also used in the working world. Vietnamese laborers and caregivers working in Taiwan all need a certain level of Mandarin skill to communicate with their employers. Taiwanese businesses in Vietnam can also use the TOCFL to find the bilingual professionals they so urgently require.

Some Taiwanese companies even offer extra benefits as an incentive to their employees to further their Mandarin studies. TECO’s education division does its utmost to help, and has organized proficiency tests at the Vietnamese offices of several Taiwanese companies, including Vedan, Taicera, and Nanpao Resins.

Word-of-mouth marketing

Following in the footsteps of Taiwan’s pioneering businesses, Taiwan’s educational industry has also begun expanding overseas. In fact, the two have developed a mutually supportive relationship.

Chen confidently states that the educational field has tremendous potential in Vietnam. Although Vietnam has more than 400 high schools, colleges and universities, some of those schools are having trouble attracting students. Worse, many of those that do have students are producing graduates who aren’t prepared for jobs, prompting large numbers of Vietnamese to look into studying abroad.

Taiwan has been recruiting graduate students from Vietnam’s universities for a number of years. But Taiwan’s declining birthrate has left many of its universities scrambling to fill their undergraduate rolls as well. “In the future, we’d like to help Vietnamese high-school teachers and principals get to know Taiwan,” says Chen. “We are even planning to offer some short classes about Taiwan to high-school students.”

Late last year, Chen invited 14 Vietnamese high-school principals to visit Taiwan in the belief that it would turn them into cheerleaders for study in Taiwan. 

With overseas Mandarin teachers planting seeds and tilling the soil, and more and more Vietnamese who have themselves studied in Taiwan spreading the word, Taiwan’s educational “exports” are sure to flower in Vietnam.

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