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World Beat: Vietnam  

Mercury, September/October 1997 Table of Contents

Nguyen Dinh Huan
Vinh University

Not long ago it was difficult for Westerners to visit Vietnam or do business there. Now the country is open, its economy growing at 8 percent a year, its astronomers finally getting a chance to work in their chosen field.

Thousands of years ago, the ancient Vietnamese began rice cultivation, ocean navigation, and, to support these activities, astronomical observation. Astronomical figures appear on the surfaces of the 3,000-year-old brass drums that French archaeologists first found in 1929. One of these drums is now on display at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

The observations continued throughout the nation's history. The Ly dynasty (1010†1225) founded imperial observatories where the king's dignitaries measured the Sun's shadow, observed the Moon, compiled calendars, drew charts of the planets and stars, and predicted eclipses. In 1801, the Nguyen dynasty built Hue Observatory, some vestiges of which remain in Hue, the old capital.

In 1902, under French rule, a new observatory replaced these old ones--Phu Lien Observatory, 120 kilometers (75 miles) from Hanoi in a beautiful site by the sea. Modeled on Zo-se Observatory in Shanghai, Phu Lien was a universal observatory: It made geophysical and meteorological as well as astronomical observations. It was originally equipped with equatorial and meridian circles for solar observation and time service. In 1972, these were supplemented by a 15-centimeter Zeiss Coudō refractor. At Phu Lien, astronomers studied the Earth-Sun relationship and its effect on radio-wave propagation and weather.

But during the war from 1945 to 1975, Phu Lien observatory was seriously damaged, its equipment largely destroyed. The Coudé refractor was transferred in 1976 to Nha Trang, where there is a station for observing artificial satellites. With Polish assistance, Phu Lien has now re-established geophysical and meteorological observation--but not yet astronomical observation.

Over the past few years, largely because of visits by astronomers from the International Astronomical Union, Vietnamese astronomy has risen from the dead. There are some 20 astronomers who were trained in Russia and Eastern Europe. Two of them were elected general members of IAU in 1991, and many have participated in IAU activities, such as the 1994 general assembly in the Netherlands. Equipment is slowly materializing. Some school telescopes were sent to Vietnam by the Canadian Royal Astronomical Society and the Paris Observatory. The Sumimoto Science Foundation in Japan donated a 40-centimeter reflecting telescope for the 1995 total solar eclipse. And a 100-seat planetarium in Vinh is now under construction; it should receive its instruments from Japan next March.

Recent astronomical research in Vietnam has concentrated on preparing ephemerides, conducting astrometry, studying the motion of artificial satellites, and assisting surveys of Vietnamese territory. Astronomers have published primarily in Chinese, Russian, and Eastern European journals. Some have written textbooks and popular books.

In the coming years, with the new telescopes, we wish to do more detailed research:

  • Solar observation. In Vietnam, we have places where there are 200 to 300 days of sunshine yearly and a great number of days when the Sun's altitude at noon is higher than 60 degrees.

  • Celestial mechanics and ephemerides. These are fields that do not demand expensive equipment, and in which we already have expertise.

  • Astrometry at low latitudes. Pulkova Observatory in Russia has published corrections to stellar positions which account for atmospheric refraction. But to use these tables in tropical countries, where the temperature and humidity are higher, it will be necessary to make additional observations.

Despite the advances, our equipment and materials are still insufficient. There is no observatory, no journal, no research center. Vietnamese astronomers are scattered around the country, and many must earn their living in other careers. The libraries in universities have a lot of astronomical books and journals--mainly Russian and Eastern European texts from 30 years ago.

The most pressing task of all is to train a new young scientific contingent. Before 1950, astronomy and cosmology were taught in the last year of secondary school. During wartime, astronomy was dropped in order to shorten the education program, and that has remained unchanged. But the subject is still taught in some universities and other institutions of higher learning. Some physics students, particularly those who want to teach astronomy in secondary school, pursue a master's degree in astronomy. Ten postgraduate students are now studying astronomy in Vietnam.

Improving education is the first priority of Vietnamese astronomers. We hope to restore astronomy to the secondary-school curriculum, which will demand textbooks, audiovisual and demonstration equipment, and small telescopes and theodolites. We also plan to establish a training center for astronomy teachers.

At the postgraduate level, Vietnamese astronomers are selecting the best students in physics and trying to send them abroad to study. In 1994 two graduate students went to France to study astrophysics. We hope to have a working Internet connection by the time they return. The Internet was allowed into Vietnam only in June, and Vinh should have the facilities by the end of this year.

Vietnamese astronomers have attended summer schools in India, China, Egypt, and Vatican City. Donat Wentzel of the University of Maryland and Nguyen Quang Rieu of Meudon Observatory will hold an IAU summer school in Vietnam from Sept. 1 to 14.

In a few years, when Vietnam's economy and scientific community have grown, we can finally build a national observatory. We hope, with the continued assistance of astronomical organizations around the world, we can find again our position in the international astronomical community.

NGUYEN DINH HUAN is the vice-rector of Vinh University, Nghe An, Vietnam. He would like to acknowledge the assistance of Nguyen Dinh Noan and Dinh Phan Khoi. Nguyen's fax number is (84) (38) 44812.


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