International Institute for Asian Studies
In memoriam Phan Huy Lê

“A man for all seasons” is an apt label for the Vietnamese scholar Phan Huy Lê (1934-2018) who died on June 23. The 84 years old Dean of Vietnamese historians played for decades a leading role in the debates about Vietnamese history dominated by a ruling communist party that often prefers to write history backwards. Together with Hà Văn Tấn, Trần Quốc Vượng and Đinh Xuân Lâm,  Phan Huy Lê belonged to a quadriga of Vietnamese historians  whose education went back to the French colonial period and was trained during the first Indochina war.

Nearly twenty years ago, IIAS published together with the École française d'Extrême-Orient a Liber Amicorum that collected articles and comments from Vietnamese and foreign scholars that showed how Phan Huy Lê’s work renovated the science of history in his country, but he also was responsible for a paradigm shift regarding the history of the late modern Vietnamese past. The study of the Tay Son rebellion and rise and decline of the Nguyen Dynasty both inside and outside Vietnam underwent major changes due to his writings and many conferences he organized.

The great number and significance of his publications, based upon original research from archeology and archival resources but also his never lasting production of edited volumes with historical value from centuries past with introductions and annotations is demonstrated by the more than 400 books, articles, papers and scholarly comments in several languages that he left.

Phan Huy Lê’s passing leaves not only a void in a close personal relationship that started nearly 40 years ago, but also a major loss for his students and colleagues. His important Centre for Vietnamese Studies in Hanoi facilitated for many foreign scholars access to archives and fieldwork. For me Phan Huy Lê became the proverbial Vietnamese umbrella for working in Vietnam in 1979.

From 1982 onwards he co-directed with the University of Amsterdam a scientific cooperation and exchange program between Vietnamese and Dutch social scientists and historians. Better known under its acronym VH-26 (Vietnam-Holland 26), it was one of a number of university cooperation programs initiated in 1973 with the University of Hanoi and one of the first scientific enterprises that appealed to the solidarity movement with Vietnam among university staff and students, and which led to support Vietnam through science and technology. Later in 1997, Euroviet III in Amsterdam co-organized and co-sponsored by IIAS became a success thanks to his generous and wise guidance and advice needed at a moment that a free exchange of scholars and ideas was a precondition for creating a better world. 

In the preface of the “Liber Amicorum”that Philippe Papin (EFEO) and I prepared for Phan Huy Lê’s first retirement in 1999, we also mentioned the important role of his lifetime partner and wife Mrs. Hoàng Như Lan, like  Lê also a descendant of a notable family. She was his hậu phương, the home front of his social community and large network of family, friends, colleagues and students. She might not be able to protect him in the “other world”, but I am sure that what he left is a guarantee for strengthening Vietnamese scholarship for future generations. His great personality, loyalty, collegiality and above all his capability of maintaining friendships for life  will be missed dearly not only by his family but also by us all, involved in the study of Vietnam.

John Kleinen



Trần Van Tho (et al.)(eds.), Nhân cách sử học (Great Historian). Hanoi: NXB Chính trị Quốc Gia. Liber Amicorum at the occasion of Pham Huy Le’s 80th birthday.

Friday, 29 June 2018
, Hanoi, Vietnam