You Cannot Copy That Map

July 17, 2020

In a lecture on the lived experiences of the local peoples of the area surrounding Dien Bien Phu in Northwest Vietnam, Dr. Christian C. Lentz, Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Chapel Hill, shared this map of the Northwest Region of Vietnam and a short anecdote about why this map is of particular importance. He was in the middle of doing research in Hanoi at the North Vietnam Archives Center #3, and faced opposition when he attempted to make copies of many of the maps dating to the French colonial era in Vietnam, whether they be from the French or a Vietnamese production. This map alone Dr. Lentz was allowed to reproduce. This map represents for me the numerous layers that the themes of “contested” and “territory” manifest in Southeast Asia in this time period.

This seemingly little tidbit that he shared in the midst of his lecture is what really stuck with me, and cemented my understanding of the conflict in Southeast Asia. The “contest” for Vietnam extends much further past the initial creation of this map in 1952. The idea that a visiting scholar such as Dr. Lentz was strictly forbidden to copy any maps other than this one speaks to how hotly contested the memory of the Vietnam War is still today. As Dr. Lentz told the story, I created a mental image of a Vietnamese archival official standing over Dr. Lentz’ shoulder, closely monitoring what the American scholar copied. How do we remember this conflict? From which perspective? Controlling what can and cannot be recreated is an attempt to steer the narrative, which is very much still being written.

Dr. Lentz’ story on the “Black River Region after Northwest Campaign (Oct-Dec 1952)” map simplified for me all the complexities that contributed to the warfare in Southeast Asia into a single map, a visual representation of a territory that meant so many different things to so many different actors, each pulled into a conflict that continues to this day to be contested. I can only hope through continued scholarship, communication, and openness, that one day, the archival official will instead say, “Yes, you can copy that map.”