The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive and settle in Hoi An in central Vietnam in 1516. Material inheritance is low, or at least little recognized.


Southeast Asia

Relations between Portugal and Vietnam date from the 17th century. At that time there was not yet a country called Vietnam (Việt Nam), but rather the kingdoms of “Tonquin”, “Cochinchina” and “Champá”, as the Portuguese called them.

The notion of Southeast Asia is expressed politically today in a regional association of nation-states that, recognized as ASEAN, originally established in 1967, extends from Myanmar to the Philippines, bringing together Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

At the economic level, the ASEAN region is currently experiencing a 5.1% GDP growth and a 2.7% inflation with a demographic of 649.1 million. ASEAN’s aggregate economic size surpasses US$2.9 trillion in 2018.

For more info access here to the ASEAN region market profile written by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council in November 2019.


The First Europeans

According to Silva (2015), in 1433 the Kingdom of Annam was governed by two royal courts: the Northern Court - Đàng Ngoài (Tonkin or Tongking) of Kéchô (today Hanoi) and the Southern Court - Đàng Trong (Sikin or Siking) in the city of Taiking. Both the northern and southern people liked to identify as a single nation the ' Dai Viêt' ' Sino-Vietnamese expression meaning ‘illustrious people’ and presented themselves as such in the Chinese court.

In 1520 and throughout the 16th century, the Mạc dynasty was established in Hanoi while to the south were the Trinh and Nguyễn belonging to Thanh Hóa.

It is in this political-administrative context, according to Silva (2015), that the Europeans enter the 'Dai Viêt'. Still this author, mentions that the name Cochinchina emerges as a designation given by the Portuguese merchants of the time, being a land that, due to its maritime location and vicinity to the Chinese empire, it was both temporally and spatially distant from long sea voyages, attracting many merchants, mainly the Portuguese, Japanese and Chinese.

The first reference to present-day Vietnamese lands made by an European is due to Portuguese Tomé Pires and dates back to 1515. This does not mean that Tomé Pires actually landed in that part of the world, as Ribeiro (2016) states. He was aware of its existence, and made reference to it in his ‘Suma Oriental’ work. As a curiosity, this work contains the first European description of the habit of eating with chopsticks: 'they eat with two sticks, take the porcelain with the left hand, and with the right hand and mouth and sticks they serve themselves'.

Interestingly, according to Martins (2017), both Francisco Rodrigues’ “Roteiro” (Roadmap) and Tomé Pires' “Suma Oriental” confirm the relative lack of interest of Portuguese traders in Indochina due to the lack of a clear trading advantage compared to other regions such as Malacca and Macao. Or as Silva (2015) emphasizes, in Southeast Asia, Portugal was not interested in occupying territories, as it did not have enough people or means to do so. Rather, Portugal was interested in conquering only geographical positions that would allow the nation to control the major maritime trade routes in the region. Above all, the taking of the city of Malacca was of enormous importance from this point of view, as it controlled the only navigable channel that linked the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, which was the Malacca Strait.

However, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot on Vietnamese soil. Fernão Peres de Andrade, as alluded to by Martins (2017), was the first to visit the region in 1516. Duarte Coelho was one of the Portuguese who most often traveled along the coast, having been commissioned by Jorge de Albuquerque, Captain of Malacca, to explore Cochinchina's 'cove', where it will have placed one or two patterns and an inscription with its name on the island of Cham (Cu Lao Cham) dating from 1518, according to information from Fernão Mendes Pinto. The latter describes the coast in detail, including navigation difficulties, wind system, currents, landscapes, commerce and the salt business.

Nevertheless, and as Silva (2015) points out, there was some investment by the Portuguese in the study of the sea routes and cartography of the region - which allowed the development of interest in the coasts of the 'Dai Viêt' and the access of the first missionaries.

Historic yellow tram in front of Arco da Rua Augusta in Lisbon Portugal.jpg
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The use of Portuguese as Lingua Franca (Link Language)

According to Silva (2015), the South Asian Sea in the middle of which Vietnam is located, became, in the 16th century, a "Portuguese" sea. The business that was carried out in the main ports located in this sea were made in Portuguese. Even many years after the Dutch had conquered the main positions that the Portuguese held in this sea, especially Malacca, as early as the 17th century, the Portuguese language continued to be the commercial lingua franca spoken in that region of the globe.

Now, after Fernão Peres de Andrade, and as Ribeiro (2016) points out, several other Portuguese arrived in what is present-day Vietnam: some performing official missions at the behest of the viceroys of India, others (the vast majority) as merchants. others (mainly Dominican and Jesuit priests) to do the evangelization and still others, for having shipwrecked on its coast.

The most famous Portuguese castaway to step foot in Vietnamese soil was Luís Vaz de Camões, whose ship sank in front of the low delta of the Mekong river as he drove from Macau to Goa, and reached land by swimming with one hand while holding with the other hand the work he was writing, 'Os Lusíadas'.

Priest Francisco de Pina

The main trace of the Portuguese presence in Vietnam is not material, but cultural: the writing of the Vietnamese language in Latin characters, as stated by Martins (2017).

This author also mentions Francisco de Pina, as a native of Guarda, with studies carried out at the Jesuit College of Coimbra in 1605, having left Lisbon three years later on board of the Nossa Senhora do Vencimento (Our Lady of Expiration) ship bound for Japan. He was ordained a priest, in 1616, already in the East, in Malacca, by Bishop Gonçalo da Silva. At Macau College he taught Art and Theology. He lived for many years in Cachão, present-day Vietnam, where he studied, gave training and evangelized.

According to Silva (2015), Francisco de Pina was concerned with the language learning and formation of those who he would evangelize, because he knew it was necessary to have the fundamental tools to facilitate the encounter between Cochinchinese culture and Christian ideology

Francisco de Pina worked scrupulously for the invention and development of the Latinization of the Vietnamese language, called quốc ngữ or national language. Despite what can be said and, in Silva's opinion (2015), the birth of the quôc ngữ language is first and foremost the result of a historical encounter between the Vietnamese and Portuguese languages, as Pina was aware that it provided, a meeting between two cultural worlds and two different ways of thinking, with a common ground.

Pina, as explained by Ribeiro (2016), used the graphic annotation system that was already established for the Portuguese language, as a phonetic and graphic reference for Vietnamese language transcription, since it was previously written in ideograms similar to those used in the Chinese or Japanese writing. Thus, he romanized the language by changing to Latin characters, such as those used in the writing of Portuguese. This system and methodology were later followed by Father Gaspar do Amaral (1592-1645) and António Barbosa (1590-1647), who will have worked on a dictionary, until today unknown. Alexander of Rhodes who being chronologically the last of the three, had access to the works of his predecessors, publishing them.

As per Silva (2015) this linguistic transcription, was for Francisco de Pina, only a useful and effective instrument for the new religion introduced in Cochinchina, because Christianity had to accept not only the confrontation and dialogue with an already existing cultural system, but should learn to manage all the situations that it would create and build.

The publication of this dictionary marks the birth of Quốc Ngữ, that is, the 'national language', as the new transcript came to be called. Ribeiro (2016) argues, wrongly, that Alexandre de Rhodes was considered the "father" of Quốc Ngữ, obtaining his credits and corresponding recognition, having Francisco de Pina and the other priests fallen into oblivion. This oblivion was profoundly unfair, since a French priest would not have developed a work of romanization based on the Portuguese language, but rather on the French language or, perhaps, on the Latin language, and indeed there is undeniable agreement that Quốc Ngữ is based on the language Portuguese.

Thus, and according to Silva (2015), it cannot be denied that the fact that the Chinese characters used for centuries in Vietnam were transcribed in Latin alphabet, has played a major role in the development of modern Vietnamese identity and the current economic and political position that today covers this country in the world.

The relationship between Vietnam and Portugal (called Bồ Đào Nha in Vietnamese) has always been peaceful.



​This text has been adapted based on the following bibliographical sources:


​_Martins, Guilherme d’Oliveira. 2017. Uma Civilização Antiga. Boletim do Centro Nacional de Cultura no âmbito do Ciclo de Viagens: “Os Portugueses ao encontro da sua história”. August 26th to September 9th.


​_Ribeiro, Fernando. 2016. 500 anos de relacionamento entre Portugal e o Vietname. Blogue: A Materia do Tempo.

_Silva, Regina Célia de Carvalho Pereira da. 2015. Francesco Buzomi e Francisco de Pina no VietNam do Sul: Fragmentos de um paradigma religioso-cultural imperial. Università degli Studi di Napoli l’Orientale, Itália.