Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese for over a thousand years from 111 BC - 938 AD. As a result, the official written language was Classical Chinese, known as Chữ-nho (𡨸儒) in Vietnamese, which continued to be used in Vietnam, in parallel with Chữ-nôm (𡨸喃) and Quốc Ngữ, until about 1918.
Sometime during the 10th century the Vietnamese adapted the Chinese script to write their own language and called their script 'Chữ-nôm' (southern script). The earliest known example of writing in the Chữ-nôm script, an inscription on a stele at the Bao An Pagoda in Yen Lang, Vinh Phu province, dates from 1209 AD (Ly Dynasty). It was during the Tarn Dynasty (late 13th century) that the script was systematized and started to be used in literature.
Famous Vietnamese writers who wrote in the Chữ-nôm script include the poets Nguyen Thuyen and Nguyen Si Co (14th century) and Nguyen Trai (15th century), and HoQuy Ly (14th century) who translated Chinese textbooks into Vietnamese and wrote royal proclamations and ordinances.
When western missionaries starting arriving in Vietnam during the 17th century, they developed a new script for Vietnamese based on the Latin alphabet - Quốc Ngữ (national language), which they used to write prayer books and other religious material in Vietnamese. Though Quốc Ngữ was developed by a number of different missionaries and by Vietnamese scholars, the person usually credited with its invention is Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary.
In the mid 18th century, some schools in Vietnam began to teach Quốc Ngữ, but it wasn't until the beginning of the 20th century that the use of Quoc Ngữ became widespread. Today Quốc Ngữ is the only script used for writing Vietnamese.
Courses in the Chữ-nôm script were available at Ho Chi Minh University until 1993, and the script is still studied and taught at the Han-Nôm Institute in Hanoi, which has recently published a dictionary of all the nôm characters.
On the top right of each Chinese loan word is the modern Vietnamese word, which sometimes differs from the historic pronunciation of the Chữ-nôm character. The Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations are given below this (Mandarin on the left, Cantonese on the right) The Vietnamese pronunciation is generally closer to Cantonese than Mandarin.
Within the span of hundred years of human existence,
what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny!
How many harrowing events have occurred while mulberries cover the conquered sea!
Rich in beauty, unlucky in life!
Strange indeed, but little wonder,
since casting hatred upon rosy cheeks is a habit of the Blue Sky.
The first six lines of the poem The Tale of Kiều
Tất cả mọi người sinh ra đều được tự do và bình đẳng về nhân phẩm và quyền lợi. Mọi con người đều được tạo hóa ban cho lý trí và lương tâm và cần phải đối xử với nhau trong tình anh em.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are
endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a
spirit of brotherhood.
(Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Online Chu Nom Lessons
Dictionary of 4000 Chữ-nôm characters
Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation (includes a facility for looking up Chữ-nôm characters): http://www.nomfoundation.org/
Yahoo newsgroup on Chữ-nôm writing
Akkadian Cuneiform, Ancient Egyptian (Demotic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieratic), Ancient Egyptian (Hieroglyphs), Chinese, Chữ-nôm, Cuneiform, Japanese, Jurchen, Khitan, Linear B, Luwian, Mayan, Naxi, Sumerian Cuneiform, Tangut (Hsihsia)