For the ordinary common folks, they just tried to live, to have enough to eat to survive. Abstract ideas of “separate people” or “nationhood” were far from the minds.
For the nobility, the ancient Vietnamese would simply think of themselves as “civilized”. Sure there were differences due to locations but most people hardly travelled far. There were revolts and tribal wars but that’s just part of human conditions, not so much about a cry for distinctions.
Even after Vietnam got independence in 938AD, the idea of a distinct “nationhood” would not have evolved until European colonial time. The Vietnamese nobility would still think of themselves as “civilized” as being a part of the Sinosphere. The idea of “nationhood” was invented by European anthropologists and the idea spread over to East Asia upon colonization and triggered an establishment of modern nationalism.
Prof Liam Kelley has been studying Vietnam history in depth and wrote some thoughtful blog posts Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog (+ More) . A few excerpts are given below.
The Premodern Past that Haunts Modern Vietnamese
This “problem” of the premodern past has haunted modern Vietnamese intellectuals for the past 100 years. They can’t find a way to deal with all of that “Chinese-ness” in the “Vietnamese” past, as well as in the Vietnamese language.
The real “problem,” however, is that modern Vietnamese intellectuals can’t accept the fact that their ancestors thought differently than they do, that they didn’t see the world as culturally divided between “Vietnam” and “China.”
Instead, they demand that their ancestors be the same as them.
Their writings have to be “Vietnamese.”
Their language has to be “Vietnamese.”
Their culture has to be “Vietnamese.”
“But,” the ancestors would say, if they could talk, “we’re civil (văn hiến)!”
Paradigm Shifts in Vietnamese History
This then brings us to Vietnamese history. There are many explanatory paradigms about the Vietnamese past that are inaccurate, and which many people know are inaccurate. We could create a list that could go on and on.
Many people really believe that there was a kingdom called Văn Lang in the first millennium BC that was ruled over by Hùng Kings.
Many people have no idea how completely the way that educated Vietnamese viewed the world was transformed in the twentieth century, and as a result, uncritically make use of modern terms like “ dân tộc ” when they talk about the period prior to the twentieth century (when Vietnamese intellectuals in the first half of the twentieth century made it clear that this was a new concept to them).
Many people believe that the idea that Vietnamese have “always been resisting foreign aggression” has been part of the consciousness of “the Vietnamese” since the beginning of time, and do not see that this is a modern discourse that was created in the twentieth century to rally people to do precisely what they were not doing—resisting.
The Origins of Patriotic Education in Vietnam
One example of such works is the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư (改良蒙學國史教科書). I’m not sure about the exact publication date for this work, but it should be around 1912 or so. Its argument about the need for a new mindset is similar to what can be found in works like the Việt sử yếu (越史要) from 1914.
What is the new mentality that these works encouraged? They argued that “Vietnamese” (Note that in the passage below the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư does not use this term. I’m just using it here for the sake of simplicity.) did not have a sense of patriotism because they had never really thought about their own land. Instead, they had just focused on learning about that big place to the north.
This was one of the most important intellectual changes that took place at that time. After centuries of living in a world in which educated Vietnamese valued certain knowledge as universal (what we would today call “Chinese” knowledge), in the early twentieth century educated Vietnamese moved away from that way of viewing the world and started to emphasize the need to know about their own land.
Why did this happen? It is because Vietnamese intellectuals at that time came to learn of the concept of the nation, and that in the West people did not emphasize some universal form of knowledge as they did, but valued instead information about their own individual countries.