Vietnamese literature in the twentieth century reflects centuries of Chinese occupation, eighty years of French rule, and America's presence during the conflict between communist North Vietnam and democratic South Vietnam. In addition, Roman Catholic missionary work in Asia during the nineteenth and early twentieth century increased Vietnamese literacy and resulted in a greater demand for literature. The twentieth century in Vietnam began under French rule, which, combined with the influence of Chinese culture, produced works of a heavily moralistic nature, as evidenced by the stories of Nguyen Ba Hoc. Poetry as practiced during the first half of the twentieth century by such writers as Tan-Da Nguyen Khac Hieu, A-nam Tran Tuan Khai, and Dong-ho Lam Tan Phat often is described as lyrically romantic. Other writers focused on patriotic themes, eventually becoming known as the Dong-king School of the Just Cause. The advent of Vietnamese literary criticism and journalism in the 1930s occurred concurrently with the Self-Reliance literary group, which consisted of several poets who consciously rejected Chinese writing styles in favor of an indigenous Vietnamese vernacular style and themes that advocated individual and women's rights. The writing of this era continued to focus on traditional themes while introducing new rhyme schemes and rhythms that further relied on the use of Vietnamese language rather than Chinese. In the latter part of the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s, Marxist themes became more prevalent. Social themes of poverty and unfair taxation of Vietnam's peasant population became increasingly popular subject matter for Vietnamese fiction writers.
In the 1950s France signed an armistice that divided the country into the southern Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the communist North Vietnam. France withdrew its colonial government in the 1950s, and the conflict between North and South escalated. The period between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, however, witnessed a flourishing of literary activity in both countries. Works of this period typically are divided among writers wishing to reunify Vietnam as one communist country, the social realism of South Vietnam, and the heavily political poetry of North Vietnam. The imprisonment of future North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh prompted him to write a series of extremely popular poems, while writers in the South continued to advocate democracy and denounce communism. Many of these South Vietnamese writers were incarcerated or exiled for creating works considered “specimens of a depraved culture” after the United States withdrew its military support of the country in 1975, and North Vietnam reclaimed the South. The communist government of Vietnam, however, relaxed many of its restrictions on travel, trade, and culture during the late 1980s and 1990s, which increased the country's literary output and sparked new interest in Vietnamese drama, poetry, and fiction.