From the 1st to the 6th centuries, the south of what is now Vietnam was part of the Indianised kingdom of Funan. The Hindu kingdom of Champa appeared around present-day Danang in the late 2nd century and had spread south to what is now Nha Trang by the 8th century. The Chinese conquered the Red River Delta in the 2nd century and their 1000-year rule, marked by tenacious Vietnamese resistance and repeated rebellions, ended in 938 AD when Ngo Quyen vanquished the Chinese armies at the Bach Dang River.
He lured them into an ingenious trap involving the planting of iron-tipped stakes in the river that impaled the ships. This new, independent state was named Dai Viet by Ngo Quyen’s successors, the Dinh Dynasty. In 968 they established Hoa Lu (approx. 100km north of Hanoi) as the capital, but by 1009 another dynasty, the Ly Dynasty had moved the capital to Thang Long (Hanoi). This period was marked by stable government, as evidenced by the creation of many beautiful pagodas and a flourishing of the arts, in particular the Temple of Literature (Vietnam’s first university). The Ly Dynasty also expanded south into territory previously occupied by the Cham.
In the middle of the 13th century the Ly Dynasty was replaced by the Tran Dynasty, whose first priority was to repel the formidable Mongol invaders in the North. They employed the same trick used in 938 by Ngo Quyen. This time around the tormentor of the Chinese was General Tran Hung Dao who successfully sank Kubilai Khan’s Mongol fleet in 1288. Within 120 years though the Chinese were back, this time in the form of the powerful Ming Dynasty who re-asserted direct rule over Vietnam from 1407 to 1427.
Once again another hero was needed and once again he appeared, this time in the figure of Emperor Le Loi. He spent ten years fighting the Ming, using a form of guerilla warfare that would serve as an important lesson to future generations of Vietnamese. Tales of Le Loi’s expulsion of the Chinese from Vietnamese soil took on mythical proportions and many popular legends stem from this time. The most famous is the legend of Le Loi’s magical sword, used to vanquish the Ming Chinese. Whilst rowing on one of Hanoi’s many lakes soon after his triumphant return, an enormous turtle seized the sword from his grasp. The Emperor took this to mean that peace had returned and the sword had been given back to its guardian spirit. In honor of the event the Emperor renamed the lake “Ho Hoan Kiem” — Lake of the Restored Sword. Le Loi’s reign was marked by further Viet expansion as both he and his successors pushed inexorably south, eventually crushing the Cham kingdom in 1471.
This rapid expansion was soon to prove unworkable as effective control of the country could not be ensured the further one went from Hanoi; the lower half of the country was, in effect, under the control of Trinh feudal lords in the north and the Nguyen in the south. Eventually this feudal control was broken in 1771 by a rebellion led by three brothers from the village of Tay Son. The Tay Son rebellion, as it became known, conquered all before them as they marched south, capturing Saigon in 1783 and killing the leaders of the Nguyen clan that had taken shelter there.
In 1788 one of the brothers, Nguyen Hue, declared himself Emperor and changed his name to Quang Trung. Meanwhile the Chinese seized the opportunity to prepare yet another invasion in the North. Quang Trung, as his illustrious predecessors before him, tricked the Chinese by launching an offensive during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, whilst the Chinese were celebrating outside Hanoi. Once again this would prove to be a lesson that the Vietnamese would repeat in the future. Quang Trung died unexpectedly in 1792 and within 10 years the remnants of the Nguyen feudal system had regained control through Nguyen Anh, the sole survivor of the Nguyen clan in Saigon.
Aided by the French he proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long and, in 1802, made Hue the official capital of a new nation – Vietnam. So began the Nguyen Dynasty that was to rule the country from 1802 until 1945. This period of Vietnamese history is marked by the increasing involvement of the French, who saw the country as ripe for exploitation. For many years the French had been sending priests and missionaries to the country, but now saw the potential of Vietnam as a French colony with untapped resources and labor.
Gia Long’s successor Minh Mang became increasingly hostile to Catholicism and Western influences that he viewed as degenerate. His persecution of Catholics was intensified by his successors, culminating in the execution and massacre of priests and converts in the 1850’s. This gave the French the excuse they had been waiting for, and in 1859, they occupied Saigon, citing the protection of the Catholic minority as the reason. By 1867, France had conquered all of southern Vietnam, which became the French colony of Cochin China. In 1884 together with neighboring Laos and Cambodia, Vietnam became a French Protectorate and part of the “Union Indochinoise”.
French colonial occupation was marked by poor pay and conditions for the vast majority of Vietnamese needed to work the coffee, tea and rubber plantations as well as the coal, zinc and tin mines. The introduction of French monopolies on alcohol, tobacco, salt and opium at the end of the 19th century made matters worse. Against this background it is no surprise that dissent and then rebellion became widespread, especially given the successful revolutions of first China in 1911 under Sun Yat-sen and then Russia in 1918 under Lenin.
Vietnam’s communist visionary was Ho Chi Minh, the son of a teacher in Vinh province. In 1911 he left Vietnam and spent the next 30 years in a variety of jobs and locations, forming the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930. His return in 1941 was the catalyst to Vietnam’s independence, initially from the Japanese and ultimately from the French. In the same year he founded the Viet Minh, primarily a nationalist organization aimed at deposing the French and securing an independent Vietnam. With the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Emperor Bao Dai resigned in Hue and on 2nd September 1945 Ho Chi Minh proclaimed himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh square.
Unfortunately the French were unwilling to let go, although they had effectively relinquished control of the country to the Japanese in 1940. Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnamese independence after WW II sparked violent confrontations with the French, leading to a nine-year struggle to evict the French.
Around this time the United States starting taking an interest in the region. Originally they had helped Ho Chi Minh to repel the Japanese in 1945, using CIA officers to train the Viet Minh. Now however they saw Vietnam as another country “turning Red”. After the communist successes in Korea in 1948 and China in 1949, the US began pumping money into the South, hoping to create a favorable regime that would be anti-Communist in its ideology. The culmination of the struggle for independence from the French came in 1954 with the military humiliation of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu. Here the inspired military leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap outwitted the French, under the command of General Navarre into committing 16,000 French troops to the remote northwest of the country. Here in a valley, the French were trapped by heavy artillery that the Vietnamese had somehow managed to set upon the surrounding heights.
Shortly thereafter, the Geneva Accords were drawn up, temporarily dividing Vietnam into two zones (the Communist north and the anti-Communist, US-supported south) along the lines of the 17th parallel pending elections in 1956. The newly elected Prime Minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem refused to sign the agreement and the elections were never held. Diem was America’s puppet and the political and ideological opposition quickly turned from stalemate to armed struggle, prompting the USA and other countries to commit combat troops in 1965.
By 1968 there were over 500,000 US troops engaged in fighting the guerilla army of the Viet Cong (formerly the Viet Minh). The Viet Cong’s strength lay in its domination of the countryside and the peasant population. Although the Americans controlled the cities, nearly 80% of Vietnamese live in rural areas. With this support the Viet Cong could conceal themselves and fight the American forces on their own terms and in their own time. The Americans believed that superior firepower alone would wear the enemy down — they were wrong.
On January 30th 1968 just as the country was preparing to celebrate Tet, the Viet Cong simultaneously launched more than 100 attacks on every major town: The effect was devastating. At one point it looked as if Saigon itself might fall. This, coupled with the debacle at Khe Sanh (in effect an American Dien Bien Phu), turned the American public against continued US military presence in the region.
From 1968 onwards US troops were gradually withdrawn and the South was ultimately left to defend itself, something it was incapable of doing. The Paris Peace Agreements, signed in 1973, provided an immediate cease-fire and signaled the withdrawal of US troops. Saigon eventually surrendered to the Communist forces on April 30,1975 and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City shortly afterwards.
The last 27 years have been no less eventful. No sooner had the American war finished than the Vietnamese were engaged in fighting the rampaging forces of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, who saw fit to make violent incursions in the Mekong Delta and the Chinese in the north who invaded again, this time in support of the Khmer Rouge. Although Pol Pot and his entourage of despots were forced to seek refuge in Thailand in 1979, the Vietnamese were to stay in Cambodia until 1989.
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR in 1991 caused Vietnam to opt for a more economic-based “open door” policy, causing many Western nations to seek rapprochement in the form of both diplomatic and business ties after years of treating Vietnam as a pariah state. In July 1995 even the intransigent United States of America re-established diplomatic relations with Hanoi.