The early history of Vietnam is obscured in the mists of time and legend, but tracing its journey through the centuries of recorded history tells the story of a nation constantly besieged by foreign invasions and civil wars. This historical narrative – from the reassertion of independence in AD 979, after 1,000 years of Chinese occupation, to Reunification in 1975 – also reveals the unflinching Viet determination for autonomy and freedom.
It is believed that more than 5,000 years ago, the Viet people learned to cultivate rice, and settled in the fertile lands around present-day Guangxi and Guangdong in China. Their neighbors to the north, the Han Chinese, forced them to flee southwards, where the Viet leader proclaimed himself Viem De, the “Red Emperor of the South,” and established a kingdom called Xich Qui in the Red River Delta. This period represents the earliest mythical Viet state as well as the first recorded separation from China.
Legend has it that King De Minh of Xich Qui married a mythical mountain fairy, and their son, Kinh Duong, married the daughter of the Dragon Lord of the Sea. This union gave birth to Lac Long Quan, considered to be the first Vietnamese king. To maintain peace with the Chinese, he married Princess Au Co, a beautiful Chinese immortal, who bore him 100 sons. Lac Long Quan then sent his wife with 50 of their sons to the mountains and remained by the sea with the other 50. Thus, the Viet race came into being, with half of them living in the highlands, and the other half in the Red River Delta. Lac Long Quan raised his eldest son to be king of the Kinh or Viets, and gave him the regal name Hung Vuong. He became the first of a line of legendary Hung Kings, whose dynasty, Van Lang, was based at Phu Tho on the left bank of the Red River, about 50 miles (80 km) northwest of present-day Hanoi. It is widely believed that the ancient bronze drums, excavated in Northern Vietnam and southern China, and attributed to the Dong Son civilization, were associated with this important dynasty.
The Era of Hung Kings
According to folklore, the 18 Hung kings’ combined rule lasted for 150 years. By the 3rd century BC, Van Lang was in decline. In 258 BC, Thuc Phan, ruler of Au Viet, a rival kingdom to the north, overthrew the Hung and founded a new state called Au Lac, with its capital at Co Loa near Hanoi. Scholars regard this as the first Viet state, which flourished under Thuc Phan, who ruled as An Duong Vuong.
The Chinese Connection
Through the ages, Vietnam’s development has been marked by its proximity to China. In 207 BC, a renegade Chinese general, Trieu Da, conquered Au Lac and unified it with his own territories in southern China. Nam Viet, the kingdom he founded, had its capital at Fanyu in what is today Guangdong province in China. Trieu Da’s rule marked the beginning of almost 1,000 years of Chinese occupation that made Vietnam a unique outpost of Chinese civilization in Southeast Asia.
Nam Viet was probably as much Viet as it was Chinese. Although the ruling Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 9) regarded the area south of the Yangtze River as on the fringes of Han civilization, Chinese ways and cultural values were increasingly imposed on Nam Viet. The kingdom became a tributary state of the Western Han in 111 BC when Trieu Da’s successors acknowledged the suzerainty of Emperor Wudi (r.141–87 BC). With the establishment of Han authority, the Viet territories became the Chinese province of Giao Chi.
During the first centuries of Chinese rule, many attempts were made to Sinicize the Viets, but with limited success. While the Viets embraced many facets of Chinese culture, from education to Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, they resolutely refused to become a part of China, and resistance and rebellions continued throughout the long years of Chinese rule. In AD 40, two Viet noblewomen, the Trung Sisters, led the first and most famous bid for freedom. They proclaimed themselves queens of an independent kingdom, with their capital at Me Linh. However, just three years later, the Han re-established Chinese control over the region.
Despite repeated revolts, Chinese rule remained secure for the next nine centuries. By AD 679, Vietnam had become an appendage of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618– 907) under the name An Nam or Pacified South, with its capital at Tong Binh on the banks of the Red River near present-day Hanoi.
The Creation of Dai Viet
The millennium of foreign occupation ended in AD 938 when one of Vietnam’s most celebrated national heroes, Ngo Quyen, ingeniously destroyed a Chinese fleet attempting to sail up the Bach Dang River near Haiphong by planting a barrier of iron-tipped stakes in the bed of the river. Following this triumph, he proclaimed himself King Ngo Vuong of Dai Viet, and transferred his capital from Dai La, the Tong Binh fortress, back to Co Loa, capital of the first free Viet Kingdom, Au Lac.
Funan and Champa
Even as the Chinese-influenced Viet culture evolved in the heart of the Red River Delta, the south saw the emergence of two Indic kingdoms – Funan and Champa. A precursor to the great Khmer Empire, Funan is believed to have been established in the Mekong Delta in the 1st century AD. At the height of its power, its influence extended across much of Cambodia and along the east coast of Thailand. It was probably founded by a merchant from India who, legend says, wed the daughter of a naga (serpent) deity and established the dynasty.
Between the 2nd and 6th centuries, Funan’s rulers increased their wealth largely through commerce. There is evidence that they traded with China, India, and even the Roman Empire. But by the end of the 6th century, Funan was supplanted by a new Khmer power, the kingdom of Chen La. Located farther inland, it was less subject to Javanese attacks and disastrous floods.
Today, little of Funan remains beyond the ruins of the port-city of Oc Eo near Rach Gia, and some artifacts in muse ums at Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Long Xuyen.
The earliest records of the Kingdom of Champa date from AD 192, when settlements of the Cham, believed to have originated in Java, began to appear along the central coast of Vietnam. At the peak of their power, they controlled the lands stretching from Vinh to the Mekong Delta, and excelled at maritime trade, their main exports being slaves and sandalwood. By about AD 800, Champa found itself increasingly threatened by the newly powerful Khmer kingdom of Angkor and the Viet expansion toward the south. The situation worsened over the centuries, and in 1471, the Cham suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of the Viet. Champa was reduced to a small piece of territory from Nha Trang south to Phan Thiet, which survived until 1720, when the king and many of his subjects fled to Cambodia rather than submit to the Vietnamese.
The Consolidation of Dai Viet
In AD 945, Ngo Vuong died, and Viet independence was threatened once again as control was divided between competing fiefdoms. Fortunately, in 968, Dinh Bo Linh, the most powerful lord, reunified the country, calling it Dai Co Viet. He took the name Tien Hoang De and founded the short-lived Dinh Dynasty (968–980). He also re-established a tributary relationship with China to stave off further invasions. Then, in 979, the throne was seized by Le Dai Hanh, who founded the Early Le Dynasty (980–1009) and continued the conquest of Champa.
The Ly Dynasty
Held to be the first completely independent Vietnamese dynasty, the Ly Dynasty (1009–1225) was established by the learned and brave Ly Thai To. In 1010, he moved the capital back to Dai La in Tong Binh, giving it the auspicious name, Thang Long or Ascending Dragon. Thang Long would remain Vietnam’s capital for the next 800 years. Buddhism became the state religion, while Confucianism was adopted for state administration during Ly Thai To’s rule. Under this dynasty, Vietnam began to evolve as a powerful autonomous state, though it remained very much in China’s cultural orbit. It followed a system of strong centralized government, with a national tax system, a codified legal structure, and a professional army. At the head stood the king who was absolute monarch and mediator between Heaven and Earth.
The Tran Dynasty
The Tran Dynasty (1225–1400) introduced land reforms and defended Vietnam from Mongol attacks. In 1288, the national hero Tran Hung Dao defeated a major Mongol invasion at the second Battle of the Bach Dang River by using Ngo Quyen’s tactics of planting metal stakes in the bed of the river. At the same time, Vietnam continued its southward advance, absorbing Cham territory as far as Hue.
The Later Le Dynasty
In 1407, the Ming invaded Vietnam but were ousted in 1428 by the nationalist leader Le Loi during the turbulent Lam Son Uprising. The Chinese were forced to recognize Dai Viet’s autonomy after this victory, and Le Loi founded the Later Le Dynasty (1428–1788). His successor, Le Than Ton, inflicted a crushing defeat on Champa in 1471, pushing the frontier south of Qui Nhon. By this time Vietnam had become a major power on the Southeast Asian mainland.
A Nation Divided
As the Le Dynasty extended its domain, it incurred the wrath of local fiefdoms. In 1527, Mac Dang Dung, an opportunist in the Le court, seized the throne. However, from 1539 onward, real power was divided between two warlord families, the Trinh and the Nguyen. For more than two centuries, the nation would remain divided, with the Nguyen developing their capital at Hue to rival the Trinh capital at Thang Long. Under the Nguyen, the Viet conquest of lower Cambodia and the Mekong Delta began with the absorption of the Khmer settlement of Prey Nokor, later renamed Saigon.
Early European Influences
In 1545, the Portuguese established the first European factories in Vietnam. At first, they helped the Nguyen lords develop a foundry and weapons, but later, also aided the Trinh so they could benefit from the spice trade. The Dutch, followed by the French, replaced the Portuguese as leading traders in the 17th century. Christian missionaries also made inroads, the most important figure being Alexandre de Rhodes (1591–1660), a French Jesuit who converted thousands of locals to Christianity, leading to his expulsion. However, this led to the beginning of a French interest in the area for its wealth.
Tay Son Rebellion
In response to the years of civil war and harsh government under the Trinh and Nguyen lords, the Tay Son Rebellion broke out in 1771. Supported by merchants and peasants, it was led by three brothers who overthrew the Nguyen in 1783. The last lord, Nguyen Anh, fled abroad and sought French assistance. In 1786, the Tay Son overthrew the Trinh, provoking a Chinese invasion. The greatest of the Tay Son brothers crushed the Chinese and proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung. He died in 1792, leaving behind a much weakened Tay Son.
Triumph of the Nguyen Dynasty
In 1788, Nguyen Anh returned home and seized control of Saigon with the help of French missionary, Pigneau de Behaine (1741–99). Following Quang Trung’s death, Nguyen Anh easily defeated the Tay Son in the north. In 1802, he declared Hue the new national capital and himself the first ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty.
Establishment of French Control
Nguyen Anh gave himself the title of Gia Long, deriving it from Gia Dinh and Thang Long, the old names of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and thus representing the unification of Vietnam. A strong ruler, he died in 1820. Minh Mang (r.1820–41), the son of Gia Long, inherited the throne as well as a legacy of French involvement in Vietnamese affairs. Unlike his father, he felt no gratitude to the French. On the contrary, he was hostile to them and issued decrees prohibiting the spread of Catholicism. His son, Thieu Tri (r.1841–7) pursued similar policies, as did Tu Duc (r.1847– 83) who denounced converts as “fools seduced by priests.”
These anti-French measures instigated the imperialist faction in France to implement a “civilizing mission,” which led to the loss of national independence for almost 100 years. In 1858–9, ostensibly responding to the execution of missionaries, France briefly occupied Danang. Two years later, it seized Saigon and, in 1865, forced Tu Duc to form Cochinchina, a French colony. By 1883, France controlled the whole country, making Annam (the north) and Tonkin (the center) into protectorates. Tu Duc died the same year and his successors were reduced to being puppets of the French. Meanwhile, France occupied Cambodia and Laos, and in 1887, created the Indochinese Union, with its capital at Hanoi.
The Colonial Period
Paul Doumer, the French Governor of Indochina (1897–1902), invoked the An Nam or Pacified South of the 7th century, saying “when France arrived in Indochina, the Annamites were ripe for servitude.” He would eventually be proved wrong, but for many decades, Vietnam suffered under the French imposition of heavy taxation, state monopolies on salt, alcohol, and opium, and enforced labor known as corvée. The French also profited from coffee and rubber plantations as well as Vietnam’s extensive mineral resources. All this changed in 1940, when Nazi Germany occupied France and established the puppet Vichy regime. In Indochina, the Vichy authorities collaborated with Germany’s Axis partner, Japan, and Vietnam fell under a new, brutal colonial yoke.
The Rise of Socialist Resistance
From the early 20th century, several nationalist movements began to emerge across Vietnam. The 1911 Revolution in China inspired the Viets, and the Viet Nam National Party (VNQDD) was formed in emulation of the Chinese nationalist Kuomintang. In 1930, the French sent Nguyen Thai Hoc, the VNQDD chairman, to the guillotine along with 12 of his colleagues. In 1941, Ho Chi Minh, the architect of Vietnam’s independence, returned to Vietnam after many years. He formed the Vietnamese Independence League or Viet Minh, and began organizing a nationalist movement against the French and Japanese. In March 1945, faced with imminent defeat in the Pacific War, Japan took over direct administration from the Vichy regime. However, Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh forces had already liberated parts of the far north and were fast advancing on Hanoi. The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945, and on September 2, Ho Chi Minh declared national independence at Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square.
The First Indochina War
Following France’s liberation from Germany, General Charles De Gaulle and senior military officials were determined to restore their hold on Indochina, and reinstated French troops in Vietnam. This led to an uprising in Hanoi in 1946 and the outbreak of the First Indochina War. From their stronghold in Viet Bac, the Viet Minh forces, directed by General Vo Nguyen Giap, fought back, taking over broad swathes of the country. The French retained control of Hanoi, Saigon, and most large towns, but could not win. As Ho Chi Minh warned the French in 1946, “you can kill ten of my men for everyone I kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and I will win.” In 1954, the Viet Minh inflicted their final defeat on the French at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. However, the United States, frantic to curb communism, had already been funding as much as 80 percent of the French war effort, and the stage was set for the Vietnam War.
Prelude to the Vietnam War
The Geneva Conference was held in 1954, where France, Britain, the US, and the USSR decided to partition Vietnam at the 17th parallel, pending general elections in 1956. These elections were never held, and the partition became permanent. The North became the Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with its capital at Hanoi under Ho Chi Minh, and the South became the anti-communist Republic of Vietnam, with its capital at Saigon under the US-allied and fervently Catholic Ngo Dinh Diem.