The Nguyen Dynasty



The Mongols return

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Military preparations preoccupied the Tran kings during 1282 and 1283. Weapons were forged and soldiers were trained. Men recruited to protect the kings were not allowed to study literature for fear it would diminish their fighting spirit. In autumn of 1282, the two kings called a conference of all their military leaders at a location near modern Pha Lai, around fifty kilometers east of Thang Long. Pha Lai was a strategic point that had been fortified for centuries. It was at the western terminus of the range of mountains along the northern edge of the Red River plain where four major rivers flowing from the north and west joined their waters before separating into several channels leading to the sea. Any invader from the north would have to pass by this point. Nearby were the personal estates of Tran Quoc Tuan at Van Kiep, which became a major object of battle in the coming wars. The conference was held in this place not only for the importance it was expected to have in future battles but also to be away from Mongol spies stationed in Thang Long.

It was at this conference that Tran Khanh Du, retrieved from the coal business, was rehabilitated and assigned to command the seaport of Van Don, where, back to his old tricks, he soon made a small fortune by buying up thousands of distinctive hats made in a particular village and then ordering all the local people to buy and wear them in order to distinguish loyal people from strangers and spies. Tran Quoc Toan, a grandson of Tran Quoc Tuan, was chagrined that he was considered too young to participate in the conference. He went home to recruit and train over one thousand soldiers from among his slaves and retainers. His men became famous as a crack unit that the enemy learned to fear, and he would himself die in battle. In contrast to this, Tran Kien, a disgruntled nephew of Tran Quoc Tuan, refused to attend the conference, excusing himself to stay home and “study Daoism.” Later, when in the press of battle he was ordered to lead his men into the field, he immediately surrendered and assisted the enemy as a guide. One Tran prince was excluded from the conference for a different reason, having been demoted to be a common soldier for writing a letter that “disparaged the kingdom.”

Following this conference, the Tran nobles and their followers returned to their home estates to recruit and train their soldiers. The text of a speech commonly regarded as having been made at this time by Tran Quoc Tuan to his officers has been preserved in Literary Chinese. The text is full of erudite allusions to Chinese history that were added by later writers. Nevertheless, the basic argument is that his officers owe him their obedience because he had given  them everything they have and without him they would be nothing. Further- more, if they do not fight for him they will lose everything they have to the  enemy, but if they fight with him he will reward them with even more in the future. In terms of what they have and of what they will additionally receive, he refers to wives, children, slaves, land, and treasure. Here we see the strong proprietary mentality of the Tran family, with its sense of possessing the kingdom and everything in it, being extended as the motivating appeal to its constellation of entourages.

A different kind of appeal was made to the thousands of Song soldiers who had fled from the Mongols and found refuge with the Tran. Tran Nhat Duat, a brother of the senior king, gathered and organized these men into an army that would win a major battle against the Mongols. Tran solidarity with Song against the Mongols during the previous thirty years came from a sense of shared membership in a common civilization under siege by an uncivilized enemy. With the demise of Song, pride of membership in this civilization and confidence in the superiority of being civilized was concentrated in the exercise of Tran dynastic leadership to resist the Mongol foe. Song soldiers were welcomed, placed under their own officers, and allowed to wear Song uniforms. The Tran were careful to alert their soldiers who campaigned with this army not to mistake them for the enemy.

Soldiers were tattooed with characters reading “death to Mongols,” and signs were distributed reading: “When the invaders come, everyone must fight them. If you are not strong enough to resist them, you are permitted to flee, but you must not surrender to them.” In autumn 1284, as Tran spies reported that Mongol armies were marching toward the borders, soldiers were sent to their assigned stations in the mountain passes. Tran Quoc Tuan commanded the armies facing the modern Chinese province of Guangxi, and Tran Nhat Duat led Song and Tran troops to watch the border with Yunnan.

When all was in readiness in late 1284, the senior king, Tran Hoang, summoned the “elders” in the kingdom to Thang Long. He discussed with them the situation and asked for their response. They reportedly shouted in unison: “To war!” Held just days before the first battles, the purpose of this meeting was to alert these village leaders to what would be expected of the people under their supervision and to rally them to follow wartime instructions.

One of the Mongol demands was that the Tran give provisions and passage to their armies en route to Champa. Kubilai was attacking in all directions at that time, through Korea into Japan, into northern Burma, and also into Champa, which he viewed as a stepping-stone for further seaborne conquests in Southeast Asia and India. The Cham coast was the safest route to avoid the dangerous reefs in the South China Sea. Emboldened by the stiff Tran attitude toward the Mongols, the Cham king, Indravarman V, refused to cooperate with Mongol ambitions, even daring to detain Mongol envoys on their way to Siam and India. In the winter of 1282–1283, a large army led by the Mongol general Sogetu arrived by sea at the Cham capital of Vijaya near the modern city of Qui Nhon. Sogetu defeated the Chams and entered Vijaya, but Indravarman V refused to submit and instead held fast in the nearby mountains, mobilizing more soldiers from distant places. Sogetu abandoned Vijaya and fortified a camp on the coast where he spent a year waiting vainly for reinforcements.

In spring 1284, Sogetu embarked his army and sailed up the coast to the northernmost Cham districts in the modern provinces of Thua Thien, Quang Tri, and Quang Binh, where he won some battles, gathered provisions, and waited for reinforcements. Instead of reinforcements, however, in late 1284 he received orders to march north to Thang Long in support of other Mongol armies marching against the Tran from Guangxi and Yunnan.

The Mongol army, under the command of Kubilai’s son Togan, included a core of Mongol units, many trusted units recruited in northern China, and some less reliable units recruited from the old Song territory in southern China. It emerged from Guangxi, crossed the border into Lang Son Province, and fought its way through the passes to a rendezvous at Pha Lai/Van Kiep with the Mongol fleet coming upriver under the command of a Mongol general named Omar. With an army mobilized from nearby localities and over one thousand war boats, Tran Quoc Tuan attempted to prevent this rendezvous. Togan and Omar brushed aside the Tran forces and advanced to Thang Long along the Duong River. Tran forces could not hold them back, and, less than one month after crossing the border, Togan entered Thang Long. The Mongol army in Yunnan commanded by Nasirrudin had meanwhile advanced downriver, pushing away all resistance to their progress, and also arrived at Thang Long. Withdrawing Tran armies concentrated in the region of the modern city of Nam Dinh, near the Tran home estates. Togan and Omar advanced down the Red River against them, defeating a series of counterattacks meant to delay them. One of these counterattacks became famous because of the person who was captured while leading it. Tran Binh Trong was a descendent of Le Hoan who, because of his valor, had been adopted into the royal family and given a widowed sister of the senior king as wife. When his Mongol captors offered him riches and honor if he would turn to serve them, he is reported to have replied: “It is better to be a ghost in the southern kingdom than a prince in the north.” He was beheaded. Sogetu had penetrated the southern border and was advancing northward through Nghe An Province where Tran Quoc Khang, a full brother of Tran Quoc Tuan, was in command. All available Tran armies were sent south to stop Sogetu and prevent him from linking up with Togan. Tran Nhat Duat, Tran Quang Khai, and Tran Ich Tac, brothers of the senior king, were ordered to lead their armies south, and even Tran Kien was stirred from his Daoist reverie and sent to lead his men to join his father, Tran Quoc Khang. However, unable to overcome the store of resentment he had been nursing for years, Tran Kien immediately went over to the Mongols and guided them against other Tran units hastening south. Tran Ich Tac, with a different store of resentment, also joined the enemy, bringing several other generals with him. Sogetu advanced through Thanh Hoa. The Tran leaders attempted to slow down Togan by sending envoys to negotiate peace, even sending him the senior king’s full sister as an ostensible token of sincerity. At the same time, Tran Quoc Tuan and his son-in-law Pham Ngu Lao led a force in several hundred war boats through the rivers back to Van Kiep, the headquarters for Togan’s supply line from the border to Thang Long. Unable to retake Van Kiep, they nevertheless organized Tran forces along the Mongol supply routes to keep them under constant attack. This gained the attention of Togan and prompted him to worry about his rear. He paused and requested reinforcements from Kubilai, but when the Tran kings refused his demand that they appear before him in person, he continued his advance to link up with Sogetu, who pressed forward from Thanh Hoa into the Red River plain.

The two kings were faced with the prospect of being crushed between the two Mongol armies. Tran Quang Khai from the south and Tran Quoc Tuan from the north had rejoined them and together they made plans to lure Togan’s attention back north while preparing to reconcentrate in Sogetu’s rear, in Thanh Hoa. As Togan’s and Sogetu’s armies linked up, the kings and generals fled by boat out to sea and up the coast to the Ba Che River in Quang Ninh Province, near the Chinese border. Omar’s war boats chased after them down the Red River but they disappeared into the sea and Omar returned with no idea of where they had gone. Disembarking at Ba Che, the Tran leaders sent the royal boats further up the coast to the border to attract the attention of the enemy and then walked on foot over the mountains to the Bach Dang River. With news that the Tran leaders were in the north, Togan went back to Thang Long, concerned that some new threat would materialize in his rear. Meanwhile, the Tran leaders embarked from the Bach Dang River and went directly by sea to Thanh Hoa, where they rallied their scattered armies.

After the Tran leaders had disappeared into the sea, many followed the example of Tran Ich Tac, Tran Kien, and others. Large numbers of Tran officials and soldiers surrendered, convinced that the war was finished. Togan was in Thang Long while Sogetu was at Ninh Binh with some units posted along the Red River between the two points. Hearing that Tran forces were reforming in Thanh Hoa, Togan ordered Sogetu to take some of his men back south to confront them and sent Omar with sixty war boats to assist with water transport. The summer rains were beginning. Suddenly, Tran armies arrived from Thanh Hoa by boat, moving rapidly up the Red River.

Tran Quoc Tuan defeated Mongol forces stationed at modern Hung Yen, and the Tran armies proceeded upriver. Around twenty-five kilometers south of Thang Long, Togan attempted to stop them. In a series of running battles the Mongols were pushed back. Tran Quoc Tuan’s grandson Tran Quoc Toan led the attack at Tay Ket, Tran Nhat Duat’s Song soldiers led the attack at Ham Tu, and Tran Quang Khai led the attack at Chuong Duong, on the edge of Thang Long. As Tran forces broke into Thang Long, Togan withdrew to Gia Lam on the north side of the Red River.

Sogetu and Omar looked in vain for the Tran armies in Thanh Hoa, for the two Tran kings had led their remaining forces north to attack the Mongols left behind by Sogetu at Ninh Binh. These Mongols fled and just had time to join Togan at Gia Lam before he began his retreat toward Van Kiep. The Tran armies that had taken Thang Long followed in close pursuit, inflicting many casualties with attacks and ambushes. Togan fought his way through the mountains to the  Lang Son border and safety. At the same time, Nasirrudin had a similar experi- ence of many ambushes as he withdrew back to Yunnan.

Sogetu and Omar, lacking good information, returned from their Thanh Hoa sojourn and, hoping to rejoin Togan, came up the Red River toward Thang Long. The two Tran kings defeated them in battle at Tay Ket. Sogetu was captured and killed as Omar fled downriver and out to sea. The Tran kings returned to Thang Long six months after the Mongols first crossed the borders.

After proclaiming punishments for those who had gone over to the enemy during the fighting, one of the first post-war tasks taken up by the kings was to order that a census be taken, which occasioned the first recorded argument between a Tran king and his scholar-officials. The officials reasoned that the turmoil and distress occasioned by the war made a census unpropitious. The king replied that it made a census all the more necessary in order to assess damages and losses and to know the condition of the kingdom.

In early 1286, enemy prisoners were released to return north, but a few months later came news that Kubilai had issued orders for a new invasion, and the Tran kings again looked to their soldiers. Stung by Togan’s defeat, Kubilai took a vengeful view of the Tran. He cancelled plans underway for a third invasion of Japan and concentrated military preparations in the south. But uprisings in southern China and the time needed to recruit and train new armies forced him to postpone his attack for one year.

In the winter dry season of 1287–1288, Togan again crossed the border into Lang Son Province and moved through the mountains into the lowlands for a rendezvous with the Mongol fleet at Van Kiep. Tran Khanh Du, at Van Don, could not prevent the Mongol war fleet, commanded by Omar, from passing down the coast and upriver to Van Kiep. However, several days later the Mongol supply fleet came along, and he completely ruined it, capturing or sinking every ship, save a small boat in which the Mongol commander fled to Hainan Island. The loss of their supply fleet doomed this Mongol campaign. At Van Kiep, Togan and Omar waited in vain for the supply fleet before proceeding to Thang Long where they were joined by the column from Yunnan. Together they pushed Tran forces down the Red River and out to sea. Running out of provisions, Togan returned to Thang Long and sent out foraging parties. Omar paused at the Tran home estates to despoil Tran Canh’s tomb, then went in search of the supply fleet, of which he found no trace

. After a month of sitting at Thang Long, Togan withdrew to Van Kiep, where Omar joined him after fighting and foraging his way back up the Bach Dang River. Tran armies gathered and hemmed in Togan and Omar at Van Kiep. After a month had passed, the Mongols were running out of food and had no choice but to break out and return to China. Omar went downriver where he was captured and his entire fleet was lost when Tran Quoc Tuan ambushed him at the Bach Dang estuary. Meanwhile, Togan fought his way through the mountains to the Lang Son border, and the Yunnan contingent returned the way it had come.

Kubilai was not reconciled to this defeat. He continued to issue plans for another invasion until his death in 1294. But Mongol expeditions were engaged in Burma and in Java during these years, and Kubilai’s followers were growing weary of conquest. In 1289, the Tran released most of their prisoners of war, but Omar, whose return Kubilai particularly demanded, was intentionally drowned when the boat transporting him was contrived to sink.

It is recorded that during the Mongol invasions “many noblemen and officials went to the invader’s camps and surrendered.” After the wars, those who returned to allegiance were examined and suffered punishments appropriate to their cases, whether death, banishment, confiscation of property, or changing of surname as a mark of treason. After this procedure was completed, a trunk captured from the Mongols that was filled with lists of the names of those who had surrendered to them was burned to symbolically put an end to the matter and “to soothe rebellious inclinations.”

After punishing traitors, the Tran kings presided over another round of rewarding the meritorious. When some expressed dissatisfaction with what they had received, the senior king is reported to have won them over by saying: “If any of you can guarantee that the enemy will not return, I will promote you to the highest rank possible and not be sorry to do it. But supposing it turns out that you are wrong, and I have already given you a generous reward; if you earn more merit when the enemy returns, what more can I give to reward you then?” The appeal was to material rewards. And the prospect of another Mongol attack remained alive.

In the winter of 1289–1290, the king, Tran Kham, led an attack into what is now Laos. He brushed aside the objections of scholar-officials who argued that the land was still suffering from the effects of war by saying that it was necessary to do this precisely for that reason, so the people in the mountains who were inclined to raid the lowlands would not get the idea that war had exhausted Tran defenses. Another reason may have been to offer opportunities for his men to earn more merit and plunder.

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