Radicalization of the Viet Minh



The Thirty Years War

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The rise of Qui Nhon In the 1770s, war broke out among the Vietnamese. The immediate cause was an uprising in Binh Dinh Province against the misgovernment of Truong Phuc Loan. People in Binh Dinh had for generations borne the brunt of demands for soldiers, supplies, and transport to sustain Nguyen Phuc policy in the Mekong plain as well as in the mountainous hinterlands. When an ascendant Siam began to challenge the Vietnamese position in Cambodia and the court at Phu Xuan could not rise above a morass of corruption and incompetence, a new political force emerged in Binh Dinh. In 1767, Burmese invaders seized Ayutthia, the capital of Siam. A provincial Siamese governor named Taksin subsequently expelled the invaders and reigned as king for fourteen years (1768–1782). Taksin’s father, a Teochow Chinese, had made a career as a Siamese tax collector while also being active in the Chinese merchant community of Siam. Taksin had spent part of his youth doing business in Cambodia and reportedly learned to speak both Khmer and Vietnamese. He launched his bid to become king of Siam from Chanthaburi, on the southeastern coast of Siam near the Cambodian border. His familiarity with Cambodia may explain his desire to reduce this Siamese neighbor to vassalage. His means of accomplishing this was to champion the cause of a Khmer prince who came to be known as Chei Chéttha V, the son of Chei Chéttha IV, a former king who had died in 1757. The king of Cambodia in the 1760s was Outeireachea III. The Vietnamese had placed him on the Khmer throne in 1758 through the intervention of Mac Thien Tu, the lord of Ha Tien. Consequently, Outeireachea III was closely allied with Mac Thien Tu and the Vietnamese. As early as 1768, Taksin sent military forces by sea and seized some territory on the Cambodian coast around Kampot, only about forty kilometers northwest of Ha Tien, but Outeireachea III refused his demand to pay tribute. In 1769, Siamese and Khmer forces supporting Chei Chéttha V attacked Outeireachea III and, at the same time, a Teochow Chinese serving as Taksin’s agent conspired with some members of Mac Thien Tu’s family against him. Both the attack and the conspiracy failed. Mac Thien Tu held a strong position on the Khmer–Viet coast, which, rather than the overland route, was Taksin’s chosen approach to the Khmer capital. Taksin decided that in order to prevail against Outeireachea III, he would first have to deal with Mac Thien Tu. In 1770, several hundred Khmers and Malays who were allied with Taksin, led by a turncoat from Mac Thien Tu’s army, assaulted Ha Tien by sea. Mac Thien Tu defeated this challenge but it provoked great disorder in his domain. Some Ha Tien Chinese were interested in doing business with the half-Teochow Siamese king and were ready to throw off their allegiance to Phu Xuan. In this same year, people in the Central Highlands, emboldened by Phu Xuan’s inattention or by Taksin’s agents or by both,  emerged from the mountains to plunder Quang Ngai, spreading fear and confu- sion along the coast from Quang Nam to Phu Yen.  In 1771, Taksin arrived by sea with a large army. He seized Ha Tien and marched to the Khmer capital at Oudong, where he enthroned Chei Chéttha V. Mac Thien Tu and Outeireachea III fled to Saigon. At the same time as Taksin was putting his candidate on the Cambodian throne, whether by coincidence or by design, a man named Nguyen Nhac, supported by uplanders, Chams, Chinese merchants, and Vietnamese peasants established himself at An Khe on the main east–west trade route through the Central Highlands that connected the port of Qui Nhon with northern Cambodia and the Siamese capital. He raised a flag of rebellion and thereby initiated the Thirty Years War. The Mekong plain was alive with battles between Khmer armies and their Siamese and Vietnamese allies as a large Vietnamese expeditionary force was mobilized at Saigon in late 1771 and early 1772. By mid 1772, this force had advanced up the Mekong and restored Outeireachea III to his throne. Taksin withdrew his soldiers to the coast and returned to Siam. Thereafter, he relied upon the disorder that began to spread among the Vietnamese to serve his interests in Cambodia. In early 1773, Nguyen Nhac seized Qui Nhon. He claimed descent from Ho Quy Ly. A paternal ancestor had been taken as a prisoner of war by the southerners during the fighting in Nghe An during the 1650s and was settled on the upland frontier of Binh Dinh Province at a village named Tay Son (“west mountain”). His surname was changed to Nguyen, the most common surname in the south for displaced people seeking to identify with the new ruling house. Nguyen Nhac traveled widely as an itinerant betel merchant and tax collector, which gave him first-hand knowledge of conditions in many regions. According to Nguyen historians, he had a weakness for gambling and had a habit of using tax revenue to pay his gambling debts. When this was brought to light by higher authorities, he fled to the mountains and organized a rebellion. But there was more to his uprising than this, for he mobilized upland peoples from the Central Highlands and he also drew upon Cham symbols of kingship to rally large numbers of Chams. He furthermore gained the support of the Chinese merchant community at the port of Qui Nhon. Tay Son and An Khe were connected to Chinese merchant communities not only in Qui Nhon on the coast but also in Cambodia and at the Siamese capital further west. Nguyen Nhac’s seizure of Qui Nhon made him a major figure in the political world of the Vietnamese-speaking peoples. He would rule from Qui Nhon until his death in 1793. Nguyen Nhac benefited from a popular attribution of all the country’s woes to the perfidy of Truong Phuc Loan and his usurpation of the authority of the legitimate Nguyen Phuc royal house. He had no trouble finding recruits for his armies. He used unusual tactics to unnerve his enemies, simple tricks like having his men hiss and rattle their weapons when attacking. He organized shock troops with especially tall men who were sent into battle with Qing haircuts, naked with  gold and silver paper pasted to their bodies as offerings to the gods, and inebri- ated to the point of being eager to die. Phu Xuan soldiers, led by incompetent  cronies of Truong Phuc Loan, fled from Nguyen Nhac’s armies. By the end of 1773, Nguyen Nhac’s men had advanced south all the way to the border of Gia Dinh and north to the border of Quang Nam. Nguyen Cuu Dat, a scion of the redoubtable Nguyen Cuu family that had already served the Nguyen Phuc with distinction for a century and a half, repulsed Nguyen Nhac’s attacks into Quang Nam. In early 1774, the Phu Xuan armies based at Gia Dinh pushed north and retook all the territories up to the mountainous terrain at Ca Pass on the southern border of Phu Yen Province. But within a few weeks the situation changed dramatically when Trinh Sam decided to march south. Despite a famine in Nghe An, Trinh Sam could not resist taking advantage of the troubles besetting the old enemies of his family in the south. He recalled from retirement a eunuch with a reputation for competence, Hoang Ngu Phuc (d. 1775), and put him in command of an expedition into the south. When he crossed the Gianh River in autumn of 1774, Hoang Ngu Phuc announced that he was coming to help put down Nguyen Nhac’s rebellion. He met with Nguyen Phuc envoys, and they assured him that this was not necessary. But one of the envoys, wanting to unseat Truong Phuc Loan, secretly encouraged him to continue his march south. All of the best military officers in the southern army were in Quang Nam resisting Nguyen Nhac. Officers facing the Trinh army were timid or incompetent. Furthermore, Thuan Hoa was in the grip of famine. A shipment of rice sent from Ha Tien by Mac Thien Tu had been captured by Nguyen Nhac’s men. People in Thuan Hoa were dying and there were reports of cannibalism. When the Trinh army arrived at the Tran Ninh Wall, the southern soldiers opened the gates and fled. As Hoang Ngu Phuc took possession of the abandoned system of walls, he  issued another message saying that he had come not only to deliver the south- erners from Nguyen Nhac’s rebellion but also to relieve them of the usurping  despot Truong Phuc Loan. He called upon the southerners to deliver Truong Phuc Loan into his hands. A group of Nguyen Phuc princes and Nguyen Cuu Phap, another member of the Nguyen Cuu family, gathered the nerve to seize Truong Phuc Loan and deliver him to Hoang Ngu Phuc. Hoang Ngu Phuc continued his advance south as the 20-year-old ruler, Nguyen Phuc Thuan, and a band of princes who rallied around him, desperately attempted to organize resistance to the Trinh advance. In the last month of 1774, Hoang Ngu Phuc entered Phu Xuan and the Nguyen Phuc leaders fled to Quang Nam.  Within weeks, the forces of Nguyen Nhac were moving north to take advan- tage of Phu Xuan’s fall. Two Chinese merchants, Tap Dinh and Ly Tai, had  joined Nguyen Nhac when he seized Qui Nhon in 1773 and had raised shipborne armies that included Qing pirates. These men led Nguyen Nhac’s naval forces to blockade Hoi An at the mouth of the Thu Bon River as Nguyen Nhac’s land forces marched north along the foothills then downriver to meet them. The Nguyen Phuc were defeated and looked for ways to escape. Nguyen Phuc Thuan named a nephew, Nguyen Phuc Duong, son of a crown prince who had died in 1760, to be crown prince and left him in command of the soldiers that remained in Quang Nam, while he and as many as could get away embarked for Gia Dinh. A boat carrying the Nguyen Phuc generals was lost in a storm, but a boat carrying Nguyen Phuc Thuan and Nguyen Phuc Anh, the fourteen-year-old son of Nguyen Phuc Con, Nguyen Phuc Khoat’s designated heir, whom Truong Phuc Loan had killed in 1765, arrived at Nha Trang and was welcomed by loyal officials there before continuing the journey to Gia Dinh. Nguyen Nhac captured Nguyen Phuc Duong in Quang Nam shortly before Hoang Ngu Phuc advanced from the north and pushed him back out of the province. Tap Dinh, defeated by the Trinh, fled to Guangdong where he was killed by Qing authorities, who regarded him as a pirate. Ly Tai followed Nguyen Nhac back to Qui Nhon. Nguyen Phuc Duong urged Nguyen Nhac to unite with Nguyen Phuc Thuan at Gia Dinh against the Trinh, but Nguyen Nhac had an idea of proclaiming Nguyen Phuc Duong as king to rally the southerners against the Trinh. Nguyen Phuc Duong refused to cooperate with this scheme, and for a few months in mid 1775 Nguyen Nhac’s fortunes appeared to be in decline as Trinh armies arrived at the northern border of Quang Ngai and Nguyen Phuc armies retook Phu Yen, just south of Qui Nhon. Ly Tai, thinking that Nguyen Nhac was not treating him with sufficient regard, defected to the Nguyen Phuc forces in Phu Yen. Under attack from the Nguyen Phuc armies in Phu Yen to the south and with the Trinh army threatening to advance into Quang Ngai to the north, Nguyen Nhac sent treasure to Hoang Ngu Phuc requesting to submit. He viewed the  Trinh, far from their line of supply and in unfamiliar territory, as a less danger- ous foe than the Nguyen Phuc. Hoang Ngu Phuc sent one of his generals,  Nguyen Huu Chinh, to meet with Nguyen Nhac, to accept his submission, and to appoint him to lead the vanguard against the Nguyen Phuc. Within a few weeks, the situation dramatically changed when an epidemic wasted the Trinh army in Quang Nam. Hoang Ngu Phuc withdrew to Phu Xuan and died shortly after. The Trinh abandoned Quang Nam, settled down to govern Thuan Hoa, and thereafter posed no threat of advancing further south. Nguyen Nhac marched north and retook Quang Nam from Nguyen Phuc partisans who had risen up when the Trinh withdrew. At the same time, Nguyen Nhac’s younger brother Nguyen Hue attacked south into Phu Yen and put Nguyen Phuc forces there on the defensive. Nguyen Nhac moved quickly to take advantage of this turn of affairs. At the beginning of 1776, he sent another younger brother, Nguyen Lu, with a large seaborne expedition to Gia Dinh. Nguyen Lu seized Saigon. One Nguyen Phuc official, Bui Huu Le, was captured and subsequently became famous for bitterly scolding one of Nguyen Lu’s generals to his face, which so infuriated his captors that they killed and ate him. Buoyed by the victories in Quang Nam and in Gia Dinh, Nguyen Nhac, in the spring of 1776, proclaimed himself King of Tay Son at Cha Ban, the old Cham capital of Vijaya, around twenty-five kilometers northwest of Qui Nhon, near the modern town of An Nhon. Here, he would reign for the next seventeen years. But only two months later, the Nguyen Phuc general at My Tho, Do Thanh Nhan, retook Saigon, sending Nguyen Lu fleeing back to Qui Nhon. During the next year, from mid 1776 to mid 1777, Nguyen Phuc politics at Saigon unraveled when Ly Tai arrived from Phu Yen and a feud broke out between him and Do Thanh Nhan. When Nguyen Phuc Duong arrived in Saigon after escaping from Nguyen Nhac, Ly Tai promoted his claim to be king and forced Nguyen Phuc Thuan to yield. At My Tho, Do Thanh Nhan (d. 1781) and Nguyen Phuc Anh remained attached to Nguyen Phuc Thuan, the “senior king.” During the fighting with Nguyen Lu earlier in the year, Nguyen Phuc Thuan had called upon the Cambodian king for assistance. In the previous year, 1775, Outeireachea III had made peace with Taksin’s candidate for the Khmer throne, Chei Chéttha V. Chei Chéttha V became king and Outeireachea III went into retirement. In 1776, Chei Chéttha V refused Nguyen Phuc Thuan’s appeal. Later in the year, Nguyen Phuc Anh led a brief raiding expedition up the Mekong to punish him for this. Although only 14 years old, he had organized his own army, and he began to show unusual qualities of leadership. After five years of fighting, two Vietnamese regimes had become three. The northerners had taken Thuan Hoa but were incapable of moving any further south. Nguyen Nhac’s regime was ascendant from Hai Van Pass in the north to the Binh Thuan dry zone in the south. Remnants of the Nguyen Phuc family and their followers desperately endeavored to build a new center of power at Saigon. This was not a war between northerners and southerners. For the most part, the northerners were passive observers in this war, handicapped by poor leadership, dysfunctional government, and a demoralized population. This became a war between two groups of southerners based at Qui Nhon and at Saigon. The  importance of Saigon became increasingly apparent as the years of war accumu- lated. In the earlier phases of the war, control of Saigon was the prize of battle.

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