Geographically the country of Vietnam as we know it was only established in the early 19th century, however Vietnam’s history stretches back thousands of years. This is one of the longest histories in the world, starting around half a million years ago, with the first settlements on the Red River valley in the north and later extending 1700km south to the Mekong Delta. No other country in Asia has gone through so many changes over such a short period of time as Vietnam. In less than forty years, Vietnamese people were able to place behind all the bitterness and slaughter of the disastrous American and civil War and while transiting from an old communist system to a socialist market economy, focus resiliently on the future.
Hong Bang Period 2879BC – 258BC
Around 3000 BC northern Vietnam was a pre-dynastic tribal society without any management systems. Tribal populations had spread throughout Vietnam with the primary 15 settling around the Hong River and the Ma River. It is thought that an early tribal leader formed a political union between these 15 primary tribes of the northern Red River Valley. Declaring himself ‘king’ he took the title Hung Vuong, creating the first Vietnamese dynasty known as the Hong Bang beginning in 2879 BC.
Hung Vuong, as the first king in Vietnam, was the founder of the country. He named his kingdom Van Lang which today means Vietnam. Hung Vuong was succeeded by his male heirs, 18 in total, taking the Hung dynasty to 258 BC. The dynasty was dethroned by the ruler of the neighboring upland Au Viet tribes Thục Phan, who united the Au Viet tribes with the Lac Viet tribes to form the new kingdom of Au Viet.
Thuc Dynasty 257 – 207
Thục Phan ruled the kingdom of Au Lac from 257 – 207 BC under the title of An Duong Vuong. As a prince of the Chinese state of Shu, he had been sent by his father to explore the area which today belongs to the states of Guangxi and Yunnan in South China, in the hope to move their people to the north of Vietnam during the invasion of the Qin Dynasty.
To move his people Thục Phan assembled an army that did defeat King Hung Vuong XVIII, the last ruler of the Hong Bang Dynasty, around 257 BC. Declaring himself ‘King An Duong’ he secured this land for his people to prosper at a turbulent time in China. The Qin state did rise to power, unifying China under the Emperor Qin Shi Huang. Legends follow about what happened, but after various battles An Duong Vuong was eventually defeated by Trieu Da. Trieu Da was a military governor for the Qin Empire who after conquering the new territory proclaimed himself a new emperor of the Trieu Dynasty and called his new empire Nam Viet.
Trieu Dynasty 207–111 BC
The kingdom of Nam Viet was ruled by the Trieu Dynasty which consisted of northern Vietnam and parts of southern China. The dynasty was ruled by a military governor of the Qin Empire who asserted his independence over these parts when the Qin collapsed in 207 BC.
Chinese-orientated historians regard the Trieu Dynasty as Chinese whilst Vietnamese historiography says the dynasty was the government of the Vietnamese nation. Many have struggled therefore, with the issue of whether the Trieu historically should be considered as founders of Vietnam or as foreign invaders.
Trieu Da, the founder of the dynasty, after conquering the Vietnamese state of Au Lac led a coalition of Yuè states in a war against the Han Empire who had been expanding southwards. Many Vietnamese therefore consider Trieu a hero for sticking up to the Han Empire.
Subsequent rulers however were less successful in asserting their independence and the Han conquered the kingdom in 111 BC, which in Vietnamese history marks the beginning of The First Chinese Domination (111 BC – 39 AD).
Han Domination 111 – 39 AD
In 111 BC the Han Dynasty of China conquered the Nam Viet kingdom as they expanded southwards. This expansion brought what is now northern Vietnam in to modern Guangdong and Guangxi under the new name of Jiaozhi. The Han Empire divided the former kingdom into nine commanderies (a historical administrative division of China) which were all administered from Long Bien, near modern Hanoi, each ruled by a Chinese mandarin.
The Vietnamese had to pay heavy taxes to the Hans as well as giving up areas of land for the Chinese to convert them into Chinese style farms. The Chinese also attempted imposing religion, culture and politics on to the Vietnamese. Implementation of a foreign administrative system was not as easy to apply however with frequent uprisings by the Vietnamese.
These uprisings came as the efforts by the Han to assimilate its new territories were intensified. During the first century of Chinese rule Vietnam was governed leniently. By the first century A.D. however the Chinese aimed at turning Vietnam into a patriarchal society, by raising taxes and instituting marriage reforms, so it was more agreeable to political authority.
In response to this increasingly impressive rule a revolt broke out in A.D. 39, led by Trung Trac and her sister Trung Nhi. These sisters incited the armed revolt that expelled the Han in A.D. 39 and were crowned queens in A.D. 40 renaming the country Linh Nam and marking the end of the first Chinese domination of Vietnam.
These sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, are regarded as national heroines of Vietnam for revolting against the Chinese and the Han Empire in 39 A.D. As Chinese rule became increasingly more forceful Trung Trac’s husband Thi Sach stood up against them. Thi Sach was consequently executed to warn all those thinking of rebelling. His death spurred his wife to react and the sisters, after successfully repelling a small unit of Chinese from their village, assembled a large army who were mainly women and liberated Nam Viet within months. In 40 A.D. they became queens of the country and successfully resisted Chinese attacks on Vietnam for the next five years.
The rebellion of the Trưng sisters was however relatively short lived as the Chinese led a huge expeditionary army under the veteran general Ma Yuan to suppress the rebellion. When the sisters were defeated they committed suicide by drowning themselves in the Hat River in 43 A.D.
From Eastern Han to Liang domination (43–544)
This period is the time of the second Chinese domination which is when Vietnam fell into Chinese control once again. The Trung Sisters had made an independence movement which was only a brief interruption in the Chinese occupations of Vietnam. China continued to strengthen their control over the region even staying in power when the Eastern Han Dynasty split into Three Kingdoms in A.D. 220. The only serious threat for 500 years was in A.D. 248 when a female rebel named Trieu Thi Trinh pushed out the Chinese rulers, but she was quickly overthrown.
The second Chinese domination ended in A.D. 544 when Ly Nam De came to power. He is often considered the first emperor of Vietnam and the founder of the Early Ly Dynasty (544–602).
Anterior Ly Dynasty (544–602)
The Early Ly Dynasty dates from A.D. 544 to 602 and was founded by Ly Nam De who is traditionally recognized as the first emperor of Vietnam. Ly led the local nobility and tribes of the Red River Valley to a successful rebellion in A.D. 543 over frustrations with the corrupt and hostile government. In A.D. 544 he was declared ‘Emperor’ by the people and his new empire was renamed ‘Van Xuan’.
Ly Nam De established his capital at Long Bien (modern-day Hanoi) surrounding himself with effective military, leadership and administrative scholars, as well as building fortresses in strategic locations to fend off threats from the north Han and the southern Champa Kingdom. Along with this, he established land reforms and promoted literacy.
Immediately however the Liang Dynasty of China retaliated and sent in 120,000 troops causing Ly Nam De’s forces to flee west into Laos. In A.D. 548 Ly Nam De was assassinated by Laotian tribesmen in the hope of warding off the invading Liang army. He was succeeded by Trieu Quang Phuc (later known as Trieu Viet Vuong which means Trieu Viet King). The new king eventually drove out the Chinese in A.D. 550 giving Northern Vietnam roughly 60 years of independence in their 1000 year Chinese occupation.
From Sui to Tang domination (602–905)
This period refers to the third Chinese domination beginning in A.D. 602 after the Anterior Ly Dynasty until the rise of the Khuc family in A.D. 905. These years saw two Chinese imperial dynasties rule over an area of Vietnam which roughly corresponds to the modern Hanoi region. From A.D. 602 – 618 it was under the late Sui dynasty. From A.D. 618 – 905 the Tang dynasty became the new Chinese rulers of Vietnam.
Whilst for centuries Vietnam had been drawn closer into the political and cultural realm of China this period, the seventh and eighth centuries in particular, were exceptionally bleak. The Tang Dynasty tightened its grip on the province it called Annam, or the ‘Pacified South’. The generals at this time were particularly brutal and in response to three revolts between 722 and 728 they ordered the decapitated bodies of 80,000 rebels to be stacked into a pyramid.
Although Chinese governors ruled over Annam, a series of local emperors were the unofficial rulers. One of these local emperors Khuc Thua Da made himself governor in A.D.905 whilst taking advantage of the disturbances in the Tang Empire. His popularity from the people gave him the power to push the Tang out from the region.
In A.D. 905, taking advantage of the disturbances in the Tang Empire Khuc Thua Da, a local emperor at the time, made himself governor of the area. As a rich man who was admired by the people he managed to push out the Tang from the region ending the practice of the Chinese governors in this province.
In A.D. 930 the Southern Han dynasty, which had taken power in southern China, invaded the country again. In A.D. 931, Duong Dinh Nghe took up the fight against the Han after making himself governor. Following Duong Dinh Nghe’s murder the fight was led by Ngo Quyen who in A.D. 938 clashed with a Southern Han expeditionary corps approaching by sea. The southern Han fleet entered Vietnam via the Bach Dang estuary where iron-tipped stakes had been sunk into the riverbed by Ngo Quyen which impaled the boats causing them to sink.
This victory at Bach Dang in A.D. 938 put an end to the period of Chinese imperial domination. In A.D. 939 Ngo Quyen proclaimed himself king, established the Ngo Dynasty and his capital at Co Loa (previously a capital in the 3rd century BC) and set up a centralized government.
Ngo, Dinh, & Prior Le dynasties (939 – 1009)
The Battle of Bach Dang River was won by Ngo Quyen against the Southern Han. Ngo Quyen ascended the throne taking the name Ngo Vuong and moved the capital back to Co Loa Thanh. Although he only reigned for five years, until A.D. 944 due to illness, he had set the stage for further campaigns for independence.
Following his death however Nam Viet dissolved in anarchy while twelve warlords disputed his succession. Dinh Bo Linh defeated or subdued the other 11 lords earning him the title Van Thang Vuong, which means “King of Ten Thousand Victories. After unifying the country in 968 and bringing peace back to the land, he proclaimed himself Dinh Tien Hoang De and renamed the country Dai Co Viet.
Dinh Bo Linh had finally united the country and secured its future by paying tribute to the Chinese emperor. This system continued to the nineteenth century. These early monarchs laid the base for a centralized state instigating road building programmes as well as reforming the army and administration. It was however the following Ly Dynasty that consolidated Dai Viet’s independence.
Ly, Tran, & Ho dynasties (1009 – 1407)
The Ly Dynasty, founded by Ly Thai To in 1009, guaranteed the nation’s stability for the next 400 years once consolidating independence for Dai Viet. Firstly they relocated the capital back into the northern rice-lands, founding the city of Thang Long, the precursor of modern Hanoi. Ly Thai To’s successor, Ly Thai Tong (1028-54) reorganized the national army and made it into a powerful fighting force.
By 1225 the Ly clan had declined and was followed by the Tran Dynasty. The Tran Dynasty was victorious against Mongol invasions in 1257, 1284 and 1288 against the far superior armies of KublaI Klan. Soon after their navy and army were driven back to China the khan died and with him so did the Mongol threat.
The Tran Dynasty ended in a period of confusion which allowed an ambitious court minister, Ho Qui Ly, to upsurge the throne in 1400. This new Ho Dynasty only ruled for seven years but in this time had two monarchs who launched a number of progressive reforms. They tackled land shortage problems, the tax systems were revised, ports opened to foreign trade and public health care introduced.
In 1407 however the Ming Dynasty in China looked once again over the southern border and invaded, imposing direct Chinese rule of Vietnam a few years later.
Ming domination & Posterior Le Dynasty (1407 – 1527)
Under the pretext of restoring the Tran, the Ming armies invaded during the period of the Ho Dynasty in 1407. Securing rule over the Vietnamese a few years later they tried to undermine Viet culture in the fourth Chinese domination of Vietnam. They outlawed local customs, books and materials relating to Vietnam were suppressed, whilst Chinese books and literature were imported.
Unlike in previous times in history however, the Chinese occupation faced greater problems as they were against a relatively cohesive Vietnamese force. The resistance of the Vietnamese was headed by a local landlord and mandarin from the mountains of Thanh Hoa, Le Loi, who was preparing for a war of national liberation.
After Le Loi drove the Ming army from Vietnam he had a coronation in 1428 which marked the beginning of the Later Le Dynasty. In 1527 however the Mac Dynasty usurped the throne and ruled Vietnam until 1533, when the Le Dynasty was restored.
Divided period (1527 – 1802)
The Le Dynasty came back to power in 1533 after a six year take over by the Mac Dynasty although their competition for power continued. Initially the dynasty reaped rewards economically from its expanding empire but eventually the new provinces produced semi – autonomous rulers who were powerful enough to challenge the throne. By the time the Mac Dynasty was eradicated in 1677, actual power lay with the Nguyen lords in the South and the Trinh lords in the North, both ruling in the name of the Le emperor while fighting each other and splitting the country in two. As the eighteenth century progressed, uprisings flared up throughout the countryside. Most were easily settled but in 1771 three brothers from Tay Son village led a rebellion which resulted in them ruling the whole country.
The Tay Son brothers had support among ethnic minorities, dispossessed peasants, townspeople and small merchants who were attracted by the brother’s message of justice and equality. By 1786 the rebels had overthrown both the Nguyen and Trinh lords, again leaving the Le Dynasty intact. The Chinese were called upon by the Le monarch to help remove the uprising which they did by occupying Hanoi. At this, the middle brother of the Nguyen declared himself Emperor Quang Trung and defeated the Chinese. His 10 year old son could not hold on to the power so one of the only remaining lords still alive from the Nguyen, Prince Nguyen Anh, launched an expedition in 1789 and entered Hanoi in 1802 to claim the throne as Emperor Gia Long.
Nguyen Dynasty & French protectorate (1802 – 1945)
The country in this period was called Vietnam and it was the first time it fell under a single authority from the northern border to the point of Ca Mau. In an attempt to promote unity Emperor Gia Long situated his capital in central Hué. The emperor abolished the Tay Son reforms and issued several edicts forbidding missionary work including brutal persecutions of Christians. This ultimately provided the French with the excuse they needed to annex the country.
France began to see Vietnam as a potential route into the resource – rice provinces of Yunnan and southern China. In 1847 Napoleon III launched an armada of 14 ships, first to take Da Nang then Saigon. By 1867 the French forces had seized the remaining southern provinces to create the colony of Cochinchina. With their eyes then set on the north they sailed into the mouth of the Perfume River in 1883 to take control. Annam (central) and Tonkin (the north) joined the south to become protectorates of France.
Up until the 1920s, Vietnam’s fragmented anti – colonial movements were easily controlled by the French secret police. The German occupation of France however in 1940 suddenly changed the whole political landscape as it demonstrated the vulnerability of the colonial masters to the Vietnamese. The immediate repercussion was Japanese occupation, allowing Japan to station troops in the colony while leaving the French administration in place. Communist groups declared opposition to all foreign intervention and continued to operate from secret bases.
In 1941 Ho Chi Minh, who had been exiled for thirty years, due to his resistance against colonialism, could walk straight across the border meeting up with other resistance leaders to start the next phase in the fight for national liberation best known as Viet Minh. Japanese forces seized full power of the country in March 1945 and imprisoned most of the French army. The Viet Minh moved quickly onto the offensive and when the US forces dropped the first atom bomb on Hiroshima, precipitating the Japanese surrender on August 14, Ho Chi Minh was quick to exploit the power vacuum left. Within two weeks most of Vietnam was under Viet Minh control and on September 2 1945 Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Communist North & capitalist South (1945 – 75)
The Democratic Republic of Vietnam, established by Ho Chi Minh was not recognized in the Potsdam Agreement in 1945 which marked the end of World War II. Shortly after, General Leclerc was sent back to Vietnam with the French Expeditionary Force to re-impose colonial rule in the south. In the north 200,000 Chinese soldiers were stationed. Ho Chi Minh decided the French were the lesser of the two evils and allowed the French to replace the Chinese soldiers in the north, in return France recognized the Democratic Republic as a ‘free state’ within the proposed French Union. Clashes between the French and the Viet Minh continued however until 1946 when Ho Chi Minh and the regular army slipped away into the northern mountains.
In the first five years of the war against the French the Viet Minh largely kept to their mountain bases whilst the French consolidated its control over the Red River Delta. After an attempted all-out attack against the enemy in 1947 the French realized this wasn’t a conventional war as the Viet Minh troops could simply melt away into the mountains.
The war entered a new phase with the communist victory in China in 1949, causing America to be drawn in, funding the French military at least $3billion by 1954. By early 1954 the French had got tired of the war and tried to lure the Viet Minh out of the mountains and into the open. Instead the French were surrounded by the Viet Minh and forced to surrender on May 7 1954.
Following this the Geneva Conference was held. The Viet Minh now controlled 65 percent of the country yet only recognized Vietnamese sovereignty in part. At this the Chinese spurred the Viet Minh into agreeing to a division of the country; reliant on Chinese arms, the Viet Minh were forced to comply. A three hundred – day period of ‘free movement’ saw anti – communists move to the south and anti – French guerillas move to the north.
Clashes continued for decades between the north and south with backers supporting the fight for or against communism with half a million US troops stationed in Vietnam by 1967. With most of the country devastated, Saigon fell to the communist north on 30 April 1975.
Socialism after 1975
Vietnam, a one-party Communist state, has one of south-east Asia’s fastest-growing economies and has set its sights on becoming a developed nation by 2020. It became a unified country once more in 1975 when the armed forces of the Communist north seized the south. This followed three decades of bitter wars, in which the Communists fought first against the colonial power of France, then against South Vietnam and its US backers.
Vietnam struggled to find its feet after unification and tried at first to organise the agricultural economy along strict collectivist lines. Elements of market forces and private enterprises were introduced from the late 1980s and a stock exchange opened in 2000.
Foreign investment has grown and the US is Vietnam’s main trading partner. In the cities, the consumer market is fuelled by the appetite of a young, middle class for electronic and luxury goods. After 12 years of negotiations the country joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007. The disparity in wealth however between urban and rural Vietnam is wide and some Communist Party leaders worry that too much economic liberalisation will weaken their power base.
Despite pursuing economic reform, the ruling Communist Party shows little willingness to give up its monopoly on political power. Vietnam actively suppresses political dissent and religious freedom. The human rights advocacy group, Amnesty International, said in a 2011 report that ”more than a dozen activists were convicted in faulty trials simply because they had peacefully voiced criticism of government policies”. A new wave of subversion trials began in 2013.
Despite the problems Vietnam has faced since 1975, some Quality of Life indicators are heading in the right direction. According to World Bank figures, the number of Vietnamese living in poverty has dropped from seventy percent in the 1980s to under fifteen percent today, child mortality has fallen, literacy levels are well over ninety percent, and the average life expectancy is now around 75 years compared to 65 in 1990.