Vietnam’s history has been shaped by a series of colonial powers. Over the centuries, the Vietnamese have had to fight off the Chinese, the Japanese, and the French. The latest conflict with the United States ended with North Vietnam’s Communist regime ascending to power. Having recovered from many centuries of terrible wars, Vietnam finally has the chance to explore its potential.
Vietnam started out as a collection of provinces that the Chinese referred to as Giao Chi. Giao Chi covered most of what we now know as modern-day Vietnam. (“Viet” comes from the Vietnamese version of the Chinese name.) From 208 BC to 1075 AD, Vietnam endured a succession of Chinese rulers, covering several Chinese dynasties, starting with the Han dynasty.
The Trung Sisters — Trung Trac and Trung Nhi — were the most famous Vietnamese heroes to emerge from early Vietnam. When Vietnam’s Chinese ruler had the elder sister’s husband executed, the sisters led a revolt. They briefly drove the Chinese out, and ruled Vietnam from 39 AD to 42 AD. According to Vietnamese legend, the sisters led an army of mostly female soldiers. When the Chinese returned and defeat seemed inevitable, Vietnamese legend states that the two sisters jumped into a river, but historical accounts offer many different versions of their demise.
In any case, the Chinese were back by 43 AD. They ruled Vietnam even more strictly than before. By 907 AD, the Chinese Trang Dynasty had weakened, and Vietnamese rebels rid the country of Chinese rule once again.
Ly Dynasty and the Scholar Le Loi
In the 11th century, the Vietnamese Ly Dynasty became the country's first great dynasty. Undery Ly rule, the country was known as "Dai Viet." During the Ly Dynasty, Vietnam became officially Buddhist. Scholars believe that Buddhism first came to Vietnam by way of Indian monks, following in the path of seafaring merchants.
Dai Viet began conquering lands to the south, eventually taking over the Cham kingdoms. The Ly Dyanasty married into the powerful Tran family, and the Trans began to amass power. During the 13th century, the Mongols made advances on Vietnam. General Tran Hun Dao impaled Mongol ships at Bach Dang River at low tide. Following the defeat of the Mongols, the Tran dynasty declined.
China once again seized control in 1407, this time with the support of landowners who didn’t care for General Ho’s rule. At this point, the Vietnamese were forced to dress in a Chinese manner and give up many of their traditions.
1428 saw an upstart scholar named Le Loi come to power. Vietnamese history in the 15th century is marked by Le Loi’s conquering expeditions to the south. His shadow looms large in the modern Vietnamese imagination, and many streets are named after him.
Europeans and Christianity
In the 16th century, two main families rose to power. It made sense to divide the power across the lengthy country, so the Trinh family ruled the north, and the Nguyens ruled the south. South Vietnam focused on agriculture while North Vietnam prided itself on its academic advances. To this day, North and South Vietnam have the same pronounced cultural differences.
During the 16th century, European missionaries began arriving in Vietnam. Alexandre de Rhodes was a particularly effective missionary who arrived in 1619 and remained until Vietnamese authorities kicked him out in 1630. At the time he left the country, he had converted thousands of Vietnamese to Catholocism and introduced the Roman alphabet, which is the same alphabet that English-speakers use. To this day, Vietnamese is written in a script called quoc ngu, which employs the same letters as the English alphabet.
The Rise of the Nguyen Dynasty
By the 18th century, the Nguyen faced a peasant revolt called The Tay Son Rebellion, which began in 1771. Nguyens had become unpopular with the peasants because of their frequent wars with the Khmer people (from modern-day Cambodia) and Siam (modern-day Thailand). The Tay Son succeeded in taking over all of southern Vietnam in 1778. Prince Nguyen Anh asked French Bishop Pigneau de Behaine to hire soldiers, and the French forces helped the Nguyen supporters to defeat the Tay Son by 1801.
Nguyen Anh was the first emperor of the Nguyen dynasty. Under his rule, the separate provinces of Vietnam were united. (The Nguyen dynasty, which lasted from 1802 to 1945, popularized "Nguyen" as a last name. Surnames were not common in Vietnam, but families sometimes chose last names to demonstrate their loyalty to a ruler. To this day, around 40 percent of the Vietnamese population has the last name Nguyen.)
Minh Mang succeeded Nguyen Anh, and ruled from 1820 until 1841. He campaigned against all things Western, including Catholicism. During his reign he tried to persuade Catholic missionaries to give up their occupations. When that didn’t work, he had a few key missionaries executed, along with Vietnamese converts.
Minh Mang’s treatment of French Catholics gave the French an excuse to invade. They arrive in 1858, but it took several decades for the French to completely take over. Vietnam became an official colony of France in 1883. Conditions under French rule were typical of many colonies and the Vietnamese had to pay extremely high taxes.
Ho Chi Minh founded the Revolutionary Youth League in 1925, uniting anti-French and Communist groups. Around the same time, the Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces broke out in rebellion and the French began dropping bombs and imprisoning rebels. In 1941, Ho Chi Minh founded the Viet Minh, a nationalist group that formed to support the overthrow of the French.
When Nazis seized control of France, it left a vaccum of power in Vietnam. Japan stepped in and took control. At the end of World War II, Viet Minh began the August Revolution, which is now known as a pivotal turning point in Vietnamese history. Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent on September 2, 1945.
Ho Chi Minh is a beloved national figure, and you’ll see pictures of him on the Vietnamese currency, which is called dong. There’s a lovely statue of him in Ho Chi Minh City, nearby the Bahn Tan Market. His preserved body lies in state in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, except for a few weeks in October when his remains are flown to Moscow for maintenance.
The Franco-Vietnamese war resumed after World War II. The French controlled the cities, while the Viet Minh controlled the countryside. Once China became offically Communist, the Viet Minh took advantage of their powerful neighbor’s support. The Viet Minh soon had North Vietnam under its control.
At the 1956 Geneva Convention it was agreed that North and South Vietnam would reunite in 1956. Although many suspected that transition would not go smoothly, no one could have predicted the disasterous future.
Vietnam War and the War of American Aggression
In the wake of the Cold War, the United States wanted to suppress the rise of Communism in North Vietnam. The U.S. threw their support behind South Vietnam's ruler, Ngo Dinh Diem. Ngo Dinh Diem was unpopular among many Vietnamese because of his oppressive yet indifferent rule. He refused to participate in the election that was supposed to reunite Vietnam and instead held his own rigged elections in the South.
The National Liberation Front formed in order to emulate the Viet Minh, in hopes of having the same success overthrowing the U.S.-backed Diem as the Viet Minh had with the French. Diem forced families to move in an effort to keep them away from the NLF rebels. This move only served to increase nationwide support of the NLF.
Diem did not seem interested in improving his popularity. South Vietnamese citizens held regular protests. Most famously, a priest named Thic Quang Doc lit himself on fire outside of a pagoda in Saigon.
When Diem’s own military rebelled and assassinated him, the U.S. did not take immediate action. After President Kennedy’s assassination, freshly sworn-in President Johnson decided to increase the U.S.’s involvement. At the time, the government characterized the crusade against the Communists in North Vietnam as an extension of the Cold War.
Although congress never officially declared war on Vietnam, a brief exchange of Vietnamese gunfire with a U.S. naval ship led to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which meant that the U.S. could take military action. Air strikes began in North Vietnam. By the end of 1967, there were 485,000 American ground troops in Vietnam. Agent Orange destroyed jungles and wreaked havoc on the countryside.
The 1968 Tet offensive took over huge swaths of American-controlled cities. On May 16, 1968, American troops brutally attacked Vietnamese civilians in what came to be known as the My Lai Massacre. Women, children, and other unarmed civilians were brutally slain, and for years after the American media covered up the grim reality. When the truth came to light, it did irrevocable damage to the perception of the Vietnamese War in the U.S. American families were seeing television footage of war for the first time, which also helped encourage anti-war sentiment.
The Fall of Saigon and Reunification
In 1969, President Nixon began withdrawing troops from Vietnam. It wasn’t until 1973 that the U.S. finally signed the agreement that ended the Vietnamese War. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks came to Saigon and officially reunited North and South Vietnam. After the reunification, the victorious Communist government changed Saigon’s name to Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese who had allied themselves with South Vietnam were forced into hard labor camps. Many Vietnamese who had supported the U.S.-backed government fled the country — to this day Vietnamese refer to these emmigrants as "boat people." A large number of boat people resettled in the U.S.
For the next decade, the Vietnamese quality of life did not improve. In 1986, the government began economic reforms called the doi moi. These reforms liberalized the economy and encouraged exports. Poverty has reduced drastically since then. Adding to the country's recent success, the years following the war saw a tremendous population boom. At the end of 1975, Vietnam had approximately 48 million citizens. Today, it boasts of a population of nearly 93 million.
Current Affairs and Moving Forward
Conflict with China is ongoing — Vietnam is currently in the midst of a conflict over fishing rights in the East Sea, which China dubs the “China Sea.” Reports of Chinese authorities kidnapping Vietnamese fishermen fuel rancor between the two countries. In an effort to stymie China’s expanded control, Vietnam has formed an alliance with Russia.
Since the War of American Aggression, the Vietnamese population has boomed. The economy has made considerable strides, and Vietnam is finally making progress on its own terms.
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