Vietnam’s long and turbulent past is written in its landscape. Having experienced much conflict across the millennia, including a long struggle for independence, it has been re-born a united and prosperous nation.
Origins and the Era of Hung Kings
Although evidence indicates that this area has been inhabited since the Neolithic age, the Viet people are believed to have originated in present-day southern China. According to legend, in the late 29th century BC the loosely allied tribes of the region were led south to the Red River Delta by deity Viem De. His son, Hung Vuong, declared himself ruler of a kingdom called Xich Qui and so founded the Hong Bang Dynasty of Hung kings (2879–258 BC). The people of this period advanced rice cultivation, with the Red River Delta a key agricultural center.
The Hung Dynasty ended in 258 BC when tribesmen from southern China overthrew the kingdom. The land was absorbed into the southern Chinese kingdom of Nam Viet, in 207 BC, ushering in a period of Chinese rule that lasted almost a millennium. In spite of this, the Viet people refused to accept Chinese political domination and there were numerous revolts. They did, however, adopt Chinese writing, architecture, and administration, as well as Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian beliefs.
Meanwhile, in the south, India was the main influence and two Indic kingdoms emerged – Funan and Champa. A precursor to the Khmer Empire, Funan was a trading nation that had links as far as the Mediterranean. The kingdom of Funan reached Northern Thailand and was famed for its art and architecture. Champa was based on agriculture and fishing, with seafaring at the heart of its economy, and stretched from Vinh to the Mekong Delta
WHERE TO SEE EARLY VIETNAM
he later Hung kings’ temples can be seen a little northwest of Hanoi; a public holiday in April is named in their honor. The most famous remains of the Cham comprise towers and Hindu temples in My Son, around Nha Trang, and across the Mekong Delta.
The Creation of Dai Viet
China’s Tang Dynasty collapsed in the early 10th century. Led by military man Ngo Quyen, the Vietnamese finally achieved independence as Dai Viet in 938 but descended into civil war after his death. Warlord Dinh Bo Linh reunified the country in 968. He made peace with China as a tributary state, renamed the land Dai Co Viet, and proclaimed himself emperor. His dynasty lasted only 12 years, however, after which the throne was seized by Le Dai Hanh who established the Le Dynasty (980–1009).
The Ly Dynasty
At the death of the last Le emperor, a dutiful and enlightened palace guard commander called Ly Thai To was elected by the court as the new emperor. He started the Ly Dynasty (1010–1225), which laid the foundations for the country today and is generally considered the golden age of Vietnam. Although based upon Chinese culture, the bureaucratic Ly Dynasty nation of Dai Viet saw the development of civil infrastructure, a professional army, the elevation of women’s and commoners’ status, increased education, plus a flowering of art and culture.
The Tran Dynasty
After a ruthless coup by powerful clan leader Tran Hung Dao, in 1225, the Ly Dynasty ended. The Tran Dynasty followed, and with it, the territory of Dai Viet extended further south into Champa lands. The Tran also defeated three significant Mongol invasions
The Later Le and Nguyen Dynasties
The Tran was toppled in a coup d’etat, which led to an invasion by Ming China and the region once again became a province of China. However, an uprising under the leadership of Le Loi established the Later Le Dynasty and Dai Viet became a strong regional state. From 1539 onward, power was divided between the warring Nguyen and Trinh families, which left the country weakened and the Le rulers in name only. European fleets began to arrive, carrying traders seeking wealth and missionaries intent on converting locals to Christianity. After a period of civil war, the Nguyen were overthrown and forced to flee. Nguyen Anh returned in 1788 and, supported by the French, reclaimed Saigon. In 1802, he declared Hue the new national capital and himself the first ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty
The French Colonial Perio
The Nguyen rulers that followed Nguyen Anh reintroduced feudalism and suppressed Catholicism. These anti-French measures prompted France to attack Danang in 1858. By 1887 all of present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia were unified as French Indochina, which was exploitatively ruled by France. In 1940 the Japanese invaded, but after liberation in August 1945, the wartime resistance leader Ho Chi Minh declared independence on September 2. He renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and set up a Communist government.
The First Indochina War
In September 1945, France reinstated troops in Saigon and set out to regain control of Vietnam, which led to full-scale war. Despite setting up a puppet imperial state in the south in 1949 and receiving support from the US, France was defeated by the Viet Minh in 1954. The Geneva Conference of the same year officially split Vietnam across the 17th Parallel; the north was under Ho Chi Minh’s Communist DRV government, while the south was ruled by Ngo Dinh Diem, a US-backed, anti-Communist Catholic
The Vietnam War (The American War)
Repression of Catholics in the North led almost a million to flee south, while similar treatment of Communists in the South triggered the formation of the National Liberation Front (NLF), or Vietcong (VC), who started a guerilla campaign. This escalated into war by 1959. While the US and its allies supported the South, the USSR, China, and other Communist states supported the North in what would be one of the biggest proxy conflicts of the Cold War. A key event was the Gulf of Tonkin incident (1964), which saw the US accuse the NLF of launching an unprovoked attack on two destroyers. President Lyndon Johnson used this as his reason to bomb the North and dramatically increase US troop numbers. Aided by the Ho Chi Minh Trail (p163), Vietcong fighters waged a guerilla war against the South Vietnamese and Americans. This mobile force consistently outmaneuvered their better-equipped opponents, and after the massive Tet Offensive in 1968, it became clear to the Americans that this was a war they could not win. US troop numbers decreased year-by-year, and after much of the north of South Vietnam was taken during the Easter Offensive of 1972, the last US combat troops left in March 1973
Reunification and Isolatio
On 30 April 1975, just two years after US withdrawal, North Vietnamese forces entered Saigon and raised the Vietcong flag above the Palace of Independence. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City, after the late leader. In July 1976, Vietnam was officially reunited and Le Duan, the new general secretary of the Communist Party, proclaimed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. His hardline Communist rule would see Vietnam slide into a decade of economic decline as collectivization of industry and commerce in the south and a harsh US trade embargo crippled the economy. Cross-border attacks by the Khmer Rouge in 1977 led the Vietnamese to invade Cambodia and topple the Chinese-backed regime in 1978. The next year, China invaded northern Vietnam in the punitive Third Indochina War, and Vietnam was forced into a closer alliance with the USSR.
Renovation and Rebirth
By Le Duan’s death in 1986, Vietnam was on the brink of economic collapse. Up to two million “boat people” had fled the country, and change was needed. New leader Nguyen Van Linh introduced economic reforms called Doi Moi. Private business ownership, foreign investment, and economic deregulation were permitted, while the state retained control of strategic industries.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed Vietnam to mend fences with China and open up to the global economy. In 1994 the US lifted its trade embargo and normalized diplomatic relations a year later when Vietnam became a member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations)
Nguyen Tan Dung, a determined modernizer, became Vietnam’s youngest prime minister in 2006. Vietnam’s economy thrived in 2010, with a massive influx of foreign brands and the construction of modern skyscrapers. Since then, and despite hiccups such as the ongoing dispute with China over the South China Sea, Vietnam has continued to flourish.
Vietnam has a relatively strong economy today, and its citizens enjoy more freedom and a higher standard of living than at any other time in its history. Tourism has been a big part of that economic success, and visitors are treated well and welcomed.