A Brief History

The Vietnamese first appeared in history as one of many scattered peoples living in what is now South China and Northern Vietnam just before the beginning of the Christian era. According to local tradition, the small Vietnamese kingdom of Au Lac, located in the heart of the Red River valley, was founded by a line of legendary kings who had ruled over the ancient kingdom of Van Lang for thousands of years. Historical evidence to substantiate this tradition is scanty, but archaeological findings indicate that the early peoples of the Red River delta area may have been among the first East Asians to practice agriculture, and by the 1st century BC they had achieved a relatively advanced level of Bronze Age civilization.


In 221 BC the Ch'in dynasty in China completed its conquest of neighboring states and became the first to rule over a united China. The Ch'in Empire, however, did not long survive the death of its dynamic founder, Shih Huang Ti, and the impact of its collapse was soon felt in Vietnam. In the wreckage of the empire, the Chinese commander in the south built his own kingdom of Nam Viet (South Viet; Chinese, Nan Yeh); the young state of Au Lac was included. In 111 BC, Chinese armies conquered Nam Viet and absorbed it into the growing Han Empire. The Chinese conquest had fateful consequences for the future course of Vietnamese history. After briefly ruling through local chieftains, Chinese rulers attempted to integrate Vietnam politically and culturally into the Han Empire. Chinese administrators were imported to replace the local landed nobility. Political institutions patterned after the Chinese model were imposed, and Confucianism became the official ideology. The Chinese language was introduced as the medium of official and literary expression, and Chinese ideographs were adopted as the written form for the Vietnamese spoken language. Chinese art, architecture, and music exercised a powerful impact on their Vietnamese counterparts. Vietnamese resistance to rule by the Chinese was fierce but sporadic. The most famous early revolt took place in AD 39, when two widows of local aristocrats, the Trung sisters, led an uprising against foreign rule. The revolt was briefly successful, and the older sister, Trung Trac, established herself as ruler of an independent state. Chinese armies returned to the attack, however, and in AD 43 Vietnam was reconquered.

The Trung sisters' revolt was only the first in a series of intermittent uprisings that took place during a thousand years of Chinese rule in Vietnam. Finally, in 939, Vietnamese forces under Ngo Quyen took advantage of chaotic conditions in China to defeat local occupation troops and set up an independent state. Ngo Quyen's death a few years later ushered in a period of civil strife, but in the early 11th century the first of the great Vietnamese dynasties was founded. Under the astute leadership of several dynamic rulers, the Ly dynasty ruled Vietnam for more than 200 years, from 1010 to 1225. Although the rise of the Ly reflected the emergence of a lively sense of Vietnamese nationhood, Ly rulers retained many of the political and social institutions that had been introduced during the period of Chinese rule. Confucianism continued to provide the foundation for the political institutions of the state. The Chinese civil service examination system was retained as the means of selecting government officials, and although at first only members of the nobility were permitted to compete in the examinations, eventually the right was extended to include most males. The educational system also continued to reflect the Chinese model. Young Vietnamese preparing for the examinations were schooled in the Confucian classics and grew up conversant with the great figures and ideas that had shaped Chinese history. Vietnamese society, however, was more than just a pale reflection of China. Beneath the veneer of Chinese fashion and thought, popular mostly among the upper classes, native forms of expression continued to flourish. Young Vietnamese learned to appreciate the great heroes of the Vietnamese past, many of whom had built their reputation on resistance to the Chinese conquest. At the village level, social mores reflected native forms more than patterns imported from China. Although to the superficial eye Vietnam looked like a "smaller dragon," under the tutelage of the great empire to the north it continued to have a separate culture with vibrant traditions of its own.

Like most of its neighbors, Vietnam was primarily an agricultural state, its survival based above all on the cultivation of wet rice. As in medieval Europe, much of the land was divided among powerful noble families, who often owned thousands of serfs or domestic slaves. A class of landholding farmers also existed, however, and powerful monarchs frequently attempted to protect this class by limiting the power of feudal lords and dividing up their large estates. The Vietnamese economy was not based solely on agriculture. Commerce and manufacturing thrived, and local crafts appeared in regional markets throughout the area. Vietnam never developed into a predominantly commercial nation, however, or became a major participant in regional trade patterns.


Under the rule of the Ly dynasty and its successor, the Tran (1225-1400), Vietnam became a dynamic force in Southeast Asia. China's rulers, however, had not abandoned their historic objective of controlling the Red River delta, and when the Mongol dynasty came to power in the 13th century, the armies of Kublai Khan attacked Vietnam in an effort to reincorporate it into the Chinese Empire. The Vietnamese resisted with vigor, and after several bitter battles they defeated the invaders and drove them back across the border. While the Vietnamese maintained their vigilance toward the north, an area of equal and growing concern lay to the south. For centuries, the Vietnamese state had been restricted to its heartland in the Red River valley and adjacent hills. Tension between Vietnam and the kingdom of Champa, a seafaring state along the central coast, appeared shortly after the restoration of Vietnamese independence. On several occasions, Cham armies broke through Vietnamese defenses and occupied the capital near Hanoi. More frequently, Vietnamese troops were victorious, and they gradually drove Champa to the south. Finally, in the 15th century, Vietnamese forces captured the Cham capital south of present-day Da Nang and virtually destroyed the kingdom. For the next several generations, Vietnam continued its historic "march to the south," wiping up the remnants of the Cham Kingdom and gradually approaching the marshy flatlands of the Mekong delta. There it confronted a new foe, the Khmer Empire, which had once been the most powerful state in the region. By the late 16th century, however, it had declined, and it offered little resistance to Vietnamese encroachment. By the end of the 17th century, Vietnam had occupied the lower Mekong delta and began to advance to the west, threatening to transform the disintegrating Khmer state into a mere protectora.


The Vietnamese advance to the south coincided with new challenges in the north. In 1407 Vietnam was again conquered by Chinese troops. For two decades, the Ming dynasty attempted to reintegrate Vietnam into the empire, but in 1428, resistance forces under the rebel leader Le Loi dealt the Chinese a decisive defeat and restored Vietnamese independence. Le Loi mounted the throne as the first emperor of the Le dynasty. The new ruling house retained its vigor for more than a hundred years, but in the 16th century it began to decline. Power at court was wielded by two rival aristocratic clans, the Trinh and the Nguyen. When the former became dominant, the Nguyen were granted a fiefdom in the south, dividing Vietnam into two separate zones. Rivalry was sharpened by the machinations of European powers newly arrived in Southeast Asia in pursuit of wealth and Christian converts. By the late 18th century, the Le dynasty was near collapse. Vast rice lands were controlled by grasping feudal lords. Angry peasants-led by the Tay Son brothers-revolted, and in 1789 Nguyen Hue, the ablest of the brothers, briefly restored Vietnam to united rule. Nguyen Hue died shortly after ascending the throne; a few years later Nguyen Anh, an heir to the Nguyen house in the south, defeated the Tay Son armies. As Emperor Gia Long, he established a new dynasty in 1802.


A French missionary, Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, had raised a mercenary force to help Nguyen Anh seize the throne in the hope that the new emperor would provide France with trading and missionary privileges, but his hopes were disappointed. The Nguyen dynasty was suspicious of French influence. Roman Catholic missionaries and their Vietnamese converts were persecuted, and a few were executed during the 1830s. Religious groups in France demanded action from the government in Paris. When similar pressure was exerted by commercial and military interests, Emperor Napoleon III approved the launching of a naval expedition in 1858 to punish the Vietnamese and force the court to accept a French protectorate. The first French attack at Da Nang Harbor failed to achieve its objectives, but a second farther south was more successful, and in 1862 the court at Hue agreed to cede several provinces in the Mekong delta (later called Cochin China) to France. In the 1880s the French returned to the offensive, launching an attack on the north. After severe defeats, the Vietnamese accepted a French protectorate over the remaining territory of Vietnam.


The imposition of French colonial rule had met with little organized resistance. The national sense of identity, however, had not been crushed, and anticolonial sentiment soon began to emerge. Poor economic conditions contributed to native hostility to French rule. Although French occupation brought improvements in transportation and communications, and contributed to the growth of commerce and manufacturing, colonialism brought little improvement in livelihood to the mass of the population. In the countryside, peasants struggled under heavy taxes and high rents. Workers in factories, in coal mines, and on rubber plantations labored in abysmal conditions for low wages. By the early 1920s, nationalist parties began to demand reform and independence. In 1930 the revolutionary Ho Chi Minh formed an Indochinese Communist party. Until World War II started in 1939, such groups labored without success. In 1940, however, Japan demanded and received the right to place Vietnam under military occupation, restricting the local French administration to figurehead authority. Seizing the opportunity, the Communists organized the broad Vietminh Front and prepared to launch an uprising at the war's end. The Vietminh (short for Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam) emphasized moderate reform and national independence rather than specifically Communist aims. When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies in August 1945, Vietminh forces arose throughout Vietnam and declared the establishment of an independent republic in Hanoi. The French, however, were unwilling to concede independence and in October drove the Vietminh and other nationalist groups out of the south. For more than a year the French and the Vietminh sought a negotiated solution, but the talks, held in France, failed to resolve differences, and war broke out in December 1946.


The conflict lasted for nearly eight years. The Vietminh retreated into the hills to build up their forces while the French formed a rival Vietnamese government under Emperor Bao Dai, the last ruler of the Nguyen dynasty, in populated areas along the coast. Vietminh forces lacked the strength to defeat the French and generally restricted their activities to guerrilla warfare. In 1953-1954 the French fortified a base at Dien Bien Phu. After months of siege and heavy casualties, the Vietminh overran the fortress in a decisive battle. As a consequence, the French government could no longer resist pressure from a war-weary populace at home and in June 1954 agreed to negotiations to end the war. At a conference held in Geneva the two sides accepted an interim compromise to end the war. They divided the country at the 17th parallel, with the Vietminh in the North and the French and their Vietnamese supporters in the South. To avoid permanent partition, a political protocol was drawn up, calling for national electi ons to reunify the country two years after the signing of the treaty.

After Geneva, the Viet minh in Hanoi refrained from armed struggle and began to build a Communist society. In the southern capital, Saigon, Bao Dai soon gave way to a new regime under the staunch anti-Communist president Ngo Dinh Diem. With diplomatic support from the United States, Diem refused to hold elections and attempted to destroy Communist influence in the South. By 1959, however, Diem was in trouble. His unwillingness to tolerate domestic opposition, his alleged favoritism of fellow Roman Catholics, and the failure of his social and economic programs seriously alienated key groups in the populace and led to rising unrest. The Communists decided it was time to resume their revolutionary war.


In the fall of 1963, Diem was overthrown and killed in a coup launched by his own generals. In the political confusion that followed, the security situation in South Vietnam continued to deteriorate, putting the Communists within reach of victory. In early 1965, to prevent the total collapse of the Saigon regime, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson approved regular intensive bombing of North Vietnam and the dispatch of U.S. combat troops into the South. The U.S. intervention caused severe problems for the Communists on the battlefield and compelled them to send regular units of the North Vietnamese army into the South. It did not persuade them to abandon the struggle, however, and in 1968, after the bloody Tet offensive shook the new Saigon regime of President Nguyen Van Thieu to its foundations, the Johnson administration decided to pursue a negotiated settlement. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and was succeeded by another leader of the revolution, Le Duan. The new U.S. president, Richard Nixon, continued Johnson's policy while gradually withdrawing U.S. troops. In January 1973 the war temporarily came to an end with the signing of a peace agreement in Paris. The settlement provided for the total removal of remaining U.S. troops, while Hanoi tacitly agreed to accept the Thieu regime in preparation for new national elections. The agreement soon fell apart, however, and in early 1975 the Communists launched a military offensive. In six weeks, the resistance of the Thieu regime collapsed, and on April 30 the Communists seized power in Saigon. CLICK HERE to read more about this War


In 1976 the South was reunited with the North in a new Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The conclusion of the war, however, did not end the violence. Border tension with the Communist government in Cambodia escalated rapidly after the fall of Saigon, and in early 1979 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and installed a pro-Vietnamese government. A few weeks later, Vietnam was itself attacked by its Communist neighbor and erstwhile benefactor, China. In the mid-1980s, Vietnamese troops were stationed in Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam substantially reduced its forces in Laos during 1988 and withdrew virtually all its troops from Cambodia by September 1989. Within Vietnam, postwar economic and social problems were severe, and reconstruction proceeded slowly. Efforts to collectivize agriculture and nationalize business aroused hostility in the south. Disappointing harvests and the absorption of resources by the military further retarded Vietnam's recovery. In the early 1990s, the government encouraged foreign investment and sought to improve relations with the United States.

Recent policies, trade agreements, and treaties have positioned Vietnam for peace, growth and prosperity in the twenty-first century. In 2007, Vietnam joined the World Trade Organisation. Tourist numbers are increasing each year by as much as 14 % per annum. Many Australians call it "The New Bali". It is a safe country, peaceful and far flung from terrorists and religious intolerance.