Modern-day Vietnamese trace their ancestry to the Lac people who founded a Bronze Age civilization in the first millennium BC near the fertile Red River Delta in the north. In the third century BC, a Chinese military adventurer conquered the Vietnamese kingdom of Van Lang and incorporated the Red River Delta into his expanding realm in Southern China. China eventually integrated Vietnam into its Chinese empire a hundred years later.
A brief history of Vietnam
The more than 1,000 years of Chinese rule wrought significant changes in Vietnam’s culture and society as its people were introduced to Chinese art, literature, architecture, language, ideas, religion, political system and social institutions. Ethnic Vietnamese were torn between their attraction to Chinese culture and their desire to resist the colonist’s political grip. In AD 939, however, Vietnamese rebels took advantage of China’s political chaos and restored national independence.
The Vietnamese Empire known as Dai Viet flourished, expanded steadily southward, and gradually formed its own institutions over a period of several hundred years. China periodically made attempts to regain control of Vietnam, but they were repulsed under the dynasty of the Ly (1000-1225AD) and the Tran (1225-1400AD). The expansion to the south continued at the expense of Champa, their southern neighbor and a civilization which flourished in South Vietnam during China’s domination of the north. The Indian- influenced Champa kingdom was founded and ruled by non- Vietnamese people, the Chams.
Chinese rule was restored in the early 15th century, but a national revolt led by the Le Loi cut the reign short. This led to the formation of the Le Dynasty, which lasted from 1428 to 1788. By the 17th century, the Le Dynasty gained complete control of Southern Vietnam and ruled over the entire Mekong River Delta. The Le leadership, however, would later slip into a civil strife between two warring royal families, the Trinh in northern Vietnam and the Nguyen in the south. The political turmoil happened at a time when European explorers were just starting to extend their missionary and commercial activities in the East, including Southeast Asia.
A peasant uprising led by the Tay Son brothers overthrew the Nguyen and the Trinh in 1771 and united the country under the leadership of the most competent among the Tay Son brothers, Emperor Nguyen Hue. His reign was short, however, as his kingdom was subdued by a military force organized by a Nguyen prince with the help of a French missionary bishop. The victory ushered in the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945) and reunified the country under the leadership of Emperor Gia Long. The alliance between France and the Nguyen dynasty, however, soon turned sour as both Gia Long and his son and successor, Minh Mang, refused to grant missionary and commercial privileges to France.
The French government used the execution and harassment of Catholic missionaries by the Vietnamese emperors as a pretext for their invasion and colonization of Vietnam. In September 1858, the French force aided by Spanish troops attacked southern provinces near Saigon and conquered the territory, which became known as the French colony of Conchinchina. France completed its conquest of Vietnam in 1884 when it established a protectorate over Northern and Central Vietnam. They set their capital in Saigon. In 1895, Vietnam was integrated into a French-ruled Indochinese Union along with the protectorates of Cambodia and Laos. Over the next decades, the French protected their colonies against the attack of the Chinese who still considered Vietnam as their territory.
In 1940, Japan invaded the Indochina as part of their “Asia for Asians” campaign. Japan’s revolutionary idea raised consciousness among Southeast Asian people of the fact that small and distant countries from Europe have managed to control their larger and more populous territories.
On May 19, 1941, the Viet Minh or the League for the Independence of Vietnam was set up by Ho Chi Minh at Pac Bo and seized north and central Vietnam immediately afterwards. They fought Japanese invasion with the support of China and the United States. In December 1946, the war between the Communist-led north and the French-controlled south started. The French withdrew from Vietnam in 1954 and left a divided nation.
In the 1960s, the United States sent troops, ammunition and support to its Vietnamese allies in the south to fight the communists in what is variably known as the Vietnam War, the American War, or the Second Indochina War. On the other hand, the Viet Cong and the Communist party were fighting to reunite North and South Vietnam under communist rule.
The United States withdrew its participation in the Vietnam War in 1975 and Saigon fell to the Communists on April 30, 1975, marking the start of Vietnam’s reunification.
Vietnam has since instituted sweeping economic and political reforms that led to its renaissance. A high sense of optimism pervades the resilient nation as its entrepreneurial spirit is ignited by a free market economy and the openness that allowed international visitors to bask in the richness of the country’s culture and history.