Vietnam’s history is so redolent and profoundly rich as anywhere in this world. Going back many centuries, way before the American War in Vietnam monopolised the attention of the people of the West, the country was struggling to, well, stay alive and, if possible, thrive. Being the object of desire for the Mongols, the Chams, the Khmers, and the Chinese the Vietnamese did manage to shape a civilisation that rivals in sophistication that of their powerful neighbours in the north, China, from which they were significantly influenced after almost a millennium under their ruling.Then came the French, and Vietnam barely survived the colonialism period. The Americans were the last ones to try to gain lordship over them in the second half of the 20th century. These invaders were too pushed back and away, writing another black page in the history of this country that had to endure a horrible and unprecedentedly brutal war, some of whose atrocities are displayed at the Coconut Prison now turned into a war museum in Phu Quoc.
If you walk along the streets throughout Vietnam and pay attention to the names of the roads, you will realise that some names appear repeatedly in every town, city or village across the country. These are the names of national heroes, who had helped lead the nation out of foreign invaders’ imperialistic plans and inspired forthcoming generations of patriots. In greater detail:
The Early Days of Vietnam
The Vietnamese are believed to be descendants of nomadic migrants from Indonesia and Mongols from China. Mythology places the first breaths of Vietnam somewhere in 2879 BC when Hung Vuong founded the nation. However, recent archaeological finds suggest that northern Vietnam was inhabited way before that, some 500,000 years ago while the first agricultural activity here dates back to 7000 BC!
Southern Vietnam was part of the Funan Kingdom (under Indianised Cambodian reign), called Nokor Phnom by the Khmers, from the 1st to the 6th century. It was then when the first (admittedly, elaborate) irrigation and transportation canals were created in the country, and Oc-Eo in the Mekong Delta became the principal port of Funan.
When the Champa Kindom (Hindu) emerged in the late 2nd century AD, the country received influences from the Indian culture and art. During that time, Sanskrit was adopted as a sacred language, but Champa’s desire to rule over the entire coast of Indochina eventually cost them their kingdom and were forced to squeeze themselves between the powerful Khmers to the south and the equally might Vietnamese to the north.
It did not take long before the Red River Delta was conquered by the Chinese, in the 2nd century BC, which allowed a great number of settlers, scholars, and officials to head south and “saddle” the Vietnamese with a centralised state system, which did not please local rulers, some of whom raised an army and led a revolt that resulted in the Chinese governor making a quick exit in 40 AD. Three years later, though, the Chinese counterattacked and strangled every rebellion against them from the 3rd to the 6th century, imposing tyranny and forced labour, among others.
During their ruling, Vietnam was an important opening to the sea for the Chinese and Indians alike, who both influenced Vietnam in several different ways. The Indians introduced Theravada Buddhism while the Chinese brought Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism while also sharing their medical and scientific knowledge. Shortly after, Vietnam started producing its own great scholars, botanists, and doctors and was also beginning to understand the principles of building irrigation channels and dikes to help prevent flooding from the sea. All that combined contributed to the birth of paddy agriculture and farming rice. But, Vietnam felt too small a country to the ever-growing population who had to seek new lands. With the Truong Son Mountains being an inhospitable place, their only way out was to the south.
Breaking Free From China
When the Tang Dynasty collapsed in the early 10th century, the Vietnamese saw it as an opportunity to revolt and regain their autonomy, which eventually happened after patriot Ngo Quyen pushed back the Chinese army. After a millennium under China’s reign, Vietnam was finally free and, even though the Chinese, the Cham, and the Khmer kept on launching attacks to Vietnam, they were all repelled. At the same time, Vietnam’s expansion to the south was a work in progress, enabling the Vietnamese to gradually take control of the Cham Kingdom.
Five centuries after, the Chinese regained control of Vietnam, causing a significant blow in the Vietnamese civilisation after carting off the national archives, among others. An era of slave labour and heavy taxation followed until Le Loi, a wealthy philanthropist, rallied the Vietnamese against the Chinese and declared himself Emperor after the Chinese were defeated. Slowly, but steadily, he turned Vietnam into a mighty country, even for a little while.
The Portuguese’s Impact on Vietnam
In 1516, the first Portuguese sailors and a party of Dominican missionaries stepped foot at Danang. In the decades to follow, the Vietnam-Portugal trade thrived while the Catholic Church had a profound impact on Vietnam, much greater than on any other Asian country besides the Philippines, which remained a Spanish colony for nearly four centuries.
Between the 17th and 18th century, though, Vietnam found itself in the middle of a rivalry between the rulers of the North, the Trinh Lords, who bore Dutch armaments, and the lords of the South, the Nguyen Lords, who were supported by the Portuguese and their powerful weaponry; each of them wanting to subdue one another. The latter clan won and further expanded to the south, absorbing regions of the Mekong Delta along their way.
The Fall of the Nguyen Family
A rebellion that took place in 1765 led by the Tay Son Rebels (who were controlled by the Nguyen brothers) allowed the Nguyen family to control the entire central Vietnam in less than 10 years. They also defeated the Chinese army in 1789; a victory that holds a special place in the Vietnamese history. By 1802, the country was united again for the first time in 200 years thanks to the Nguyen Lords, and Hue was the new capital. The Clan’s expansionistic policies continued, seizing areas of Lao territory, pushing into Cambodia, and clashing with Thailand to grab a share of the divided Khmer empire.
The countdown began when the French arrived in Vietnam in 1874 with military activity. They attacked Danang harbour, seized Saigon, and got an agreement that provided them with three eastern provinces of Cochinchina, which put an end to the independent state of Vietnam. However, under the French colonialism, Vietnam saw impressive public works being carried out, such as the construction of the Hanoi-Saigon railway, which was paid from the peasants who were enforced utterly heavy taxes. As expected, this devastated the economy and raised frustration (to say the least) among the Vietnamese. Between 1917 and 1944, it is said that more than 12,000 Vietnamese workers at a single rubber plantation died of malnutrition and disease (out of the 45,000 in total). Of course, all those hardships kept the fire for independence burning inside people’s hearts. And, it turned out that the communists were, in fact, the most successful anti-colonialists as they managed to channel people’s demands for more upright land distributions.
The Break Out of WWII
Vietnam escaped the ravages of Japanese occupation (Japanese troops had been sent to Vietnam when France fell to Nazi Germany) when the latter decided to leave the French administration to help their country with its daily running, which allowed the Vietnamese to go back to their normal, everyday rhythms. Unfortunately, 10 million people of North Vietnam starved to death due to famine after dikes broke causing massive floods and destroying crops, and the requisition of rice paddies by the Japanese just before WWII ended.
During this period, the USA-assisted Viet Minh and Ho Chi Minh saw the arguments between the Japanese and the French as a window to strike, which they did. After a series of events, the Japanese occupation forces in Vietnam were disarmed, and Ho Chi Minh declared its independence; but the country was in a chaotic state, being headless.
The French Return
In the meantime, the French reappeared on the scene to reclaim their so-called inheritance and were eventually allowed to regain control of Vietnam. That was, in fact, was a strategic move on behalf of the Vietnamese, who feared the ruling of the Chinese and allowed the French to maintain control for a specified amount of time. In return, they asked Vietnam to be recognised as a free state within the French Union. All went relatively well until the French made the mistake to attack Haiphong and kill hundreds of civilians, which sparked the France-Vietnam war. Despite the massive aid they received from the Americans, the French did not manage to take administrative control of Vietnam and eventually admitted defeat, after losing tens of thousands of soldiers. The conflict ended with the Geneva Conference, and the country made preparations for nationwide elections that were, sadly, never held.
In 1950, USA troops marched into Vietnam, at first, serving as advisers, and then as the main military force as a means to help the French combat the expansion of communism. They remained there for 25 years until a random incident fired up a Vietnam-USA war that started with the destruction of Vietnamese rail bridges and the destruction of every single road in the country and the majority of the villages in North Vietnam.
In an attempt to get rid of Vietnamese communist sanctuaries across the border, the American started secretly bombarding Cambodia in 1969 while pushing the North Vietnamese deeper into Cambodian territory. The brutality of the war, though, that was always finding a reason (and way) to feed itself on behalf of the Americans caused great anti-war protests in the USA. Eventually, the USA and Vietnam (south and north) signed the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, providing a cease-fire, leaving behind millions of dead soldiers and civilians and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese that had decided to flee their country.
The Era of Changes
When the war ended the communist party renamed Saigon as Ho Chi Ming City and the country finally reunified in 1976. However, communism had to be overruled and replaced by socialism which led to the creation of prison camps for those that still had ties to the previous regime, who were incarcerated in horrendous conditions. Meanwhile, the relations with China were going from bad to worse, an anti-capitalistic campaign that was launched in 1978 led to seizing businesses and private property of Ethnic-Chinese, the Khmer Rouge kept on attacking the Vietnamese borders forcing the latter to respond, and, in the end, Vietnam entered into war mode with Cambodia, which was temporarily seized but later liberated again after the Chinese’s intervention.
For a short while, the Vietnamese Communist Party saw a beam of light when President Mikhael Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 wanting restructuring and openness. But, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 forced the Party to reform to survive.
The relations between Vietnam and the USA have improved significantly in the past few years. The USA-imposed economic embargo was lifted in 1994, after more than 30 years while full diplomatic relations between the two countries have now been restored. Since that day, a few US Presidents have visited northern Vietnam, and the country was welcomed into the WTO (World Trade Organization) in 2006.
The relations with China have also improved over the course of time despite the fact that many still believe that China never ceased to consider Vietnam a deserting traitor. Nevertheless, the righteous and forward-thinkers insist that collaboration towards the future is much more vital than remembering the past and arguing about what happened then. Northern Vietnam is now seen as a gate to the South China Sea, and Beijing does not miss an opportunity to show how appreciative they are of Vietnam’s strategic geographical location as it enables a fast route from the Sichuan and Yunnan to the Sea.
That aside, Vietnam is also an ASEAN member, an organisation that was originally founded to serve as a defensive wall against communism, and all that have contributed to Vietnam’s economic prosperity. The economy is growing at over 8% annually, and tourism is on the rise.