The history of Vietnam is such a rich and complex topic that it is the subject of many books and websites, and this brief introduction can do little more than mention major events and trends down through the centuries. However, it is interesting to note that, while the events that have shaped the modern nation may be incredibly diverse, a common thread throughout Vietnam’s past has been the nation’s struggle for independence from a variety of would-be colonisers, including the Chinese, French and Americans.
According to popular myth the beginnings of Vietnamese culture can be traced back to a dragon lord called Lac Long Quan and a fairy queen called Au Co. Their hundred offspring provided the first in a line of kings of the Hung dynasty, which called their homeland, in the region of the Red River Delta, Van Lang. In the third century BC, the Hung kings were superseded by Thuc Phan, who called himself King An Duong Vuong and established a fortified citadel at Co Loa, not far from present-day Hanoi.
In those early days, there were more similarities than differences between Chinese and Vietnamese culture, and it is difficult for modern historians to know exactly who was running the country. However, all are agreed that following an invasion by Chinese troops in 111BC, Vietnam passed a millennium under Chinese domination, which only ended in 938 AD when Ngo Quyen, one of the country’s earliest heroes, led a successful campaign against the oppressors.
The following two centuries saw Vietnamese culture blossom after the collapse of the Tang dynasty in China, as its northern neighbour was not strong enough to take control of the country. Incursions by them, as well as by armies of Mongol, Khmer and Champa soldiers were also repelled and Thang Long, later to be re-named Hanoi, was established. Until this time, the sphere of influence of the nation did not extend any further south than Hue, but as the Champa and Khmer kingdoms weakened, successive leaders of Vietnam spread their influence further south until in the early 19th century it incorporated Gia Dinh, later to be re-named Saigon.
During periods of Vietnam’s past when the country was not under Chinese control, there was an ongoing power struggle between influential families to gain the upper hand. One of the greatest struggles was between the Trinh family, who controlled the north for much of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the Nguyen family, who controlled the south. Against this background, European powers looking for a foothold in Asia arrived and forged alliances – the French with the Nguyen lords and the Dutch with the Trinh lords.
Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese were wary of the Catholic priests who had arrived with the French and who tried to convert the local people to their faith. The French for their part were eager to establish a base in Asia from which to extend their influence, and it was Napoleon III who authorised a naval expedition with the specific intention of punishing the Nguyen lords for their mistreatment of the missionaries. Though the initial attack on Da Nang harbour was largely ineffective, due to an outbreak of tropical disease on the French boats, they succeeded in capturing Gia Dinh, which would become the base of French occupation of Indochina under the name Saigon.
Needless to say, most Vietnamese resented the French occupation, and in the late 19th century, several resistance movements gained momentum with the sole intention of re-establishing sovereign rule. This was no easy task, however, as France had a distinct advantage when it came to firepower. Thus developed a kind of ‘David and Goliath’ syndrome, in which the new colonial power was constantly harassed by subversive acts.
Given the superior weaponry and tactical ability of the French, few could have imagined that the Vietnamese would eventually drive out their colonial oppressors; yet that is exactly what happened. However, it took almost a century after the French capture of Gia Dinh in 1858 until they were defeated in one of history’s most unlikely battle outcomes at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. French reliance on superior equipment was no match for the indomitable spirit of the Vietnamese, who eventually reclaimed their land.
You might think that after such a surprising outcome, world leaders would think twice before depending on superior technology to defeat a poorly equipped but determined people. Yet when the USA joined the Second Indochina War in the mid-1960s, the idea of defeat was unthinkable. At this time the country was divided into North and South at the 17th parallel, a demarcation that essentially divided the communists in the North from the capitalists in the South.
American paranoia about the spread of communism feared that if the south became communist, the ‘red terror’ might spread across the globe. Thus began a fight to ‘save’ the South Vietnam in a series of battles fought by young Americans who knew little or nothing about the culture of the country they were fighting in.
As is now common knowledge, the Americans had left long before troops from the North stormed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in 1975 to seal a famous victory. Yet at the time it seemed inconceivable that the world’s most powerful nation could be outdone by guerrilla tactics.
The outcome of the war also dispelled each side’s hopes and fears about the future. The American concern about a ‘domino effect’, that all other countries in Southeast Asia would become communist, was clearly unfounded, but so was the communists’ hope that a unified country would lead to peace and prosperity. The war was followed by a period of recrimination in which many who had fought for the South were sent to labour camps far from home, while the stagnant economy led to starvation for many who had survived the war.
It was not until the mid-1980s that things began to turn around with the introduction of ‘doi moi’ – a policy that allows, and even encourages, private ownership of businesses, though the state still retains ultimate power. Now, ironically, while the rest of the world suffers from a global depression, the Vietnamese economy is buoyant, a reprieve that is perhaps deserved after suffering centuries of oppression by outsiders.