63. A Brief History of Vietnam

A review of the nation’s long and varied history takes center stage in this report, as the author prepares to hit the road with a pocketful of magazine assignments.

Vietnam’s Museum of History in Ho Chi Minh City was built in 1929 during the French colonial era. (JGA photo)

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships, and sealing wax; of cabbages and kings.” Thank you, Lewis Carroll.

For me, the time has come to truly explore Vietnam, a country that has been my provisional home for the past two years and counting. COVID regulations permitting, I will be on the road through February, and I intend to share stories from those months of wandering for many weeks thereafter.

In addition to this weekly blog, I shall write on assignment for several other publications. Among them is the East-West News Service, for which I wrote two previous stories in 2021, and Stellar World Hotels, to showcase some intriguing accommodations.

I’m especially excited about working with Archaeology Travel magazine. As it revamps its website for relaunch at the start of 2022, this online publication, based in Germany, has asked me to join them as a contributing writer focusing on destinations in Asia. My first extended series of articles will range across Vietnam, exploring sites both ancient and historically modern. To that end, I want to share with my readers a little of what I know about Vietnam’s history.

A painting in the Museum of History depicts the famous battle of the Bach Dang River in 938 A.D. (JGA photo)

Three kingdoms

For a very long time, there were three nations where today there is just one.

The first independent Vietnamese state was established about 2800 B.C. by a Bronze Age culture known as the Dong Son. Best remembered for the bronze drums and gongs it produced, its people cultivated rice in the lowlands of the north. Eventually, distinct highland and valley cultures emerged.

In 111 B.C., China’s Han emperors annexed the Red River Delta. The Chinese held it for more than 1,000 years, ruling with a strict Confucianist philosophy and squashing periodic rebellions. In 938 A.D., they were defeated by the Vietnamese warlord Ngo Quyen, who led his troops against the Chinese in the first battle of the Bach Dang River near Haiphong.

The south was a feudal Khmer kingdom, known first as Funan and later Chenla. It prospered throughout the Mekong Delta from the 2nd Century B.C. into the 12th Century A.D. The citizens built an elaborate system of canals (for rice cultivation and transportation) that extended from its main port city of Oc-Eo to the Gulf of Thailand, and traded with merchants from China to the Mediterranean.

Not to be outdone by Buddhists to the south or Confucianists to the north, Vietnam’s central coastal region spawned the Hindu kingdom of Champa in the late 2nd Century A.D. Semi-piratical by nature, it extended for hundreds of miles south from Da Nang to Phan Thiet, and lasted for more than a millennium.

Friction between these three regional rivals was frequent and ongoing, and always beneath the long shadow cast by the Chinese to the north. Before the end of the 15th Century, the Chams had been squeezed out.

In Hoi An, hundreds of carefully preserved buildings recall an era when the city was a thriving port of world trade. (JGA photo)

International trade

The void was filled by merchants from many lands. Portuguese sailors and Dominican missionaries landed in Da Nang in 1516, to be followed by Chinese and Japanese. They established a trade port called Faifoo near the mouth of the Thu Bon River, just south of Da Nang. Through the 17th and 18th centuries, it was well known to traders from across Asia, maritime Europe and even, eventually, the Americas. The port was rebuilt after the Tay Son Rebellion of 1765 and today is known as Hoi An. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has been preserved and restored to much of its original charm.

With southern Vietnam having slowly been infiltrated by ethnic Vietnamese who supplanted the Khmers, the rebellion moved north, led by a group of brothers with the surname Nguyen (loosely pronounced nwin). Nguyen Anh established himself as Emperor Gia Long in 1802; soon thereafter, he captured Hanoi from the Chinese, thus uniting all of Vietnam. Clearly, it was a Nguyen Nguyen situation.

Hue (hway), in the center of the country, was declared the national capital. Today its Imperial Citadel is one of the most stirring historical sites in Southeast Asia.

Built by the French in the 19th century, the Notre-Dame Cathedral of Saigon ís now undergoing refurbishment. (JGA photo)

Voila! The French

Less than a half-century later, the French arrived. Driven by imperial suppression of Catholicism and the imprisonment of missionaries, a military force landed in Da Nang in 1847. Saigon fell in 1859, and three years later Emperor Tu Duc signed over control of the south to France, establishing the Mekong Delta region as “Cochinchina.” The Europeans didn’t stop there, occupying Hanoi in the early 1870s and Hue in 1883, when a “treaty of protectorate” signaled the beginning of seven decades of colonial rule. The French did some good things — building the Saigon-Hanoi railway and draining the swamps of the Mekong Delta for rice cultivation — but those actions were outweighed by their cruel treatment of Vietnamese laborers.

Nationalist sentiments simmered just below the surface. Perhaps ironically, some activists chose to work together with the colonists to achieve this. Around the time that 12-year-old Bao Dai, then studying in France, was elevated to emperor (in 1925), progressive intellectuals saw fit to replace Chinese script with the quoc ngu system of writing, as a more facile way to educate the population.

France was also where a young Hô Chí Minh fomented the movement that led Vietnam to communism. Influenced by the U.S. civil-rights movement and his readings about the American Revolution, the young cook moved to Paris as World War I came to a close and joined other Vietnamese expatriates in challenging French domination. After Allied leaders denied his group’s petition to end colonial rule as a provision to the Treaty of Versailles, he took his politics to the Soviet Union, where he embraced Marxism and Communism, and to south China.

Depicted here as a benevolent father figure, Ho Chi Minh was the leading force in introducing communism to Vietnam. (JGA photo)

Ho takes over

In Canton (now Guangzhou) Hô organized the Revolutionary Youth League of Vietnam, with its first demands being fairer distribution of land. The Marxist philosophy gained traction with a 1930 rebellion led by peasants and intellectuals, and the youth league evolved into the Communist Party. When the Japanese occupied Vietnam in 1941, Hô returned to Vietnam and formed the Viet Minh (an acronym for League for the Independence of Vietnam) to contest both sets of foreign intruders, initially funded in part by the U.S. government.

When the Japanese were defeated, Hô proclaimed Vietnamese independence on Sept. 2, 1945, in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh Square. But the French weren’t about to step aside. More than eight years of intermittent warfare ensued. The Viet Minh were boosted by an increased arms flow from China after the communist victory there (led by Mao Tse-tung) in 1949. On May 7, 1954, at Dien Bien Phu on the Laotian border, they finally defeated 10,000 French troops after a 57-day siege.

The Geneva Accords divided Vietnam in two at the Ben Hai River (the 17th parallel), a temporary measure pending nationwide elections in 1956. Those elections were never held. In the south, a U.S.-supported, anti-communist republican government was established under President Ngo Dinh Diem, but Ngo’s anti-Buddhist policies put him at odds with many, leading to his assassination in a military coup in 1963. In the north, communist leaders mercilessly eliminated opposition through executions and imprisonment. Funneling supplies and freshly conscripted personnel down the Hô Chí Minh Trail, the National Liberation Front (the Viet Cong) took over the countryside as the Saigon government faltered.

Photographer Nick Ut captured this famous image of terrified children fleeing a napalm attack in 1972. (War Remnants Museum)

The American War

The Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 led to direct U.S. involvement in this undeclared civil war. American military advisers had been present since 1950, but no shots were fired until an American destroyer came under attack off the coast of North Vietnam. The U.S. responded by bombing dozens of roads and rail bridges. Its first troops came ashore at Da Nang in March 1965, formally starting the conflict known to the West as the Vietnam War, to Vietnamese as the American War.

Over the next 10 years, more than 3 million Americans served in Vietnam, and more than 58,000 of them were killed or left missing in action. More than 4 million Vietnamese are estimated to have died or suffered severe injury. The watershed year was 1968. The Tet Offensive, a coordinated attack on more than 100 cities and towns around the country, showed off the strength of the VC. Incidents such as the My Lai Massacre, in which more than 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians were slaughtered by U.S. troops, led to a massive loss of support for the military presence among American citizens.

Hô Chí Minh died of heart failure in 1969. Peace talks began in Paris the following year. They continued until 1973, when the U.S. withdrew most of its troops. South Vietnam continued to fight until April 30, 1975, when the North Vietnamese Army rolled unopposed up to the gates of Independence Palace, the seat of government. Almost immediately, Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.

Modern-day visitors walk through the gates of Independence (Reunification) Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. (JGA photo)

Uniting two economies

Suddenly, after decades of warfare, Vietnam had “united” two nations with totally different economic and social systems. There was a lot of work to be done, with bitterness on both sides and widespread political repression. Land mines and toxic chemicals (Agent Orange) were still destroying lives and communities.

Vietnam’s immediate neighbors continued to underestimate the gritty country, however. At the end of 1978, tired of continued incursions upon the Mekong Delta, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the rebel Khmer Rouge government within two weeks. In 1979, it took only slightly longer to drive off the Chinese, who had invaded the border region north of Hanoi as payback for its Khmer Rouge ally.

During the 1980s and ‘90s, Vietnam attempted to bridge the gap between its differing economic philosophies, welcoming a version of capitalism, promoting tourism, and joining the pro-democracy Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Today it still struggles to merge the two. Although Vietnam’s central, one-party government is devoted to a doctrine that tolerates no dissent, it continues to encourage citizens to freely interact with foreign residents in building the economy.

A Hindu frieze in the Museum of History is part of the rich artístic heritage left by the ancient Champa civilization. (JGA photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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