Vietnam's History


To say the history of Vietnam has been turbulent might be an understatement. To the western society, most would point to the horrors of the Vietnam war and Americas mark in the nation’s history books. However, this was is just the latest of a long list of suiters of these lands. Understanding this country and the diversity in north, south and central Vietnam, requires a bit of a history lesson.

China and Mongolia trying to invade Vietnam

Throughout history, the nation has battled off foreign armies trying to occupy its lands. As far back as 2nd century BC, their large neighbors to the north, China, have tried to occupy Vietnam. For about 1.000 years the people of Vietnam had to endure Chinese occupancy and in 938 China was finally defeated and Vietnam was liberated from China. Noticeable to mention, Vietnam at the time is geographically limited to Northern Vietnam. Further south, The Cham people emerged in central Vietnam around 2ndcentury AD and was not occupied by the Chinese. Southern Vietnam belonged to Khmers of Cambodia.

After the liberation from China, Vietnam had to fight off other suiters. First in 1076, when the Charm forces were defeated by the Vietnamese military. This happened again in 1471 which eventually led to their doom. In 1288 the Mongols invaded Dai Viet but was defeated near Ha Long Bay at the historic Battle of Bach Dang (again). This was the same place where the battle was fought out against the Chinese and ultimately won Vietnam their freedom. In the years to come, the Chinese invaded Vietnam again, and again was driven back to China.

Vietnamese expansion and European occupation

In 1516 the European explorers made shore with Portuguese traders the first of many European nations to take interest in Vietnam. The first signs of modern-day Vietnam started to take root in 1756 by the hand of the Nguyen brothers. Over the cause of the next 25 years they successfully took control of the rest of the country. First in central Vietnam and later they conquered Saigon and the south of Vietnam, capitalizing on a weakened Khmer Kingdom.

A dream to further expand Vietnam and take advantage of Khmer’s downfall let to the Nguyen brothers to expand into Cambodia and Laos before they were stopped in Thailand. Back in Vietnam, the country failed to modernize and where no match to European military. Having stretched their resources in their conquering quest, Vietnam was now an easy opponent to a well-armed French army and when the emperor refused to hand over their Catholic missionaries to the French army, they attacked the harbor of Danang in 1847. This was the start to a French takeover of the nation. In 1859 Saigon was conquered and in 1862 the then emperor signed a treaty, which handed over control of the Southern Vietnam to the French. That was not the end of it though, and by 1883 France controlled Vietnam from north to south.

Seeking independence

Several attempts towards becoming independent was carried out as the sense of nationalism and a desire for independence was growing. One of the more dramatic actions was the attempted assassination of the French garrison in Hanoi. A realization between leading patriots soon started to materialize as it was clear that liberation through violence would leave them nowhere and modernization was deemed the safest and strongest path towards independence. As such, the Dong Du (Go East) movement began as plans to send Vietnamese intellectuals to Japan to study. The mission was to grow the intellectual pool among Vietnamese patriots to plan and execute a successful uprising in the future. The communist movement was the most successful with a certain Ho Chi Minh being at the forefront of the communist movement as he founded the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League in 1925 which 5 years later became the Vietnamese Communist Party.

WW2, starvation and Ho Chi Minh

As WW2 began and France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940 so did their powers in Vietnam and Japanese forces took control of Vietnam but left the French administration in charge. Vietnam was initially spared the horrors of war, but as WW2 went on and the Japanese forces came under more and more pressure, they began to export huge amounts of rice to support their forces around the pacific. So much so that an estimated two million starved to death in Northern Vietnam. Ho Chi Minch and his party was the only real opponent to the French and Japanese occupants and they soon received support from the US government. As the war unfolded both Japan and France withdrew from Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh’s party, now called Viet Minh, seized the opportunity to take back the power of Vietnam. In September 2nd, 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam independent. This was short-lived, however. In the aftermath of WW2, British and Chinese forces took control over former Japanese rules, with Britain doing so in Vietnam. Further, old Japanese forces and France military battled it out with Viet Minh to cease control over Ho Chi Minh City.

After Vietnam was declared independent, armed French forces once again invaded the country to claim what they deemed was rightfully theirs. In the north, Chinese troops were getting closer to Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh and his party decided between the lesser of two evils and gave power back to France and negotiated Vietnam to be a free state within the French Union. The peace didn’t last, and the Viet Minh armies fought with France occupants for 8 years costing 35.000 French soldiers and a significant higher number of Vietnamese troops. In 1954 France troops surrendered to the resilient Viet Minh soldiers. 

A divided Vietnam

In the aftermath, Vietnam was divided into north and south with Southern Vietnam being ruled by a catholic, anti-communist called Diem. He was supported by the US Government in their efforts to remove communism throughout Asia. Vietnamese were given 300 days to settle in either North or South and a growing number of people (mostly Catholics) fled to the South to avoid the communist North. As a result, Diem grew more powerful and soon began to go out of control leading to his death by a military coup supported by the US. Eventually, the Geneva Convention allowed Hanoi (communist leadership) to regain leadership of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and would have full control of North Vietnam. Things quickly started to unravel as the communist leadership imprisoned and slaughtered thousands of individuals who was deemed a threat to their powers. In 1959 the communist started a campaign to liberate the South. Vietcong (communist armies) began their liberation of the South and in 1965 Saigon, and with it the South, was almost about to fall.

The Vietnamese war

IN 1965 US troops sat food in Vietnam when they landed at the beaches of Danang to kickstart what would be one of the worst wars fought in modern history. More than 50,000 American soldiers lost their lives in Vietnam, however more than 1,000,000 Vietnamese soldiers and an estimated 4,000,000 civilians either got killed or injured as a result of the war. Villages and cities were destroyed and eventually a peace treaty was signed, which resulted in the withdrawal of US soldiers. With the South Vietnamese troops standing on their own, North Vietnam quickly took over the entire country and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City, symbolizing the victory of communism in the country – something the US have fought so hard to avoid (if you would like to read more about the war in Vietnam read this article).

The fall of communism

The Soviet have always supported the communist movement in Vietnam, but with the fall of the Soviet Union, the communist party in Vietnam weakened and capitalism started to grow, and market powers took root. This change greatly accelerated Vietnam going from a broken country brought to its knees to a prospering economy and a more unified country than ever before. 

Traveling in Vietnam is as interesting as it is beautiful. If you talk to locals about culture, about the differences between North and South they’ll tell you that there is a great difference between people living in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi and you’ll probably experience it yourself if you spend enough time each destination. Knowing about the history, how the country has been divided up until very recently, gives us with a better and deeper understanding of the country and travelling Vietnam becomes more interesting and you, as a foreigner, know a little bit better, the foundation of the Vietnamese culture which we believe is important when you visit a whole new country.


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