Vietnam was a Chinese sound empire from around 200 BCE. to 900 AD, when it emerged as a separate kingdom in the northern part of present-day Vietnam. After an expansion to the south, the Vietnamese came to the Mekong Delta.
From the Middle Ages, today’s Vietnam consisted of three main parts, An Nam (middle and central), Tonking (north) and Cochin-China (south). At the end of the 18th century, the various parts were merged into one empire ruled by the Nguyen dynasty. This kingdom was called Viet Nam or Dai Nam.
From the 1860s, Vietnam gradually became more controlled by the French and together with Laos and Cambodia colonized the state of French Indochina from 1887 to 1954. After a liberation war against the French in 1946–1954, the country was divided along the 17th latitude in two states, a socialist North – Vietnam with Hanoi as its capital, supported by China and the Soviet Union, and a US – supported South Vietnam with Saigon as its capital. See abbreviationfinder for geography, history, society, politics, and economy of Vietnam.
In 1964, a US direct military engagement against North Vietnam began, the Vietnam War, which led to the fall of South Vietnam. In 1976, the two states joined the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with a communist regime.
Already several centuries before our era, there were state formation that was built up by Vietnamese ancestors in the Delta Koi (Red River) delta. Recent archaeological finds suggest that the legendary Hung kings may have existed as early as around 2000 BCE. The Hungry kingdom, Au Lac, culminated with a rich Bronze Age culture in the 300s BCE, but was crushed by a Chinese army commander in 207 BCE. A new empire, which also included large South Chinese territories, emerged under the name Nam Viet. This marks the transition from legendary history to written history, which was especially recorded in Chinese annals.
Nam Viet was invaded by armies from the mighty Chinese Han Dynasty, and was Chinese sound for over a thousand years (111 BCE – 939 AD). Through immigration of Chinese and forced assimilation, the area gained Chinese characteristics, both in material culture and management. Confucianism became state philosophy. The Vietnamese (who at this time are better known as Annamites) nevertheless developed their national identity and opposed the Chinese dominance. After a long series of rebellions, they broke loose in 939.
The northern part of present-day Vietnam remained a Chinese province for over a thousand years. The Vietas thus formed part of Chinese civilization, while Funan, Angkor and Champa were inspired by Indian culture. The Vietnamese were characterized by Chinese culture linguistically, religiously and politically, but also retained their distinctive features, an Austro-Asian speaking language, their own clothing habits and customs. Furthermore, the fertile and densely populated delta of the Red River was separated from the rest of China by sparsely populated highlands. In order to increase the rice crops and provide a basis for a growing population, a strong local governmental power was needed to coordinate the village’s construction of dikes and dug excavations.
Like other people in the periphery of the Chinese Empire, the Whites also revolted when the imperial power was weak. The Vietnamese storytelling of the 20th century has placed particular emphasis on a revolt led by the Trung sisters in the first century or so. The emperors in Beijing made great efforts to fight the rebellion and integrate the southern province, which the Chinese called An Nam (the peaceful or pacified south).
The Dai Viet empire
When the Chinese Tang Dynasty collapsed in the 9th century, the rulers of An Nam used the opportunity to break free and create their own empire, the Dai Viet (Great Viet). It managed to defend itself against later conquest attempts by the north, including Mongolian attacks in the 13th century. Thus arose the one of the three nations that did not become part of China, although strongly influenced by Chinese culture; the others were Korea and Japan.
The most important dynasties of the Dai Viet were Ly (1009–1226), Tran (1225–1413) and Le (1428–1788). They defended their independence, but also sought to emulate Chinese state custom, and often sent tributes (gifts as symbols of symbolic subordination) to the emperor in Beijing. From 1010, Dai Viet’s capital was located in Thang Long, present-day Hanoi. Dai Viet not only defended against attacks from the north, but also regularly fought at war with Champa in the south. To recruit soldiers, the emperors pledged land in conquered areas. This led to a gradual migration of Vietas to the south, at Champa’s expense. In the 15th century, Champa was almost destroyed, slipping out of history in the late 1600s. Champa’s downfall gave a new southern center of gravity to the Viet kingdom, with its center in the city of Hue.
The Le Dynasty gradually gained only symbolic power. In the south the Nguyen family ruled and in the north the Trinh family. European maps from the 17th and 18th centuries show two distinct realms, called Cochin China and Tonkin. European traders and missionaries made a strong claim from the 17th century, and managed to create viable Catholic churches. At the same time, Buddhism was on the rise, but the rulers in both parts of the empire adhered to Confucian teachings. They allowed free religious practice, but refused to associate state power with one particular religion.
Empire Viet Nam
The southern state provided further devoted migration south. After the Khmer kingdom of Angkor had succumbed to the Thais in the 1400s, the Mekong Delta was only sparsely populated. However, another group of immigrants came to the fore: the Chinese. When the Man-seers conquered China in the mid-17th century, many Chinese fled south by ship. Some of them settled on the Saigon River. Soon, the Vietnamese established a settlement on the other side of the river. Thus came the trading town of Saigon-Cholon, which in 1976 was named Ho Chi Minh City.
In the 18th century, strong religious and social tensions arose in Cochin China, and in 1771 a peasant uprising, the Tay Son revolt, arose under a skilled army commander. He managed to defeat both the Nguyen and Trinh families as well as a Chinese interventionist army, abolished the Le Dynasty and made himself emperor of a united kingdom. He took the name Quang Trung. In National Communist History, Quang Trung is a national hero in line with Communist leader Ho Chi Minh.
However, Quang Trung died before consolidating power. His arch enemy, Nguyen Anh, then returned with the support of Siam and France, and in 1802 established a new empire with Hue as the capital. He took the name Gia Long (1802-1820). After negotiations with the emperor in Beijing, this kingdom first took on the name Viet Nam (Viet in the south), but in the 1800s, it was primarily called Dai Nam (the Great South).
The Nguyen Dynasty ruled in Hue from 1802–1945, created its own version of Confucian state customs and used Chinese characters. The Nguyen emperors never initiated European-inspired reforms, which came to save Siam and Japan from colonization. Throughout the 19th century, the emperors tried to stop the Catholic mission and came into conflict with France. The French protected the Catholics, moreover, they wished to end up along the shipping route to China.
The establishment of the colonial state of Indochina occurred in stages from 1859 to 1893. First the French conquered Saigon-Cholon and the Mekong Delta, as they did in 1864 to the colony of Cochin-China, with direct French rule. Then they surrendered Cambodia (1867) and made it a protectorate, that is, the king continued as nominal ruler while the French ruled real. When it turned out that the Mekong River was not sufficiently navigable to form a waterway to China, the French turned interest in the Red River instead, and in 1884–1885 they joined Dai Nam as two separate protectorates: Annam (with Hue as its capital) and Tonkin (with Hanoi as its capital). The Nguyen emperor remained formally the head of both protectorates, but the French residents ruled.
To carry out the colonization, the French had to defeat both Dai Nam and China in war, and then defeat several rebels. In 1887, the conquered territories were gathered in French Indochina, a new colonial state ruled by a Hanoi governor general. Saigon-Cholon was the largest and richest city in the colonial area, where many Europeans also settled. Hanoi nevertheless became the capital. It was to be the springboard for French influence in southern China. In 1893, the French also incorporated the country west toward the Mekong in Indochina, while Siam seized the right bank of the Mekong. Thus, the Lao people were divided between two empires.
West of the Mekong, they were integrated into Siam (Thailand) while in the East they got their own state in French Indochina (the French plural word la Laos became the national name Laos). French Indochina thus consisted of five parts:
- colony of Cochin-China
- protectorate of Cambodia
- protectorate of Annam
- protectorate of Tonkin
- the Laos administrative area
In Laos, several smaller kingdoms were eventually placed under the king of Luang Prabang, so that Laos also became a unified kingdom. Between the lowlands of the Viet, Khmer, and Lao, lay the highlands of the ethnic minorities. Here, French geographers drew the boundaries that would later apply between nations.
From the end of the 1890s, the French Governor-General was at the head of a large-scale state-building project with roads, railways, administration buildings, fortifications, hospitals, schools and prisons. Taxes on opium, alcohol and salt contributed to the financing. Europeans occupied all the top positions in the colony administration, but with the increasing role of the state, the mandarins of the emperors (officials) also gained extended powers. The Viet-villages’ self-reliance, which had been an essential feature of the country’s social order, was reduced.
A French-inspired legislation was introduced, Chinese characters were abolished in favor of quoc ngu (Vietnamese written with Latin characters) and a colonial army and security police were created which, through an extensive network of agents, became a main opponent of the new nationalist movements that emerged after 1900 A large number of Vietnamese were trained as colonial officials and were placed in the administration of Laos and Cambodia. They liked to see Indochina as one entity, while other nationalists cultivated the peculiarities of each people.
The nationalist movements, which originated in the first decades of the 20th century, sought inspiration from Europe, China and Japan, and later from Soviet communism. The first two front figures were Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940) and Phan Chu Trinh (1872-1926). In the 1920s and 1930s, the Nationalist Party of Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD), the Indochina Communist Party (IKP), and, in the south, the religious sects of Cao Dai and Hoa Hao emerged.
VNQDD took the lead in making “Vietnam” the name of the nation and outperforming names such as An Nam, Dai Viet, Nam Viet and Dong Duong (Indochina). As a party, the VNQDD was virtually destroyed by French repression in 1930, following a failed uprising. The nationalist groups and religious sects were persecuted by the French police, and had to operate largely illegally. At the court in Hue and in Saigon’s upper class, there were reform forces willing to cooperate with France, but the French gave them little leeway.
The IKP received little support from Khmer and Low, but won a strong position among the Tonkin and Annam whites as well as in Cochin China, both in cities and in the countryside. Communist uprisings were brutally fought in northern Annam in 1930 and Cochin China in 1940, but each time the IKP managed to reorganize, with support from exile groups in Thailand and China, and from the Communist international, the Comintern. Colonial prisons in Indochina and in the Con Son prison became “communist universities”.
In 1940–1941, the Communist Party renewed when party founder Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) returned after a stay in the Soviet Union and a journey through China. He grafted international communism in Vietnamese nationalism and took the lead in Liberation Front Viet Nam Doc Lap Dong Minh (Viet Minh), which operated in the border areas between China and Indochina from 1941. It was easy to combine the fight against Japanese militarism and French colonialism because the French Vichy the regime had secured its position in Indochina by working with the Japanese.
The August Revolution in 1945
French cooperation with Japan lasted until March 1945. Until then, the French ruled the colony and continued to suppress nationalist groups. As the war turned around, the Japanese feared that the French would fall on their backs during an expected US invasion. In March 1945, therefore, the Japanese attacked the French colonial army and defeated it in a short war, took over the rule of Indochina and allowed Emperor Bao Dai (1926-1945) to create a new state under the name of Viet Nam. The Emperor’s new government attempted reform, but could do little to prevent a famine in the north. It probably cost a million people their lives.
In the summer of 1945, Viet Minh got serious wind in the sails, and started a collaboration with the US intelligence organization OSS. When Japan surrendered, revolution broke out throughout Vietnam (but not in Cambodia and Laos). Local peoples committees took power in the provinces, often with released communist prisoners as leaders. In Hanoi, a provisional government was established with Ho Chi Minh as president.
The Hue government resigned, the emperor abdicated, and on September 2, 1945, President Ho proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). The August Revolution of 1945 is the most symbolic event in the history of communist Vietnam.
The war in Indochina
At the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, the Allies had decided that Chinese President Chiang Kai-shek would be responsible for conquering northern Indochina from Japan, while the British would be responsible for the southern half. In September, British troops moved south and Chinese to the north. The British helped de Gaulle’s France crush the revolution in the south, but in the north the Chinese left Ho Chi Minh to sit in power.
In January 1946, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) held elections at the National Assembly, but in February Chiang Kai-shek signed an agreement with France to return northern Indochina. A French invasion force was sent north, but the Chinese wanted to avoid war and therefore pressured Viet Minh and France to enter into an agreement. Vietnam was recognized by France as a “free state” within an Indochinese federation and the French Union. On the other hand, France was allowed to hold military forces in Vietnam for a certain number of years. Throughout most of 1946, DRV and France negotiated a lasting peace arrangement, but failed. Full war broke out in December 1946, and Ho Chi Minh again became a guerrilla leader.
Viet Minh soon lost Hanoi and other major cities, but had strong support in the countryside. They managed to keep the war going during the difficult years of 1947–1950. Then it became easier, because then the communists in China won. China’s Mao Zedong and the Soviet Union’s Josef Stalin recognized DRV, and China provided extensive military assistance. Thus, Viet Minh was given an army capable of conducting offensive operations. In return, the Western powers recognized a new counter-revolutionary government that France had established in Saigon under former Emperor Bao Dai, and the United States provided military aid to France. The war in Indochina became part of the Cold War.
In 1950, Viet Minh made military progress. In 1951–1953 the French resisted several attacks, but in 1954 they lost the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu. Shortly after, a peace treaty was signed at a Geneva power conference. Vietnam was temporarily divided by the 17th latitude, and it was agreed to hold elections for reunification by July 1956. China and the Soviet Union pressured Ho Chi Minh to accept the agreement, although it disappointed the Vietnamese communists, especially those in the south. Following the Geneva agreement, many communists moved north, but even more people, especially Catholics, moved south.
It shared Vietnam
In the fall of 1954, the French withdrew from northern Vietnam and DRV regained Hanoi as its capital. Northern Vietnam initiated Chinese-inspired reforms with agricultural collectivization, but local rebellion led the party to take self-criticism in 1956 and to choose a more cautious line. There was also a change in the party leadership. The party’s new strong man was Le Duan, who came from the south. Contrary to the advice of China and the Soviet Union, he allowed the Communist Party to organize a new rebel war in the south from 1959.
In the middle of the Geneva Conference, Bao Dai had appointed the anti-French and anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963) as prime minister in Saigon. He relied on the Catholic minority and on the United States, who felt little obliged by the Geneva agreement. In 1955, Diem evicted the French and replaced them with American advisers, deposed Bao Dai and created a new republic with himself as president. The elections that were to be held in 1956 never mattered. Instead, Diem initiated a ruthless suppression of all opposition groups. In the early years, the Communists were not allowed by the party leadership to defend themselves with violence, but this changed from 1957 when Le Duan took charge.
South Vietnam’s 20-year history has three stages.
- In the first phase (1954–63), it long seemed that Diem would be able to create a strong state within a divided nation, such as in West Germany, South Korea and the Republic of China (Taiwan), but from 1959 to 1960 Diem had major problems, especially with Buddhist opposition. The US now also had enough of its brutal exercise of power. In 1962, the Kennedy administration gave green light to a military coup, and Diem was murdered.
- In the next phase, 1963-1965, the Saigon regime went from one coup and change of power to the other. Without the Americans, it would collapse. They almost ruled the country during those years and began the American Vietnam War.
- In the third phase of South Vietnam, 1965–1975, the two officers Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu took the lead. They depended on the United States, but with Thieu as president it was possible for the Americans to “Vietnamize” the war, thus leaving more of the war to the Vietnamese. However, when the US troops withdrew in 1973, it took only two years before South Vietnam succumbed to North Vietnamese attacks.
The Vietnam War of 1957–1975 began as a rebellion against Diem in South Vietnam, developed into a civil war between North and South Vietnam, and then became an American intervention war. The border areas of Laos and Cambodia were withdrawn early. China and the USSR engaged with extensive assistance to North Vietnam. South Korean and Australian troops participated on the United States and South Vietnam. Between two and three million Vietnamese and 59,000 Americans lost their lives.
When Le Duan allowed the Communist Party to launch an armed uprising in 1959, it had been in practice for a few years already, but it was not until 1960 that the rebels formed the FNL liberation front. It was under communist control, but had broad support. The North Vietnamese built an extensive road network through Laos and Cambodia (Ho Chi Minh Path) to send weapons, equipment and soldiers south. The Kennedy administration responded by increasing the number of US military advisers, but only under President Lyndon Johnson did the United States seriously enter the war.
On August 2, 1964, a Vietnamese torpedo was fired against an American warship in the Gulf of Tonkin, and two days later the Americans realized that they were under attack again. President Johnson then went to Congress and adopted the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which gave him full military freedom of action. Shortly thereafter, the United States launched the first bomb attack on North Vietnam.
In February 1965, the bombing started in earnest, and the same year US ground forces entered the war in the south. The American troop presence in 1967 reached nearly half a million men. The purpose of bombing North Vietnam was to pressure Hanoi to ask for negotiations and stop sending soldiers south, but the effect was the opposite: The bombing strengthened the North Vietnamese’s war morale.
In South Vietnam, the Americans also failed to defeat the FNL, which in January 1968 launched the major Tet offensive against Hue, Saigon and other cities. It failed militarily, and the FNL suffered heavy losses, but the fighting made such a huge impact on American opinion that it contributed to Johnson’s decision not to seek re-election.
In 1969, peace talks were started in Paris, but the war continued throughout Richard Nixon’s first presidential term. After a new North Vietnamese and FNL offensive in 1972 and heavy US bombing of Hanoi at Christmas, negotiations finally came to an end, and an agreement was signed in Paris in 1973. Then the United States brought its soldiers home. Soon after, both the South Vietnamese and the North Vietnamese broke the peace agreement and resumed the war. The US, now weakened by the Watergate scandal, failed to intervene. Hanoi then decided to launch the Ho Chi Minh offensive, which led to Saigon being captured on April 30, 1975.
The United States had never before lost a war. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, debate was high in the United States about the lessons of Vietnam: Could the United States have won the war? How? Was it immoral? Under what conditions is it appropriate for the United States to intervene in other countries?
The Vietnamese have had no open discussion about their teachings. Those who were on the “right side” have been proud of the victory over the world’s largest military power, but in society the war represents a trauma. Almost everyone lost some of theirs. Brothers faced brothers, sisters against sisters, and many fled the country. Today, about 2.5 million foreign Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) live around the globe – the number of people of Vietnamese origin living in Norway is estimated at approximately 25,000 (2018). Only during the post-1986 reform period were the winners and losers of the war able to forge new bonds.
It lost peace
In 1976, Vietnam was reunited as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The Communist Party, which since 1951 was called the Vietnamese Labor Party, also took the name Vietnam’s Communist Party (VKP). The reunion led to North Vietnamese dominance and widespread dissatisfaction in the south.
Soon Hanoi encountered major economic and foreign policy problems. The war had left a society in ruins – and now it was the victim of a protracted US embargo. Moreover, the economic reforms that Hanoi undertook, with five-year plans, the collectivization of land, the nationalization of industry and the ban on private commerce, were also not fit to accelerate the reconstruction. As early as 1979, the government had to reintroduce a minimum market economy target to avoid a famine disaster. Meanwhile, Vietnam had come to war with its former allies, the Communist countries of Cambodia and China.
In 1975-1976, both Laos and Cambodia were given communist rule. Laos signed a long-term friendship agreement with Vietnam in 1977, but Cambodia’s Red Khmer turned to Vietnam and allied with China. Vietnam signed a friendship and assistance agreement with the Soviet Union in 1978 and allowed the Soviet Navy to utilize the strategically important port facility in Camranh Bay. In December of that year, after the Cambodian army had repeatedly entered Vietnamese territory, Vietnam invaded Cambodia and deployed a cooperative government in Phnom Penh.
In January 1979, China responded with a military punitive expedition to northern Vietnam, leading to heavy casualties on both sides. Red Khmer allies joined other Cambodian parties in a resistance front that, with support from Thailand, China and the United States, waged war on the new Cambodian regime until a peace treaty was signed in 1991. Vietnam held a large number of troops in Cambodia throughout most of 1980 years, but pulled them out in 1989.
Comprehensive economic reforms have led to a more open society since 1986, and in the late 1980s there were political thieves. Communist leaders, however, were frightened by the events at the Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 and by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so the reins were tightened. The new constitution of 1992 establishes the leading role of the CCP in society, and the party maintains that the state should dominate the economy. During the Asian crisis of 1997-1998, Vietnam came under increasing pressure from the IMF and foreign investors to adapt to the global market economy, reform the financial sector, make the currency convertible, privatize state-owned enterprises, reduce tariffs, and facilitate conditions for private business.