A Brief History of Vietnam, What You Should Know

Vietnamese Flag flying

For anyone that may be considering doing business or travel to Vietnam, it is important that you come into the country with some background on what Vietnam has been through, especially if you are American or French. 

Vietnam has a history of foreign dominations that have treated the Vietnamese people with brutality. There have also been many times the North and South of Vietnam was divided. Most Vietnamese will tell you they were 1,000 years under Chinese rule and about 99 years under French rule. This is why when you understand a bit about Vietnamese history, you can also understand why colonial freedom and national pride is very important to the Vietnamese people.

his national pride and quest for freedom have literally transpired for thousands of years. Vietnam has a long and rich history that dates back to the 3rd Century BC.

Vietnam’s 1,000 years of Chinese Domination

The Chinese conquered the Red River Delta, which is now part of North Vietnam in the 2nd Century B.C. During this period many Chinese settlers, officials and scholars moved to the Red River Delta. Of course, the Vietnamese were not happy about this Chinese domination.

A famous rebellion that took place in AD 40 was led by some Trung sisters (Hai Ba Trung). There is an area of Hanoi and also some streets in Hanoi named Hai Ba Trung after these sisters. The Trung sisters raised an army and led a revolt against the Chinese rule. The Sister then declared themselves the leaders of Vietnam. But in AD 43 the Chinese counterattacked and won back Vietnam. The Sister threw themselves in the Red River rather than live under Chinese rule.

The Chinese continued to rule Vietnam for many years after that. This Chinese treatment of the Vietnamese included forced labor and other acts of tyranny. There were some continued rebellions but none of them were really able to get Vietnam back into the hands of the Vietnamese.

Chinese writing on buildings
Chinese style writing on a temple in Hanoi, Vietnam. Evidence of the time China was under Chinese rule.

BecBecause China-controlled Vietnam for so many years, when you visit North Vietnam you will see a lot of the older Temples and pagodas with Chinese characters on them. Though China and Vietnam have shared a close history, they have had a tremulous history. In recent years Vietnamese have had protests against Chinese factories and even protested outside the Chinese embassy in Hanoi. Many Vietnamese do not like Chinese. And many times, the border and trade between China and Vietnam will be closed for no apparent reason.

Vietnam’s short-lived Chinese independence.

The Tang Dynasty in China collapsed in the 10th Century. In 938 AD, Ngo Quyen, a Vietnamese patriot, led a Vietnamese revolted against the Chinese and won back control of Vietnam. From the 10th to the 15th centuries, Vietnam was no longer under the control of China.

China returns to rule Vietnam (again)

This independence was short-lived as the Chinese and Vietnamese continued to fight over Vietnamese territory until the Chinese gained control of Vietnam again in the 15th Century. But during this time period, the Chinese carted off a lot of Vietnam’s archives and intellectuals to China. The pilferage was a great loss to Vietnam’s history, culture, and civilization.

Vietnam’s Independence – Lam Song Uprising

In 1418, Le Loi, a wealthy philanthropist led a revolt against the Chinese and won. Le Loi then declared himself emperor Le Thai To of Vietnam. The Le family became the emperors of Vietnam. As part of Le’s family rule, they started to conquer the Cham lands to the south and parts to the east. It is interesting to note that they forced the people in these lands to kowtow to them, just as the Chinese had forced the Vietnamese into full obedience to the Chinese.

1516 the first European’s arrive in Vietnam

The first Portuguese sailors arrived in Vietnam in 1516. Soon after the arrival of the Portuguese, Dominican missionaries arrived in Vietnam and started to preach Catholicism to the Vietnamese. They had a lot of success in Vietnam, almost as much success they had in the Philippines.

Today when you travel through Vietnam you can still see a lot of Catholic churches dotting the countryside. There are entire villages that are all Catholic and it is common to go past a Catholic church in the early weekday morning and find it full of worshippers.

But, the 17th and 18th Centuries, were like an eerie foreshadowing of what was to become of Vietnam in the 20th Century. During this period Vietnam was divided many times into North and South Vietnam. The south had the powerful Nguyen Lords, who carried on like an independent stare of Vietnam and though they still claimed feign allegiance to the Trinh King who ruled the north. War eventually broke out and the south that had Dutch armaments provided by the Dutch were able to overpower the North that had only subpar Portuguese artillery.

West Lake Hanoi, Vietnam
An old Vietnamese boat, against the skyline of the new Hanoi, Vietnam.

Rebellions in Vietnam – Nguyen Dynasty is created, and Vietnam has been united again.

But like most things in Vietnam, this was short-lived. In 1765 there was a rebellion that started in Tay Son, a town near the coastal town in Central Vietnam of Quy Nhon. This rebellion was led by the Nguyen brothers and they were part of a group that was called the Tay Son Rebels. In less than a decade these Nguyen brothers were controlling all of Central Vietnam. Then in 1783, they captured Saigon and the rest of South Vietnam from the Nguyen Lords. One of the Nguyen brothers became the King of the south and another King of the Central part of Vietnam.

Eventually, the Nguyen’s overthrew the Trinh Lords of the North and the 3rd brother, Nguyen Hue made himself the Emperor of North Vietnam. He then set out to get rid of the Chinese who were still in some parts of Vietnam. In 1789 Nguyen Hue’s forces defeated the Chinese army and finally drover the Chinese out of Vietnam. This defeat of the Chinese is still considered a great victory for Vietnam.

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The Nguyen’s set to unify Vietnam, and by 1802 Nguyen Anh unified Vietnam. Nguyen Anh proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long and designated Hue as the capital city of Vietnam.

The Nguyen Vietnamese era

The reign of the Nguyen’s was very precarious. Emperor Gia Long worked to restore some order in Vietnam while trying to strengthen his rule over the country.

Gia Long’s son, Emperor Minh Mang was extremely anti -Catholic. which he saw as a direct threat to the Confucian traditions and also his family’s dynasty. He also saw Catholicism, along with all western influences as a threat to Vietnamese Confucian traditions and culture.

But this Nguyen Dynasty was not so unlike the Chinese they had fought against. They had an expansionist mentality as they continued to expand and conquer other places such as present-day Cambodia, parts of Lao territory and they had some clashes with Thailand. Their goal was to pick apart what was then the Khmer empire.

The French era

The French first came to Vietnam in 1847 attacking Danang Harbor. The reason why they attacked Vietnam was that the present Emperor Thieu Tri was suppressing the Catholic missionaries. Emperor Thieu Tri was determined to try to rid Vietnam of all Roman Catholic Missionaries. So, the French first came to Danang, then they seized Saigon in 1859. By 1862 Emperor Tu Duc signed a treaty that gave the French what was then known as Conchinchina. At this point this did not yet include North Vietnam, but that as soon to change.

Old Catholic Church, Hanoi, Vietnam
An old Catholic Church, nestled between some buildings, in Hanoi, Vietnam.

In 1872, Jean Dupuis a French merchant was seeking to trade salt to a Yunnanese General via the Red River. He brought in an army and seized the Hanoi Citadel. The French brought in a Captain Francis Garnier that was supposed to reign in Jean Dupuis and his conquering of the North but instead Captain Garnier decided to take over where Jean Dupuis had left off and continued the conquest of North Vietnam.

Many historians feel like the French did not really have a clear plan on how to control and rule this land and empire of Cochinchina. If the French had looked closely at Vietnam’s historic past, one thing that stands out is the Vietnamese have a long history of being conquered, rebelling to gain their freedom, only to be conquered again. During the entire French rule of Vietnam, there were always pockets of resistance throughout Vietnam.

The French did have ambitious plans for Vietnam and they carried out a lot fo public work projects such as the Saigon – Hanoi railway system. To fund all their public work projects, the French taxed the peasants heavily to help fund these public word activities. This heavy taxation started to devastate the local economy. You can read a blog about the Round Basket Boats of Vietnam and how then round basket boats you can see on the coastline of Vietnam was invented to circumvent a tax the French had placed on boats.

The French colonial rule of Vietnam can best be described as brutal and racist. They treated the Vietnamese as second-class citizens in their own country and were notorious for their brutality. In Hanoi, you can go to the Hanoi Prison Museum, which many Americans know as the famous Hanoi Hilton Prison that our soldiers were put in during the Vietnam War. Most of the prison is about how the French treated the Vietnamese. Most of the torturing techniques used on American soldiers were taught to the Vietnamese by the French who used those techniques on the Vietnamese rebels.

Opium and prostitution were also rampant. The French paid the Vietnamese very poorly and used them as slave or indentured servants. The Vietnamese workers were at the mercy of the French rulers The Michelin Tire factory in South Vietnam was notorious in how poorly they treated their Vietnamese workers. As Ngo Vinh Linh wrote about these extremely poor working and living conditions when he said:

“Rubber, the second largest Vietnamese export after rice, was produced by virtually indentured workers so blighted by malaria, dysentery and malnutrition that at one Michelin company plantation, twelve thousand out of forty-five thousand workers died between 1917 and 1944.”

The Michelin File: Drive to empire

When you start to view the history of Vietnam from the eyes of the ordinary Vietnamese that were forced to work and live in such terrible conditions, you can understand why the fought the French and wanted to have independence once and for all.

During this period of time, Ho Chi Minh, seeing the plight of the ordinary Vietnamese, formed the Viet Minh fighting rebels as a resistance force to the French occupation of Vietnam. This part of history can get very long and complicated but to summarize, many scholars believe that Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost a Nationalist. He wanted Vietnam to be a free and independent country. He even approached the United States to help Vietnam become free, but America refused him as they said the French were America’s allies.

Ho Chi Minh style hair
It is not uncommon to see older men in Vietnam with their hair styled like Ho Chi Minh.

World War II

France fell to Germany during World War II, so the French government in Vietnam allowed the Japanese troops to enter as Vietnam as part of their expansion throughout Southeast Asia. The Japanese did allow the French to continue to run Vietnam on a day-to-day base. So, during World War II everything pretty much stayed the same – except this time the Vietnamese were under Japanese control.

But as World War II drew to a close, the Japanese started to pilfer rice and keep it in their storehouses to send the rice to Japan. This pilfering of the rice, combined with some flood and dikes overflowing, caused huge rice and food storages where over 10 million Vietnamese people starved to death under this Japanese occupation. As the people were literally dying by the minute due to starvation, their dead bodies were daily. being picked off the streets. Ho Chi Minh seeing this plight and starvation of the Vietnamese ordered his group of Viet Minh rebels to attack the rice storehouses of the Japanese and then distribute the rice to the starving population. This act of helping to save and help his people, no doubt helped endear the Vietnamese people to Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh rebels.

It was also during World War II, that most of the Vietnamese began to realize that the French as an occupying force was not able to protect them as they could not even protect Vietnam against occupation by the Japanese Army. To add to this, the only real military force during this period was Ho Chi Minh and his band of rebels, the Viet Minh. America realizing this was also helping to arm and train the Viet Minh to fight against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam.

There is a very good book you can find on Amazon called Hanoi Adieu by Mandaley Perkins This book is the memoir of a Frenchman who lived in Vietnam during the French Indochine period. He served in the French Military during this period. It gives a very interesting perspective on Vietnam and the French Colonial rule from the eyes of a Frenchman.

Woman cycling in Hanoi, Vietnam.
A Vietnamese woman cycling in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Vietnam’s messy aftermath of World War II

When World War II ended, Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh rebels controlled large sections of Vietnam, particularly in North Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh formed the National Liberation Committee and during this period of time, they called for the August Revolution which was a general uprising. They wanted to take advantage of the power vacuum that was left after World War II.

In Central Vietnam, Bao Dai who was holding control abdicated in favor of what would become a very shaky coalition. In September 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam’s independence.

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It is interesting to point out that Ho Chi Minh wrote many letters to US President Truman asking for help and assistance for Vietnam to become independent. Ho Chi Minh received no replies. He believed in America and that America would help the Vietnamese to get independence from French colonial rule.

But after World War II things start to get messy for Vietnam. In an agreement after World War II, Vietnam was once again divided. The north would have the Chinese Nationalists also known as the Kunmingdong and the south the British. To add to this, many Chinese Nationalists soldiers, many of who were peasants came into North Vietnam after their defeat in Communist China and started to loot Hanoi. The British also had a hard time in the south and eventually pulled out. Eventually the French gain control of Vietnam again.

The French -Vietnam War

Ho Chi Minh did not want to have the French, British or Chinese Nationalists or any other foreign group or power in Vietnam. At this period, as the Americans had trained and helped his army to get rid of the Japanese, now the Communist Chinese and Russia were helping, and Ho Chi Minh and his Viet Minh rebels. Though Ho Chi Minh believed in Communism as Communist was anti-colonization, he was also criticized by the Communists as they felt Ho Chi Minh was not a true communist as he was a true nationalist. But whatever Ho Chi Minh’s personal beliefs, what is clear is that he wanted independence for Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh said:

“Our resistance will be long and painful, but whatever the sacrifices, however long the struggle, we shall fight to the end, until Vietnam is fully independent and reunified.”

Ho Chi minh

The war between the Viet Minh and the French started to intensify. At this point, America also stepped in to offer monetary support to the French. The French were suffering in trying to rebuild France after World War II, and now they were also fighting in this colonial backwater in Southeast Asia.

The battle to end French rule happened in Dien Bien Phu, an outpost on the border of Lao and Vietnam. The French had superior firepower and arm power so they were extremely confident they would win this battle. Little did they know that a General Giap, who had been the history teacher at the French High School in Vietnam, had men, women, and children camouflage themselves with trees and branches as they carried arms and other things in the hills completely surrounding Dien Bien Phu.

General Giap said the French were at the bottom of this valley that he called a rice bowl. The Viet Minh had the upper hand as they were on the mountains looking and shooting down at the French. Simply put, the French were completely surrounded by the Viet Minh rebels with no one out. The French and even the Americans at some point had to airlift in food and other supplies just so the French soldiers could survive.

The Dien Bien Phu battle was 20,000 French soldiers against 49,500 Viet Minh fighters. The French confidence in their so-called superior military firepower did them absolutely no good. For almost 2 months this battle raged on until finally, the French had no choice but to surrender.

Old Vietnamese funeral cart
An old Vietnamese funeral cart.

1954 Geneva Accords

After the brutal defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the French withdrew from Vietnam. The Viet Minh had won back, at least the northern part of Vietnam. In the 1954 Geneva accords, it was decided that the northern part of Vietnam would be provisionally divided between North and South Vietnam with elections be held in a short period of time to unite both the north and south of Vietnam into one country.

It was widely acknowledged that the clear winner for these elections would have been Ho Chi Minh. Even US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his autobiography said:

“I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bao Dai. “

U.S. :Pres Dwight D Eisenhower

But as those elections never took place, so you can see how Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh felt that they were cheated out of the1954 Geneva Accords and the elections that were supposed to unify Vietnam. The North Vietnamese continued to fight to unify the north and south of Vietnam.

During this period America decided to prop up the government of South Vietnam and started sending in American advisors. This government of South Vietnam was weak, corrupt and incapable of governing South Vietnam.

President Eisenhower and many in the U.S. believed in the domino theory, in that if we did not stop Communist now the entire world would become communist. This domino theory helped ensure the American fight again Communism and the continued support of South Vietnam.

Using bicycles to sell food in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Using bicycles to sell food in Hanoi, Vietnam.

In 1959, the first American life was lost in Vietnam. By 1961, President John F Kennedy, now the U.S. President decided to send in helicopters, along with 400 Green Berets to South Vietnam to help the South Vietnamese fight against the North Vietnamese. The U.S. also started to spray the famous Agent Orange to kill the foliage and vegetation throughout Vietnam.

American War (Vietnam War)

America’s decision to go into Vietnam started in secret and ended with the world watching as America was forced to leave. This war was one of the most devise wars in America’s history. It was a war that most Americans now agree was based on false information, and that America stayed in even long after they realized they could never win the war.

The Vietnamese do not call this war the Vietnam War, as we call it in America. They call it the American War. I know the first time I heard them call it the American War, I was set back a bit and felt my feathers a bit ruffled. I am American and I always thought of this war like the Vietnam War, not the American War. As long as we, as Americans, called it the Vietnam War, somehow, we did not seem responsible. But you see in the eyes of the Vietnamese we do hold responsibility for the war as we came on their soil to fight them for their own land.

It was Ho Chi Minh that famously said:

“Everything depends on the Americans. If they want to make war for 20 years then we shall make war for 20 years. If they want to make peace, we shall make peace and invite them to tea afterwards.”

Ho chi minh

If you are going to do business or travel in Vietnam – it is important that you have an understanding of Vietnam and the war between America and Vietnam – because this war in many ways has in some way shaped the lives of those Vietnamese, you will meet.

Timeline and Highlights of the Vietnam War

The Vietnam War is quite a complicated war. It is one of the longest wars America ever fought as it lasted 17 years and 4 months. Though Americans were in Vietnam long before 1964, it was in 1964 that Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed the US President to take any action necessary in the armed conflict.

The Official Start of the War ( 1964 – 1968) Highlights

  • US Maddox is attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin. This is later disputed but this gives the reason for America to enter the war.
  • Gulf of Tonkin Resolution is passed in August 1964, giving President Johnson full power to take any necessary action.
  • Pres Johnson orders the bombing of North Vietnam in Operation Rolling Thunder. (The Operation Rolling Thunder took place from 1965-1968)
  • About this time, (1965) US Marines land on the beaches of Danang, Vietnam.
  • In July of 1965, President Johnson calls for 50,000 more ground troops to be sent to Vietnam. This increases the draft in the United States to 35,000 each month.
  • In the Battle of la Drang Valley, nearly 300 Americans are killed.
  • By 1966 there are now 400,000 American Troops in Vietnam increasing up to 500,000 in 1967.
  • In 1968 a US Marine Garrison in Khe Sanh, South Vietnam takes on massive artillery fire. This standoff lasts for 77 days.
  • In early 1968, the North Vietnamese begin the TET Offensive and attack over 100 cities, military posts and other places in South Vietnam. This also includes attacks in Hue and Saigon, including the invasion of the US Embassy in Saigon. This TET Offensive is considered to be the turning point of the war in favor of North Vietnam.
  • Also in 1968, there was a massacre of Mai Lai where more than 500 Vietnamese Civilians are killed by American forces.
  • Due to the backlash of his handling of the War, Pres Lyndon B Johnson decides not to run for re-election and Pres Richard Nixon becomes the next US President.

The America withdrawal from Vietnam 1969-1972

  • Ho Chi Minh dies of a heart attack on September 1969. This ends his era of leadership.
  • In 1969, the US institutes the first draft lottery since World War II, so many “draft dodgers” flee to Canada.
  • The Nixon Administration starts to reduce the number of U.S. Forces in South Vietnam. The number went from 549,000 in 1969 to 69,000 in 1972.
  • In June 1970, Congress repeals the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and asserts control over the president’s ability to use “any force necessary.”
  • In 1971, the New York Times publishes an article about the Pentagon Papers which documents that the U.S. Government was secretly increasing US involvement in the war.
  • March to October 1972 The North Vietnamese launched attacks known as the Easter Attacks and they gain more Southern Vietnamese territory.
  • In December 1972 President Nixon orders the Operation Linebacker attack. For this attack, roughly 20,000 tons of bombs were dispersed over the densely populated areas between Hanoi and Haiphong.

The End of the War is Insight (1972 – 1975)

  • In 1973 the draft is finally ended in favor of an all-volunteer military.
  • In January 1973 President Nixon signs Paris Peace Accord which essentially ends the U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War. North Vietnam agrees to end the war. As the US troops are departing the North Vietnamese are continuing to fight to re-take South Vietnam.
  • From February to April 1973 the North Vietnamese release 591 Americans that were held in Hanoi at the famous Hanoi prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.
  • August 1974 Pres Niscon resigns from the US Presidency and President Gerald Ford becomes President. President Gerald Ford refuses to send in any more U.S. Troops to Vietnam.
  • April 1975 the North Vietnamese forces seize Saigon. The government of South Vietnam surrenders power and the US Marine and Air Forces transport out of Vietnam in an 18-hour period 1,000 American Civilians and 7,000 South Vietnamese.
  • July 1975 North and South Vietnam are formally united into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

When this war finally ended the calculation of the casualities were:

-Over 58,000 American’s lost their lives

-At least 1.1 million North Vietnamese fighters died.

-Over 250,000 South Vietnamese soliders died.

-More than 2 million Vietnamese civilians died.

The history Channel
The Vietnam Memorial. Washington DC
The U.S. Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC

If you would like to learn more about Vietnam’s history after the Vietnam War to the present day, you can read part two of this series called Vietnam After the War, What You Need to Know.

Conclusion

Anyone who is looking to do business or travel to Vietnam should understand the history of Vietnam. To understand this history will help you to understand a lot about Vietnam and why being Vietnamese is so important to this country and culture.

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”

David Mc Cullough

As an American, I find that my own feelings for Vietnam are partly edged in the history the Americans have here. For so many years, America considered the Vietnamese our enemies and so many American’s lives were lost or destroyed fighting on this soil. But yet as I study the history of Vietnam I understand more as to why the Vietnamese fought so hard for their independence.

As I look at the history of Vietnam, I also learn this great lesson of forgiveness. In all my years living and traveling around Vietnam, not once have I ever been treated unfairly and unkind here because I am American. I understand now the power of one nation being able to forgive another and move on. And that is what Vietnam has done by opening its doors to business and travel. Those that come here, should never forget this.

Related Questions

How much did the Vietnam war cost American Taxpayers?

The Vietnam War cost US Taxpayers at the time just over $168,000,000,000 or 168 billion dollars. In today’s dollars that would be over 1,500,000,000,000 or 1.5 trillion dollars. It was an extremely expensive war for America and American taxpayers.

When did America and Vietnam normalize diplomatic relations?

After 20 years of severed ties, the United States and Vietnam normalized relations on July 11, 1995. This happened when the U.S. President was President Bill Clinton. Since that time the US has had normalized diplomatic relations with Vietnam. 

Anita Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Hummel. I am the President of Mondoro. I am passionate about helping you CREATE, DEVELOP, and MANUFACTURE home decor and home furnishing products. I am also an avid blogger with a love of travel and riding my motorcycle around the streets of Hanoi, Vietnam.

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