History of Vietnam in Southeast Asia, Part I

History of Vietnam, Part I to 1954

 The history of Southeast Asia begins with the pre-historic Neolithic period (9000-6500BC). Note that I say “Southeast Asia” because there was no nation of Vietnam until the fairly recent past. Evidence tells us that agriculture began around 6500BC, one of the first areas of the world. This was in the Red River Delta. As in many cultures, the river was both a salvation and a curse as the annual floods destroyed the primitive agricultural settlements. (Compare this to Egypt around the same time.) Thus it was necessary to develop a single authority to prevent floods in the Delta. This occurred around 2880BC when hydraulic systems, trading systems, and an army to fight invaders led to the creation of the first organized state control.

As any advanced culture, the Delta became a magnet drawing outsiders in, both good and bad. Although the Delta’s peculiar geography made it difficult to conquer and this area remained under local control, the area to the south and west was dominated by a series of Chinese dynasties.

Around 1000BC, a nation-state called “Van Lang” appeared. There is some question whether or not it even


existed, but if it did, it was in the northern part of present Viet Nam. Ruled by the Hung Kings of the Hong Bàng dynasty, it extended westward from the South China Sea to present-day Sichuan in China and north to present-day Chinese Hunan. To its south was Champa. What makes this important is that around the same time came the development of wet rice cultivation and bronze casting. As the Han Empire in China expanded, by 111BC, it conquered the northern part of present Vietnam and by 1AD, the Han overlords imposed Chinese culture in Vietnam and established the Kingdom of Funan.

The Chinese were driven out several times and re-entered several more times over the next eight centuries. At the end of the 7th century AD, the Chinese Tang Dynasty called the conquered territory “An Nam” which translates as “Pacified South.” But in 907, the Tang Dynasty collapsed and the former Van Lang began to expand to the south, into Champa territory. In 1070, the Temple of Literature was established. (We will visit this first university in Hanoi!) In 1288, the Viet king, Tran Hung Dao defeated the Mongols in the Battle of Bach Dang by using metal-tipped stakes to impale the Mongol ships.

Unfortunately, the Chinese Ming Dynasty re-occupied Vietnam from 1407-28. But you must note that Vietnamese culture is not exclusively Chinese but also reflects influence of two much earlier Indic cultures: Funan and Champa. Funan (established in the Mekong Delta) would later merge into the great Khmer Empire; it spread into what is now Cambodia and the east coast of Thailand. Funan grew through commerce with China, India, and even the Roman Empire. Like other empires, it ebbed and waned, being supplanted by a new Khmer power. The only artifacts that remain are in museums in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon) and one of my favorite haunts on the Mekong: Long Xuyen.

Champa, possibly coming from Java, developed around the central coast of Vietnam and spread north to present-day Vinh and south to the Mekong Delta. (On map above, it is the territory south of the yellow Van Lang.) Involved in maritime trade, primarily in slaves and sandalwood, they were squeezed by the Khmer kingdom of Angkor and the Viet expansion to the south so that by 1471, the survivors fled to Cambodia.

The Ming had been expelled in 1428 by the nationalist leader Le Loi, who founded the Le Dynasty that lasted until 1788. But like all national consolidations (France had just experienced a similar situation the century prior), resistance by local leaders arose and a two-century controversy between the empire and the warlord families (Trinh and Nguyen) divided the nation. The Nguyen had their original capital at Hue (we will visit this) and the Trinh’s capital was at Thang Long (present day Ha Noi). The Nguyen conquered the Khmer-controlled Mekong Delta and lower Cambodia and renamed Prey Nokor as Saigon.

The first European connection occurred when the Portuguese established the first factories in 1545. They were followed by the Dutch, who were followed by the French in the 17th century. The first Christian missionary was the Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes in 1627, who converted thousands to Christianity, but was expelled for being too successful.

In 1788, Nguyen Anh, who had fled the country, returned home and elicited help from the French; he conquered Saigon and then marched north. By 1802, he declared Hue to be the national capital and himself the first ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty. His successor in 1820 was his son, Minh Mang, who, like his father was under the thumb of the French. But unlike his father, Minh issued decrees prohibiting the spread of Catholicism. When he passed in 1841, his son continued the repression as did Tu Duc who said that converts were “fools seduced by priests.” Imagine the consternation in France when they got wind of this! Add to it the word received of the execution of missionaries in 1858-59. This led to the occupation of Danang and then Saigon. In 1862, the emperor signed a treaty ceding the coastal provinces of the Mekong Delta to France, allowing the French to sail freely up the Mekong to Cambodia and also authorizing missionaries to proselytize all through Vietnam. In 1864, the French forced the Cambodian king to accept their protection. In 1865, the Viet Emperor was forced to form Cochinchina as a French colony. 18 years later, France controlled the entire country. [here is a quick summary of what was going on internally in France prior to World War One.]France 1850-1900

The next step was to occupy Cambodia and Laos, and in 1887, France created the Indochinese Union with the capital in Hanoi.

Three years later, Nguyen Sinh Cung (sometimes seen as Nguyen That Thanh) was born in Hoang Tru in central Vietnam. His father was worked at the imperial court but was dismissed because he criticized the French. In 1911, he took a job on a French ship and traveled all over the world, with long stops in both London and Paris. During the negotiations in Versailles that formally ended the First World War, he was a founding member of the French Communist party, followed by a visit to Moscow in 1923 to be trained at the Comintern (formerly called Communist International), an organization created by N. Lenin to promote world-wide revolution by overthrowing the bourgeoisie in capitalist countries.

He then moved to southern China to organize a revolutionary movement among Vietnamese exiles and in 1930 founded the Indo-Chinese Communist Party. He then traveled freely between China and the Soviet Union. Around 1940, he changed his name to Ho Chi Minh. This name is significant because it means “he who is enlightened.” The word “Minh” means bright (In Chinese it is spelled “Ming.”) and Chí means “will” (or spirit).

After the Japanese invasion of Indochina in 1941, Ho returned home and founded the Viet Minh (called the League for the Independence of Vietnam). Note the intended similarity with his new name! This Communist-led nationalist guerrilla movement attempted to shadow what was being done in China under Mao Zedong. This new organization declared itself the legitimate guardian of the national identity. It is interesting to note that the Chinese Nationalists (Guomintang) under Chiang Kai-shek had aided Ho and his followers as allies against the Japanese. (How is this different from the United States working with the Soviet Union during World War II against Nazi Germany? Or the United States in an unholy alliance with Putin’s Russia against the Islamic State, while also trying to eliminate the power of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad in 2017-18, a dictatorship that Putin was trying to maintain.) Remember the slogan: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It can get nations into a whole lot of trouble.

At the time of the defeat of the Japanese in August 1945, the Viet Minh seized the city of Hanoi and declared a Democratic State of Vietnam with Ho as president. That same year, the Nguyen Emperor Bao Dai abdicated. In March 1946, the French recognized the “republican” government in Hanoi and promised to hold a referendum on the question of uniting the entire country. (this referendum was never held.) Ho served as president for 25 years as a symbol of Vietnam’s struggle for unification against the strongly anti-Communist government in South Vietnam.

When France was liberated from German control, General Charles de Gaulle determined to restore French control over Indochina and inserted French troops there. The First Indochina War broke out in 1946 when the Viet Minh under General Vo Nguyen Giap revolted and took over a large portion of the countryside, even though the French retained control of Hanoi, Saigon, and most of the other large towns. This bloody conflict continued until 1954 when a large French garrison was surrounded at Dien Bien Phu and after a 57-day battle, surrendered. From late 1952, Giap had assembled 125,000 men in their Main Force units, then added another division that had two artillery regiments armed with 105mm and 120mm howitzers as well as anti-aircraft machine guns. There were also 60,000 to 75,000 Regional troops and 120,000 to 200,000 militia and guerrillas. All were supplied by the Chinese.

At Dien Bien Phu, the Viet Minh force was over 50,000 while the French force was 10,800. The French were resupplied by air and after the accurate fire of Viet Minh howitzers and mortars, the airfield was so pockmarked that it was unusable.  The French then were forced to resupply by parachute and it is estimated that half of the supplies fell into the hands of the Viet Minh. This town had been famous for its opium traffic as it was on the border with Laos. The territory around the town had been the bread-basket for Giap’s troops. France had been receiving American air logistic support and that drew the United States into the conflict.

But after the defeat at Dien Bien Phu, a conference was held in Geneva. An International Control Commission with representatives from India, Canada, and Poland was organized to keep the entire area demilitarized and recognition of the independence of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Since the Viet Minh held most of the north and French controlled most of the south at the time of the agreement, the Viet Minh accepted a temporary partition of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, on the condition that national elections would be held within two years. The position of the United States (which did not sign this Geneva agreement) was that the elections would be held under the supervision of the United Nations and that the UN would see any continued Communist attacks in Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos as serious threat to peace.

[The above information was gleaned from the following sources:

  • Phillip B Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History 1946-75 (NY: Oxford University Press, 1988)
  • G. Robina Quale, Eastern Civilizations (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1975)
  • Eyewitness Travel, Vietnam & Angkor Wat (NY: DK Penguin Random House, 2017)
  • Bernard B Fall, Viet-Nam Witness: 1953-66 (NY: Frederick Praeger, 1968)
  • Robin W Winks, ed, The Age of Imperialism (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969)France 1850-1900