PREHISTORY 

The first traces of human presence in the region that would later coalesce into the country of Vietnam, stretch back an incredible 500,000 years to Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers. 

Around 10,000 BC, Neolithic cultures had also left their handiwork in the ancient soil which, by 7,000 AD, they had begun to till for agriculture, evolving by 3,000 BC into the revelation of irrigated rice growing techniques that would propel great advances in civilisation throughout the east, and is still at the heart of Vietnam’s culture today.  

IMMORTAL ROOTS  

Mystery and legend enshroud the origin of the Viet people and, as with all great stories, begins with a woman, named Au Co, in the sublimely beautiful shape of an immortal mountain fairy, who fell in love with a Dragon lord and bore him one hundred sons, reflecting the traditional number of Vietnamese surnames. 

After their parting, their many offspring were divided, and half the children from this illustrious magical union would follow their father to settle in the Red River delta, the eldest of whom would emerge from myth into history as the first King of the Van Lan kingdom. 

Allegorically, it is easy from this legend to infer the separation and migration of a people from a kingdom with its roots in ancient Chinese territory, though little is actually known, but what is certainly true is that a strong feminine aspect courses through Vietnamese early culture, and has played a profound role in the country’s dramatic story.

The Van Lan Kingdom (3,000 BC – 257 BC) was a highly evolved Bronze Age culture, peopled by the Lac Viet, who had already evolved their own writing and were capable of advanced mining, smelting and sophisticated casting. 

In 257 BC the kingdom was subsumed in conquest by the Au Viet people, said to be descendants of Au Co, the mother of Vietnam, and thus brought about the re-union of the Viet peoples under the kingdom of Au Lac. 

CHINA  

In 207 BC, the fledgling unified state of the Viet was itself absorbed into another independent kingdom, known as Nam Viet, occupying areas of southern China and present day north Vietnam, though many of their original cultural nuances remained intact, despite the occupation. 

Sometime earlier, however, the ancient states of neighbouring Chinese lands had been moving toward unification, which finally emerged, in 221 BC, as the powerful country of China that we know today.  

After a period of consolidation, imperial expansion was inevitable and, in 111 BC, Chinese forces invaded Nam Viet, and would hold sway over the Red River delta for a thousand years. During this period, the area to the south of the Red River delta, presently part of modern-day Vietnam, was governed by the Cambodian Funan and later Champa kingdoms. 

Despite an entire millennium of imposed rule, the characteristic Viet rejection of domination by foreign powers would ensure impressively successful periodic rebellions, the first of which took place in 40 AD, led by the Trung sisters, who rallied considerable local opposition and successfully evicted the usurper. The liberation lasted only for three years, before China regained the territory, by employing overwhelming force. 

In 248 AD, another rebellion, again led by a woman, Trieu Thi Trinh, temporarily wrested some Viet territory from China until again being crushed. 

Several other rebellions would punctuate Chinese rule, including that led by Ly Bi and General Trieu Quang Phuc, who developed the ‘hit and run’ warfare techniques which have served the Vietnamese people so well during their long periodic struggle to remain free of foreign interference. 

This most successful of the rebellions against Chinese rule led to the founding of the independent state of Van Xuan (544 -602 AD) with its capital at modern day Hanoi, but was again ultimately re-conquered by the Chinese. 

RESTORATION 

The Viet people were finally able to regain and secure their nationhood from Chinese rule through a tactically inspired naval victory, led by Ngo Quyen during the battle of Bach Dang River in 938 AD. 

With this stunning victory and disunity prevailing in China, ten centuries of Chinese domination finally came to a close in the shape of a new kingdom of Nam Viet which, after an inevitable period of internal strife, settled and was re-named Dai Viet, though the new country would not be allowed to remain in peace to flourish free from the designs of ambitious neighbours.  

During the 11th to 13th centuries Dai Viet was attacked from all sides by the Chinese, Khmer and Cham, all of whom were successfully repelled, and through conflict with the latter, the long southward progression of Vietnam’s border into Champa territory (now central Vietnam) began.  

However, in 1284, when the mighty Mongol Empire, under the leadership of Kublai Khan, having already brushed aside mighty China, showed up on the Dai Viet border with a vast navy and an army of half a million men, en-route to annexe Champa to the south, they would scarcely have troubled themselves over passing through the territory of this diminutive nation of on his road to conquest. 

Incredibly, the spirited and tenacious Vietnamese, under the leadership of General Tran Hung Dao, showed their enormous courage and deep character, fending off three successive invasion attempts, and again succeeded against seemingly insuperable odds in defending its hard won independence. 

China’s persistent ambition to annexe the Red River delta briefly succeeded during the period 1407-1427 when the Ming Dynasty controlled much of the north, but were driven out of Viet lands by future King, Le Loi, who founded the Le Dynasty of Vietnamese monarchs.  

One of the most significant of his successors, Le Thanh Tong, in a concerted action against the Champa Kingdom, further expanded Dai Viet's southern border as far as Tuy Hoa, close to Nha Trang. 

CIVIL WAR AND VISITORS FROM AFAR 

The arrival of Portuguese sails in the harbour of Fai Fo (Present day Hoi An) in 1516, heralded the beginnings of trade with Europe, and was quickly followed by the arrival of other European nations and the inevitable flood of missionaries with their accompanying zeal for ‘cultural improvement’. 

In 1527, General Mac Dang Dung staged a coup d’état, giving rise to a prolonged civil war and the resultant division of the Country, perhaps an inevitable consequence of the geographical ‘stretching’ of the Country, with two powerful clans in rival governance, the Trinh Lords ruling the north, while the Nguyen Lords ruled the south. 

Typically for the time, rival European powers soon found themselves arming opposing sides in exchange for trading advantages. Meanwhile, as the war rumbled on, the southern kingdom incorporated the remaining Cham territories, and developed Viet lands ever closer to the familiar shape of the Country today, a movement which reached completion in 1760 with the absorption of former Khmer lands around the Mekong Delta. 

An uprising, known to history as the Tay Son Rebellion, broke out near Qui Nhon in 1771, led by three Nguyen brothers preaching liberty and equal rights, a popular cry of the age, with sympathetic resonances in the earlier English Leveller’s movement, the almost contemporaneous American war of Independence and the slightly later French Revolution. 

The movement proved highly successful, taking control of almost the entire Country, even defeating the Chinese, who had sensed an opportunity for self-interest, when called upon for help by the foundering northern rulers in a desperate attempt to shore up their rule.

The uprising was eventually quelled, with paradoxical assistance from the French, by future Emperor Gia Long in 1802, who finally unified the country under its new name of Vietnam, during which the progressive reforms instituted by the uprising were predictably betrayed and overturned. 

COLONIAL RULE 

In 1847, using ‘religion’ as a familiar pretext, France would begin the process of occupation which would ultimately lead to the annexation into its empire of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with consequences that would reverberate through history and which have unfairly maligned the perception of Vietnam around the world. 

French rule was harsh and characterised by enforced labour, impoverishment and disease, together with other such 'benefits' brought by the ‘civilising’ influence of greedy foreign powers. Needless to say, the Vietnamese people, with the independence of spirit evident throughout their history, would not leave their feelings unexpressed, and from the outset, would openly defy the occupying power. 

THE DRIVE TOWARD INDEPENDENCE  

Though resistance to French rule was initially sporadic and disorganised, this would be transformed with the return of Nguyen Tat Thanh, more widely known as Ho Chi Minh, who had left Vietnam at the age of 21 as a cook’s apprentice aboard a French ship and been odd-jobbing and travelling much of the world, during which he honed his many skills and became increasingly active in communist circles. 

Though antipathy to communism is fashionable, western nations cannot escape its implicit collusion in the misery which led to the attractiveness of socialist doctrines to the downtrodden, in spite of the evident corruption by many of its most prominent leaders who have so brutally hi-jacked and perverted its laudable enough aims in many of the countries which have indulged in its aspirations.  

With the echoes of the sentiments illustrated by the earlier Tay Son rebellion, it is easy to understand its appeal to the Viet consciousness of the time.

After thirty years, the influential presence of his return in 1941 would coalesce popular resolve into a highly efficient resistance movement, further galvanised by the invasion of French-occupied Indochina by Japan which, following the fall of France during the Second World War, during which millions of Vietnamese citizens starved. 

By the time of the abrupt collapse of the Japanese Empire, Ho Chi Minh, having bided his time in funding and training, unleashed his Viet Minh forces into the vacuum of power inexorably sucked up along with the airflow of rising atomic clouds, and quickly re-possessed much of Vietnam, swiftly declaring Independence on September 2, 1945. 

With the aid of 20,000 British soldiers and a utilitarian Chinese occupation of the North, the French bit back swiftly, forcing Ho to settle instead for increased autonomy under French rule. 

However, following a subsequent French massacre of civilians, which left the idea of co-operation morally bankrupt, open warfare soon inevitably ensued.  

In 1954, the French were finally defeated by the Vietnamese with their impressive victory at Dien Bien Phu, but the price paid for Chinese assistance was the pressured adoption of extreme Maoist ideology, polluting the patriotic spirit in emulation of Chinese communist brutality, which insisted on a ‘cleansing’ of the Viet Minh and the ‘weeding out’ of intellectual and aristocratic members of the movement. 

Following the victory, a peace accord was settled in Geneva and Vietnam would again suffer division, with the Communists occupying the North, and anti-communist forces prevailing in the south, with the aid of an orchestrated referendum and considerable US backing.  

When communist guerrillas (Viet Cong) began to infiltrate South Vietnam, the United States, still hung over from its own McCarthyite ‘cleansing’, began to send troops to protect the ‘democracy’ occupying South Vietnam. 

The struggle for independence thus became blurred as the issues being played out in Vietnam increasingly made the country a pawn in cold-war superpower politics, neither side of which had any genuine concern for the future of the land or its people who, as in all wars, are always the principal sufferers. 

THE AMERICAN WAR 

The spiralling civil war in Vietnam was in large part due to the failure to honour elections, promised by the Geneva accord, aimed at bringing the whole country under one government. The United states, always fond of meddling, and fearful of Ho Chi Minh’s immense popularity, became increasingly embroiled in ‘protecting’ Vietnam from itself, resulting in an escalating spiral of military personnel and weapons. 

Even a cursory glance at Vietnam’s history might have alerted the US to the deep and troubled mire through which they would soon find themselves wading, but over the course of the now-famous conflict, the US would throw everything short of nuclear weapons at the Viet Cong. 

An astounding six times the quantity of bombs dropped during the entirety of the second world war was unleashed, and further reinforced with the use of over 20 million gallons of chemical weapons, including Agent Orange, originally pioneered as a weapon by the British during their earlier 1950's conflict in Malaya, waging war not merely on the citizens of Vietnam but upon every living thing. 

Aside from the estimated 400,000 deaths attributed to the chemical attacks, there have been in excess of half a million children born with birth defects related to the the exposure to these agents, which affected some five million citizens.  

Despite this onslaught of sophisticated technological death deployed by overwhelming force, the Viet Cong, with much bitter experience to draw upon from their history, eventually tactically frustrated all attempts of the US to thwart their struggle. To add to their dilemma, the US also began to lose the war at home. 

Following the infamous massacre of civilians by American soldiers at My Lai which eventually leaked out despite a classic cover-up, the US public began wake up to the realities of the ‘accomplishments’ of their tax-dollars, and began to protest vociferously against their own government, a process fuelled by the burgeoning quest for world peace which was spawned in the wake of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the psychedelic era. 

SELF DETERMINATION 

Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and did not live to see American troops, unable to achieve victory and opposed at home, withdraw from Vietnam in 1973, and the consequent eventual fall of Saigon, re-named in his memory, to the Viet Cong in April of 1975. As is often the case after a prolonged struggle, the vengeance meted out by the victors to indigenous supporters of the losing side was widespread, brutal and ugly. 

In 1978, after repeated incursions from Pol Pot’s Cambodia, itself another unintended consequence of American meddling in Indochina, Vietnam invaded its neighbour, finally ridding the Cambodian people of the brutal terror of his genocidal regime. 

It is a mark of US duplicity, that Vietnamese efforts to involve the United Nations in taking responsibility for the governance of Cambodia were delayed for ten years by the US who, almost unbelievably, regarded the Khmer Rouge as the ‘rightful’ government of the country, leaving Vietnam in reluctant occupation until 1989. 

If the Americans had shown themselves ungrateful for the Vietnamese unseating of Pol Pot, the Chinese reaction in revenge for the ousting of its close ally was an attempted invasion of Vietnam in 1979 which, after a mere 17 days, was mercifully abandoned by China after suffering terrible losses on the battlefield. 

RENEWAL 

Despite their victories, the inheritors of Vietnam would find themselves continually spurned by the international community, largely at the instigation of the US, and were cornered into accepting Soviet aid to repair their shattered infrastructure and economy. 

As was the case with the Soviet Union itself, the stultifying economic models engendered by this co-operation would ultimately fail and led to the re-structuring ‘Doi Moi’ (renewal) of the Vietnamese economy, begun in 1986, which has since transformed Vietnam’s trade into a more liberal and thriving market consistent with the modern international global business model. 

Accompanying this ‘opening-up’ of Vietnam, an ever increasing invasion of tourists have since been flocking to visit its many worthy sights, and coming to appreciate the cultural depth of this previously little known, misunderstood and much abused country. 

The visit of US Presidents Clinton in 2000, and Bush in 2006, marked the gradual shift in international relations which brought Vietnam membership of the World Trade Organisation, and relationships continued to normalise following the Obama meeting of 2015, in which a belated American respect has finally found voice. in 2016 the decades long arms embargo was also lifted, signalling America's shifting attitude from foe to friend. 

After countless centuries spent in defending itself from the foreign ambitions of larger countries, perhaps now the nation of Vietnam can finally enjoy peace to develop in its own style and, hopefully preserve and share its delights with us all.

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