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  • Facts and History

    Vietnam’s history is one of conquest and struggle going back more than two thousand years. At various times the region has been occupied by the feudal emperors of neighboring China and French colonialism. In between, Vietnam experienced numerous imperial dynasties resulting in the capital moving from Hanoi to Hue before the last emperor, Bao Dai’s abdication in 1945. But it would be a further 30 years before Vietnam became a unified nation. At the beginning of the Bronze Age about 15 groups of Lac Viet and Au Viet tribesmen settled in what is now northern and north-central Vietnam. The most powerful was the Lac Viet tribe of the Van Lang. The leader of this tribe joined the Lac Viet tribes together to found Van Lang Nation, addressing himself as Hung King. The Van Lang Nation lasted from the beginning of the first millennium B.C. to the 3rd century B.C.

    In 208 B.C, Thuc Phan, the leader of an alliance of Au-Viet tribes expelled the Tan invaders from China and founded Au Lac Nation with groups of Lac Viet and Au Viet tribes. He became known as King An Duong Vuong. In 179 B.C. Trieu Da, the feudal King of Nam Viet (China) invaded Au Lac and began a domination that was to last for the next 700 years. Meanwhile in what is now southern Vietnam, the region became part of the kingdom of Funan and remained so until 600 A.D. The Hindu kingdom of Champa appeared around present-day Danang in the late 2nd century and spread south to what is now Nha Trang by the 8th century.

    Back in the north in the spring of 542, Ly Bi rose up and swept away the Chinese administrators, liberating the territory. He declared himself King of Van Xuan Kingdom in 544. However Ly Bi’s administration was short lived and he was defeated by the Chinese imperial army and the country reverted to Chinese domination again in 602. The name Van Xuan was restored only after the naval victory over the Chinese Han at Bach Dang River led by the inspirational General Ngo Quyen in 938 who lured the unsuspecting Chinese into an ingenious trap involving the planting of iron-tipped stakes in the riverbed which impaled the larger, heavier Chinese vessels. This victory effectively marked the end of almost 1,000 years of Chinese rule in Vietnam, although it was by no means the last time the Vietnamese would have to repel their larger northern neighbor.

    In 968, Dinh Bo Linh unified the country and declared himself King, naming the country Dai Co Viet and establishing Hoa Lu (100km north of Hanoi) as the capital. By 1009 another dynasty, the Ly Dynasty had moved the capital to Thang Long (present day Hanoi). This period was marked by stable government and a flourishing of the arts including the creation of the Temple of Literature (Vietnam’s first university). The name Dai Co Viet remained until 1054 when a flaming bright star appeared in the sky for many days (Haley’s comet). Considered a good omen, the King changed the country’s name to Dai Viet. The Ly dynasty was replaced by the Tran dynasty whose first priority was to repel the formidable Mongol invaders in the North. They employed the same tactics used earlier by Ngo Quyen and another able-bodied leader, General Tran Hung Dao sank Kublai Khan’s Mongol fleet in 1288.

    In March 1400, Ho Quy Ly usurped the throne of King Tran Thieu De, founded the Ho dynasty and once again the country’s name changed, this time to Dai Ngu, meaning peace in the ancient language. Unfortunately peace did not last for long and in 1407 the mighty Minh Chinese invaded and defeated the Ho dynasty.

    French colonial occupation was marked by poor pay and conditions for the vast majority of Vietnamese needed to work the coffee, tea and rubber plantations as well as the coal, zinc and tin mines. Against this background dissent and then rebellion became widespread, especially given the successful revolutions of first China in 1911 under Sun Yat-sen and then Russia in 1918 under Lenin. Vietnam’s communist visionary was Ho Chi Minh, the son of a teacher in Vinh province. In 1911 he left Vietnam and spent the next 30 years in a variety of jobs and locations, forming the Vietnamese Communist Party in 1930. His return in 1941 was the catalyst to Vietnam’s independence, initially from the Japanese and ultimately from the French.

    In the same year he founded the Viet Minh, primarily a nationalist organization aimed at deposing the French and securing an independent Vietnam. With the Japanese surrender in August 1945, Emperor Bao Dai resigned in Hue and on 2nd September 1945 Ho Chi Minh proclaimed himself president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh square. Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of Vietnamese independence sparked violent confrontations with the French, leading to a nine-year struggle. The culmination of the struggle for independence from the French came in 1954 with the military defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Here the inspired military leadership of General Vo Nguyen Giap outwitted the French, under the command of General Navarre into committing 16,000 French troops to the remote northwest of the country. Here in a valley, the French were trapped by heavy artillery that the Vietnamese had somehow managed to set upon the surrounding heights.

    Shortly after the Geneva Accords were drawn up, temporarily dividing Vietnam into two zones (the Communist north and the anti-Communist, US-supported south) along the lines of the 17th parallel, pending elections in 1956. The newly elected Prime Minister of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem refused to sign the agreement and the elections were never held. Opposition quickly turned from stalemate to armed struggle, prompting the USA and other countries to commit combat troops in 1965.

    By 1968 there were over 500,000 US troops engaged in fighting the guerilla army of the Viet Cong (formerly the Viet Minh). The Viet Cong’s strength lay in its domination of the countryside and the peasant population. Although the Americans controlled the cities nearly 80% of Vietnamese live in rural areas. With this support the Viet Cong could conceal themselves and fight the American forces on their own terms and in their own time. The Americans believed that superior firepower alone would wear the enemy down – they were wrong.

    On January 30th 1968 just as the country was preparing to celebrate Tet, the Viet Cong simultaneously launched more than 100 attacks on every major town: The effect was devastating; at one point it looked as if Saigon itself might fall. This, coupled with the debacle at Khe Sanh (in effect an American Dien Bien Phu), turned the American public against continued US military presence in the region. From 1968 onwards US troops were gradually withdrawn and the South was ultimately left to defend itself, something it could not do. The Paris Peace Agreements, signed in 1973, provided an immediate cease-fire and signaled the withdrawal of US troops. Saigon eventually surrendered to the Communist forces on 30 April 1975 and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City shortly afterwards.

    Following the liberation of Saigon, Vietnam was finally unified. In the first meeting of the national assembly of the unified Vietnam on July 2nd 1976, the assembly decided to name the country The Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The constitution of 1980, and 1992, continued its affirmation of the country’s official name, legally and actually.


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