As Vietnam opens its doors to welcome the world
at large, many people have no idea of the stunning visual beauty
and traditional culture that Lie beyond the threshold. To many,
the name Vietnam brings to mind only haunting images of a war-torn
land in some remote corner of Southeast Asia, an image which continues
to be exploited on the big screen and in print, and which remains
deeply etched in the minds of all who found themselves a part of
that war and its aftermath. Beyond such images lies the real Vietnam,
a unique and fascinating land of great physical and rich cultural
diversity whose history spans over 4,000 years.
Picture a land of idyllic tree-lined beaches, tranquil bays dotted
with the sails ofjunks and sampans, offshore coral islands,mountains,
valleys, primal forests, plains crossed by countless rivers and
emerald rice fields enriched with the varied scenes of everyday
life. The traditional rural life, embodied in the villagers tilling
the land with rudimentary tools under their conical hats in the
patchwork paddy fields, and children riding their water buffaloes
home from the fields at the end of the day, contrasts dramatically
with the sights, sounds and pace of the cities whose busy streets
overflow with humanity borne along on a rising tide of bicycles
and motor scooters. Such are the images of present-day Vietnam.
The country's long history is an ever present companion; the land
is imbued with it - sites of ancient battles, ancient civilizations
and kingdoms which flourished in this enigmatic land long before
the French colonialists, Communism and the tragic war of the more
The changing tides of fortune that have swept over this country
and its people have left their mark, greatly emphasizing the contrast
between past and present.
Much of Vietnam's ancient past is shrouded in myths and legends
of dragons and kings, heroes and heroines, gods and deities, brought
to life in the present in the many colorful time-honored traditional
festivals and rituals commemorating revered ancestors, who are worshipped
alongside Buddhist,Taoist and Hindu deities in the thousands of
temples and pagodas throughout the country.
In a traditionally agricultural country, so new to the concept of
tourism that you have to expect the unexpected, you won't be disappointed.
This article traces the complex history and culture of Vietnam and
its people, introducing some of the many different faces and places
of this fascinating country. Exploring Vietnam through these pages
may help lend an understanding to the background and events leading
up to the tragic war and its aftermath and provide some insight
into the diverse cultures and customs of its people.
How Vietnam Was Named
To many people the name Vietnam conjures up images
of war in some remote comer of Southeast Asia, yet few know the
significance of the name, even though the war with its interminable
sequels, has brought the country and its people to the forefront
of the world scene for more than half a century.
The first national name of Van Lang was given to Vietnam by the
Hung or Lac ethnic group, inventors of the wet rice cultivation
technique and bronze drums still used today by the Muong minority.
The Lac were followed by the Au or Tay Au who arrived from the Chinese
province of Kwang Si. The two peoples integrated and formed the
new kingdom of Au Lac. Following them came the Viet or Yue, an ethnic
group who emigrated from the coastal provinces of ancient China
towards the 5th century B.C. Together with the other ethnic groups
of the Each Viet (100 Viet Principalities) they began their Long
southward march towards the Indochinese peninsula which continued
for more than 15 centuries.
The name Vietnam came about when Emperor Cia Long wanted to rename
the country Nam Viet. Seeking the Chinese emperor's approval of
the new national name, Cia Long sent his Ambassador, Le Quan Dinh,
to China in 1802. Le Quang Dinh addressed the Emperor as follows:
The new King of the Nguyen has succeeded in realizing under his
rule, what the former reigns of the Tran and Le could not - the
reunification of the old land of An Nam and the new land of Viet
Thuong. Consequently, we would like to ask your permission to change
the ancient name of An Nam to Nam Viet.
After consulting his court, the Chinese Emperor decided that the
hame Nam Viet would bring to mind Trieu Da's ancient kingdom of
Nam Viet Dong which had included the two Chinese provinces of Guang
Dong and Kwang Si, and therefore the proposed name of Nam Viet could
lead to misunderstandings or even conceal territorial ambitions.
The problem was solved by simply reversing the order of the two
words to Viet Nam.
Viet Nam means the Viets of the South (Nam) or the south populated
by the Viet the main ethnic group in Vietnam.
Etymologists and anthropologists have defined the origins of the
Viet people by separating the components of the calligraphy for
Viet, or Yue, as it is known in Mandarin. On the left side of this
ideogram is a character pronounced tau in Vietnamese, meaning to
run. On the right is the complementary component pronounced Viet,
with the meaning and profile of an axe. This component carries with
it the particle qua, which signifies a lance or javelin.
This small ideographic analysis depicts the Viet as a race known
since antiquity as a migratory, hunting people, perpetually moving
and spreading beyond their frontiers of origin, carrying bow and
arrow, axe and javelin.
The word Viet is the Vietnamese pronunciation of a Chinese character
meaning beyond or far. It also has the sense of "to cross",
"to go through", "to set onself right". The
character Nam, meaning South, probably served to differentiate between
the Viets in the North who remained in China and those who had left
and headed South.
The name Viet referred to the territories located in the south of
China during the 11th century B.C. These were so named by the Zhou
dynasty (1050-249 B.C.).
Marco Polo skirted the coast of Vietnam in 1292. The name Caugigu
which corresponds to Ciao Chi Quan, (Vietnam's name under the Han
Dynasty, III B.C.-203 A.D.) appears in his writings The Wonders
of the World. This name was transformed to Kutchi by the Malays
then Kotchi by the Japanese. The Portuguese in turn named it Cauchi
Chine, (the Cauchi obedient to the Chinese), to distinguish it from
Cauchi or Kutchi in India, also known as Cochin. These names when
written or pronounced in the occidental manner evoked a far more
ancient name, Cattigara, which first appeared on one of 14 maps
drawn by Ptolemy, the famous Creek mathematician and geographer.
These maps were used by the Roman conquerors and Arab navigators,
then by Ptolemy himself on his voyage to the Indies and Southeast
Asia. The terminating point of these voyages was the maritime port
located in Southern Indochina at Oc Eo in the pre-Cambodian Kingdom
of Funan, (Phu Nam in Vietnamese) which occupied large areas of
present-day South Vietnam and Cambodia from the Ist to the 6th centuries
A.D. This kingdom twice came under Indian influence - during the
1 st century B.C. and at the end of the 5th and early 6th centuries
A.D. This advanced agricultural civilization cultivated rice, beans,
cotton, raised pigs, sheep and elephants, and worshipped Brahma,
Vishnu and Siva. Archaeological discoveries suggest that the kingdom
had to struggle constantly against the flooding of the low-lying
Mekong delta area. Many remains of this ancient culture probably
lie buried under alluvium deposited over the centuries. An ironwood
statue of Buddha, today in Saigon's National Museum, discovered
here in 1937, attests to the high level of Funan's artistic development.
Excavations carried out in the Oc Eo area in My Lam village, Kien
Hoa district by the French produced a quantity of artefacts of an
impressive quality. Oc Eo appeared as the early capital of Funan
and an import center of trade, with sea-links as far reaching as
Rome, Persia, India, Burma and China. Evidence of this trade came
to light when archaeologists unearthed a great number of artefacts
at the site of Cc Eo. Among the findings were a great number of
gold Roman coins; Greek, Indian and Chinese objects, including a
gold medal bearing the effigy of Anthony the Pious dating from 152;
Hellenic coins and seals; Indian rings; Burmese jade; Chinese pearls
and jewellery; and Chinese bronzes of the later Han period. The
Funan kingdom in exchange exported gold, silver, bronze, copper,
lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl, silk, cotton, sandalwood, rhinoceros
horn, ivory and colorful parrots. The Oc Eo civilization was renowned
for its crystal glass and beautifully crafted jewellery, and it
remains a mystery why this highly developed
kingdom collapsed and was swallowed up by the pre-Khmer Chan La
Empire during the 7th century A.D.
Since the earliest antiquity, the Indochinese peninsula has played
a major role in international trade relations and migrations, forming
the link between India and China, which explains the name Indochina,
first coined by the Danish geographer, Konrad Malte-Burn (1775-1826)
in his Universal Geographic. Vietnam's central and strategic geographical
position in Southeast Asia is of great importance. It has been used
in turn by the world's great powers, much to the detriment of the
independence and freedom of the Vietnamese people.
|In the course of its long history
Vietnam has been
known by many different national names:
the 18 Hung or Lac-Vuong kings (500
B.C. to 257 b.C.)
Au Lac under the Thuc Dynasty (257 B.C. to 207 B.C.)
Nam Viet under
the Trieu Dynasty (207B.C. to 111 B.C.)
Giao Chi under the early Chinese Han Dynasty (203 to 544)
Van Xuan under the early Ly Dynasty (544 to 603)
An Nam under the Chinese Tang Dynasty (603 to 939)
Dai Viet under the Ngo dynasty (939 to 967)
Dai Co Viet under the Dinh Dynasty and its successors (968-1054)
|Dai Viet under the later Ly and Tran Dynasties (1054-1400)
Dai Ngu under
the Ho Dunasty (1400-1407
An Nam under
the Tran and Chinese Ming Dynasties (1407-1428)
Dai Viet under the Le and Nguyen Dynasties (1428-1802)
Viet Nam under Emperor Gia Long in 1802.
Dai Nam under Emperor Minh-Mang in 1832 and his successors.
Viet Nam renamed
in April 1945 by the National government headed by Tran Trong
Under the French colonial administration, North
Vietnam became known as Tonkin, the Centre as Annam and the
South as Cochinchina.
4,000 Years of Unchartered Fortune
Vietnam's ancient history reads like a book of legend with many pages
torn or missing, due to a lack of early historical records, many of
which were destroyed as its history was in the making. Like any ancient
nation, Vietnam's earliest history has been generously embellished
with legend and fairy tales, rather daunting to the Western understanding.
However, by combining Chinese and Vietnamese historical records, Vietnamese
folklore and recent archaeological discoveries, some of the missing
pages have come to light.
In ancient times, Eastern cosmogony viewed the world through the concept
of The Five Elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth, or Nghu
Han, which represents Five Regions: the Center, the South, the North,
the East and the West. The Center was represented by the earth and
the color yellow, the South by fire and the color red, the North by
water and the color black, the East by wood and the color green, the
West by metal and the color white. The first threads of Vietnam's
history are inextricably intertwined with the history of China.
At the source of the legend: The Han and the Viet
From time immemorial, akingdom reigned in the heart of the Asian
continent. Known as the Middle Kingdom or Chung Hoa, its power center
was located in the Five Mounts (Ngu Linh) Territory. It was peopled
by many races, the two major being those of the Han and the Viet.
Unlike the homogeneous Han, the Viets incorporated hundreds of tribes
and were known as the Pac Yeuh (One hundred Yeuh) or Each Viet,
whose chief ruled the Five Mounts Territory. The Viets settled south
of the Yellow River and developed an agricultural culture, whereas
the Han in the northwest became expert in hunting and battle skills.
The Five Mounts Territory of the Middle Kingdom was ruled by three
consecutive chiefs: Toai Nhan - who discovered fire; Phuc Hi - who
discovered the I Ching and domesticated wild animals; and Shen Nong
- who cultivated wild plants for domestic use and taught his people
to grow rice. By the end of Shen Nong's era the Han had invaded
the Five Mounts territory and occupied the highest mount, Thai Son.
Their chief proclaimed himself Hwangdi, the Yellow Emperor of the
Center, in accordance with the Five Elements concept. Hwangdi inherited
the heritage of the Tam Hoang, Three Yellows era, which his invasion
of The Five Mounts Territory ended. He referred to the Viets settled
in the South as the southern barbarians, Nam Man. The Viets fled
to the south where their chief proclaimed himself Viem De, the Red
Emperor of the South, and named their territory Xich Qui, the territory
of the Red Devils. This marked the first Viet exodus from Chung
Hoa, the Middle Kingdom. The Viets regarded themselves as descendents
of the first three chiefs of China's Three Yellows era. The last
of the three, Shen Nong, is the direct Viet link.
According to Vietnamese historical folklore, De Minh, a third generation
descendent of Shen Nong, fled to the southern territory of the Five
Mounts and married Princess Vu Tien. Their son, Loc Tuc, became
king of the south and called himself Kinh Duong Vuong, King of the
Kinh and Duong Territory. He married one of the daughters of Dong
DinhQuang, a king from the lake of Dong Dinh territory. Their son,
Sung Lam, succeeded his father to become Lac Long Quan, meaning
the Lac Dragon.
The Quasi-Legendary Epoch and Hoa Binh
Vietnam's National Annals tell of the marriage
between King Lac Long Quan, the Dragon Lord of the Mighty Seas,
and the beautiful Princess Au Co, descendant of the Immortals of
the High Mountains, the daughter of King De Lai. Their union gave
birth to one hundred sons and the Kingdom of Each Viet, whose principalities
extended from the lower Yang Tse Kiang to the north of Indochina.
The Kingdom prospered, but the Lord of the Dragon and the Princess
of the Mountains, convinced that the difference in their origins
would always deny them earthly happiness, decided to separate. Half
the children returned with their mother to the mountains, the others
followed their father and established themselves beside the eastem
The symbolism of Lac Long Quan's descendancy from the Dragon Lord
and Au Co from the Immortals, holds significance for the Vietnamese
as the Dragon symbolizes yang and Immortal is the symbol for ying.
Thus the Vietnamese believe they are the descendents of Tien Pong,
the Immortal and the Dragon, and these symbols constitute their
Civilized norms governed early relations between the Han Court and
the Viet kingdom. The Chinese historian Kim Ly Tuong recorded that
in the Fifth Year of Dao Duong, Emperor of the Yao dynasty (236
1 B.C.), the Viet Thuong kingdom sent a diplomatic delegation to
the Han court and offered a "sacred turtle" (Linh Qui)
as a friendship present. The turtle was thought to be a thousand
years old and its shell was covered with precious inscriptions in
hieroglyphics. It was learnt later that Emperor Yao transcribed
all these inscriptions into a vade-mecum, which he then called the
"Calendar of the Sacred Turtie"
The southern Viet kingdom of Xich Qui was divided into one hundred
principalities, each one governed by one of the 100 sons. In 2879
B.C. the eldest son was crowned King of Lac Viet. He named himself
King Hung Vuong and Lac Viet was renamed Van Lang. His Kingdom of
Van Lang was the most powerful and comprised most of present-day
North Vietnam and the north of Central Vietnam.
The kingdom of Van Lang prospered during the first millennium B.C.
under the rule of eighteen successive Hung kings who formed the
dynasty of Hung Vuong. His capital was founded in present day Vinh
Phu Province which was then divided into fifteen provinces. At this
time a certain King Thuc Phan governed the neighboring kingdom of
Au Viet, another Viet tribe, to the north of Van Lang. His desire
to bring about a marriage between his daughter and Hung Vuong'sson
was not shared by Hung Vuong who scornfully rejected the proposal.
The hereditary hatred this rebuff bred betweenthe two Viet dynasties
led to conflict and eventually, in 25 8 B.C., during the rule of
the rather weak 18th king, the destruction of Van Lang.
Under the title of King An Duong Vuong, Thuc Pham established the
new kingdom of Au Lac and installed his capital at Phuc An where
a spiral citadel was built. The remains of the citadel can still
be seen to this day in the village of Co Loa to the west of Hanoi
in North Vietnam.
Fifty years later, the kingdom fell into the hands of the northern
hordes of an ambitious general, Trieu Da from the South of the Middle
Kingdom. After vanquishing the other Chinese generals, Trieu Da
founded the independent kingdom of Nam Viet, which included much
of present-day Southern China. He proclaimed himself king in 208
B.C. and founded the Trieu dynasty which lasted until the 3rd century
B.C. His capital was located near present day Guangzhou.
Under the Trieu dynasty Nam Viet progressively entered the Chinese
sphere of influence. In exchange for periodic tributes to the Court
of the Han Emperor, Nam Viet received protection against foreign
invasion. This period was marked by continual intrigues, including
a plot aimed at seizing Nam Viet led by a Chinese Emperor, which
was exposed and denounced. Less than a century later, in the year
3 B.C., the Han Emperor Wudi sent his mighty armies to conquer Nam
Viet. Despite the defending army's fierce resistance Nam Viet finally
fell into the hands of the Han invaders.
It is generally believed that with the decline of the Hung Vuong
Dynasty and the ensuing decades, came the fusion of legend with
known history in which much of Vietnam's ancient history has been
The Period of Chinese Domination
The first Chinese occupation lasted from 3 B.C.
until A.D. 42. After Trieu Dau's defeat the country became a Chinese
protectorate under the new name of Giao Chi. Highly qualified administrators
were appointed as governors to rule the country,but
their endeavors to introduce Chinese literature, arts and agricultural
techniques met with fierce resistance from the Vietnamese. Greatly
frustrated by decades of Chinese influence and culture, the Vietnamese
not only guarded their national identity but fought fiercely to
Finally, in 39 A.D., the oppressive rule and injustices of a cruel
governor, To Dinh, provoked the victorious armed revolt against
the Chinese authorities led by two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung
Nhi. Their reign, however, was short-lived. Three years later, the
better generals and arms of the Chinese Han armies saw to their
downfall and the country was once more subjected to Chinese control.
The fall of the Trung sisters marked the second period of Chinese
occupation which lasted until 543. During this time Nam Viet was
administered as a Chinese province and a campaign was launched against
the Kingdom of Champa in the south.
This period of Chinese occupation ended abruptly when a scholar
named Ly Bon led an armed revolt and succeeded in chasing out the
Chinese authorities. Ly Bon took control of the territory and founded
the Ly Dynasty which lasted until the Chinese once again regained
their supremacy in 545. The particularly troubled era that followed
was marked by frequent outbreaks of violent battles between the
Chinese and the Vietnamese. It ended with the third period of Chinese
occupation which lasted from 603 until 938. During this timethe
Chinese made concerted efforts to establish their culture and civilization
in Nam Viet, which they renamed Annam. However, numerous insurrections
broke out despite the solid administrative structure imposed by
the Chinese government of the Tang Dynasty.
The Great National Dynasties:
The Nge Dynasty (939-967): Disorder accompanied the decline of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, giving
the Vietnamese the chance they had long waited for. In a protracted
war which ended with the celebrated battle of Bach Dang, General
Ngo Quyen vanquished the Chinese invaders and founded the first
National Dynasty in 939. Ngo Quyen then decided to transfer the
capital to Co Loa, the capital of the Au Lac Kingdom, thus affirming
the continuity of the traditions of the Lac Viet people.
Ngo Quyen spent the six years of his reign fighting the continual
revolts of the feudal lords. At his death in 967, the kingdom fell
into chaos and became known as the land of "Thap Nhi Su Quan",
the twelve feudal principalities constantly fighting each other.
For more than twenty years, the country remained fragmented and
the external threat from the Song dynasty loomed large on the Northern
The Dinh Dynasty (968-980): The most powerful
of the twelve feudal lords, Dinh Bo Linh, rapidly ruled out the
others. He reunified the country under the name of Dai Co Viet and
took the imperial title of "Dinh Tien Hoang De'' (The First
August Emperor Dinh). Well aware of the new Chinese Song dynasty's
military might, Dinh Bo Linh negotiated a non-aggression treaty
in exchange for tributes payable to the Chinese every three years.
This set the foundation of future relations with China which were
to last for centuries.
On the domestic front, Dinh Tien Hoang established a royal court
and a hierarchy of civil and military servants. He instated a rigorous
justice system and introduced the death penalty to serve as a deterrent
to all who threatened the new order in the kingdom. He organized
a regular army divided into ten Dao or military corps. Security
and order were progressively re-established, inaugurating a new
era of "Thai Binh" (peace).
However, Tien Hoang's reign was not to last long. He was assassinated
in 979 by a palace guard, who, according to the Annals, saw "a
star falling into his mouth" - a celestial omen heralding promotion.
The heir to the throne was only six years old and could no way stand
firm against the mounting intrigues of the court.
The Early Le Dynasty (980-1009): With the
Queen Mother's blessing, Le Hoan dethroned Dinh Bo Linh's heir and
proclaimed himself King Le Dai Hanh. He retained the capital in
Hoa Lu and succeeded in warding off several Chinese invasions by
the Song Court, but continued paying them tributes every three years
in exchange for friendly relations.
With peace assured on the northern border, he decided to pacify
the South. In 982, Le Dai Hanh launched a military expedition against
the Champa kingdom, entered Indrapura (present-day Quang Nam) and
burnt the Champa citadel. The conquest of this northern part of
the Champa Kingdom brought about a marked Cham influence on Vietnamese
culture, particularly in the fields of music and dance.
Le Dai Hanh's reign marked the first attempt to consolidate the
Viet nation. He devoted a great deal of energy to developing the
road network in order to better administer the country's different
regions. However, the local forces were still reluctant to toe the
line to the central authority and mounted a succession of revolts.
In 1005, after 24 years of difficult rule, Le Dai Hanh died. In
the ensuing period, the famous monk, Khuong Viet managed to establish
the Buddhist religion as a stabilizing pillar of the Kingdom. The
Tien Le dynasty eventually collapsed after the death of one of Le
Dai Hanh's heirs in 1009.
The Ly Dynasty (1009-1225): The Ly, who
reigned over the country for more than two centuries, were the first
of the great national dynasties. Ly Cong Uan was a disciple of a
famous monk, Van Hanh, who helped him to power in the Hoa Lu Court.
Assuming the name Ly Thai To, the new sovereign inaugurated his
dynasty with a change of capital. The Annals mentioned that King
Ly Thai To saw the apparition of an ascending dragon on the site
of the future capital and decided to name it Thang Long (Ascending
Dragon). In 1054, one of his successors, King Ly Thanh Ton, rechristened
the country Dai Viet.
During the Ly dynasty, Buddhism flourished as the national religion.
Buddhist masters, who acted as "Quoc Su", supreme advisors,
assisted the Ly kings in their rule. Several Ly Kings - Thai Tong,
Anh Tong and Cao Tong - led the Buddhist sects of Thao Duong and
founded some 150 monasteries in the region of Thang Long.
Under the impulse of Confucian administrators, the Ly dynasty consolidated
the monarchy by setting up a centralized government and establishing
a tax system, a judiciary system and a professional army. Important
public works, including the building of dikes and canals, were undertaken
in order to develop agriculture and settle the population.
The monarchist centralization endowed the King with three roles:
absolute monarch and religious chief of the Empire; mediator between
the people and Heaven; and father of the nation. Meanwhile, the
mandarinat became an institution composed of six departments: staff,
finances, rites,justice, armed forces and public works.
In 1070 a National College was founded to educate future mandarins.
Knowledge of the Confucian classics plus the mastery of literary
composition and poetry were the main requirements of the rigorous
three year course which culminated in a very competitive diploma
The Tran Dynasty (1225-1400): An ambitious
commoner, Tran Canh, married the Ly dynasty's last Queen, Chieu
Hoang. He shrewdly plotted and manoeuvred his way to power and finally
founded the Tran Dynasty; During this period, Buddhism, which had
become predominant under the Ly Dynasty, continued to play an important
role, but was subsequently weakened by its co-existence with Confucianism,
Taoism andvarious other popular beliefs and customs. The century
old competitive examination system introduced during the first period
of Chinese occupation underwent draconian revisions. An administration
incorporating both the reigning King and the heir to the title of
the previous reign was officially adopted to ensure its continuity
and prevent any dispute between the two families.
The Tran Dynasty is renowned for its brilliant military victories,
especially that carried off by the King's brother, Tran Hung Dao,
against Kublai Khan's much larger Mongol armies on the Bach Dang
River. Another historic event in the course of that reign was the
King's sister' s - Princess Huyen Tran's - marriage to the King
of Champa in 1307. The marriage extended the national territory
southwards with the peaceful annexation of the Hue region and at
the same time inaugurated the politics of diplomatic marriage.
The Ho Dynasty (1400-1428):The King's marriage
to the aunt of aminister, Le Qui Ly, was to prove a fatal move for
the Tran Dynasty. Taking full advantage of his aunt's union, Le
Qui Ly shrewdly manoeuvred his way to power. He finally assumed
control of the kingdom and founded a dynasty under his ancestral
name of Ho. During his reign the army was reorganized and reinforced.
Taxes were revised and ports opened to trading ships which were
obliged to pay taxes. Under a new fiscal system, coins were taken
out of circulation and replaced with bank notes. Restrictions were
imposed on land ownership. In the administrative domain, Ho introduced
the extension of royal appointments to his loyal servants. The competitive
examination system for administrators was modified to demand more
practical knowledge of peasant life, mathematics, history, the Confucian
classics and literature. Legal reforms were undertaken and a medical
Well aware that Ho had usurped the throne, the Chinese Ming Emperor
sent 5,000 soldiers into the country under the pretext of helping
the movement faithful to the Tran Dynasty.
The Ming intervention provoked the fall of the Ho Dynasty in 1407.
During the short period of Chinese occupation that followed, the
Vietnamese suffered the most inhuman exploitation.
The Chinese resolutely strove to destroy the Vietnamese national
identity. Vietnamese literature, artistic and historical works were
either burnt or taken to China and were replaced by the Chinese
classics in all the schools. The Chinese dress and hair style were
imposed on the Vietnamese women; local religious rites and costumes
were replaced or banished; private fortunes were confiscated and
taken to China.
The Late Le Dynasty (1428-1776): The oppressed
people found a new leader in the person of Le Loi, a man renowned
for his courage and generosity. Under the title, Prince of Pacification,
he organized a resistance movement from his village and waged a
guerrilla war against the enemy. By employing a strategy of surprise
attacks targeting his adversary's weakest points, Le Loi managed
to further weaken the enemy and at the same time avoid combat with
the superior Chinese forces. His
enforcement of strict military discipline ensured that no pillaging
was carried out by his troops in the regions under his control and
this made him a very popular hero. Le Loi founded the Le Dynasty
in 1428 and became king under the name of Le Thai To. He renamed
the country Dai Viet and immediately began the task of its reconstuction
after the devastation caused by the war. He reduced his army from
250,000 to 10,000 men and adopted a rotation system which enabled
four- fifths of his soldiers to return to the countryside to work
to help boost food production. The legal system was reorganized
and the penal system revised. A new College of National Sons (Quoc
Tu Giam) was founded to educate future administrators, with admission
based entirely on merit and not on the prior prerequisite of social
or family status.
Le Thai To died in 1443, leaving the throne to his son, Le Thai
Tong. Le Thai Tong's sudden death not long after was followed by
a decade of confusion marked by intrigues and plots within the Royal
Court. This troubled period ceased only when Le Thanh Tong affirmed
Under his thirty six year reign the country prospered as never before.
He revised the fiscal system, encouraged agriculture and placed
great emphasis on customs and moral principles. A writer himself,
he founded the Tao Dan Academy and wrote the first volume of national
Le Thanh Tong was by no means only a recorder of history. His reorganized
army won an easy victory over the Champa army in 1471. His farmer-soldiers
excelled not only on the battlefields, but also in the fields where
they established militarized agricultural communities wherever they
went. In this way the national territory was gradually expanded
southwards, until finally the Champa Kingdom was completely absorbed
The Trinh and Nguyen Lords' Secession Wars: The increasing decadence of the Le dynasty in the late 16th century
saw to the country's division into two rival principalities as some
corrupt and useless kings succeeded Le Thanh Tong. Mac Dang Dung,
a shrewd and scheming adviser at the Royal Court, seized control
of the country, and founded the Mac Dynasty. During this time descendants
of the Le Dynasty rallied around Nguyen Kim and Trinh Kiem, looking
for a way to overthrow Mac Dang Dung. After a series of fierce battles
they succeeded in occupying the country's southern capital and in
1543 founded the Southern Court near Thanh Hoa. The war continued
indecisively until the death of the Mac Dynasty's last king, Mac
Mau Hop, in 1592.
In an effort to restore law and order to the territory controlled
by the Macs, Lord Trinh left the Southern Court under the temporary
control of Nguyen Kim's nephew Nguyen Hoang, and set out for the
north. After pacifying the north and re-establishing the Le authority
in Hanoi, Lord Trinh returned only to find Nguyen Hoang well entrenched
in the southern court reigning as lord and master of all.
In 1672, after repeated tentative attempts failed to remove Nguyen
Hoang, Lord Trinh finally consented to the partition of the country
at the Linh River which marked the I8th parallel. It was not, however,
until after about fifty years of civil war, that the Trinh and Nguyen
Lords eventually agreed to a period of co-existence. This respite
lasted for more than a century, during which time the Le Emperors
played no more than a ceremonial role.
The Tay-Son Uprising (1776-1792): Frequent
insurrections, provoked by the corruption rife within the disintegrating
administration broke out during the last years of the two royal
courts. A popular revolution of sorts was in preparation as the
peasant insurrections grew to be a force to be reckoned with.
The Tay Son brothers - Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Lu and Nguyen Hue - seized
the day and staged an uprising against the leading Le Lords, easily
defeating them. However, Le Chieu Thong managed to flee to China
where he called for Chinese protection. In 1788, the Qing court
decided to send an expeditionary corps to conquer the divided country.
To save the nation, Nguyen Hue proclaimed himself Emperor Quang
Trung in Phu Xuan and overran the Chinese hoops in a whirl wind
campaign. He pacified the Northern part of the country from the
Chinese border to the Hai Van pass in the Center and devoted his
energies to national rehabilitation, administrative reorganization
and economic development. Significantly, Quang Trung replaced the
classic Chinese Han with the popular nom as the official language.
Unfortunately, his promising reign was cut short by his premature
death not long after in 1792.
The Nguyen Dynasty (1792-1883): Lord Nguyen's
successor, Nguyen Anh, was supported by Nguyen royalists who saw
him as the legitimate heir in the South. With their backing, Nguyen
Anh took up the fight against the Tay Son brothers and after Quang
Trung's death, extended his control over the country with the aid
of a French missionary, Monsignor Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of
The Ming Chinese who had fled the Ching invasion and settled in
the Saigon region, regarded Nguyen Anh as the leader who could safeguard
their settlement in the newly annexed territory of Dai Viet. The
Tay Son suspected they were Nguyen Anh's sympathisers and this suspicion
intensified after the Leading Tay Son generals, Tap Dinh and Ly
Tai, fled to Nguyen Anh's camp. After suffering defeat at the hands
of their former generals in the Saigon region, the Tay Son army
exacted their revenge and massacred thousands of the Chinese settlers.
Bishop of Adran saw an opportunity to expand the church's influence
in the post Tay Son era and negotiated a promise of military aid
for Nguyen Anh from the French Government in exchange for territorial
and commercial rights. However, the French were busy with their
own internal disputes and the promised aid never materialized. Undaunted,
the Bishop organized funds and recruited troops himself. The training
in modern military techniques proved invaluable to Nguyen Anh and
his army and certainly facilitated his victory when in 1801 he subdued
the Tay Son and proclaimed himself Emperor Cia Long.
A power struggle between the French and Chinese factions began within
the court. Although Nguyen Anh owed his accession to power to the
French, he was nevertheless very suspicious of France's designs
on his country and under his reign the court's Chinese faction took
precedence. He came to rely more on the assistance of Confucian
mandarins than the Catholic missionaries in the consolidation of
The reunified and newly renamed VietNam extended from the Chinese
Frontier to the Camau Peninsula in the South. Serious efforts were
made to codify the law and develop the national administration along
the lines of Confucian principles. Hue became the country's new
administrative capital. Cia Long replaced the Hong Duc Code by a
new legislation, which bore his name and served as an instrument
to consolidate the monarchic power after thirty years of civil war.
The Nguyen Dynasty's monarchist absolutism was reflected in the
extraordinary development of Hue as the most beautiful city of Vietnam.
Elaborate palaces, mausoleums, temples and pagodas were successively
built here, all in keeping with the harmony of cosmic order.
The Nguyen kings also extended Vietnam's border into Laos and Cambodia,
incorporating these two kingdoms as new vassal states of their Empire.
Conversely, they closed the country to Western penetration from
the seas. Fearing that the opening of the kingdom and expansion
of trade links would undermine the structure of the monarchy, they
practised a kind of isolationism vis-a-vis the West.
Meanwhile, Prince Canh, Nguyen Anh's eldest son, had accompanied
the Bishop of Adran to France during his negotiations with the French
government. The Prince was later educated at a missionary school
in Malacca and converted to Catholicism. This made Canh the first
Viet prince ever educated by Westerners.
Military leaders within Nguyen Anh's army realized the superiority
of modern Western military technology and wished to utilize Prince
Canh's knowledge to rebuild the country after the war. The Prince
was regarded by many as the one who could modemize Dai Viet and
bring it into the era of industrialization.
When the issue of Cia Long's successor was being discussed in court
before his death, the power struggle between the French and Chinese
factions resumed. The military generals, including Nguyen Thanh,
the governor of Thang Long and Le Van Duyet, the governor of Gia
Dinh (Saigon), supported the French faction and wanted Prince Canh
as the heir. However, most of the court ministers belonged to the
Chinese faction and supported Canh's younger brother, Prince Mien
Again, it was the conservative Chinese faction who triumphed. Prince
Canh reportedly died of measles at the age of 21. This prognosis
was refuted by missionaries close to the court who reported to the
French mission headquarters that he had died of poisoning.
Once Prince Mien Tong was crowned Emperor Minh Mang, the French
Chinese divide officially ended. Most of Prince Canh's followers
were either demoted or executed. General Nguyen Thanh was forcefully
administered poison and General Le Van Duyet's tomb was descrated.
In the meantime, the Catholic missions had sped up their evangelization
of the people. This provoked Minh Mang's anti-Catholic policy which
ordered the persecution of Catholic missionaries and their Vietnamese
Vietnam had missed its first opportunity to modernize and indusrialize.