Dedicated to Mr Jim Brown
The Creation of Vietnam
The area now known as Vietnam has been inhabited since Paleolithic times, and some archaeological sites in Thanh Hóa Province purportedly date back several thousand years. Archaeologists link the beginnings of Vietnamese civilization to the late Neolithic, Early Bronze Age, Phung Nguyen culture, which was centered in Vĩnh Phúc Province of contemporary Vietnam from about 2000 to 1400 BCE.
By about 1200 BCE, the development of wet-rice cultivation and bronze casting in the Ma River and Red River plains led to the development of the Dong Son culture, notable for its elaborate bronze drums. The bronze weapons, tools, and drums of Dong-Sonian sites show a Southeast Asian influence that indicates an indigenous origin for the bronze-casting technology.
Many small, ancient copper mine sites have been found in northern Vietnam. Some of the similarities between the Dong-Sonian sites and other Southeast Asian sites include the presence of boat-shaped coffins and burial jars, stilt dwellings, and evidence of the customs of betel-nut-chewing and teeth-blackening.
The legendary Hồng Bàng Dynasty of the Hùng kings is considered by many Vietnamese as the first Vietnamese state, known as Văn Lang. In 257 BCE, the last Hùng king lost to Thục Phán, who consolidated the Lạc Việt tribes with his Âu Việt tribes, forming Âu Lạc and proclaiming himself An Dương Vương. In 207 BCE, a Chinese general named Zhao Tuo defeated An Dương Vương and consolidated Âu Lạc into Nanyue. In 111 BCE, the Chinese Han Dynasty consolidated Nanyue into their empire.
For the next thousand years, Vietnam was mostly under Chinese rule. Early independence movements such as those of the Trưng Sisters and of Lady Triệu were only briefly successful. It was independent as Vạn Xuân under the Anterior Lý Dynasty between 544 and 602. By the early 10th century, Vietnam had gained autonomy, but not independence, under the Khúc family.
In 938 CE, a Vietnamese lord named Ngô Quyền defeated Chinese forces at the Bạch Đằng River and regained independence after a millennium under Chinese control. Renamed as Đại Việt (Great Viet), the nation went through a golden era during the Lý and Trần Dynasties. During the rule of the Trần Dynasty, Đại Việt repelled three Mongol invasions. Buddhism flourished and became the state religion.
Following the brief Hồ Dynasty, Vietnamese independence was momentarily interrupted by the Chinese Ming Dynasty, but was restored by Lê Lợi, the founder of the Lê Dynasty. Vietnam reached its zenith in the Lê Dynasty of the 15th century, especially during the reign of Emperor Lê Thánh Tông (1460–1497). Between the 11th and 18th centuries, Vietnam expanded southward in a process known as nam tiến (southward expansion), and it eventually conquered the kingdom of Champa and part of the Khmer Empire.
From the 16th century onwards, civil strife and frequent infighting engulfed much of Vietnam. First, the Chinese-supported Mạc Dynasty challenged the Lê Dynasty’s power. After the Mạc Dynasty was defeated, the Lê Dynasty was reinstalled, but with no actual power. Power was divided between the Trịnh Lords in the North and the Nguyễn Lords in the South, who engaged in a civil war for more than four decades before a truce was called in the 1670s. During this time, the Nguyễn expanded southern Vietnam into the Mekong Delta, annexing the Champa in the central highlands and the Khmer land in the Mekong.
The division of the country ended a century later when the Tây Sơn brothers defeated both and established their new dynasty. However, their rule did not last long and they were defeated by the remnants of the Nguyễn Lords led by Nguyễn Ánh with the help of the French. Nguyễn Ánh unified Vietnam, and established the Nguyễn Dynasty, ruling under the name Gia Long.
The history of Vietnam begins around 2,700 years ago. Successive dynasties based in China ruled Vietnam directly for most of the period from 207 BC until 938 when Vietnam regained its independence.Vietnam remained a tributary state to its larger neighbor China for much of its history but repelled invasions by the Chinese as well as three invasions by the Mongols between 1255 and 1285.Emperor Trần Nhân Tông later diplomatically submitted Vietnam to a tributary of the Yuan to avoid further conflicts. The independent period temporarily ended in the middle to late 19th century, when the country was colonized by France (see French Indochina). During World War II, Imperial Japan expelled the French to occupy Vietnam, though they retained French administrators during their occupation. After the war, France attempted to re-establish its colonial rule but ultimately failed in the First Indochina War. The Geneva Accords partitioned the country in two with a promise of democratic election to reunite the country.
However, rather than peaceful reunification, partition led to the Vietnam War. During this time, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union supported the North while the United States supported the South. After millions of Vietnamese deaths, the war ended with the fall of Saigon to the North in April 1975. The reunified Vietnam suffered further internal repression and was isolated internationally due to the continuing Cold War and the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. In 1986, the Communist Party of Vietnam changed its economic policy and began reforms of the private sector similar to those in China. Since the mid-1980s, Vietnam has enjoyed substantial economic growth and some reduction in political repression, though reports of corruption have also risen.
Evidence of the earliest established society other than the prehistoric Iron Age Đông Sơn culture in Northern Vietnam was found in Cổ Loa, an ancient city situated near present-day Hà Nội.
According to myth, the first Vietnamese people were descended from the Dragon Lord Lạc Long Quân and the Immortal Fairy Âu Cơ. Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ had 100 sons before deciding to part ways. 50 of the children went with their mother to the mountains, and the other 50 went with their father to the sea. The eldest son became the first in a line of early Vietnamese kings, collectively known as the Hùng kings (Hùng Vương or the Hồng Bàng Dynasty). The Hùng kings called their country, located on the Red River delta in present-day northern Vietnam, Văn Lang. The people of Văn Lang were known as the Lạc Việt.
Văn Lang is thought to have been a matriarchal society, similar to many other matriarchal societies common in Southeast Asia and in the Pacific islands at the time. Various archaeological sites in northern Vietnam, such as Đông Sơn have yielded metal weapons and tools from this age. Most famous of these artifacts are large bronze drums, probably made for ceremonial purposes, with sophisticated engravings on the surface, depicting life scenes with warriors, boats, houses, birds and animals in concentric circles around a radiating sun at the center.
Many legends from this period offer a glimpse into the life of the people. The Legend of the Rice Cakes is about a prince who won a culinary contest; he then wins the throne because his creations, the rice cakes, reflect his deep understanding of the land’s vital economy: rice farming. The Legend of Giong about a youth going to war to save the country, wearing iron armor, riding an armored horse, and wielding an iron staff, showed that metalworking was sophisticated. The Legend of the Magic Crossbow, about a crossbow that can deliver thousands of arrows, showed extensive use of archery in warfare.
Recent research has unlocked the discovery of artificial circular earthworks in the areas of present day southern Vietnam and overlapping to the borders of Cambodia. These archaeological remains are estimated to be economic, social and cultural entities from the 1st millennium BC
By the 3rd century BC, another Viet group, the Âu Việt, emigrated from present-day southern China to the Red River delta and mixed with the indigenous Văn Lang population. In 258 BC, a new kingdom, Âu Lạc, emerged as the union of the Âu Việt and the Lạc Việt, with Thục Phán proclaiming himself “King An Dương Vương”. At his capital Cổ Loa, he built many concentric walls around the city for defensive purposes. These walls, together with skilled Âu Lạc archers, kept the capital safe from invaders for a while. However, it also gave rise to the first recorded case of espionage in Vietnamese history, resulting in the downfall of King An Dương Vương.
In 207 BC, an ambitious Chinese warlord named Triệu Đà (Chinese: Zhao Tuo) defeated King An Dương Vương by having his son Trọng Thủy (Chinese: Zhong Shi) act as a spy after marrying An Dương Vương’s daughter. Triệu Đà annexed Âu Lạc into his domain located in present-day Guangdong, southern China, then proclaimed himself king of a new independent kingdom, Nam Việt (Chinese: 南越, Nan Yue). Trọng Thủy, the supposed crown prince, drowned himself in Cổ Loa out of remorse for the death of his wife in the war.
Some Vietnamese consider Triệu‘s rule a period of Chinese domination, since Triệu Đà was a former Qin general. Others consider it an era of Việt independence as the Triệu family in Nam Việt were assimilated to local culture. They ruled independently of what then constituted China’s (Han Dynasty). At one point, Triệu Đà even declared himself Emperor, equal to the Chinese Han Emperor in the north.
Period of Chinese domination (111 BC – 938 AD)
In 111 BC, Chinese troops invaded Nam Việt and established new territories, dividing Vietnam into Giao Chỉ (Chinese: 交趾 pinyin: Jiaozhi, now the Red River delta); Cửu Chân from modern-day Thanh Hoá to Hà Tĩnh; and Nhật Nam, from modern-day Quảng Bình to Huế. While the Chinese were governors and top officials, the original Vietnamese nobles (Lạc Hầu, Lạc Tướng) still managed some highlands.
In 40 AD, a successful revolt against harsh rule by Han Governor Tô Định (蘇定 pinyin: Sū Dìng), led by the noblewoman Trưng Trắc and her sister Trưng Nhị, recaptured 65 states (include modern Guangxi), and Trưng Trắc became the Queen (Trưng Nữ Vương). In 42 AD, Emperor Guangwu of Han sent his famous general Mã Viện (Chinese: Ma Yuan) to quell the revolt. After a torturous campaign, Ma Yuan defeated the Trưng Queen, who committed suicide. To this day, the Trưng Sisters are revered in Vietnam as the national symbol of Vietnamese women. Learning a lesson from the Trưng revolt, the Han and other successful Chinese dynasties took measures to eliminate the power of the Vietnamese nobles. The Vietnamese elites would be coerced to assimilate into Chinese culture and politics. However, in 225 AD, another woman, Triệu Thị Trinh, popularly known as Lady Triệu (Bà Triệu), led another revolt which lasted until 248 AD.
During the Tang dynasty, Vietnam was called Annam (Giao Châu), until the early 10th century AD. Giao Chỉ (with its capital around modern Bắc Ninh province) became a flourishing trading outpost receiving goods from the southern seas. The “History of Later Han” (Hậu Hán Thư, Hou Hanshu) recorded that in 166 AD the first envoy from the Roman Empire to China arrived by this route, and merchants were soon to follow. The 3rd-century “Tales of Wei” (Ngụy Lục, Weilue) mentioned a “water route” (the Red River) from Jiaozhi into what is now southern Yunnan. From there, goods were taken overland to the rest of China via the regions of modern Kunming and Chengdu.
At the same time, in present-day central Vietnam, there was a successful revolt of Cham nations. Chinese dynasties called it Lin-Yi (Lin village). It later became a powerful kingdom, Champa, stretching from Quảng Bình to Phan Thiết (Bình Thuận).
In the period between the beginning of the Chinese Age of Fragmentation to the end of the Tang Dynasty, several revolts against Chinese rule took place, such as those of Lý Bôn and his general and heir Triệu Quang Phục; and those of Mai Thúc Loan and Phùng Hưng. All of them ultimately failed, yet most notable were Lý Bôn and Triệu Quang Phục, whose Anterior Lý Dynasty ruled for almost half a century (544 AD to 602 AD) before the Chinese Sui Dynasty reconquered their kingdom Vạn Xuân.
Early independence (938 AD – 1009 AD)
Early in the 10th century, as China became politically fragmented, successive lords from the Khúc family, followed by Dương Đình Nghệ, ruled Giao Châu autonomously under the Tang title of Tiết Độ Sứ, Virtuous Lord, but stopping short of proclaiming themselves kings.
In 938, Southern Han sent troops to conquer autonomous Giao Châu. Ngô Quyền, Dương Đình Nghệ’s son-in-law, defeated the Southern Han fleet at the Battle of Bạch Đằng River (938). He then proclaimed himself King Ngô and effectively began the age of independence for Vietnam.
Ngô Quyền’s untimely death after a short reign resulted in a power struggle for the throne, the country’s first major civil war, The upheavals of Twelve warlords (Loạn Thập Nhị Sứ Quân). The war lasted from 945 AD to 967 AD when the clan led by Đinh Bộ Lĩnh defeated the other warlords, unifying the country. Dinh founded the Đinh Dynasty and proclaimed himself First Emperor (Tiên Hoàng) of Đại Cồ Việt (Hán tự: 大瞿越; literally “Great Viet Land”), with its capital in Hoa Lư (modern day Ninh Bình). However, the Chinese Song Dynasty only officially recognized him as Prince of Jiaozhi (Giao Chỉ Quận Vương). Emperor Đinh introduced strict penal codes to prevent chaos from happening again. He tried to form alliances by granting the title of Queen to five women from the five most influential families.
In 979 AD, Emperor Đinh Bộ Lĩnh and his crown prince Đinh Liễn were assassinated, leaving his lone surviving son, the 6-year-old Đinh Toàn, to assume the throne. Taking advantage of the situation, the Chinese Song Dynasty invaded Đại Cồ Việt. Facing such a grave threat to national independence, the court’s Commander of the Ten Armies (Thập Đạo Tướng Quân) Lê Hoàn took the throne, founding the Former Lê Dynasty. A capable military tactician, Lê Hoan realized the risks of engaging the mighty Chinese troops head on; thus he tricked the invading army into Chi Lăng Pass, then ambushed and killed their commander, quickly ending the threat to his young nation in 981 AD. The Song Dynasty withdrew their troops yet would not recognize Lê Hoàn as Prince of Jiaozhi until 12 years later; nevertheless, he is referred to in his realm as Đại Hành Emperor (Đại Hành Hoàng Đế). Emperor Lê Hoàn was also the first Vietnamese monarch who began the southward expansion process against the kingdom of Champa.
Emperor Lê Hoàn’s death in 1005 AD resulted in infighting for the throne amongst his sons. The eventual winner, Lê Long Đĩnh, became the most notorious tyrant in Vietnamese history. He devised sadistic punishments of prisoners for his own entertainment and indulged in deviant sexual activities. Toward the end of his short life – he died at 24 – Lê Long Đĩnh became so ill that he had to lie down when meeting with his officials in court.
Independent period of Đại Việt (1010 AD – 1527 AD)
When the king Lê Long Đĩnh died in 1009 AD, a Palace Guard Commander named Lý Công Uẩn was nominated by the court to take over the throne, and founded the Lý dynasty. This event is regarded as the beginning of a golden era in Vietnamese history, with great following dynasties. The way Lý Công Uẩn ascended to the throne was rather uncommon in Vietnamese history. As a high-ranking military commander residing in the capital, he had all opportunities to seize power during the tumultuous years after Emperor Lê Hoàn’s death, yet preferring not to do so out of his sense of duty. He was in a way being “elected” by the court after some debate before a consensus was reached.
Lý Công Uẩn, posthumously referred as Lý Thái Tổ, changed the country’s name to Đại Việt (Hán tự: 大越; literally “Great Viet”). The Lý Dynasty is credited for laying down a concrete foundation, with strategic vision, for the nation of Vietnam. Leaving Hoa Lư, a natural fortification surrounded by mountains and rivers, Lý Công Uẩn moved his court to the new capital in present-day Hanoi and called it Thăng Long (Ascending Dragon). Lý Công Uẩn thus departed from the militarily defensive mentality of his predecessors and envisioned a strong economy as the key to national survival. Successive Lý kings continued to accomplish far-reaching feats: building a dike system to protect the rice producing area; founding Quốc Tử Giám, the first noble university; holding regular examinations to select capable commoners for government positions once every three years; organizing a new system of taxation; establishing humane treatment of prisoners. Women were holding important roles in Lý society as the court ladies were in charge of tax collection. The Lý Dynasty also promoted Buddhism, yet maintained a pluralistic attitude toward the three main philosophical systems of the time: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. During the Lý Dynasty, the Chinese Song Dynasty officially recognized the Đại Việt monarch as King of Giao Chỉ (Giao Chỉ Quận Vương).
The Lý Dynasty had two major wars with Song China, and a few conquests against neighboring Champa in the south. The most notable battle took place on Chinese territory in 1075 AD. Upon learning that a Song invasion was imminent, the Lý army and navy totalling about 100,000 men under the command of Lý Thường Kiệt, Tông Đản used amphibious operations to preemptively destroy three Song military installations at Yong Zhou, Qin Zhou, and Lian Zhou in present-day Guangdong and Guangxi, and killed 100,000 Chinese. The Song Dynasty took revenge and invaded Đại Việt in 1076, but the Song troops were held back at the Battle of Như Nguyệt River commonly known as the Cầu river, now in Bắc Ninh province about 40 km from the current capital, Hanoi. Neither side was able to force a victory, so the Lý Dynasty proposed a truce, which the Song Dynasty accepted.
Toward the end of the Lý Dynasty, a powerful court minister named Trần Thủ Độ forced king Lý Huệ Tông to become a Buddhist monk and Lý Chiêu Hoàng, Huệ Tông’s young daughter, to become queen. Trần Thủ Độ then arranged the marriage of Chiêu Hoàng to his nephew Trần Cảnh and eventually had the throne transferred to Trần Cảnh, thus begun the Trần Dynasty. Trần Thủ Độ viciously purged members of the Lý nobility; some Lý princes escaped to Korea, including Lý Long Tường.
After the purge most Trần kings ruled the country in similar manner to the Lý kings. Noted Trần Dynasty accomplishments include the creation of a system of population records based at the village level, the compilation of a formal 30-volume history of Đại Việt (Đại Việt Sử Ký) by Lê Văn Hưu, and the rising in status of the Nôm script, a system of writing for Vietnamese language. The Trần Dynasty also adopted a unique way to train new kings: as a king aged, he would relinquish the throne to his crown prince, yet holding a title of August Higher Emperor (Thái Thượng Hoàng), acting as a mentor to the new Emperor.
During the Trần Dynasty, the armies of the Mongol Empire under Mongke Khan and Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty invaded Vietnam in 1257 AD, 1284 AD, and 1288 AD. Đại Việt repelled all attacks of the Yuan during the reign of Kublai Khan. The key to Đại Việt’s successes was to avoid the Mongols’ strength in open field battles and city sieges – the Trần court abandoned the capital and the cities. The Mongols were then countered decisively at their weak points, which were battles in swampy areas such as Chương Dương, Hàm Tử, Vạn Kiếp and on rivers such as Vân Đồn and Bạch Đằng. The Mongols also suffered from tropical diseases and loss of supplies to Trần army’s raids. The Yuan-Trần war reached its climax when the retreating Yuan fleet was decimated at the Battle of Bạch Đằng (1288). The military architect behind Đại Việt’s victories was Commander Trần Quốc Tuấn, more popularly known as Trần Hưng Đạo. In order to avoid disastrous campaigns, the Tran and Champa acknowledged Mongol supremacy.
It was also during this period that the Trần kings waged many wars against the southern kingdom of Champa, continuing the Viets’ long history of southern expansion (known as Nam Tiến) that had begun shortly after gaining independence from China. Often, they encountered strong resistance from the Chams. Champa troops led by king Chế Bồng Nga (Cham: Po Binasuor or Che Bonguar) killed king Trần Duệ Tông in battle and even laid siege to Đại Việt’s capital Thăng Long in 1377 AD and again in 1383 AD. However, the Trần Dynasty was successful in gaining two Champa provinces, located around present-day Huế, through the peaceful means of the political marriage of Princess Huyền Trân to a Cham king.
Ming occupation and the rise of the Lê Dynasty
The Trần dynasty was in turn overthrown by one of its own court officials, Hồ Quý Ly. Hồ Quý Ly forced the last Trần king to resign and assumed the throne in 1400. He changed the country name to Đại Ngu (Hán tự: 太虞) and moved the capital to Tây Đô, Western Capital, now Thanh Hóa. Thăng Long was renamed Đông Đô, Eastern Capital. Although widely blamed for causing national disunity and losing the country later to the Chinese Ming Dynasty, Hồ Quý Ly’s reign actually introduced a lot of progressive, ambitious reforms, including the addition of mathematics to the national examinations, the open critique of Confucian philosophy, the use of paper currency in place of coins, investment in building large warships and cannon, and land reform. He ceded the throne to his son, Hồ Hán Thương, in 1401 and assumed the title Thái Thượng Hoàng, in similar manner to the Trần kings.
In 1407, under the pretext of helping to restore the Trần Dynasty, Chinese Ming troops invaded Đại Ngu and captured Hồ Quý Ly and Hồ Hán Thương. The Hồ Dynasty came to an end after only 7 years in power. The Ming occupying force annexed Đại Ngu into the Ming Empire after claiming that there was no heir to Trần throne. Almost immediately, Trần loyalists started a resistance war. The resistance, under the leadership of Trần Quĩ at first gained some advances, yet as Trần Quĩ executed two top commanders out of suspicion, a rift widened within his ranks and resulted in his defeat in 1413.
In 1418, a wealthy farmer, Lê Lợi, led the Lam son revolution against the Ming from his base of Lam Sơn (Thanh Hóa province). Overcoming many early setbacks and with strategic advices from Nguyễn Trãi, Lê Lợi’s movement finally gathered momentum, marched northward, and launched a siege at Đông Quan (now Hanoi), the capital of the Ming occupation. The Ming Emperor sent a reinforcement force, but Lê Lợi staged an ambush and killed the Ming commander, Liễu Thăng (Chinese: Liu Sheng), in Chi Lăng. Ming troops at Đông Quan surrendered. The Lam son revolution killed 300,000 Ming soldiers. In 1428, Lê Lợi ascended to the throne and began the Hậu Lê dynasty (Posterior or Later Lê). Lê Lợi renamed the country back to Đại Việt and moved the capital back to Thăng Long.
he Lê Dynasty carried out land reforms to revitalize the economy after the war. Unlike the Lý and Trần kings, who were more influenced by Buddhism, the Lê kings leaned toward Confucianism. A comprehensive set of laws, the Hồng Đức code was introduced with some strong Confucian elements, yet also included some progressive rules, such as the rights of women. Art and architecture during the Lê Dynasty also became more influenced by Chinese styles than during the Lý and Trần Dynasty. The Lê Dynasty commissioned the drawing of national maps and had Ngô Sĩ Liên continue the task of writing Đại Việt’s history up to the time of Lê Lợi. King Lê Thánh Tông opened hospitals and had officials distribute medicines to areas affected with epidemics.
In 1471, Le troops led by king Lê Thánh Tông invaded Champa and captured its capital Vijaya. This event effectively ended Champa as a powerful kingdom, although some smaller surviving Cham kingdoms still lasted for a few centuries more. It initiated the dispersal of the Cham people across Southeast Asia. With the kingdom of Champa mostly destroyed and the Cham people exiled or suppressed, Vietnamese colonization of what is now central Vietnam proceeded without substantial resistance. However, despite becoming greatly outnumbered by Kinh (Việt) settlers and the integration of formerly Cham territory into the Vietnamese nation, the majority of Cham people nevertheless remained in Vietnam and they are now considered one of the key minorities in modern Vietnam. The city of Huế, founded in 1600 lies close to where the Champa capital of Indrapura once stood. In 1479, King Lê Thánh Tông also campaigned against Laos and captured its capital Luang Prabang. He made further incursions westwards into the Irrawaddy River region in modern-day Burma before withdrawing.
Divided period (1528–1802)
The Lê dynasty was overthrown by its general named Mạc Đăng Dung in 1527. He killed the Lê emperor and proclaimed himself emperor, starting the Mạc Dynasty. After defeating many revolutions for two years, Mạc Đăng Dung adopted the Trần Dynasty’s practice and ceded the throne to his son, Mạc Đăng Doanh, who became Thái Thượng Hoàng.
Meanwhile, Nguyễn Kim, a former official in the Lê court, revolted against the Mạc and helped king Lê Trang Tông restore the Lê court in the Thanh Hóa area. Thus a civil war began between the Northern Court (Mạc) and the Southern Court (Restored Lê). Nguyễn Kim’s side controlled the southern part of Đại Việt (from Thanhhoa to the south), leaving the north (including Đông Kinh-Hanoi) under Mạc control. When Nguyễn Kim was assassinated in 1545, military power fell into the hands of his son-in-law, Trịnh Kiểm. In 1558, Nguyễn Kim’s son, Nguyễn Hoàng, suspecting that Trịnh Kiểm might kill him as he had done to his brother to secure power, asked to be governor of the far south provinces around present-day Quảng Bình to Bình Định. Hoang pretended to be insane, so Kiem was fooled into thinking that sending Hoang south was a good move as Hoang would be quickly killed in the lawless border regions. However, Hoang governed the south effectively while Trịnh Kiểm, and then his son Trịnh Tùng, carried on the war against the Mạc. Nguyễn Hoàng sent money and soldiers north to help the war but gradually he became more and more independent, transforming their realm’s economic fortunes by turning it into an international trading post.
The civil war between the Lê/Trịnh and Mạc dynasties ended in 1592, when the army of Trịnh Tùng conquered Hanoi and executed king Mạc Mậu Hợp. Survivors of the Mạc royal family fled to the northern mountains in the province of Cao Bằng and continued to rule there until 1667 when Trịnh Tạc conquered this last Mạc territory. The Lê kings, ever since Nguyễn Kim’s restoration, only acted as figureheads. After the fall of the Mạc Dynasty, all real power in the north belonged to the Trịnh Lords.
In the year 1600, Nguyễn Hoàng also declared himself Lord (officially “Vương”, popularly “Chúa”) and refused to send more money or soldiers to help the Trịnh. He also moved his capital to Phú Xuân, modern-day Huế. Nguyễn Hoàng died in 1613 after having ruled the south for 55 years. He was succeeded by his 6th son, Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên, who likewise refused to acknowledge the power of the Trịnh, yet still pledged allegiance to the Lê king.
Trịnh Tráng succeeded Trịnh Tùng, his father, upon his death in 1623. Tráng ordered Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên to submit to his authority. The order was refused twice. In 1627, Trịnh Tráng sent 150,000 troops southward in an unsuccessful military campaign. The Trịnh were much stronger, with a larger population, economy and army, but they were unable to vanquish the Nguyễn, who had built two defensive stone walls and invested in Portuguese artillery.
The Trịnh-Nguyễn War lasted from 1627 until 1672. The Trịnh army staged at least seven offensives, all of which failed to capture Phú Xuân. For a time, starting in 1651, the Nguyễn themselves went on the offensive and attacked parts of Trịnh territory. However, the Trịnh, under a new leader, Trịnh Tạc, forced the Nguyễn back by 1655. After one last offensive in 1672, Trịnh Tạc agreed to a truce with the Nguyễn Lord Nguyễn Phúc Tần. The country was effectively divided in two.
The Trịnh and the Nguyễn maintained a relative peace for the next hundred years, during which both sides made significant accomplishments. The Trịnh created centralized government offices in charge of state budget and producing currency, unified the weight units into a decimal system, established printing shops to reduce the need to import printed materials from China, opened a military academy, and compiled history books.
Meanwhile, the Nguyễn Lords continued the southward expansion by the conquest of the remaining Cham land. Việt settlers also arrived in the sparsely populated area known as “Water Chenla”, which was the lower Mekong Delta portion of Chenla (present-day Cambodia). Between the mid-17th century to mid-18th century, as Chenla was weakened by internal strife and Siamese invasions, the Nguyễn Lords used various means, political marriage, diplomatic pressure, political and military favors,… to gain the area around present day Saigon and the Mekong Delta. The Nguyễn army at times also clashed with the Siamese army to establish influence over Chenla.
In 1771, the Tây Sơn revolution broke out in Quynhơn, which was under the control of the Nguyễn. The leaders of this revolution were three brothers named Nguyễn Nhạc, Nguyễn Lữ, and Nguyễn Huệ, not related to the Nguyễn lords. By 1776, the Tây Sơn had occupied all of the Nguyễn Lord’s land and killed almost the entire royal family. The surviving prince Nguyễn Phúc Ánh (often called Nguyễn Ánh) fled to Siam, and obtained military support from the Siamese king. Nguyễn Ánh came back with 50000 Siamese troops to regain power, but was defeated at the Battle of Rạch Gầm–Xoài Mút and almost killed. Nguyễn Ánh fled Vietnam, but he did not give up.
The Tây Sơn army commanded by Nguyễn Huệ marched north in 1786 to fight the Trịnh Lord, Trịnh Khải. The Trịnh army failed and Trịnh Khải committed suicide. The Tây Sơn army captured the capital in less than two months. The last Lê emperor, Lê Chiêu Thống, fled to China and petitioned the Chinese Qing Emperor for help. The Qing emperor Qianlong supplied Lê Chiêu Thống with a massive army of around 200,000 troops to regain his throne from the usurper. Nguyễn Huệ proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung and defeated the Qing troops with 100,000 men in a surprise 7 day campaign during the lunar new year (Tết). During his reign, Quang Trung envisioned many reforms but died by unknown reason on the way march south in 1792, at the age of 40.
During the reign of Emperor Quang Trung, Đại Việt was actually divided into 3 political entities. The Tây Sơn leader, Nguyễn Nhạc, ruled the centre of the country from his capital Qui Nhơn. Emperor Quang Trung ruled the north from the capital Phú Xuân Huế. In the South, Nguyễn Ánh, assisted by many talented recruits from the South, captured Gia Định (present day Saigon) in 1788 and established a strong base for his force.
After Quang Trung’s death, the Tây Sơn Dynasty became unstable as the remaining brothers fought against each other and against the people who were loyal to Nguyễn Huệ‘s infant son. Nguyễn Ánh sailed north in 1799, capturing Tây Sơn’s stronghold Qui Nhơn. In 1801, his force took Phú Xuân, the Tây Sơn capital. Nguyễn Ánh finally won the war in 1802, when he sieged Thăng Long (Hanoi) and executed Nguyễn Huệ’s son, Nguyễn Quang Toản, along with many Tây Sơn generals and officials. Nguyễn Ánh ascended the throne and called himself Emperor Gia Long. Gia is for Gia Định, the old name of Saigon; Long is for Thăng Long, the old name of Hanoi. Hence Gia Long implied the unification of the country. The Nguyễn dynasty lasted until Bảo Đại‘s abdication in 1945. As China for centuries had referred to Đại Việt as Annam, Gia Long asked the Chinese Qing emperor to rename the country, from Annam to Nam Việt. To prevent any confusion of Gia Long’s kingdom with Triệu Đà‘s ancient kingdom, the Chinese emperor reversed the order of the two words to Việt Nam. The name Vietnam is thus known to be used since Emperor Gia Long’s reign. Recently historians have found that this name had existed in older books in which Vietnamese referred to their country as Vietnam.
The Period of Division with its many tragedies and dramatic historical developments inspired many poets and gave rise to some Vietnamese masterpieces in verse such as the epic poem The Tale of Kieu (Truyện Kiều) by Nguyễn Du, Song of a Soldier’s Wife (Chinh Phụ Ngâm) by Đặng Trần Côn and Đoàn Thị Điểm, and a collection of satirical, erotically charged poems by the female poet Hồ Xuân Hương.
19th century and French colonization
The West‘s exposure in Vietnam and Vietnam’s exposure to Westerners dated back to 166 BC with the arrival of merchants from the Roman Empire, to 1292 with the visit of Marco Polo, and the early 1500s with the arrival of Portuguese and other European traders and missionaries. Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit priest, improved on earlier work by Portuguese missionaries and developed the Vietnamese romanized alphabet Quốc Ngữ in Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanam et Latinum in 1651.
Between 1627 and 1775, two powerful families had partitioned the country: the Nguyễn Lords ruled the South and the Trịnh Lords ruled the North. The Trịnh-Nguyễn War gave European traders the opportunities to support each side with weapons and technology: the Portuguese assisted the Nguyễnin the South while the Dutch helped the Trịnh in the North.
In 1784, during the conflict between Nguyễn Ánh, the surviving heir of the Nguyễn Lords, and the Tây Sơn Dynasty, a French Catholic Bishop, Pigneaux de Behaine, sailed to France to seek military backing for Nguyễn Ánh. At Louis XVI‘s court, Pigneaux brokered the Little Treaty of Versailles which promised French military aid in return for Vietnamese concessions. The French Revolution broke out and Pigneaux’s plan failed to materialize. Undaunted, Pigneaux went to the French territory of Pondicherry, India. He secured two ships, a regiment of Indian troops, and a handful of volunteers and returned to Vietnam in 1788. One of Pigneaux’s volunteers, Jean-Marie Dayot, reorganized Nguyễn Ánh’s navy along European lines and defeated the Tây Sơn at Qui Nhơn in 1792. A few years later, Nguyễn Ánh’s forces captured Saigon, where Pigneaux died in 1799. Another volunteer, Victor Olivier de Puymanel would later build the Gia Định fort in central Saigon.
After Nguyễn Ánh established the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802, he tolerated Catholicism and employed some Europeans in his court as advisors. However, he and his successors were conservative Confucians who resisted Westernization. The next Nguyễn emperors, Ming Mạng, Thiệu Trị, and Tự Đức brutally suppressed Catholicism and pursued a ‘closed door’ policy, perceiving the Westerners as a threat, following events such as the Lê Văn Khôi revolt when a French missionary Joseph Marchand encouraged local Catholics to revolt in an attempt to install a Catholic emperor. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese and foreign-born Christians were persecuted and trade with the West slowed during this period. There were frequent uprisings against the Nguyễns, with hundreds of such events being recorded in the annals. These acts were soon being used as excuses for France to invade Vietnam. The early Nguyễn Dynasty had engaged in many of the constructive activities of its predecessors, building roads, digging canals, issuing a legal code, holding examinations, sponsoring care facilities for the sick, compiling maps and history books, and exerting influence over Cambodia and Laos. However, those feats were not enough of an improvement in the new age of science, technology, industrialization, and international trade and politics, especially when faced with technologically superior European forces exerting strong influence over the region. The Nguyễn Dynasty is usually blamed for failing to modernize the country in time to prevent French colonization in the late 19th century.
the end @ copyright Dr Iwan suwandy 2011