“”Others called it the American War, but I saw it as a civil war between the North and South of Vietnam. America only took part in this war to support the South to fight communism. The country has been unified for 40 years, but the nation is yet to be reconciled. Vietnamese media have shown many pictures of American soldiers hugging North Vietnamese soldiers. But you never see any pictures of a North Vietnamese soldier hugging a South Vietnamese soldier.
|—Son Tran, Hanoi businessman.|
Vietnam, officially the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV; Cộng hòa Xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam), is a Southeast Asian country with a long history and a remarkable record of beating off larger invaders—China, France, and even Mongolia in its prime. Their most famous victory was in the Vietnam War, where the communist forces of North Vietnam managed to force the United States to withdraw from the anti-communist rump state of South Vietnam before militarily unifying their country. Since that devastating conflict, Vietnam has been a one-party socialist (Marxist-Leninist) dictatorship, albeit one that gradually implemented capitalist reforms. Vietnam has also become one of the closest friends and partners of the United States in Southeast Asia thanks to reconciliation efforts, economic ties, and shared distrust of China. Still, those success stories should not distract from the fact that Vietnam remains a dictatorship that violently suppresses dissent. Vietnam's capital is Hanoi, and most of its population follows a folk religion, Buddhism, or no religion. A substantial minority of Christians also represent about 10% of the population.
The land of modern-day Vietnam was a frequent target of Imperial China for much of its history. From the 2nd century CE, the Austronesian Cham people were able to throw off the Chinese yokes and thrived. By the 10th century CE, the Vietic Kinh people managed to decisively establish a powerful kingdom called Đại Việt, absorbing the culturally distinct Cham people in southern Vietnam along the way. By the 16th century, the kingdom declined and splintered into several monarchies and militarist regimes. In 1802, Gia Long became the first emperor of Việt Nam by militarily uniting the shattered region. His dynastic successors practiced isolationist conservatism and religious intolerance, increasing Western imperialism and domestic discontent. The imperial age ended abruptly when Vietnam fell victim to the French colonial empire along with the rest of the Indochinese region. France treated Vietnam poorly, violently suppressing the people and turning the whole country into a giant forced labor plantation. When World War II gave the Vietnamese an opportunity to end French rule, they enthusiastically took it.
In the First Indochina War, starting almost immediately after WWII, Vietnam struggled against French domination. They eventually won freedom in the 1954 Geneva Conference, which split the country between communist-led North Vietnam and sternly anti-communist South Vietnam. They were supposed to be unified under free elections, but the United States and South Vietnam considered the possibility of a communist victory in the vote too risky to chance. Instead, hostilities between the two halves of Vietnam erupted into the Vietnam War in 1955, with the United States supporting South Vietnam and North Vietnam supporting communist guerrillas in the South. The war became a bloody and hopeless catastrophe for the United States, eventually forcing its withdrawal. Without direct American aid, South Vietnam collapsed entirely in 1975, leaving Vietnam united under the communist government in Hanoi.
After its victory, Vietnam remained relatively isolated thanks to US diplomacy. When the spillover from the Vietnam War helped bring the omnicidal Khmer Rouge to power in Cambodia, Vietnam considered it a threat. It invaded to overthrow the Pol Pot regime in 1978 and occupy the country. Pol Pot had, however, been tight with China, so China invaded Vietnam in 1979. Vietnam managed to boot the Chinese out of their borders once again, and they eventually decided that being an isolated backwater wasn't a very tempting fate. In 1986, Vietnam's party introduced reforms to boost the economy and connect with the rest of the world. As it stands now, Vietnam is a strong economy and a close US regional partner, but its dictatorship remains firm, and its human rights record is poor.
Vietnam has been inhabited since at least the Paleolithic Age. Its population and culture began to develop significantly around 1000 BCE, thanks to the development of wet rice agriculture. Rice has been a staple of the Vietnamese diet ever since. Rice is good.
Vietnam's first Neolithic culture, the Phung Nguyen (1500 BCE), were Austroasiatic Katuic-Vietic tribal people. The Tibeto-Burman Dian culture in Yunnan influenced this AA (Austroasiatic) people, along with the transmission of the bronze drum casting industry. Tai-speaking people arrived in Northern Vietnam around 300 BCE. They conquered the AA and formed a new kingdom called Âu Lạc in c. 250 BCE. Collectively called Lac and Yue by the Chinese, they were the earliest recorded peoples of Southeast Asia.
Long Chinese domination
In 111 BCE, the Han dynasty of China steamrolled into northern Vietnam while hunting for remnants of the old Qin dynasty. Han Wu Emperor then decided he liked having a longer coastline along Indochina. He began more wars pushing further southward to control more trade between India and the rest of eastern Asia. This was one of the many cases where imperialism was driven by the promise of becoming stinkin' rich!
Chinese rule was initially lenient but soon became more intense with efforts to culturally assimilate the Vietnamese. Chinese authorities hiked up taxes and introduced marriage laws intended to turn Vietnam into a more patriarchal society and make it more amenable to political authority. The Chinese also tellingly considered their domination of Vietnam a "civilizing mission" aimed at helping the poor, backward barbarians of Vietnam realize the great exaltation of Chinese culture. Sound familiar? In response, the Vietnamese rose up against Chinese rule repeatedly over the centuries of rule. Most significant was the massive revolt led by the Trung sisters in 40 CE, who led an army against the Chinese in retaliation for their husbands' execution. As one does.
After the Trung sisters' defeat, the Chinese cracked down even harder. They purged the Vietnamese bureaucracy and filled it with Chinese officials, then indoctrinated Vietnamese nobles in Chinese cultural, religious, and political traditions. This eventually started to backfire, giving the Vietnamese more intellectual tools to resist the Chinese. The Vietnamese accepted many aspects of Chinese culture while still hating the Chinese overlords. Who woulda figured?
Although it often weakened, Chinese rule remained persistent throughout various dynasties. One of the most oppressive was the Tang dynasty, which made Chinese the mandatory language in Vietnam, and its administration fell into corruption and abusiveness. This sowed the seeds of the end of Chinese rule here, as the Tang dynasty's inevitable weakening led the resentful Vietnamese to rise up against Chinese rule repeatedly. As tends to happen.
Rebellions against the Tang were finally successful in 939 CE when Vietnamese warlord Ngô Quyền established himself as king of an independent Vietnam. At last, Vietnam would no longer have to be China's ass man.
China wanted Vietnam back, though, and their many wars to retake the region shook up Vietnam's politics and brought the Ly dynasty to the Vietnamese throne. The new dynasty's first ruler, Lý Thái Tổ, established a new capital at Dai La (modern Hanoi) in 1009 CE. The "centralized" part was vital since mandatory conscription of the Vietnamese population was essential to keep the Chinese at bay. In fact, the early Vietnamese polity was never a centralized state; it was argued by most historians as a sole mandala state, just like the Angkor Empire. The Vietnamese immediately expanded their kingdom in all directions and conducted a series of sea raids and attacks on neighboring Cham and Chinese port cities along the coast. They besieged Nanning twice in 995 and 1076, destroyed Indrapura in 982, and plundered Vijaya and Xiangkhouang in the 1060s.
The Lý rulers were devoutly Buddhist, which effectively became the state religion as rulers and nobility made pilgrimages, supported the building of pagodas, sometimes even entered monastic life, and otherwise took an active part in Buddhist practices. Buddhism gradually adopted Vietnamese characteristics, adapted to Vietnamese cultural norms, and mingled with Vietnamese traditions.
Alongside great religious building projects, the Lý dynasty sponsored the creation of dikes and canals along the Red River, making northern Vietnam one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the entire world. In other words, more rice! Yum. Agriculture had an almost religious significance to the Vietnamese during this period, and the rulers would symbolically plow a plot of land by themselves at the beginning of each year to honor the god of agriculture and set a good example for the peasants. This tradition also helped reinforce the legal idea that the king owned all land in Vietnam personally. The Ly king actively engaged in the slave trade. One Chinese report in 1176 records: "They sold up to 100,000 slaves that were brought from Southern China."
In 1225, the Trần family managed to take control of the Vietnamese throne through a political marriage. The new dynasty went all Game of Thrones to consolidate their rule by brutally purging loyalists to the old dynasty through mass murder. The Trần also reinstituted slavery for criminals, insolvent debtors, children sold by their parents, and prisoners of war.
While the Trần were busy with political struggles, Genghis Khan from Mongolia conquered vast swaths of Asia. His successor Kublai invaded China itself to establish the Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty. That was bad shit for Vietnam since China, already historically hostile to Vietnam, was now under the control of even more rabid conquerors. The first great invasion came in 1257, and the Mongols took the Vietnamese capital and destroyed it. Luckily for the Vietnamese, they had evacuated the city beforehand, leaving the Mongol-led Yuan with an empty victory. Vietnamese and Cham harassment and scorched-earth tactics forced the Yuan to withdraw. The second Mongol invasion in 1284 went much the same way. Counting the ouster of the Chinese, this marks the second time that the Vietnamese and the Cham had totally humiliated a great power.
The Mongols weren't done yet, though. In 1287, Kublai Khan sent 150,000 troops and an enormous fleet to support them in subjugating Dai Viet. The climactic battle came a year later at the Bạch Đằng River, where brilliant Vietnamese commander Trần Hưng Đạo had stakes planted beneath the water to trap the Mongol fleet. Just about all of the Yuan ships were then blown up with gunpowder by smaller Vietnamese ships. Lacking supplies from the fleet, the Mongol army had to humiliatingly withdraw back to China while being militarily dunked on by Vietnamese guerrillas the entire way. Vietnam is still justifiably proud of that victory to this day.
“”One translucent day I leave the city to visit my home, the land of Champa...
Champa blood still cascades in streams of hatred to grinding oceans filled with Champa bones.
|—Chế Lan Viên, a poet from South Vietnam.|
The Cham, the Khmer, and the Viet had clashed for three centuries, from 950 to 1220. After a peaceful alliance during the Yuan invasions, by 1312, the Vietnamese and the Cham turned from friends into foes. This marked the beginning of the Nam tiến, or "March to the South", where the Vietnamese started to conquer the way to the southern tip of Indochina. In this, their primary opponent was the state of Champa, inhabited by people of Malayo-Polynesian origin and Indianized culture. These wars were a long process lasting between 1360 and 1390. Over time, the Vietnamese displaced and assimilated the Cham as they extended their territory down the coast to the plains and foothills east of what is now Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
China comes back (briefly)
The wars against the Champa exhausted Dai Viet resources, and Vietnam entered a state of decline. In 1400, disaffected general Hồ Quý Ly seized the throne and instituted a series of populist reforms that alienated the nobility, like limiting the amount of land a family could hold and renting excess land by the state to landless peasants, and opening free schools in urban areas. Deciding that they would not stand for better policies for the peasants, Vietnamese landowners appealed to China's Ming dynasty to save them from the dreaded scourge of modernity. Using this as an excuse, China invaded and reasserted Chinese control in 1407.
The Ming proved to be the worst Chinese overlord of Vietnam by far. They systematically eradicated every trace of the Vietnamese past, reduced the Viets to effectively slaves, and used them to exploit the country's mines and forests solely for China's enrichment. The Ming also completely forbade any outward demonstrations of Vietnamese culture and made the people wear Chinese clothing, learn and speak Chinese, and practice the Chinese version of Buddhism.
One aspect of Chinese rule that eventually proved beneficial to the Vietnamese was firearms, as the Vietnamese had not developed such weapons before their introduction by the Chinese. Guns later provided the Vietnamese with a crucial advantage in finishing the Champa and completing their conquest of the south. In 1418, the Vietnamese finally rose up against Chinese rule in the Lam Sơn uprising, used guerrilla tactics to inflict severe losses on the Ming armies, and finally forced their withdrawal by 1428.
Early Modern Vietnam
Lê dynasty and the Vietnamese Golden Age
The second Dai Viet kingdom was founded by Lê Lợi, the man who led the great revolt against the Ming dynasty. The Lê dynasty came to power, along with its two Thanh Hoa clans, the Trinh and the Nguyen. King Lê Thánh Tông the Overflowed Virtue (1442-1497) conducted a series of reforms in the 1460s, established Vietnam's first centralized bureaucratic government, and instituted a census and tax system, and education and military. He also promulgated a new centralized legal code, borrowing heavily from Chinese bureaucratic principles and including progressive aspects like legal equality for women and restrictions against serfdom. In 1471 Thánh Tông destroyed Champa and captured its rich port cities. In 1479, he invaded Laos, sacking and occupying its capital Luang Phabang for five years. Vietnamese ships frequently clashed on the sea with ships from Malaysia and Ryukyu. Vietnamese products, such as porcelains, penetrated East Africa, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Japan.
Another thing Vietnam borrowed from China was its colonial policies. The Vietnamese used a system of military colonies in occupied Champa lands, where soldiers and landless peasants cleared a new area, began rice production on the new land, established a village, and served as a militia to defend it. After three years, the new village would be incorporated into the Vietnamese administration. This helped peasants acquire more land for themselves, but the nobility and elites still got the lion's share of the new conquests. Vietnam was bigger and richer, but its social stratification remained unchanged.
After Thánh Tông's death, the house of Lê gradually lost its power to the Trinh, the Nguyen, and the rising Mac clan. In 1527 Mac Dang Dung overthrew the Le and became king. The Trinh and the Nguyen rebelled and assisted the Lê fought against the Mac to claim the legitimate Vietnamese crown.
Between 1533 and 1677, the increasing power of the ambitious noble class resulted in a devastating civil war between the Lê dynasty and the Mạc family, splitting the country between North and South and killing tens of thousands. Wait, why does that sound familiar? Oh, and just to make history scream more, the Chinese supported the Mạc faction against the Lê to prolong the war and ensure that Dai Viet remained divided. What the fuck.
The wars weakened the Lê and the Mạc (as constant wars tend to do), and they were soon supplanted by the Trịnh and Nguyễn families, ostensibly both vassals of the Lê but independent in all but name. After they had driven the Mạc to the northern highlands, the Trịnh dynasty (allied with the Dutch) and the Nguyễn dynasty (allied with Portugal) fought against each other for 45 years, from 1627 to 1673.
Although the different factions in the civil war had expanded Vietnam's borders further, the civil war totally wrecked Vietnam and brought it to the brink of collapse. The country limped along for a bit until 1771. At that point, the Tây Sơn Rebellion broke out, which saw the Nguyễn family prevail entirely over the nominal Lê emperors and take the throne for themselves, another catastrophically violent bout of dynastic infighting that only ended in 1802.
The Nguyễn dynasty (and French problems)
Nguyễn Ánh took the throne after receiving foreign support in his wars. The most significant foreign partner in his quest for control of Vietnam was France, which in 1787 had signed the Treaty of Versailles (not that one) promising to support the Nguyễns in exchange for trading rights in Vietnam. Nguyễn Ánh renamed himself Emperor Gia Long and the country from Dai Viet to Vietnam.
Gia Long was a militarist ruler who followed the model of the Qing dynasty in imposing totalitarian lifestyle restrictions on the people and meting out harsh physical punishments to anyone who failed to comply. The old legal code that protected the rights of women and peasants went away, replaced by heavy taxation and state use of slave labor. Peasants had to participate in building lavish construction projects for most of the year with no pay save a small rice ration. Pretty shitty. However, Gia Long still allowed religious freedom. Catholic Christians and Muslims were treated equally to the Buddhist majority. The successor of Gia Long, Minh Mang, was a conservative ruler. Minh Mang rejected establishing relations with most Western countries, including France, the British Empire, and the United States of Andrew Jackson, who sent Edmund Roberts to Minh Mang in 1833. Under Minh Mang, Vietnam also invaded Cambodia and ruled it as a province for 30 years (1813-1845), as a joint protectorate with Thailand (1845-1847), and withdrew. These and more foreign adventure wars were a constant drain on the strength of Vietnam.
The most vexing problem was that of the French, who sent increasing numbers of traders, missionaries, diplomats, and naval personnel to Vietnam. The conservative Nguyễn emperors didn't appreciate having Frenchmen preach the strange religion of Catholicism to the people. Christian converts rejected the old Vietnamese ideals of class and society and often became the source of rebellions. When the Vietnamese government imprisoned some missionaries in 1843, the French reacted by sending an armed naval force to coerce Vietnam into reconsidering. After that, the French started eroding Vietnamese sovereignty.
By 1858, Vietnamese legal harassment toward Christians and missionaries gave the French a perfect excuse to launch a punitive expedition. Like always, the Europeans expected an easy victory over the "uncivilized" Southeast Asians. In reality, Vietnamese resistance was dogged, and the Vietnamese won a major victory when the French tried to capture the city of Da Nang. The French had also stupidly expected Vietnamese Christians to rise up in support of them, and they were distressed when that didn't happen. Still, the Vietnamese monarchy, through many decades of horrible oppression, had largely lost popular support and was unable to marshal any national resistance effort against the French. Play shitty games, win shitty prizes.
In 1861, business interests who wanted to benefit from Vietnam's natural resources convinced the government to redouble its efforts by sending many troops into southern Vietnam. By 1862, a series of bloody battles forced the Vietnamese monarch to cede the area around Saigon. This became the colony of French Cochinchina. France then moved to other parts of Indochina, establishing a protectorate over Cambodia in 1867. In 1883, the French stormed the city of Hanoi and forced Vietnam to also accept a French protectorate. Vietnam was joined with Laos and Cambodia to form French Indochina.
Resistance continued to French rule, most notably under the Cần Vương ("Aid the King") movement, which was only crushed six years later. During the uprising, they massacred tens of thousands of Vietnamese Christian converts in retaliation for perceived collaboration with the foreign occupier.
France almost immediately gobbled up Vietnam's land and redistributed it to French colonists, who formed the ruling class in Vietnam alongside Vietnamese-Christian collaborators. French rule was relentlessly totalitarian due to the fear of rebellion. Vietnamese were prohibited from traveling outside their districts without identity papers and were not allowed to publish, meet, or organize. They could be imprisoned at the whim of the local French administrator without explanation, and all Vietnamese could be forced to labor for the French without pay. The infamous "Hanoi Hilton" torture prison, used later by the North Vietnamese to brutalize Americans like John McCain, was initially built by the French to terrorize the Vietnamese.
Designating the Indochina colony a "colonie d'exploitation" in 1887, France proceeded to strip the entire region of anything valuable. First, French colonial authorities imposed high taxes on items the natives consumed until the natives couldn't pay anymore. Then France turned to Indochina's natural resources, strip-mining for zinc, tin, and coal while establishing rubber, coffee, and tea plantations. Land acquisition by French colonists also harshly impacted the Vietnamese peasantry. Vietnam became a plantation economy where French elites and many forced laborers worked to produce cash crops like tobacco and tea. By 1930, 57% of Vietnamese were landless laborers working on French plantations.
French efforts at education were almost nonexistent and often hostile to Vietnamese schools. Vietnam, which once had an enviable literacy rate for the time, saw literacy decline as a result of French rule. The education that did exist under the French largely targeted Vietnamese elites and successfully instilled Western-style humanist values in many of them. French rule had a significant cultural impact on the larger populace by slowly disseminating Western ideas and imposing a French code of laws and conduct.
As you can imagine, the people of Indochina didn't take this too kindly. Vietnamese revolutionary Phan Đình Phùng famously led an insurgency against French rule that lasted for decades until he died of dysentery in 1896; he persisted even after the French desecrated the tombs of his ancestors and held his family hostage.
Rise of nationalism
As in times before, the Vietnamese largely looked to their educated class for guidance during the foreign occupation. Scholar Phan Bội Châu was disgusted with the French suppression of Vietnamese intellectualism, and he spent the years from 1905 traveling throughout Vietnam to assemble other anti-colonial scholars. He was eventually forced into exile in China, but his writings and ideas led to the creation of Việt Nam Quang Phục Hội, the "Vietnamese Restoration League". Inspired by the republican ideals of Sun Yat-Sen in China, Phan abandoned his earlier support of monarchy and adopted a new fascination with democratic principles.
Phan's movement was given a shot in the arm by the advent of World War I. The French imposed even more crushing taxation on the Vietnamese to pay for the war, and they conscripted about 50,000 Vietnamese troops and 50,000 Vietnamese workers to serve in Europe. Increased oppression from the French inspired more anti-colonial revolts and sentiments in return. 1917 saw the Thái Nguyên uprising, the most violent anti-colonial uprising before the end, which started with an uprising in a French prison and escalated into guerrilla warfare across the countryside for more than six months afterward.
Rise of communism
Another consequence of French ideas spreading in Vietnam was the rise of communism, first realized in 1925 with the founding of the Hội Việt Nam Cách mạng Thanh niên, "Revolutionary Youth League". It was founded by Hồ Chí Minh, who had traveled the world while serving on a French vessel and attempted to win support from Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Conference for Vietnamese independence. Wilson was a racist bastard whose ideals of "self-determination" did not apply to non-whites, so Wilson naturally told Hồ to go fuck himself.
While Hồ was in Paris, he read writings from Vladimir Lenin and became an avid follower of communist ideas. In 1920, he even helped found the French Communist Party. To further his leftist education, he went to the Soviet Union. He studied at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East to be a true revolutionary leader. After that, he went to China to study under Mao Zedong and married a Chinese woman. Hồ Chí Minh was Mr. Worldwide.
He wasn't the only notable leftist from Vietnam, though. In 1927, Nguyễn Thái Học founded the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng (VNQDD), "Vietnamese Nationalist Party", on the principles of moderate socialism and independence from France. The VNQDD became increasingly ruthless in its fight against the French. In 1929, it assassinated a French official in charge of forced labor, resulting in a French crackdown that killed thousands. This more or less destroyed the VNQDD as a major factor in Vietnamese independence. In its stead, the Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was formed in the same year. It was then joined by two other communist groups.
Hồ Chí Minh was in Thailand then, and the Vietnamese communist movement asked him to return home and sort out the absolute mess of a revolutionary front. He took control of the ICP, absorbed the other movements, then drew up a platform based on Vietnamese independence and establishing a worker and peasant government that would redistribute land to the poor and provide free education to everyone. Basically, the platform was a response to all of the impacts of French misrule.
WWII and Japanese occupation
The signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression pact in August 1939 convinced France to ban all communist parties in its territory, including Vietnam. French colonial authorities began a crackdown, arresting an estimated 2,000 and closing down all communist publications. Weakened, the ICP had to move its operations into the countryside.
The French crackdown was halted by the Nazi invasion of their country that capitulated France in a handful of weeks. France became the fascist rump state of Vichy France, and fellow fascist power Japan "requested" to use French Indochina as a base from which to continue their war against China. Even under duress, the French gave unsatisfactory terms to the Japanese, so they simply invaded Indochina to take the whole thing by force.
For the most part, Japan left French authorities and legal structures in place since the ongoing wars against China and the Allies made the effort of fully occupying Vietnam too burdensome to deal with. Despite this, the Japanese did their best to pretend like they were "liberating" Vietnam from the French, a blatant lie.
Vietnamese resistance fighters organized the "Việt Nam Dộc Lập Đồng Minh", or "League for the Independence of Vietnam", to fight against Japan. It was more commonly called the Việt Minh. The US worked closely with resistance elements, even the communist ones, and Hồ Chí Minh even dared hope that the US might support independence for Vietnam once all was said and done.
With the war going poorly for Japan by 1945, they usurped French authority in Indochina out of suspicion that French authorities might betray them. The Japanese takeover was ruthless, with some 4,200 French soldiers killed, others executed in groups, and another 15,000 taken prisoner. Once the colonial elite, most French landowners also became prisoners of the Japanese. The incident destroyed French rule in Indochina, and the Việt Minh quickly and joyously began filling the power vacuum.
This also coincided with the Vietnamese famine of 1945, which killed some two million people due to wartime conditions and further radicalized the Vietnamese against the French.
Independence declared but challenged
“”Better to sniff France’s shit for a while, than to eat China’s all our lives.
|—Hồ Chí Minh on striking an agreement with the French.|
On 14 August 1945, the Việt Minh launched the August Revolution, seizing control of Hanoi and most of Vietnam's villages from the decaying French and Japanese administrations. Hồ Chí Minh then declared Vietnam's independence in Hanoi, promulgating a declaration that directly cited similar circumstances and stated ideals of the American Revolution.
This independence was immediately challenged by the arrival of Chinese troops sent to oversee the surrender and disarmament of Japanese forces. The anti-communist Chinese soldiers promptly suppressed the Việt Minh's leftist policies. British troops also showed up, even less friendly to the leftists. The Allies, including the United States, agreed that Vietnam and Indochina were to remain French.
Hồ Chí Minh feared Chinese domination more than the French and eventually negotiated an agreement to allow the French to occupy Vietnam in exchange for seeing the Chinese out. All those centuries of Chinese occupation left bad memories. Still, that didn't imply that the Vietnamese felt anything nice about the French. Clashes between the Việt Minh and the French escalated rapidly.
In late November 1946, French commanders attacked the Việt Minh's supply lines by bombarding the port city of Haiphong with heavy artillery, killing around 6,000 civilians as well. This atrocity enraged the Việt Minh and the Vietnamese public, sparking a series of retaliation that would culminate in outright war.
Anti-French Resistance War
“”Never before had there been so many foreign troops on the soil of Viet Nam. But never before either, had the Vietnamese people been so determined to rise up in combat to defend their country.
|—Võ Nguyên Giáp, general in the Vietnam People's Army.|
During the war against the French, the Việt Minh was initially ineffective on a military level due to their lack of weapons. The French mainly had air power and artillery advantage, and the Việt Minh were stuck using the old junk the Japanese had left behind. Thus, the fighting mainly consisted of rural insurgent actions by communist fighters in villages and remote French outposts. This initially worked in France's favor since they had sold the war to the public as a minor conflict that the French would eventually win. And that's how things went for the first four years.
In 1950, a few things happened to throw the advantage to the Việt Minh. First, Mao Zedong won the Chinese Civil War and recognized the Việt Minh as Vietnam's legitimate and independent government. Then the Korean War broke out, emphasizing the military nature of the conflict between the US and Soviet Blocs. By 1950, China and the Soviet Union were sending weapons in bulk to aid the Việt Minh and fuck over France as a US ally. The US retaliated by shipping weapons and cash to the French. France still had the firepower advantage but was bogged down in a slogfest fight against decently-armed guerrillas. Fighting escalated rapidly to a bloody mess, sapping France's appetite for war.
After three years of stalemate, the French command drew up a plan in which they would attempt to draw the Việt Minh into an open fight to crush them once and for all. This planned final battle would take place at one of the main French bases in Vietnam, Điện Biên Phủ. This seemed like a good idea to the French because Điện Biên Phủ was surrounded by rough, mountainous countryside with only one road in. The French could resupply by air, but the Việt Minh had no such capabilities.
The Việt Minh took the bait, sending 50,000 troops in a monumental effort to reach the French base, also carrying heavy artillery supplied by the Chinese. They also had anti-air guns. Instead of attacking the base as France had expected, the Việt Minh put it under siege and smashed it with artillery from the surrounding mountains while shooting down planes that tried to resupply it. The French garrison surrendered, losing a big chunk of France's military capability in the region and dooming the entire war effort.
In the end, the French failure happened for the exact reason as everyone else's failure in the region: total underestimation of Vietnamese capability and determination. The surprising part was that the United States was about to flawlessly repeat this failure on an even bigger scale.
Peace and partition
“”Let them burn and we shall clap our hands.
|—Madame Ngô Đình Nhu, First Lady of South Vietnam, referring to the self-immolation of Buddhist protesters.|
France finally sued for peace after the Điện Biên Phủ fuckup. Negotiations at Geneva had the daunting task of figuring out what a postwar Vietnam would look like. Although France had lost control of the northern portion of Vietnam, the South remained well in their grasp. Thus, the Geneva Conference chose to split Vietnam between the communist North controlled by the Việt Minh and the anti-communist South, in which the French would have power. They would be divided by a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
The partition was meant to be temporary, set to resolve after national elections among Vietnam's people. But the process was sabotaged. US delegates refused to deal with the Việt Minh or even speak to them, and the US and its quickly-made ally South Vietnam refused to sign the Accords. Due to mistrust from both sides, the planned elections never materialized.
South Vietnam became a dictatorship under its Catholic leader Ngô Đình Diệm, who purged opposition, gave favorable government positions to his family members, and ordered the murder and torture of thousands of suspected communists. A devout Catholic, Ngô turned his regime into a virtual theocracy, making Catholic conversion mandatory for individuals to get good government jobs or for entire villages to avoid forced resettlement. In one of the most famous photographs of the century, Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 as an act of protest. The Ngô regime retaliated by launching raids and attacks on various Buddhist religious sites across South Vietnam, killing and arresting thousands. This only prompted more resistance. The US eventually realized that Ngô was a bad leader and allowed South Vietnamese generals to have him assassinated later in 1963. This didn't do much to improve the quality of leadership.
Meanwhile, North Vietnam was a one-party dictatorship under Hồ Chí Minh, whose regime confiscated and redistributed land from wealthy landowners. Tens of thousands of landowners were executed, although this tended to be retaliation for allegations of abusive practices or even financially coercive rape. The government also became hostile to many other political opponents, like Catholic priests and missionaries, Buddhist monks, the urban wealthy, and academics. These people were sent to "reeducation camps" where they would suffer years of beatings, malnutrition, hard labor, and exhaustion. The economic efforts in the North, however, actually paid off with rice production increasing; by 1960, the North was able to mine its own coal, manufacture its own farm machinery, produce its own bricks and building supplies, build its own barges and ferries and generate its own electricity.
“”It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.
|—Unnamed US major tries to explain the bombing of Ben Tre village, which killed hundreds of civilians.|
“”In a war, to win a victory or suffer a defeat are common things. The essential is that we must win final victory.
|—Hồ Chí Minh at the Geneva Conference.|
North Vietnam also sponsored communist guerrillas in South Vietnam, who soon became infamous as the Viet Cong. The US, under the Lyndon Johnson administration, had finally had enough. Johnson used the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Incident, in reality, a simple rainstorm, to claim that the North Vietnamese had fired on US navy vessels unprovoked. The US Congress then passed the Gulf of Tonkin resolution to legally authorize direct US involvement in the Vietnam War.
The Viet Cong insurgency grew tremendously, especially after the US sent troops and planes. One of the most significant military activities was Operation Rolling Thunder. American aircraft flew more than 300,000 sorties over North Vietnam and Viet Cong targets, dropping 864,000 tons (more than 780 million kilograms) of bombs. Although the bombs killed tens of thousands of Vietnamese civilians, they did nothing to halt the Viet Cong.
In 1965, US troops arrived in Vietnam to protect the US and South Vietnamese military assets. Johnson always maintained that this was the only thing US troops were doing, but in reality, the US mission soon expanded into major engagements against the Viet Cong. Most infamous were the "search and destroy" missions. The idea was to send small units into the jungle near known Viet Cong hotspots, eliminate the Vietnamese they encountered, and withdraw again. The US military spent the lives of thousands of US servicemen without making a damned bit of difference. This strategy also involved searching South Vietnamese villages, further pissing off the peasants, and often provoked many American atrocities such as the My Lai Massacre. Since there weren't clear front lines against the Viet Cong, the US military determined its success based on dubious "body counts". The US had to stupidly relearn the lesson that the French had learned decades ago, that the Vietnamese cared not for how many of their people died as long as they protected their sovereignty.
"Search and destroy" missions became "Zippo missions" because American soldiers started reprisals against villages suspected of harboring Viet Cong even without evidence. This meant destroying food stores, burning homes, and poisoning water supplies. Despite this campaign of terror, the Viet Cong stayed strong. It's almost as if deliberately being cruel to a country's population turns that population against you. Who coulda guessed?
North Vietnam was also desperate for the war to end by 1968, thus prompting a plan for a "General Uprising," the Tết Mậu Thân, or the "Tet Offensive." Their reasoning was that a massive attack would destroy US morale and convince America's civilian and military leaders that the war in Vietnam could never be won. When it began in 1968, about 85,000 North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops attacked hundreds of cities throughout South Vietnam, including South Vietnam's capital Saigon. The attack achieved total surprise against the US and South Vietnam, representing the worst failure of US military intelligence since Pearl Harbor because of the sheer scale of the preparation work the North Vietnamese had to do, which somehow went unnoticed. North Vietnam proved to the US that it was capable of striking anywhere. While the actual military operations were a disastrous failure for the communists, they proved to be a huge political win. US withdrawal became inevitable, although the peace talks and the war dragged on for five more years under the Richard Nixon administration.
Reunification and aftermath
The US finally got their troops fuck out of there by 1975, having suffered a humiliating failure despite overwhelming military superiority. Armed with Russian weapons, the North Vietnamese crossed the DMZ to seize control of South Vietnam. The first invasion was a failure since the North was unprepared to fight a conventional offensive, and US air power was still defensively effective.
Still, it did leave the North in control of much of the northern provinces of South Vietnam. Then the US became distracted by the fallout from Nixon's stupid Watergate scandal, allowing the North Vietnamese to proceed with less interference. US leader Gerald Ford took no military action when the North stormed the South again. Instead of the long struggle that communist planners had expected, the South's armies panicked and fell apart without US air power to aid them.
Within two weeks of the final push, Saigon fell to the communists. Most of the city's leadership and government servants evacuated to US warships, leaving the city in total paralysis. The capture of Saigon was thus mostly peaceful, which was a good thing since the North Vietnamese had been prepared to smash it to the ground with artillery.
After reunification, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese men, from former officers to religious leaders to employees of the Americans or the old government, were hustled into reeducation camps without trial. Many remained in brutal conditions for many years. The good thing is that the North Vietnamese did not mass execute loyalists of the old regime as the US and South Vietnam had feared.
The postwar government faced the unenviable task of putting together a country where millions had been killed and brutalized throughout many years of war. Buildings and infrastructure across the country had been destroyed by bombs and fighting, and even neighboring Laos and Cambodia suffered their own Vietnam War-related catastrophes. Worst of all was the lingering impact of chemical defoliants like the infamous "Agent Orange", which the US had applied liberally to Vietnam's vegetation. This had caused horrible health problems in Vietnamese veterans and civilians and left much of the Vietnamese countryside barren and untouchable. Oh, and there was also the threat of unexploded ordinance across the country.
On the international stage, Vietnam was shunned by most Western nations, exacerbating food shortages due to trade isolation. It would later incur the wrath of China as well.
Wars with Cambodia and China
As the Vietnam War was wrapping up, one of the worst fucking regimes ever, ever, ever came to power in Cambodia. This was the murderous Khmer Rouge. It committed the Cambodian Genocide against its people by sending millions into the "killing fields" to be stabbed or beaten to death based on suspected political disloyalty. Others were tortured or murdered in camps. Pretty fucking evil.
The Khmer Rouge was hostile to all of its neighbors based on xenophobia and Cambodia's historical enmity with Vietnam and Thailand. As such, the Khmer Rouge started sending people to raid Vietnam just to fuck with them. This resulted in thousands of Vietnamese civilian deaths. In 1978, the Khmer Rouge escalated by committing the Ba Chúc massacre, murdering 3,157 civilians in mass killings.
Vietnam was truly pissed off about all of this. They assembled all of the military equipment they had captured from South Vietnam and invaded Cambodia to take down the regime and its leader, Pol Pot, using what can be best described as blitzkrieg tactics to overwhelm the inferior Cambodian military. Within weeks, Vietnam took Cambodia's capital and installed a puppet government. They stuck around to hunt down the remnants of the Khmer Rouge, who had retreated to a small area of northeastern Cambodia and, with explicit protection of the Thai government, would control it into the mid-1990s.
Pol Pot had been tight with China, though, so China launched an invasion of their own against northern Vietnam to help Cambodia. The Chinese military was smashed by the Vietnamese, who at this point was far more experienced in battle and had recently told two other great powers to fuck off. China was much bigger, but it didn't stand a chance.
Cambodia remained under Vietnamese occupation until 1991.
Đổi Mới reforms
“”By the mid-1980s, the development model Vietnam had borrowed from the former Soviet Union and its East European allies had revealed numerous flaws and was proving outmoded.
|—Hoang Anh Tuan, Political Counselor at the Embassy of Vietnam to the United States.|
In 1986, Vietnam's communist party responded to the country's economic troubles and involuntary diplomatic isolation by following the Chinese model of reforming into a market economy. These were called the Đổi Mới, or "Renovation" reforms. The Đổi Mới reforms were essentially forced upon Vietnam in exchange for much-needed loans by the IMF and World Bank. This is part of a pattern by the IMF and World Bank, forcing developing nations to liberalize their economies by engaging in mass privatization and deregulation, slashing social welfare programs, and in general, adopting a policy of austerity that benefits foreign investors and local oligarchs more than it does the actual people of the country being forced to liberalize.
There was also a political component to the reform plan, as the party phased out its reeducation camps alongside enacting reform to allow farmers to till private plots alongside state-owned land and encouraging the establishment of private businesses. The private sector quickly became a crucial engine of Vietnamese economic growth. In the 1990s, Vietnam accepted World Bank advice in liberalizing its market but refused to go so far as to privatize many of its state-owned industries. Perhaps the most significant component of the reforms was accepting foreign trade and becoming a manufacturing hub for foreign goods.
However, Vietnam didn't go fully capitalist at all. In fact, some aspects of its old socialist economy helped its economic boom too. Vietnam made huge investments into public education to create a skilled workforce, built infrastructure and even a public option for internet access and enacted policies to keep its economy inclusive for all classes and even women. With infrastructure and a good workforce, Vietnam became an attractive target for foreign investment.
Due to the Đổi Mới reforms, the gap between the rich and the poor in Vietnamese society has increased exponentially. For example, people now have to pay a "service charge" for social programs in Vietnam that hadn't existed before the Đổi Mới reforms. While the rich can afford this fee, the rural poor cannot, and as such many rural poor now go without access to much-needed social programs.
The safety net provided by the rural collectives has also disappeared due to the Đổi Mới reforms. This has led to an increase in vulnerability for the rural poor. The reason the rural collectives have disappeared is that they hindered productivity and income growth. Still, far too often, as is the case for capitalism, the human cost of this policy was ignored outright.
One of the most surprising aspects of Vietnamese history was its relatively rapid reconciliation with the United States considering the brutality and intensity of the recent war between them. The first agreement was to repatriate American war dead, and then the US started lifting sanctions against Vietnam in response to the economic and political liberalization reforms beginning in 1986. However, the most significant factor aiding rapprochement was the existence of a common adversary in China. Vietnam has historical reasons to strongly dislike China (just look at the rest of the page), and those tensions were exacerbated by China's push to claim vast swathes of Vietnam's territorial waters. The final steps began after Vietnam secured a peace plan in Cambodia, ending its occupation of the country and allowing Cambodia to reform into a constitutional monarchy without interference.
Since then, the Vietnamese coast guard has cooperated with the US navy on defense initiatives against China. In 2016, Barack Obama lifted the arms embargo against Vietnam, allowing weapons to be sold to the commie dictatorship and implicitly signaling that the US was open to forming an unofficial pact with Vietnam to stand against China.
Trade relations also help. Bilateral trade amounted to US$77 billion in 2019, and the US has become Vietnam's biggest export market. Vietnam is also the US' quickest-growing export market. These ties were further proven when Donald Trump started his dumb trade war against China, causing businesses to flee China in favor of Vietnam. Even big names like Nintendo and Google moved big operations to Vietnam.
Today, US-Vietnamese relations are less about war and more about whether the US slaps protectionist policies on Vietnamese trade goods.
Government and politics
Communist Party of Vietnam
“”There has never been a scientific and revolutionary theory like Marxism–Leninism. It is a 'comprehensively and logically tight theory which gives people a total world view and a theory that not only aims at understanding the world, but also changing it... Capitalism will certainly be replaced by socialism, because that is the law of human history, which no one can deny.
|—General Secretary Nguyễn Văn Linh, 1986.|
Vietnam is a one-party state ruled by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Alongside China, Laos, Cuba, and North Korea, Vietnam is one of the only countries in the world that claims to govern based on Marxist-Leninist principles. In reality, Vietnam has long since abandoned most tenets of that ideology regarding economics.
However, the CPV still has a stranglehold on politics in Vietnam. Referring to itself as the "vanguard of the Vietnamese working class", the CPV wrote its supreme status into Article 4 of the Vietnamese constitution. Its highest organ is the national party Congress, which is elected by party members and sets the agenda for the party as a whole. The Central Committee, however, is the party's most powerful institution. It appoints Politburo and Secretary leaders and can override other parts of the party and act independently to implement policy.
“”Vietnam’s election is a bad joke from a one-party dictatorship, nothing more than a ruse wrapped in red banners and propaganda statements to deceive the international community. The disqualification of just about all the independent candidates from the ballot shows that this exercise is not about democracy or accountability, but rather about continuity of the ruling Communist Party’s power.
|—Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.|
Vietnam's legislature is the National Assembly, which in theory is democratically elected. However, the Communist Party selects candidates for the body. The 2016 elections allowed just 11 independent candidates to run while the other almost 900 candidates were nominated by the Party and approved by the Party. Anyone calling for genuine democracy gets disqualified from running for elections by Vietnam's ruling party. Some independent candidates have reported receiving death threats and having their social media silenced by the government.
Still, the CPV runs publicity blitzes encouraging people to vote and calling it their "right and responsibility", although the candidate selection process ensures that elections make no difference. It's not surprising that the CPV controls almost every seat in the chamber.
Cult of Uncle Hồ
The CPV has gone to great lengths to build and maintain a cult of personality around the former leader and revolutionary Hồ Chí Minh. In Vietnam, he's "Uncle Hồ", the namesake of Hồ Chí Minh City (formerly Saigon) and the symbol of the new socialist Vietnam. He's almost become a saint-like figure in the Party's view, as his allegedly abstemious life and devotion to socialism are touted virtues that all Vietnamese people should share. On posters and artwork, his face is ubiquitous. By touting its founder as an unassailable perfect figure, the CPV aims to perpetuate its own legitimacy.
Oh, and like Vladimir Lenin, Hồ's body serves as a well-preserved quasi-religious relic sitting in a mausoleum in Hanoi. It's rumored that the corpse is a fake, and it doesn't help that the Vietnamese honor guards use dim lighting and a constantly moving line to ensure that photos of it are tough to get. The Party ensures that its guards are zealous in guarding the country's old leader, even if he is fake. Uncle Hồ's body is under 24-hour guard by riflemen carefully selected for their patriotism. The site is usually busy with Vietnamese civilians making pilgrimages to honor their country's founding father. Vietnam preserved Hồ's body by learning from the best, the Russians, and Russia still helps Vietnam keep the body in the best possible shape. That must be some job.
The funny thing is that Hồ specified in his will that his body should be cremated. Oh, well.
In 1995 the US and Vietnam began to kiss and make up, following the end of the Cold War and the Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia. Since then, the two nations have had closer ties. One reason is that China has claimed the entirety of the South China Sea as its territorial waters. The Chinese make this claim based on its historical presence in the region, although the sea borders modern Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Furthermore, China and Vietnam have had bad blood going back thousands of years. The result is that these countries are looking for some American muscle to deal with the Chinese, just in case.
Meanwhile, the US had been building economic ties with Vietnam and is looking for more regional allies for leverage against China. In 2009 the US Navy was invited back to Da Nang (the captain of one of the ships had been a Vietnamese refugee as a young child), indicating both nations might be more than happy to bury the hatchet. Some Vietnamese like to point out: "We have been at war with the US once, forty years ago. We have been at war with the Chinese for two thousand years now."
However, like its larger neighbor to the north, the Vietnamese government has been using the South Sea islands dispute to foster nationalism and distract citizens from criticizing its domestic policies. For instance, in May 2014, there were widespread anti-Chinese riots across the country, with tacit government support. The riots resulted in at least 21 dead and 600 arrests, and an exodus of foreign investors. Ironically, out of the 351 factories damaged by rioters, only 14 were owned by mainland Chinese firms, and the rest were largely owned by Taiwanese and South Korean firms.
Freedom of expression and assembly
Vietnam's one-party regime maintains severe restrictions on the internet and free speech. Internet censorship was further strengthened by passing a "cybersecurity" law that allows authorities to censor any content and obtain data from internet users without their consent. State and military companies dominate all internet content that is allowed in Vietnam. Vietnam prohibits independent or privately owned media outlets from operating and exerts strict control over radio and TV stations and printed publications. Disseminating anti-government material is a crime.
Vietnam continues to prohibit the establishment and operation of independent organizations, especially labor unions and political parties. Instead, all organizations of a political nature are run by the Party.
Critics of the government frequently face arbitrary arrest and persecution, and in 2018 Vietnam placed at least twelve people on trial for "conducting propaganda against the state" and sentenced them to between four and twelve years in prison.
Activists are also often the target of physical assaults by government-connected thugs, often within sight of uniformed police who do nothing. This typically occurs alongside official repression to create an atmosphere of fear.
As of 2020, Vietnam has intensified its crackdown efforts against dissent months before a planned communist party assembly to select the party's new leaders. In this crackdown, at least 150 people have been convicted of speech-related crimes and are now in prisons. Also, in 2020, Facebook agreed under Vietnamese government pressure to voluntarily censor dissenting posts from Vietnamese citizens.
Freedom of religion
Religious practice is discouraged by the government through legislation, registration requirements, and surveillance. Religious groups must register with the government and agree to have a government-run management board rule their affairs. These boards may arbitrarily ban religious activities and assemblies they don't like.
Religions that aren't registered with the government face police harassment and violent crackdowns. Others may face arrest for the "crime" of following an unregistered religion. Hmong and Montagnard Christians in Vietnam's highlands are regularly harassed, detained, or banished into the wilderness because of their religious affiliation. They are effectively stateless.
Vietnam is an extremely hostile environment for LGBT individuals. Although the government pledges support for them, legal protections are still inadequate, and pervasive myths about the supposed dangers of sexual orientation go unchallenged. On the good side, though, gay marriage is no longer banned as of 2016, although gay marriages still receive no official government recognition. Hanoi has also held multiple gay pride events without any government crackdowns. So that's nice.
However, homes and schools still teach young Vietnamese that being gay or transgender is a "disease" or "mental illness" that should be cured and treated. LGBT youth also face extreme, often violent discrimination from family members and members of the public.
Many LGBT children are forced to flee home due to fears of violence or even death, and they tend to have no recourse but sex work. These individuals, known as LGBT "street children", face hazards including irregular meals and sleeping places, lack of health care, threats of violence and harassment, and the potential dangers of HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
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