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History & Background
According to legend the kings of Vietnam are descended
from a Dragon Lord and Immortal Fairy, with the two eventually parting ways with
the mother moving to the mountains and the father to the sea; the two dominant geographic
features of the country.
Despite legends, little is known about the early history of the
Vietnamese people until about the 200s BC when Vietnamese kingdoms began
to emerge. These early people moved south from modern day China
into the region of Vietnam today. Among these early kingdoms were the Thuc and Trieu
Dynasties, however by the 100s BC the Chinese had come in and dominated the region.
Under the Chinese the people adopted many Chinese customs, but also refused to give
up the Vietnamese language.
In 40 AD the Trung sisters revolted again the Chinese and
to this day are considered heroes in the country, despite their failure in removing
the Chinese. From this point the Chinese strengthened their control over the people
and forced the nobility to adopt Chinese customs. This worked well as the Chinese
held control over most of the region until the 900s. Under this long Chinese rule
the people partook in trade, both overland trade into China as well as sea trade.
One people that gained independence from the Chinese were
the Cham peoples, who later established the Champa Dynasty and from whom the Vietnamese
language today is derived.
In 938 the Vietnamese gained independence from
China when they revolted then defeated the Chinese attack. However shortly
after gaining power the king died and the power struggles began. Little was settled
in these early years and in 1009 the Ly Dynasty (later becoming the Tran Dynasty)
took power, beginning the golden age in the history of Vietnam.
Under the Ly Dynasty the capital was moved to Thang Long (modern day Hanoi), shifted
the country's focus from military to economic, and completely changed the government
and tax systems. They also promoted Buddhism, although they allowed all religions.
In the 1100s the kingdom was at war with China in the north
and both the Khmer Empire and the Vietnamese Champas
in the south. During this time the shift also took place from the Ly Dynasty to
the Tran Dynasty as the two married each other.
The 1200s saw a number of Mongol attacks from
China, however these were again unsuccessful as the people and armies fled
into the mountains, hence trapping the invading armies. They also fought the Champas
to the south in the 1200s and 1300s, slowly taking lands, while also going bankrupt.
In 1400 the Tran Dynasty fell as Ho Dynasty took power, but this opened the door
to the Chinese and in 1407 the Chinese Ming Dynasty took
over the entire region. After numerous wars, this ended in 1428 as the Le Dynasty
came to power. During the latter part of the century the people took over the Champas
and the Laos.
In the early 1500s the king was again overthrown as the Mac Dynasty came to power,
but by century's end the Le and Trinh had taken over once again, although at
this point all power fell into the hands of the upper class, not the king. These
battles continued into the 1600s, which time with the Nguyen family, which essentially
divided the country into north (Trinh) and south (Nguyen).
The wars led to greater European intervention as the Portuguese supported the Nguyen and the
Dutch the Trinh. From this point on the Europeans gained a strong foothold
into the country, which before this was limited to trade along the coast and a limited
number of missionaries inland.
The 1700s and early 1800s were again clouded by war as there were uprisings, most
significantly in the south as the king had to flee to Siam (Thailand),
but returned to re-take his kingdom. In the north the kings were also overthrown
and the Chinese again got involved to assist the king to
regain control. During this time the country fell into chaos and opened the door
to the French.
In 1802 Nguyen Anh retook control of the south with French
assistance. Although he was friendly to the French, his successors refused French
interference, rejected Catholicism, and bulked at western technology. This lack
of technology and modern military weapons essentially allowed the French to take
over the region as a colony by 1886.
Under French rule in the early 1900s education was expanded and western thinking
was introduced; while this improved the country in numerous ways, it also threatened
French control as many young educated people wanted independence from
France. These movements, and the French resistance to them, led to numerous
political parties and extreme politics in nearly every direction arising among the
people in underground societies.
In 1941, with Japan presence in Vietnam,
Nguyen Ai Quoc (later known as Ho Chi Minh) organized numerous groups to fight for
Vietnamese independence. He was a communist though and his groups soon dominated
this force fighting for independence. During the war, this group worked with both
the Chinese and Americans to fight
Once the Japanese fell in 1945 the communists quickly took
power in the north. This was later revoked by the French
who had returned, but held little power at this point. It was also resisted by the
British and others who disagreed with the party
led by Ho Chi Minh. Eventually the French fell from power and moved out of the region
in 1954 after a military defeat. This led the United Nations to declare that the
country was two: a communist north and Ngo Dinh Diem's government in the south.
This led to civil war, but with much foreign intervention.
The Viet Cong in the north unified the people there under communist rule and allied
with the Soviets for support while the south allied with the United
States, making Vietnam another battleground in
the Cold War. After years of fighting, which began in 1954, a peace settlement was
written in 1973 allowing the south independence and free elections. This led to
the withdrawal of American troops and in 1975 led to the north's attack on the
south, taking their capital of Saigon, which they renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
After the communist takeover of the south hundreds of thousands of people fled as
the government tried to shift from a war-time mentality to nation building. Unfortunately,
this nation building was based on destroying the free market economy of the south
and this led to a complete economic collapse in the 1980s. It also led to continuing
violence as they invaded Cambodia (removing the Khmer
Rouge rulers) and this welcomed fighting with China on
a smaller scale. Finally, due to the war and the government's political stances,
they made few international allies.
The weakening economy led to a reversal of many collectivization projects and other
communist ideals in favor of a more open economy. It also led to a heavy reliance
on the Soviet Union to maintain their economy.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 Vietnam has opened its doors to a great
extent. Relations with numerous countries have been established, including the United States and many European
countries that cut ties in the 1970s and 1980s. The economy is slowly improving
and tourism is quickly growing.
Most ancient Vietnamese architecture was either built
from wood and has not lasted or was built by the Chinese,
most commonly in the form of tombs and other funerary monuments. Most of these monuments
are simple in architectural form and are most well-known for the furnishings found
in the tombs than are the tombs themselves. However, a couple of these wooden stupas
(1300s) have survived and are housed in the But-Thap in the town of Bac Ninh (near
Under the Le Dynasty architecture began to develop more aggressively, however the
greatest changes during this time were in urban planning, not in construction or
design. The goals during this time were to incorporate religious monuments into
the city plan and to make cities flow better from a visual and logistical standpoint.
Unfortunately, none of these cities survive in full today.
Alteration in design and style took a great leap with the Palace of Hue (1800s).
This building incorporated numerous traditional aspects and some Chinese elements
while modernizing and was considered one of the finest structures in
Vietnam before it was destroyed in 1968 during the Vietnam War.
Also during the 1800s the French had colonized the country
and began building numerous French-styled buildings. Although many of these were
destroyed later, numerous examples still exist in most large cities.
During the early 1900s traditional buildings were continued, most commonly in a
style that was closely related to Chinese styles. However
these, and many earlier works, were destroyed during the Vietnam War in the 1950s-1970s.
Since 1970 some more traditional appearing buildings have been built, but the modern
movement, along with the technology from this and earlier movements has arrived
in stronger force. Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are home to numerous modern building,
constructed from concrete, glass, and other modern materials.
Ethnicity, Language, & Religion
Most of the people of Vietnam are ethnically Viet or
Kinh. These people are most closely related to the people of southern
China and have a large number of genetic similarities to the Chinese, however
also have significant traces from the Mon-Khmer ethnic family and are related to
the Cambodian Khmers. There are dozens of other ethnic
groups in Vietnam, but no single group makes up more than 2% of the population.
Vietnamese is the only official language of Vietnam.
This language's closest relative is Khmer, spoken in Cambodia. The ethnic minorities
in Vietnam generally speak varying native languages as well, but can generally communicate
in Vietnamese. Chinese and Khmer are also common languages along the borders with
China and Cambodia respectively.
French was the most common second language, but this is slowly shifting to English.
Vietnam is one of the most atheist countries in the world
as over 80% of the people claim to be atheists. Among the last 20% of the population,
about half are Buddhist and the last half consist of various groups, with Roman
Catholicism being the largest of these.