Inside Asia Tours: Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos

The history of Vietnam

For many years Vietnam became synonymous in the public consciousness with the American war of the late 1960s and early 70s. The conflict engulfed the entire region and rippled through international policy and relations for decades, but from a Vietnamese perspective was only one of a sequence of foreign interventions against which they had battled over many centuries.

Below is our attempt to provide some context and background to these events, and to introduce you to some of the more peaceful, prosperous periods of regional history that are often overshadowed by more recent events.

Ancient Vietnam

Ancient Vietnam was home to some of the world's earliest civilisations and societies, and its people were amongst the first to develop an agrarian society. The Red River valley in modern northern Vietnam formed a natural geographic and economic unit, bounded to the north and west by mountains and jungles, to the east by the sea and to the south by the Red River Delta.

The need to have a single authority to prevent floods of the Red River, to cooperate in constructing hydraulic systems, trade exchange, and to fight invaders, led to the creation of the first Vietnamese state in 2879 BC. Vietnam's peculiar geography made it a difficult country to attack, enabling the nascent state to develop for long periods of independence and in relative peace.

The arrival of the Han Chinese in 200 BC, however, heralded an extended period of foreign dominance that was to last for over a thousand years, as a succession of Chinese dynasties governed the region. During this period, several Indianised civilisations flourished in central and south Vietnam, particularly the Funanese and Cham.

Descended from Malayo-Polynesian settlers, the Champa people had resided in central Vietnam for many centuries, but the kingdom reached its zenith from the 7th to the 10th centuries, when it controlled the trade in spices and silk between China, India, the Indonesian islands, and the Abbassid empire in Baghdad. During this era Hindu temples were constructed at My Son, the UNESCO World Heritage Site close to modern Hoi An.

In the 10th century, under Ngo Quyen (939-944), Vietnam ejected the Chinese and regained its sovereignty, ushering in the first of a series of Vietnamese dynasties. Over the course of the next millennium power ebbed and flowed; the country was regularly beset by foreign incursion and civil war, but slowly the outlines of modern Vietnam took shape.

In the 15th century, during the Le Dynasty, the Champa kingdom was finally defeated, and the gradual Vietnamese southerly migration continued. The weakening of the Khmer Empire, who had controlled much of southern Vietnam, including the Saigon and Mekong Delta regions, enabled the further southerly expansion of the Vietnamese state under the Nguyen Lords, and by 1800 the borders of modern Vietnam were almost defined.

The colonial era

European influence, in the form of missionaries and traders, had been growing in Vietnam for many decades before ultimately becoming colonialist in nature. The French had initially supported the founder of the Ngyuen Dynasty in his campaign to unify the country, but as subsequent emperors adopted less European-friendly policies, the relationship deteriorated.

Under the orders of Napoleon III, Rigault de Genouilly's gunships attacked the port of Danang in 1858, causing significant damage, yet failing to gain a foothold. De Genouilly decided to sail south and captured the poorly defended city of Gia Dinh (present-day Ho Chi Minh City). From 1859-67, French troops expanded their control over all six provinces on the Mekong Delta and formed a colony known as Cochinchina.

A few years later, French troops landed in northern Vietnam (which they called Tonkin) and captured Hanoi. Following the Tonkin Campaign (1883-1886), France assumed control over the whole of Vietnam, and French Indochina was formed in October 1887 from the assimilated protectorates and colonies of Annam (Central Vietnam), Tonkin (Northern Vietnam), and Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam). These were combined with Cambodia and Laos in 1893.

World War II & the Democratic Republic of Vietnam

French control would last until World War II and the Japanese invasion of Indochina 1940. The period leading up to this saw numerous resistance movements spring up throughout Vietnam. Most were on a small scale and suppressed, but the growth of the communist movement was to have a more significant impact.

In 1941, a Western-educated revolutionary named Nguyen Ai Quoc returned to northern Vietnam to form the Viet Minh Front, which was a collection of anti-Japanese factions supported by the US and dominated by the communist party. On the defeat of the Japanese in August 1945, Nguyen, now known as Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed independence for Vietnam and the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The Vietnam War

National unity was short-lived however, with the returning French forming the southern State of Vietnam under President Bao Dai and commencing the protracted First Indochina War against the communist north. With the post-war international tide turning against colonialism, and following the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the French finally withdrew. Rather than heralding an era of unity and peace for Vietnam, however, division was formalised by the 1954 Geneva Conference. From this point, Ho Chi Minh's communist government ruled the north from Hanoi, while Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, supported by the United States, ruled the south from Saigon.

As a result of the Vietnam (Second Indochina) War (1954-75), Vietnam was unified under communist rule. During the conflict, the insurgents, supported by China and the Soviet Union, defeated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, supported by the US military.

Two years after the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces in 1973 and the Paris Agreement that officially "settled" the war, Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam) fell to the communists, and the South Vietnamese army surrendered on 30 April 1975. In 1976, the government of the reunified Vietnam renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City in honour of their wartime leader, who died in September 1969.

After a period of severe post-war economic hardship, exacerbated by conflicts with both China and Khmer Rouge-led Cambodia, a relaxation of communist ideology began in the late 1980s. Mirroring that of the Soviet Union and Deng Xiaoping's Communist China, this economic liberalisation enabled a gradual thawing of international relations and the growth of private businesses that has continued to the present day.