Vietnam has one of the oldest historical records in Southeast Asia, a record that reflects a constant struggle for independence and against foreign occupation – against Chinese emperors, European colonialists, and even the United States.
The early Vietnamese - "Kinh" - settled in the Red River delta and began cultivating the land with irrigated rice patties as early as 1200 BCE during the Hồng Bàng dynasty. According to legend, Lạc Long Quân taught the early Vietnamese farmers how to cultivate rice, and by the sixth century BCE, they’d harnessed the waterways around them and built irrigation systems, canals and dikes. Grain cultivation brings people together, and urbanization means the development of artisans and crafts. In Vietnam, this meant complex silks, copper, and bronze tools and weapons. Especially impressive during this time are the Đông Sơn bronze drums.
But where there is prosperity, there is war. Vietnam has had since its beginning a complicated history with its northern neighbor - the various Chinese dynasties. Vietnamese people incorporated East Asian Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism (as opposed to the Theravada Buddhism of neighboring Laos and Cambodia), Chinese characters, Chinese concepts of land rulership, and – to the gratitude of historians – Chinese traditions of record-keeping. But this was all not just cultural exchange. Armies got involved.
Triệu Đà, or Zhao Tuo, was a Chinese general who conquered Northern Vietnam, but after the Chinese Qin Dynasty itself fell apart, he decided that he could become an Emperor himself. He founded the Nanyue or Nam Việt kingdom in territories that are now southern China and northern Vietnam. This raises the question: was Triệu Đà a Vietnamese emperor or a Chinese one? This is a good question – and a tremendously politically-loaded one. However, it is one for historians to solve, as Zhao Tuo's imperial ambitions came crashing down when the Han Dynasty defeated Nanyue and incorporated Vietnam into China. Whatever Triệu Đà had been, he wasn't it any more.
This was to be the first – but certainly not the last – period where the Vietnamese resisted an occupation. Chinese laws, especially ones that limited the power of women, chafed the Vietnamese, who had long incorporated the more matriarchal traditions of Southeast Asia. So it is unsurprising that women were the ones to rise up. In 40 CE, the Trưng Sisters stood up to the Han governor Su Dung. They led a successful revolt, taking sixty-five states in the name of an independent Vietnamese state. The eldest sister, Trưng Trắc, was crowned queen and the sisters maintained their power for two years before Emperor Guangwu finally had enough. He sent an army to recapture the lands and to take the sisters' heads. He never got those: following their defeat, the sisters committed suicide rather than be taken alive and humiliated by the enemy.
But the rebels persisted. In 225 AD, Triệu Thị Trinh, also known as Lady Triệu,or Bà Triệu, led a new rebellion. Although she was defeated, like the Trưng Sisters, her impact remained. Rebellions continued under leaders like Lý Bôn, although Vietnam was not to be independent until 938 CE. But in that first millennium CE, even under occupation, Vietnam flourished, and archaeologists have discovered trade goods extending all the way to Rome in Vietnamese sites.
After the decisive Battle of Bạch Đằng in 938 CE, Vietnam was independent, but unstable. The country seethed with civil war for nearly twenty years until Đinh Bộ Lĩnh founded the Đinh dynasty. Under the Đinh, the country was renamed to Đại Cồ Việt, or "Great Viet Land." Đinh established strict laws and worked to form alliances with prominent families, but his rule would only last for eight years before both he and the crown prince were assassinated. Song dynasty China, watching the drama unfold, decided to take advantage of the situation and invaded. Rather than the assassinated king’s six-year-old son taking the throne, Lê Đại Hành married the boy’s mother and took over, thus beginning the Early Lê dynasty. He defeated the Chinese attack via clever tactics (which Chinese records to not specify, but which led to the execution of all of the commanders and generals involved in the loss). After that, China gave the region up (for the time being), but this was probably thanks to the arrangement of tribute that Vietnam paid them than out of real fear. Why go through the trouble of occupying when you're getting regular paychecks?
Vietnam would remain independent for nearly five hundred years. Vietnam spread, too, down the coast from the Red River valley (Hanoi region) towards the Mekong Delta. This involved a series of wars against and conquests of other ethnic groups, including the Cham and the Khmer (Cambodians); indeed, in the Mekong Delta there are many ethnic Khmer, practicing their own version of Buddhism and speaking Cambodian today.
The Lý dynasty that followed the expansion southward laid the groundwork for Vietnam as it is today. It was a prosperous period that lasted four hundred years and involved a focus inward. The Lý wanted their economy to thrive, and to do that, they started by investing in their population – establishing, for instance, the Quốc Tử Giám, or “the Temple of Literature.” Education wasn’t limited to nobility, and, in a Confucian meritocratic system that would be recognizable from Vietnam to China to Korea to Japan, commoners could take exams to try to rise to positions within the government. This wasn't just a male-dominated system, either: the tax system was reorganized with women in charge of the collection. Religion took on a greater role in society during the Lý dynasty, particularly Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism.
This period was not without conflict, however. As the Lý dynasty gave way to the Trần dynasty, Vietnam faced both Mongol and (more) Chinese invasions, as well as a rebellion by the formerly conquered Cham people. These wars, coupled with the declining reputation of the Trần rulers, left Vietnam’s defenses open to betrayal. In the 1400s, General Hồ Quý Ly seized the throne and declared a set of bold and progressive reforms that weren’t popular with the feudal landlords. These nobles went to China’s Ming dynasty for help in restoring the Trần dynasty, and China once again took over Vietnam in 1407. Under Chinese law, Vietnam was once again pressured to adopt a more Chinese culture, and like before, Vietnam resisted. A wealthy farmer named Lê Lợi led the rebellion, ultimately succeeding and starting the new Lê dynasty (later succeeded by Tây Sơn and Nguyễn – this latter dynasty’s name was so popular that thousands of families changed their names to Nguyễn: now by far the most common Vietnamese last name!). The Lê dynasty was influenced by Confucian ideologies, which led to the introduction of new, more progressive laws. Education and expansion once more took precedence.
So, when Europeans began to appear in the 1700s, their efforts to spread Christianity was seen by many as a direct assault on the foundations of Vietnamese civilization. And, in a sense, they were not wrong - religion was indeed the pretext for Vietnam's colonial occupation. Because of the execution of French missionaries, the French (with Spanish allies) invaded southern Vietnam, took it, and held it. French advances persisted, and by 1887, France controlled all of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
French Indochina seemed to be constantly at war. France fought with Siam over claims to Laos, and when they weren’t fighting Siam, they were fighting Vietnamese rebels. And, just after the latest round of rebellions stopped, World War II began.
Here enters another figure on to the Vietnamese scene: Hồ Chí Minh. Hồ was educated in France, lived an early life working manual labor in the US and UK, and was an astute scholar of politics. Hồ began to sympathize with revolutionaries of all stripes: French, American, and Russian, and, in World War II, returned to Vietnam to fight against the occupying Japanese and Vichy French forces. After the war, Hồ read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, which begins with the oddly familiar line, “All people are created equal; they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. Indeed, Hồ, who had been assisted in his fights against the Axis powers in World War II by the Americans, briefly thought that the USA would support Vietnamese independence from France. In this, he was incorrect, and US support for French colonial occupation pushed Hồ’s Việt Minh movement, based in Hanoi, closer and closer to the Soviet Union. Vietnamese forces eventually defeated the French in the battle of Diên Biên Phu and ending the French occupation in 1954.
But Vietnam at the end of the war was split between the Soviet-backed North and the US-backed South. This split moved into open war almost immediately after independence, leading to an exchange called by the US the Vietnam War and by the Vietnamese, the American War. Hồ and the northern Vietnamese forces were victorious in this, and he established the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which exists still today. But immediately after the war came another – Vietnam invaded Cambodia in an attempt to oust the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. The Khmer Rouge were Chinese allies, and the war thus prompted (yet another) Chinese invasion in 1979. Somehow, after nearly a century of constant war, the Vietnamese repelled the Chinese forces – yet another act of resistance.