Vietnam history stretches back more than 2,000 years, perhaps as early as the Bronze Age. But, the history of Vietnam as a state dates only to about 250 years before the Christian era, when the country became known as Van Lang, and later as Au Lac. This was a short-lived state, as the Han Dynasty from China conquered all neighboring states, and ruled what is now Vietnam for 1,000 years. Most people from the United States probably recall Vietnam War history more than anything else, but the rule of China followed by another 1,000 years of independence provide much of the rich culture and the fascinating facts about Vietnam that we know today.
The history of Vietnam under China was one of near complete assimilation. Chinese became the official language, officials from China were brought in to govern, Confucianism became the major religion, and Chinese art, architecture, and music flourished. Revolts against this rule began as early as 39 AD. These revolts continued until the battle of Bach Dang River near Halong Bay. But China was to continue its major influence over the country and its people.
The Vietnam history of independence began in 939 AD during a period of upheaval in China. The capital city was established at Hanoi, which was centrally and strategically located on the Red River. It remained the capital for most of the history of Vietnam except for a brief periods when it was supplanted by Hue. In spite of independence and a rising sense of nationhood, the Chinese influence over all aspects of Vietnam life remained strong.
During this period of Vietnam history the nation, like its Southeast Asia neighbors of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, was largely agricultural, and based on the cultivation of rice. As in medieval Europe, the land was divided up among noble families who governed their lands as feudal lords. The country, under the rule of the Ly Dynasty. began expansions beginning about 1225 and became an economic and political force in Southeast Asia.
The southern tip of the Southeast Asia peninsula during all this time was the Kingdom of Champa, a seafaring nation that was a continual thorn in the side of independent Vietnam. Vietnam conquered this kingdom and its capital (south of what is now Da Nang) in the fifteenth century, and Vietnam War history has its roots in this tension between north and south.
France led a naval expedition to Vietnam in 1858, ostensibly to avenge persecution of Catholic converts. But the aim was also to facilitate trade with France. After much struggle, French Indochina was fully established in 1885. While Hanoi remained the capital of the country, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) saw a great surge in commerce during this French colonial rule. There was a great deal of resistance and fighting for self-rule, culminating in outright rebellion led by the legendary Ho Chi Minh. France hung on to its colonial possession until World War II, when the Japanese invaded. After World War II, all out war erupted. While many Americans remember Vietnam War history as the period after United States involvement, the French remember the period from 1946 to 1954.
A treaty at Geneva, Switzerland, led to the partition of the country at the 17th parallel—with the Vietminh under Ho Chi Minh in the north (establishing a communist nation) and the French and their supporters in the south. The United States sent military advisers to assist France in the ensuing struggles. By 1963, the French were ousted, the struggle became a battle against communism, and American forces were fully involved. This pivotal point in modern Vietnam history is what resonates most deeply with Americans. This bloody struggle ended with northern victory in 1975. Since then, the country has been established as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Reconstruction was long and difficult, and it is only within the last few decades that the country and its wonderful attractions have been opened to Westerners.
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