As Vietnam opens its doors to welcome the world at large, many people have no idea of the stunning visual beauty and traditional culture that Lie beyond the threshold. To many, the name Vietnam brings to mind only haunting images of a war-torn land in some remote corner of Southeast Asia, an image which continues to be exploited on the big screen and in print, and which remains deeply etched in the minds of all who found themselves a part of that war and its aftermath. Beyond such images lies the real Vietnam, a unique and fascinating land of great physical and rich cultural diversity whose history spans over 4,000 years.
Picture a land of idyllic tree-lined beaches, tranquil bays dotted with the sails ofjunks and sampans, offshore coral islands,mountains, valleys, primal forests, plains crossed by countless rivers and emerald rice fields enriched with the varied scenes of everyday life. The traditional rural life, embodied in the villagers tilling the land with rudimentary tools under their conical hats in the patchwork paddy fields, and children riding their water buffaloes home from the fields at the end of the day, contrasts dramatically with the sights, sounds and pace of the cities whose busy streets overflow with humanity borne along on a rising tide of bicycles and motor scooters. Such are the images of present-day Vietnam.
The country’s long history is an ever present companion; the land is imbued with it – sites of ancient battles, ancient civilizations and kingdoms which flourished in this enigmatic land long before the French colonialists, Communism and the tragic war of the more recent past.
The changing tides of fortune that have swept over this country and its people have left their mark, greatly emphasizing the contrast between past and present.
Much of Vietnam’s ancient past is shrouded in myths and legends of dragons and kings, heroes and heroines, gods and deities, brought to life in the present in the many colorful time-honored traditional festivals and rituals commemorating revered ancestors, who are worshipped alongside Buddhist,Taoist and Hindu deities in the thousands of temples and pagodas throughout the country.
In a traditionally agricultural country, so new to the concept of tourism that you have to expect the unexpected, you won’t be disappointed.
This article traces the complex history and culture of Vietnam and its people, introducing some of the many different faces and places of this fascinating country. Exploring Vietnam through these pages may help lend an understanding to the background and events leading up to the tragic war and its aftermath and provide some insight into the diverse cultures and customs of its people.
How Vietnam Was Named
To many people the name Vietnam conjures up images of war in some remote comer of Southeast Asia, yet few know the significance of the name, even though the war with its interminable sequels, has brought the country and its people to the forefront of the world scene for more than half a century.
The first national name of Van Lang was given to Vietnam by the Hung or Lac ethnic group, inventors of the wet rice cultivation technique and bronze drums still used today by the Muong minority. The Lac were followed by the Au or Tay Au who arrived from the Chinese province of Kwang Si. The two peoples integrated and formed the new kingdom of Au Lac. Following them came the Viet or Yue, an ethnic group who emigrated from the coastal provinces of ancient China towards the 5th century B.C. Together with the other ethnic groups of the Each Viet (100 Viet Principalities) they began their Long southward march towards the Indochinese peninsula which continued for more than 15 centuries.
The name Vietnam came about when Emperor Cia Long wanted to rename the country Nam Viet. Seeking the Chinese emperor’s approval of the new national name, Cia Long sent his Ambassador, Le Quan Dinh, to China in 1802. Le Quang Dinh addressed the Emperor as follows: The new King of the Nguyen has succeeded in realizing under his rule, what the former reigns of the Tran and Le could not – the reunification of the old land of An Nam and the new land of Viet Thuong. Consequently, we would like to ask your permission to change the ancient name of An Nam to Nam Viet.
After consulting his court, the Chinese Emperor decided that the hame Nam Viet would bring to mind Trieu Da’s ancient kingdom of Nam Viet Dong which had included the two Chinese provinces of Guang Dong and Kwang Si, and therefore the proposed name of Nam Viet could lead to misunderstandings or even conceal territorial ambitions. The problem was solved by simply reversing the order of the two words to Viet Nam.
Viet Nam means the Viets of the South (Nam) or the south populated by the Viet the main ethnic group in Vietnam.
Etymologists and anthropologists have defined the origins of the Viet people by separating the components of the calligraphy for Viet, or Yue, as it is known in Mandarin. On the left side of this ideogram is a character pronounced tau in Vietnamese, meaning to run. On the right is the complementary component pronounced Viet, with the meaning and profile of an axe. This component carries with it the particle qua, which signifies a lance or javelin.
This small ideographic analysis depicts the Viet as a race known since antiquity as a migratory, hunting people, perpetually moving and spreading beyond their frontiers of origin, carrying bow and arrow, axe and javelin.
The word Viet is the Vietnamese pronunciation of a Chinese character meaning beyond or far. It also has the sense of “to cross”, “to go through”, “to set onself right”. The character Nam, meaning South, probably served to differentiate between the Viets in the North who remained in China and those who had left and headed South.
The name Viet referred to the territories located in the south of China during the 11th century B.C. These were so named by the Zhou dynasty (1050-249 B.C.).
Marco Polo skirted the coast of Vietnam in 1292. The name Caugigu which corresponds to Ciao Chi Quan, (Vietnam’s name under the Han Dynasty, III B.C.-203 A.D.) appears in his writings The Wonders of the World. This name was transformed to Kutchi by the Malays then Kotchi by the Japanese. The Portuguese in turn named it Cauchi Chine, (the Cauchi obedient to the Chinese), to distinguish it from Cauchi or Kutchi in India, also known as Cochin. These names when written or pronounced in the occidental manner evoked a far more ancient name, Cattigara, which first appeared on one of 14 maps drawn by Ptolemy, the famous Creek mathematician and geographer. These maps were used by the Roman conquerors and Arab navigators, then by Ptolemy himself on his voyage to the Indies and Southeast Asia. The terminating point of these voyages was the maritime port located in Southern Indochina at Oc Eo in the pre-Cambodian Kingdom of Funan, (Phu Nam in Vietnamese) which occupied large areas of present-day South Vietnam and Cambodia from the Ist to the 6th centuries A.D. This kingdom twice came under Indian influence – during the 1 st century B.C. and at the end of the 5th and early 6th centuries A.D. This advanced agricultural civilization cultivated rice, beans, cotton, raised pigs, sheep and elephants, and worshipped Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Archaeological discoveries suggest that the kingdom had to struggle constantly against the flooding of the low-lying Mekong delta area. Many remains of this ancient culture probably lie buried under alluvium deposited over the centuries. An ironwood statue of Buddha, today in Saigon’s National Museum, discovered here in 1937, attests to the high level of Funan’s artistic development. Excavations carried out in the Oc Eo area in My Lam village, Kien Hoa district by the French produced a quantity of artefacts of an impressive quality. Oc Eo appeared as the early capital of Funan and an import center of trade, with sea-links as far reaching as Rome, Persia, India, Burma and China. Evidence of this trade came to light when archaeologists unearthed a great number of artefacts at the site of Cc Eo. Among the findings were a great number of gold Roman coins; Greek, Indian and Chinese objects, including a gold medal bearing the effigy of Anthony the Pious dating from 152; Hellenic coins and seals; Indian rings; Burmese jade; Chinese pearls and jewellery; and Chinese bronzes of the later Han period. The Funan kingdom in exchange exported gold, silver, bronze, copper, lapis lazuli, mother-of-pearl, silk, cotton, sandalwood, rhinoceros horn, ivory and colorful parrots. The Oc Eo civilization was renowned for its crystal glass and beautifully crafted jewellery, and it remains a mystery why this highly developed
kingdom collapsed and was swallowed up by the pre-Khmer Chan La Empire during the 7th century A.D.
Since the earliest antiquity, the Indochinese peninsula has played a major role in international trade relations and migrations, forming the link between India and China, which explains the name Indochina, first coined by the Danish geographer, Konrad Malte-Burn (1775-1826) in his Universal Geographic. Vietnam’s central and strategic geographical position in Southeast Asia is of great importance. It has been used in turn by the world’s great powers, much to the detriment of the independence and freedom of the Vietnamese people.
|In the course of its long history Vietnam has been|
known by many different national names:Van Langunder the 18 Hung or Lac-Vuong kings (500
B.C. to 257 b.C.)
Au Lac under the Thuc Dynasty (257 B.C. to 207 B.C.)
Nam Viet under the Trieu Dynasty (207B.C. to 111 B.C.)
Giao Chi under the early Chinese Han Dynasty (203 to 544)
Van Xuan under the early Ly Dynasty (544 to 603)
An Nam under the Chinese Tang Dynasty (603 to 939)
Dai Viet under the Ngo dynasty (939 to 967)
Dai Co Viet under the Dinh Dynasty and its successors (968-1054)
|Dai Viet under the later Ly and Tran Dynasties (1054-1400)|
Dai Ngu under the Ho Dunasty (1400-1407
An Nam under the Tran and Chinese Ming Dynasties (1407-1428)
Dai Viet under the Le and Nguyen Dynasties (1428-1802)
Viet Nam under Emperor Gia Long in 1802.
Dai Nam under Emperor Minh-Mang in 1832 and his successors.
Viet Nam renamed in April 1945 by the National government headed by Tran Trong Kim.Under the French colonial administration, North Vietnam became known as Tonkin, the Centre as Annam and the South as Cochinchina.
4,000 Years of Unchartered Fortune
Vietnam’s ancient history reads like a book of legend with many pages torn or missing, due to a lack of early historical records, many of which were destroyed as its history was in the making. Like any ancient nation, Vietnam’s earliest history has been generously embellished with legend and fairy tales, rather daunting to the Western understanding. However, by combining Chinese and Vietnamese historical records, Vietnamese folklore and recent archaeological discoveries, some of the missing pages have come to light.
In ancient times, Eastern cosmogony viewed the world through the concept of The Five Elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth, or Nghu Han, which represents Five Regions: the Center, the South, the North, the East and the West. The Center was represented by the earth and the color yellow, the South by fire and the color red, the North by water and the color black, the East by wood and the color green, the West by metal and the color white. The first threads of Vietnam’s history are inextricably intertwined with the history of China.
At the source of the legend: The Han and the Viet
From time immemorial, akingdom reigned in the heart of the Asian continent. Known as the Middle Kingdom or Chung Hoa, its power center was located in the Five Mounts (Ngu Linh) Territory. It was peopled by many races, the two major being those of the Han and the Viet. Unlike the homogeneous Han, the Viets incorporated hundreds of tribes and were known as the Pac Yeuh (One hundred Yeuh) or Each Viet, whose chief ruled the Five Mounts Territory. The Viets settled south of the Yellow River and developed an agricultural culture, whereas the Han in the northwest became expert in hunting and battle skills.
The Five Mounts Territory of the Middle Kingdom was ruled by three consecutive chiefs: Toai Nhan – who discovered fire; Phuc Hi – who discovered the I Ching and domesticated wild animals; and Shen Nong – who cultivated wild plants for domestic use and taught his people to grow rice. By the end of Shen Nong’s era the Han had invaded the Five Mounts territory and occupied the highest mount, Thai Son.
Their chief proclaimed himself Hwangdi, the Yellow Emperor of the Center, in accordance with the Five Elements concept. Hwangdi inherited the heritage of the Tam Hoang, Three Yellows era, which his invasion of The Five Mounts Territory ended. He referred to the Viets settled in the South as the southern barbarians, Nam Man. The Viets fled to the south where their chief proclaimed himself Viem De, the Red Emperor of the South, and named their territory Xich Qui, the territory of the Red Devils. This marked the first Viet exodus from Chung Hoa, the Middle Kingdom. The Viets regarded themselves as descendents of the first three chiefs of China’s Three Yellows era. The last of the three, Shen Nong, is the direct Viet link.
According to Vietnamese historical folklore, De Minh, a third generation descendent of Shen Nong, fled to the southern territory of the Five Mounts and married Princess Vu Tien. Their son, Loc Tuc, became king of the south and called himself Kinh Duong Vuong, King of the Kinh and Duong Territory. He married one of the daughters of Dong DinhQuang, a king from the lake of Dong Dinh territory. Their son, Sung Lam, succeeded his father to become Lac Long Quan, meaning the Lac Dragon.
The Quasi-Legendary Epoch and Hoa Binh Civilization
Vietnam’s National Annals tell of the marriage between King Lac Long Quan, the Dragon Lord of the Mighty Seas, and the beautiful Princess Au Co, descendant of the Immortals of the High Mountains, the daughter of King De Lai. Their union gave birth to one hundred sons and the Kingdom of Each Viet, whose principalities extended from the lower Yang Tse Kiang to the north of Indochina. The Kingdom prospered, but the Lord of the Dragon and the Princess of the Mountains, convinced that the difference in their origins would always deny them earthly happiness, decided to separate. Half the children returned with their mother to the mountains, the others followed their father and established themselves beside the eastem sea.
The symbolism of Lac Long Quan’s descendancy from the Dragon Lord and Au Co from the Immortals, holds significance for the Vietnamese as the Dragon symbolizes yang and Immortal is the symbol for ying. Thus the Vietnamese believe they are the descendents of Tien Pong, the Immortal and the Dragon, and these symbols constitute their earliest totems.
Civilized norms governed early relations between the Han Court and the Viet kingdom. The Chinese historian Kim Ly Tuong recorded that in the Fifth Year of Dao Duong, Emperor of the Yao dynasty (236 1 B.C.), the Viet Thuong kingdom sent a diplomatic delegation to the Han court and offered a “sacred turtle” (Linh Qui) as a friendship present. The turtle was thought to be a thousand years old and its shell was covered with precious inscriptions in hieroglyphics. It was learnt later that Emperor Yao transcribed all these inscriptions into a vade-mecum, which he then called the “Calendar of the Sacred Turtie”
The southern Viet kingdom of Xich Qui was divided into one hundred principalities, each one governed by one of the 100 sons. In 2879 B.C. the eldest son was crowned King of Lac Viet. He named himself King Hung Vuong and Lac Viet was renamed Van Lang. His Kingdom of Van Lang was the most powerful and comprised most of present-day North Vietnam and the north of Central Vietnam.
The kingdom of Van Lang prospered during the first millennium B.C. under the rule of eighteen successive Hung kings who formed the dynasty of Hung Vuong. His capital was founded in present day Vinh Phu Province which was then divided into fifteen provinces. At this time a certain King Thuc Phan governed the neighboring kingdom of Au Viet, another Viet tribe, to the north of Van Lang. His desire to bring about a marriage between his daughter and Hung Vuong’sson was not shared by Hung Vuong who scornfully rejected the proposal. The hereditary hatred this rebuff bred betweenthe two Viet dynasties led to conflict and eventually, in 25 8 B.C., during the rule of the rather weak 18th king, the destruction of Van Lang.
Under the title of King An Duong Vuong, Thuc Pham established the new kingdom of Au Lac and installed his capital at Phuc An where a spiral citadel was built. The remains of the citadel can still be seen to this day in the village of Co Loa to the west of Hanoi in North Vietnam.
Fifty years later, the kingdom fell into the hands of the northern hordes of an ambitious general, Trieu Da from the South of the Middle Kingdom. After vanquishing the other Chinese generals, Trieu Da founded the independent kingdom of Nam Viet, which included much of present-day Southern China. He proclaimed himself king in 208 B.C. and founded the Trieu dynasty which lasted until the 3rd century B.C. His capital was located near present day Guangzhou.
Under the Trieu dynasty Nam Viet progressively entered the Chinese sphere of influence. In exchange for periodic tributes to the Court of the Han Emperor, Nam Viet received protection against foreign invasion. This period was marked by continual intrigues, including a plot aimed at seizing Nam Viet led by a Chinese Emperor, which was exposed and denounced. Less than a century later, in the year 3 B.C., the Han Emperor Wudi sent his mighty armies to conquer Nam Viet. Despite the defending army’s fierce resistance Nam Viet finally fell into the hands of the Han invaders.
It is generally believed that with the decline of the Hung Vuong Dynasty and the ensuing decades, came the fusion of legend with known history in which much of Vietnam’s ancient history has been recorded.
The Period of Chinese Domination
The first Chinese occupation lasted from 3 B.C. until A.D. 42. After Trieu Dau’s defeat the country became a Chinese protectorate under the new name of Giao Chi. Highly qualified administrators were appointed as governors to rule the country, but their endeavors to introduce Chinese literature, arts and agricultural techniques met with fierce resistance from the Vietnamese. Greatly frustrated by decades of Chinese influence and culture, the Vietnamese not only guarded their national identity but fought fiercely to preserve it.
Finally, in 39 A.D., the oppressive rule and injustices of a cruel governor, To Dinh, provoked the victorious armed revolt against the Chinese authorities led by two sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi. Their reign, however, was short-lived. Three years later, the better generals and arms of the Chinese Han armies saw to their downfall and the country was once more subjected to Chinese control. The fall of the Trung sisters marked the second period of Chinese occupation which lasted until 543. During this time Nam Viet was administered as a Chinese province and a campaign was launched against the Kingdom of Champa in the south.
This period of Chinese occupation ended abruptly when a scholar named Ly Bon led an armed revolt and succeeded in chasing out the Chinese authorities. Ly Bon took control of the territory and founded the Ly Dynasty which lasted until the Chinese once again regained their supremacy in 545. The particularly troubling era that followed was marked by frequent outbreaks of violent battles between the Chinese and the Vietnamese. It ended with the third period of Chinese occupation which lasted from 603 until 938. During this time the Chinese made concerted efforts to establish their culture and civilization in Nam Viet, which they renamed Annam. However, numerous insurrections broke out despite the solid administrative structure imposed by the Chinese government of the Tang Dynasty.
The Great National Dynasties:
The Nge Dynasty (939-967): Disorder accompanied the decline of the Chinese Tang Dynasty, giving the Vietnamese the chance they had long waited for. In a protracted war which ended with the celebrated battle of Bach Dang, General Ngo Quyen vanquished the Chinese invaders and founded the first National Dynasty in 939. Ngo Quyen then decided to transfer the capital to Co Loa, the capital of the Au Lac Kingdom, thus affirming the continuity of the traditions of the Lac Viet people.
Ngo Quyen spent the six years of his reign fighting the continual revolts of the feudal lords. At his death in 967, the kingdom fell into chaos and became known as the land of “Thap Nhi Su Quan”, the twelve feudal principalities constantly fighting each other. For more than twenty years, the country remained fragmented and the external threat from the Song dynasty loomed large on the Northern horizon.
The Dinh Dynasty (968-980): The most powerful of the twelve feudal lords, Dinh Bo Linh, rapidly ruled out the others. He reunified the country under the name of Dai Co Viet and took the imperial title of “Dinh Tien Hoang De” (The First August Emperor Dinh). Well aware of the new Chinese Song dynasty’s military might, Dinh Bo Linh negotiated a non-aggression treaty in exchange for tributes payable to the Chinese every three years. This set the foundation of future relations with China which were to last for centuries.
On the domestic front, Dinh Tien Hoang established a royal court and a hierarchy of civil and military servants. He instated a rigorous justice system and introduced the death penalty to serve as a deterrent to all who threatened the new order in the kingdom. He organized a regular army divided into ten Dao or military corps. Security and order were progressively re-established, inaugurating a new era of “Thai Binh” (peace).
However, Tien Hoang’s reign was not to last long. He was assassinated in 979 by a palace guard, who, according to the Annals, saw “a star falling into his mouth” – a celestial omen heralding promotion. The heir to the throne was only six years old and could no way stand firm against the mounting intrigues of the court.
The Early Le Dynasty (980-1009): With the Queen Mother’s blessing, Le Hoan dethroned Dinh Bo Linh’s heir and proclaimed himself King Le Dai Hanh. He retained the capital in Hoa Lu and succeeded in warding off several Chinese invasions by the Song Court, but continued paying them tributes every three years in exchange for friendly relations.
With peace assured on the northern border, he decided to pacify the South. In 982, Le Dai Hanh launched a military expedition against the Champa kingdom, entered Indrapura (present-day Quang Nam) and burnt the Champa citadel. The conquest of this northern part of the Champa Kingdom brought about a marked Cham influence on Vietnamese culture, particularly in the fields of music and dance.
Le Dai Hanh’s reign marked the first attempt to consolidate the Viet nation. He devoted a great deal of energy to developing the road network in order to better administer the country’s different regions. However, the local forces were still reluctant to toe the line to the central authority and mounted a succession of revolts. In 1005, after 24 years of difficult rule, Le Dai Hanh died. In the ensuing period, the famous monk, Khuong Viet managed to establish the Buddhist religion as a stabilizing pillar of the Kingdom. The Tien Le dynasty eventually collapsed after the death of one of Le Dai Hanh’s heirs in 1009.
The Ly Dynasty (1009-1225): The Ly, who reigned over the country for more than two centuries, were the first of the great national dynasties. Ly Cong Uan was a disciple of a famous monk, Van Hanh, who helped him to power in the Hoa Lu Court. Assuming the name Ly Thai To, the new sovereign inaugurated his dynasty with a change of capital. The Annals mentioned that King Ly Thai To saw the apparition of an ascending dragon on the site of the future capital and decided to name it Thang Long (Ascending Dragon). In 1054, one of his successors, King Ly Thanh Ton, rechristened the country Dai Viet.
During the Ly dynasty, Buddhism flourished as the national religion. Buddhist masters, who acted as “Quoc Su”, supreme advisors, assisted the Ly kings in their rule. Several Ly Kings – Thai Tong, Anh Tong and Cao Tong – led the Buddhist sects of Thao Duong and founded some 150 monasteries in the region of Thang Long.
Under the impulse of Confucian administrators, the Ly dynasty consolidated the monarchy by setting up a centralized government and establishing a tax system, a judiciary system and a professional army. Important public works, including the building of dikes and canals, were undertaken in order to develop agriculture and settle the population.
The monarchist centralization endowed the King with three roles: absolute monarch and religious chief of the Empire; mediator between the people and Heaven; and father of the nation. Meanwhile, the mandarinat became an institution composed of six departments: staff, finances, rites,justice, armed forces and public works.
In 1070 a National College was founded to educate future mandarins. Knowledge of the Confucian classics plus the mastery of literary composition and poetry were the main requirements of the rigorous three year course which culminated in a very competitive diploma examination.
The Tran Dynasty (1225-1400): An ambitious commoner, Tran Canh, married the Ly dynasty’s last Queen, Chieu Hoang. He shrewdly plotted and manoeuvred his way to power and finally founded the Tran Dynasty; During this period, Buddhism, which had become predominant under the Ly Dynasty, continued to play an important role, but was subsequently weakened by its co-existence with Confucianism, Taoism andvarious other popular beliefs and customs. The century old competitive examination system introduced during the first period of Chinese occupation underwent draconian revisions. An administration incorporating both the reigning King and the heir to the title of the previous reign was officially adopted to ensure its continuity and prevent any dispute between the two families.
The Tran Dynasty is renowned for its brilliant military victories, especially that carried off by the King’s brother, Tran Hung Dao, against Kublai Khan’s much larger Mongol armies on the Bach Dang River. Another historic event in the course of that reign was the King’s sister’ s – Princess Huyen Tran’s – marriage to the King of Champa in 1307. The marriage extended the national territory southwards with the peaceful annexation of the Hue region and at the same time inaugurated the politics of diplomatic marriage.
The Ho Dynasty (1400-1428):The King’s marriage to the aunt of aminister, Le Qui Ly, was to prove a fatal move for the Tran Dynasty. Taking full advantage of his aunt’s union, Le Qui Ly shrewdly manoeuvred his way to power. He finally assumed control of the kingdom and founded a dynasty under his ancestral name of Ho. During his reign the army was reorganized and reinforced. Taxes were revised and ports opened to trading ships which were obliged to pay taxes. Under a new fiscal system, coins were taken out of circulation and replaced with bank notes. Restrictions were imposed on land ownership. In the administrative domain, Ho introduced the extension of royal appointments to his loyal servants. The competitive examination system for administrators was modified to demand more practical knowledge of peasant life, mathematics, history, the Confucian classics and literature. Legal reforms were undertaken and a medical service established.
Well aware that Ho had usurped the throne, the Chinese Ming Emperor sent 5,000 soldiers into the country under the pretext of helping the movement faithful to the Tran Dynasty.
The Ming intervention provoked the fall of the Ho Dynasty in 1407. During the short period of Chinese occupation that followed, the Vietnamese suffered the most inhuman exploitation.
The Chinese resolutely strove to destroy the Vietnamese national identity. Vietnamese literature, artistic and historical works were either burnt or taken to China and were replaced by the Chinese classics in all the schools. The Chinese dress and hair style were imposed on the Vietnamese women; local religious rites and costumes were replaced or banished; private fortunes were confiscated and taken to China.
The Late Le Dynasty (1428-1776): The oppressed people found a new leader in the person of Le Loi, a man renowned for his courage and generosity. Under the title, Prince of Pacification, he organized a resistance movement from his village and waged a guerrilla war against the enemy. By employing a strategy of surprise attacks targeting his adversary’s weakest points, Le Loi managed to further weaken the enemy and at the same time avoid combat with the superior Chinese forces. His enforcement of strict military discipline ensured that no pillaging was carried out by his troops in the regions under his control and this made him a very popular hero. Le Loi founded the Le Dynasty in 1428 and became king under the name of Le Thai To. He renamed the country Dai Viet and immediately began the task of its reconstuction after the devastation caused by the war. He reduced his army from 250,000 to 10,000 men and adopted a rotation system which enabled four- fifths of his soldiers to return to the countryside to work to help boost food production. The legal system was reorganized and the penal system revised. A new College of National Sons (Quoc Tu Giam) was founded to educate future administrators, with admission based entirely on merit and not on the prior prerequisite of social or family status.
Le Thai To died in 1443, leaving the throne to his son, Le Thai Tong. Le Thai Tong’s sudden death not long after was followed by a decade of confusion marked by intrigues and plots within the Royal Court. This troubled period ceased only when Le Thanh Tong affirmed his power.
Under his thirty six year reign the country prospered as never before. He revised the fiscal system, encouraged agriculture and placed great emphasis on customs and moral principles. A writer himself, he founded the Tao Dan Academy and wrote the first volume of national history.
Le Thanh Tong was by no means only a recorder of history. His reorganized army won an easy victory over the Champa army in 1471. His farmer-soldiers excelled not only on the battlefields, but also in the fields where they established militarized agricultural communities wherever they went. In this way the national territory was gradually expanded southwards, until finally the Champa Kingdom was completely absorbed and assimilated.
The Trinh and Nguyen Lords’ Secession Wars: The increasing decadence of the Le dynasty in the late 16th century saw to the country’s division into two rival principalities as some corrupt and useless kings succeeded Le Thanh Tong. Mac Dang Dung, a shrewd and scheming adviser at the Royal Court, seized control of the country, and founded the Mac Dynasty. During this time descendants of the Le Dynasty rallied around Nguyen Kim and Trinh Kiem, looking for a way to overthrow Mac Dang Dung. After a series of fierce battles they succeeded in occupying the country’s southern capital and in 1543 founded the Southern Court near Thanh Hoa. The war continued indecisively until the death of the Mac Dynasty’s last king, Mac Mau Hop, in 1592.
In an effort to restore law and order to the territory controlled by the Macs, Lord Trinh left the Southern Court under the temporary control of Nguyen Kim’s nephew Nguyen Hoang, and set out for the north. After pacifying the north and re-establishing the Le authority in Hanoi, Lord Trinh returned only to find Nguyen Hoang well entrenched in the southern court reigning as lord and master of all.
In 1672, after repeated tentative attempts failed to remove Nguyen Hoang, Lord Trinh finally consented to the partition of the country at the Linh River which marked the I8th parallel. It was not, however, until after about fifty years of civil war, that the Trinh and Nguyen Lords eventually agreed to a period of co-existence. This respite lasted for more than a century, during which time the Le Emperors played no more than a ceremonial role.
The Tay-Son Uprising (1776-1792): Frequent insurrections, provoked by the corruption rife within the disintegrating administration broke out during the last years of the two royal courts. A popular revolution of sorts was in preparation as the peasant insurrections grew to be a force to be reckoned with.
The Tay Son brothers – Nguyen Nhac, Nguyen Lu and Nguyen Hue – seized the day and staged an uprising against the leading Le Lords, easily defeating them. However, Le Chieu Thong managed to flee to China where he called for Chinese protection. In 1788, the Qing court decided to send an expeditionary corps to conquer the divided country.
To save the nation, Nguyen Hue proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung in Phu Xuan and overran the Chinese hoops in a whirl wind campaign. He pacified the Northern part of the country from the Chinese border to the Hai Van pass in the Center and devoted his energies to national rehabilitation, administrative reorganization and economic development. Significantly, Quang Trung replaced the classic Chinese Han with the popular nom as the official language. Unfortunately, his promising reign was cut short by his premature death not long after in 1792.
The Nguyen Dynasty (1792-1883): Lord Nguyen’s successor, Nguyen Anh, was supported by Nguyen royalists who saw him as the legitimate heir in the South. With their backing, Nguyen Anh took up the fight against the Tay Son brothers and after Quang Trung’s death, extended his control over the country with the aid of a French missionary, Monsignor Pigneau de Behaine, Bishop of Adran.
The Ming Chinese who had fled the Ching invasion and settled in the Saigon region, regarded Nguyen Anh as the leader who could safeguard their settlement in the newly annexed territory of Dai Viet. The Tay Son suspected they were Nguyen Anh’s sympathisers and this suspicion intensified after the Leading Tay Son generals, Tap Dinh and Ly Tai, fled to Nguyen Anh’s camp. After suffering defeat at the hands of their former generals in the Saigon region, the Tay Son army exacted their revenge and massacred thousands of the Chinese settlers.
The Bishop of Adran saw an opportunity to expand the church’s influence in the post Tay Son era and negotiated a promise of military aid for Nguyen Anh from the French Government in exchange for territorial and commercial rights. However, the French were busy with their own internal disputes and the promised aid never materialized. Undaunted, the Bishop organized funds and recruited troops himself. The training in modern military techniques proved invaluable to Nguyen Anh and his army and certainly facilitated his victory when in 1801 he subdued the Tay Son and proclaimed himself Emperor Cia Long.
A power struggle between the French and Chinese factions began within the court. Although Nguyen Anh owed his accession to power to the French, he was nevertheless very suspicious of France’s designs on his country and under his reign the court’s Chinese faction took precedence. He came to rely more on the assistance of Confucian mandarins than the Catholic missionaries in the consolidation of his empire.
The reunified and newly renamed VietNam extended from the Chinese Frontier to the Camau Peninsula in the South. Serious efforts were made to codify the law and develop the national administration along the lines of Confucian principles. Hue became the country’s new administrative capital. Cia Long replaced the Hong Duc Code by a new legislation, which bore his name and served as an instrument to consolidate the monarchic power after thirty years of civil war.
The Nguyen Dynasty’s monarchist absolutism was reflected in the extraordinary development of Hue as the most beautiful city of Vietnam. Elaborate palaces, mausoleums, temples and pagodas were successively built here, all in keeping with the harmony of cosmic order.
The Nguyen kings also extended Vietnam’s border into Laos and Cambodia, incorporating these two kingdoms as new vassal states of their Empire. Conversely, they closed the country to Western penetration from the seas. Fearing that the opening of the kingdom and expansion of trade links would undermine the structure of the monarchy, they practised a kind of isolationism vis-a-vis the West.
Meanwhile, Prince Canh, Nguyen Anh’s eldest son, had accompanied the Bishop of Adran to France during his negotiations with the French government. The Prince was later educated at a missionary school in Malacca and converted to Catholicism. This made Canh the first Viet prince ever educated by Westerners.
Military leaders within Nguyen Anh’s army realized the superiority of modern Western military technology and wished to utilize Prince Canh’s knowledge to rebuild the country after the war. The Prince was regarded by many as the one who could modemize Dai Viet and bring it into the era of industrialization.
When the issue of Cia Long’s successor was being discussed in court before his death, the power struggle between the French and Chinese factions resumed. The military generals, including Nguyen Thanh, the governor of Thang Long and Le Van Duyet, the governor of Gia Dinh (Saigon), supported the French faction and wanted Prince Canh as the heir. However, most of the court ministers belonged to the Chinese faction and supported Canh’s younger brother, Prince Mien Tong.
Again, it was the conservative Chinese faction who triumphed. Prince Canh reportedly died of measles at the age of 21. This prognosis was refuted by missionaries close to the court who reported to the French mission headquarters that he had died of poisoning.
Once Prince Mien Tong was crowned Emperor Minh Mang, the French Chinese divide officially ended. Most of Prince Canh’s followers were either demoted or executed. General Nguyen Thanh was forcefully administered poison and General Le Van Duyet’s tomb was descrated.
In the meantime, the Catholic missions had sped up their evangelization of the people. This provoked Minh Mang’s anti-Catholic policy which ordered the persecution of Catholic missionaries and their Vietnamese converts.
Vietnam had missed its first opportunity to modernize and indusrialize.