Prehistory and ancient history
Archaeological excavations have proven the existence of humans in what is now Vietnam as early as the Palaeolithic Age. Fossils of Homo erectus from around 500,000 BC have been found in caves in Lạng Sơn and Nghệ, a province in northern Vietnam. The oldest Homo sapiens fossils from mainland Southeast Asia date from the middle Pleistocene and include isolated tooth fragments from Tham Om and Hang Hum. Teeth attributed to Homo sapiens fossils from the late Pleistocene have also been found at Dong Can, and from the early Holocene at Mai Da Dieu, Lang Gao and Lang Cuom.
Around 1000 BC, the development of wet rice cultivation and bronze casting in the floodplains of the Ma and Red rivers led to the flourishing of the Đông Sơn culture, notable for its elaborate bronze drums. The first Vietnamese kingdoms of Văn Lang and Âu Lạc emerged at this time, and the influence of the culture spread to other parts of Southeast Asia, including Maritime Southeast Asia, during the first millennium BC.
The dynasty of the Hùng kings Hồng Bàng is considered the first Vietnamese state, known in Vietnamese as Văn Lang. In 257 BC, the last Hùng king was defeated by Thục Phán, who united the Lạc Việt and Âu Việt tribes to form the Âu Lạc and proclaimed himself An Dương Vương. In 207 BC, a Chinese general named Zhao Tuo defeated An Dương Vương and consolidated the Âu Lạc into Nanyue. However, Nanyue itself was incorporated into the Han Chinese Dynasty Empire in 111 BC after the Han-Nanyue War.
For the next thousand years, what is now North Vietnam remained mainly under Chinese rule. Early independence movements, such as the Trưng Sisters and Lady Triệu, were only a temporary success, although the region gained a prolonged period of independence as Vạn Xuân under the Old Dynasty between 544 and 602 AD. By the beginning of the 10th century, Vietnam had gained autonomy but not sovereignty under the Khúc family.
In 938, the Vietnamese prince Ngo Quyền defeated the forces of the Chinese South Han State at the Bạch Đằng River and gained full Vietnamese independence after a millennium of Chinese rule. Renamed Đại Việt (Great Viet), the nation experienced a golden age under the Lý and Trần dynasties. During the reign of the Trần dynasty, Đại Việt repelled three Mongol invasions. In the meantime, Buddhism flourished and became the state religion.
After the 1406-7 Ming-Hồ War, which overthrew the Hồ dynasty, Vietnamese independence was briefly interrupted by the Chinese Ming dynasty, but restored by Le Lợi, founder of the Le dynasty. Vietnamese dynasties reached their peak in the Lê dynasty in the 15th century, particularly during the reign of Emperor Lê Thánh Tông (1460-1497). Between the 11th and 18th centuries, Vietnam expanded southwards in a process known as tiến (“southward expansion”), eventually conquering the Champa Kingdom and part of the Khmer Empire.
From the 16th century onwards, there were civil wars and frequent political disputes in large parts of Vietnam. At first, the Mạc dynasty, supported by the Chinese, challenged the power of the Le dynasty. After the defeat of the Mạc dynasty, the Le dynasty was nominally reinstated, but actual power was divided between the northern Trịnh and southern Nguyễn lords, who fought a civil war for more than four decades before a truce was reached in the 1670s. During this time, the Nguyễn extended southern Vietnam into the Mekong Delta and annexed the central highlands and Khmer land in the Mekong Delta.
The division of the country came to an end a century later when the Tây brothers Sơn founded a new dynasty. Their rule did not last long, however, and they were defeated by the remnants of the Nguyễn princes , led by Nguyễn Ánh and helped by the French. Nguyễn Ánh unified Vietnam and founded the Nguyễn dynasty, which ruled under the name of Gia Long.
1862-1945: French Indochina
Vietnam’s independence was gradually eroded by France – supported by large Catholic militias – in a series of military conquests between 1859 and 1885. In 1862, the southern third of the country became the French colony of Cochinchina. In 1884, the entire country came under French rule, with the central and northern parts of Vietnam divided into the two protectorates of Annam and Tonkin. The three Vietnamese entities were officially integrated into the Union of French Indochina in 1887. The French administration imposed significant political and cultural changes on Vietnamese society. A modern education system based on Western models was developed and Roman Catholicism was widespread. Most French settlers in Indochina were concentrated in Cochinchina, especially in the Saigon region. The Cần Vương royalist movement rebelled against French rule and was defeated in the 1890s after a decade of resistance. The guerrillas of the Cần Vương Movement murdered about a third of Vietnam’s Christian population during this period.
The French developed a plantation economy to promote the export of tobacco, indigo, tea and coffee, and largely ignored the growing demands for Vietnamese autonomy and civil rights. A nationalist political movement quickly emerged, with leaders such as Phan Bội Châu, Phan Chu Trinh, Phan Đình Phùng, Emperor Hàm Nghi and Ho Chi Minh fighting for or demanding independence. However, the Yên Bái Mutiny of 1930 by Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng was easily put down. The French retained complete control of their colonies until World War II, when the Pacific War led to the Japanese invasion of French Indochina in 1940. Thereafter, the Japanese Empire was allowed to station its troops in Vietnam while the pro-Vichy French colonial administration was allowed to continue. Japan exploited Vietnam’s natural resources to support its military campaigns, leading to a complete takeover of the country in March 1945 and the Vietnamese famine of 1945, which claimed up to two million lives.
1946-54: First Indochina War
In 1941, the Viet Minh – a communist and nationalist liberation movement – emerged under the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, who sought Vietnam’s independence from France and an end to Japanese occupation. After Japan’s military defeat and the fall of its puppet empire in Vietnam in August 1945, the Viet Minh occupied Hanoi and proclaimed a provisional government, which confirmed national independence on 2 September. That same year, the French provisional government sent the French Far East Expeditionary Force to restore colonial rule, and the Viet Minh began a guerrilla campaign against the French in late 1946. The ensuing First Indochina War lasted until July 1954.
The defeat of the French and Vietnamese loyalists at the Battle of Dien Bien Phuallow in 1954 enabled Ho Chi Minh to negotiate an armistice from a favourable position at the subsequent Geneva Conference. Colonial administration came to an end and French Indochina was dissolved under the 1954 Geneva Accord, which separated loyalist and communist forces at the 17th parallel in the north from Vietnam’s demilitarised zone. After the partition, two states were formed – the Democratic Republic of Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh City in the north and the Imperial State of Vietnam Bảo Đại in the south. A period of 300 days of freedom of movement was granted, during which almost a million North Vietnamese, mainly Catholics, moved south for fear of persecution by the communists.
The division of Vietnam was not intended to be permanent by the Geneva Agreement, which provided for the reunification of Vietnam after the 1956 elections. But in 1955, Vietnamese Prime Minister Ngô Đình Diệm overthrew Bảo Đại in a fraudulent referendum organised by his brother Ngô Đình Nhu and proclaimed himself President of the Republic of Vietnam.
1954-1975: The Vietnam War
The pro-Hanoi Viet Cong began a guerrilla campaign in the late 1950s to overthrow the Diệm government. Between 1953 and 1956, the North Vietnamese government introduced various land reforms, including “rent reduction” and “land reform”, which led to severe political repression. During the land reform, according to North Vietnamese witnesses, there was one execution for every 160 villagers, which extrapolated to the whole country would mean almost 100,000 executions. As the campaign was mainly concentrated in the Red River Delta region, a lower estimate of 50,000 executions was widely accepted by academics at the time. Declassified documents from the Vietnamese and Hungarian archives, however, suggest that the number of executions was much lower than reported at the time, although it probably exceeded 13,500. In 1960 and 1962, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam signed treaties that provided for additional Soviet military support. In the South, Diệm countered North Vietnamese subversion (including the murder of more than 450 South Vietnamese officials in 1956) by imprisoning tens of thousands of suspected communists in “political re-education centres”. This ruthless programme led to the imprisonment of many non-communists, but it also succeeded in reducing communist activity in the country, if only for a time. The North Vietnamese government claimed that 2,148 people were killed under this programme in November 1957. In 1960 and 1962, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam signed treaties that provided for additional Soviet military assistance.
In 1963, Buddhist discontent with the Diệm regime degenerated into mass demonstrations, which led to violent government repression. This led to the breakdown of Diệm’s relations with the United States and eventually to the 1963 coup d’état in which Diệm and Nhu were assassinated. The Diệm era was followed by more than a dozen successive military governments before the union of Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ and General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu took control in mid-1965. Thieu gradually overtook Ky and consolidated his position of power through fraudulent elections in 1967 and 1971. As a result of this political instability, the communists began to gain ground.
To support South Vietnam’s fight against the communist insurgency, the United States began to increase its contribution of military advisors, using the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 as a pretext for such intervention. US forces participated in ground combat operations in 1965, and at its peak there were more than 500,000 US forces. The United States also conducted a sustained campaign of air strikes. Meanwhile, China and the Soviet Union provided North Vietnam with substantial material aid and 15,000 combat advisors. Communist forces supplying the Vietcong transported supplies along the Ho Chi Minh route that ran through Laos.
Communists attacked South Vietnamese targets during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Although the campaign failed militarily, it shocked the American establishment and turned American public opinion against the war. During the offensive, communist troops massacred more than 3,000 civilians in Hue. Faced with mounting casualties, growing domestic opposition to the war and increasing international condemnation, the United States began to withdraw from its role as ground combatant in the early 1970s. This process also led to an unsuccessful attempt to strengthen and stabilise South Vietnam.
Following the Paris Peace Accords of 27 January 1973, all American combat troops were withdrawn on 29 March 1973. In December 1974, North Vietnam captured Phước Long province and launched a large-scale offensive that culminated in the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. South Vietnam was briefly ruled by a provisional government while militarily occupied by North Vietnam. On 2 July 1976, North and South Vietnam united to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The war left Vietnam devastated with a total death toll of 800,000 to 3.1 million.
1976-present: Reunification and reforms
In the post-war period, under Le Duẩn’s government, there were no mass executions of South Vietnamese who had collaborated with the US or the Saigon government, disproving the fears of the West. Nevertheless, up to 300,000 South Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps, where many endured torture, starvation and disease while being forced into forced labour. The government began a massive campaign to collectivise farms and factories. This campaign led to economic chaos and triple-digit inflation, while national reconstruction efforts progressed slowly. In 1978, the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia to drive out the Khmer Rouge, who had attacked Vietnamese border villages. Vietnam won the victory and installed a government in Cambodia that ruled until 1989. This action worsened relations with the Chinese, who launched a brief invasion of North Vietnam in 1979. This conflict made Vietnam even more dependent on Soviet economic and military aid.
At the Sixth National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in December 1986, reformist politicians replaced the “old guard” government with a new leadership. The reformers were led by a 71-year-old man, Nguyễn Văn Linh, who became the party’s new general secretary. Linh and the reformers implemented a series of free-market reforms – known as Đổi Mới (“renovation”) – that carefully managed the transition from a planned economy to a “socialist-oriented market economy”.
Although the authority of the state in Đổi Mới has remained unchallenged, the government has encouraged private ownership of farms and factories, economic deregulation and foreign investment while maintaining control over strategic industries. The Vietnamese economy then experienced strong growth in agricultural and industrial production, construction, exports and foreign investment. However, these reforms also led to increased income and gender inequality.