The earliest traces of human presence in Vietnam have been found in caves in several areas. Little information is known about these cave dwellers, but their presence has been dated back at least 500,000 years. It wasn’t until 5,000 or 6,000 years ago that wet rice cultivation began to appear.
The area that now includes Vietnam was called Viet by the Chinese Zhou dynasty (1050 to 249 BC). The first Vietnamese dynasty, heavily influenced by the Chinese, appeared around 500 BC. Prior to the rise of the Ngo Dynasty in 928, the ruling influence was primarily Chinese.
From that point forward, except for a few brief periods (most notably the Ming Dynasty in the early 15th century and the brief Mongol invasion in the mid-13th century), large portions of the country we now call Vietnam have been ruled by Vietnamese dynasties, albeit with significant Chinese influence.
Dynasties and historical events
Period Dynasty Name Country Name
500-257 BC Hung or Lac-Vuong kings Van Lang
207-111 BC Trieu Dynasty An Lac
203-544 AD Early Chinese Han Dynasty Giao Chi
544-603 Early Ly Dynasty Van Xuan
603-939 Chinese Tang Dynasty An Nam
939-967 Ngo Dynasty Dai Viet
968-1054 Dinh and successor dynasties Dai Co Viet
1054-1400 Later Ly and Tran Dynasties Dai Viet
1400-1407 Ho Dynasty Dai Ngu
1407-1428 Tran and Chinese Ming Dynasties An Nam
1428-1802 Le and Nguyen Dynasties Dai Viet
1802 Emperor Gia Long Viet Nam
1832 Emperor Minh-Mang and successors Dai Nam
1858-1945 French Colonial Administration North – Tonkin
Middle – Annam
South – Cochinchina
1945-present Tran Trong Kim and successors Viet Nam
During the brief Ming Dynasty rule, the Vietnamese capital was, for the first time, located at Do Dong – present-day Hanoi. It was not until the founding of the Tay Su Dynasty in the late 18th century that the capital was moved to Hué. During the subsequent (and final) Nguyen Dynasty, from 1802-1945, the capital remained at Hué.
It was during this period that the external borders of Vietnam aligned with what we see today. The emperors and their courtiers turned to Confucianism and away from the outside world, banning contact with foreigners. This left the country open to outside invasion and control.
The French took control of present-day Vietnam in 1858, turning it into a vassal state, keeping the Nguyen emperors as puppets. By 1861 they took Saigon, and six years later controlled the entire southern part of Vietnam. At this time the French named their holdings Cochinchina and made it a French colony. By 1883 the remnants of Vietnam in the north had been annexed by the French. The center of the country was renamed Annam, and the North was renamed Tonkin.
In 1887, Vietnam, plus Cambodia and Laos, were consolidated into a single colony called Indochina. The French exploited the area for its natural resources, and created a modernized society with working and “bourgeoisie” classes.
They also changed the education system to follow the European style – infant, primary, and secondary programs. The French created a three-tiered structure that can still be seen today – the Vietnamese were the top tier so they got a halfway-decent infrastructure, the Cambodians were in the middle so they got a bit of infrastructure, and the Laotians were at the bottom and got next to nothing.
The French used their Indochinese colonies, particularly Vietnam, as a source of soldiers and support workers in World War I. They put heavy demands on the country’s infrastructure with food and financial requirements.
For a short stretch in the early 20th century, Vietnamese aristocrats and intellectuals looked to Japan for support in efforts to take back control of their country. At the same time, a group of Vietnamese who had been exiled to China saw the results of Dr. Sun Yat Sen’s revolution in China (1911). They formed the Quoc Dan Dang Party to try and oust the French.
Following World War I, Ho Chi Minh began his rise to prominence. As World War II began, the Central Committee of the Indochinese Communist Party began to consolidate its goals and unify the various communist groups across the country.
On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh formally announced the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, with its capital in Hanoi.
Thus began the 30-year struggle of North versus South Vietnam. The French continued to control the southern portion of the country, based on the Geneva Agreement on Vietnam in 1954. This agreement partitioned the country at the 17th parallel. The North had its capital in Hanoi, the South in Saigon.
Over the next two decades, first the French and then the US governments provided military and economic support to the South Vietnamese rulers to try and prevent the communist takeover of the entire country.
More information on the War, called the American War (of Aggression) by the North Vietnamese, is provided in a second section.
In 1973, after almost 20 years of fighting, with over 50,000 Americans killed and several million Vietnamese killed or permanently displaced, the US signed the Paris Agreement and withdrew from Vietnam.
On April 25th, 1975, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and the entire country was “reunified” under communist rule, with its capital once again in Hanoi.
Since the reunification, much of the devastation from 30 years of fighting has been repaired. At the same time South Vietnamese were trying to flee the country, refugees from other countries (particularly Pol Pot’s Cambodia), were trying to enter. The strain on the damaged infrastructure of the newly consolidated country was tremendous.
The first 11 years following reunification were quite difficult, but since 1986 the government has put in place very liberal foreign investment policies to help rebuild and grow the country’s infrastructure. The government has also encouraged a version of free enterprise and liberalized land use policies to increase food production. As a result, the quality, quantity, and diversity of products, services, food, transport, and accommodation is surprisingly good.
The long-term goals of the Vietnamese government include self-sufficiency in food production, expansion of exports and development of new markets, and transformation into an industrial country with a modern infrastructure.
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