Although the history of any region is the product of a complex mix of culture and circumstance, in many ways, for Vietnam, geography is destiny. To understand Vietnam's history it is imperative to have aclear picture of the land and the region.
Vietnam's geographical position relative to China has been paramount in
shaping its political and cultural history. On the map, Vietnam is
directly below China -- an elongated, 1,000-mile-long "S," containing
in its northern loop the great population center of the Red River delta
and in its southern loop that of the Mekong River delta. Vietnam
attained this shape through slow, painful expansion from its northern
delta (settled before the Christian era) to the Mekong region. This
expansion took place mainly between the 10th and the 18th centuries A.D.
The Vietnamese nation arose from the many clans and communities of the
Viet peoples, stretching from the area of present-day Shanghai down to
the Red River delta, where Hanoi is now located. The climate of this
region is ruled by the monsoon rains that fall between May and October.
The principal crop is rice, requiring systematic management of the
water supply for its cultivation. In the Red River delta, controlling
the river is the key to production and survival. The coastal economies
of the Viet region usually included fishing and local shipping.
About 100 B.C.E. the Han, China's most powerful dynasty, conquered the
Viet regions and incorporated their territory into the Chinese empire
as provinces. Over the next 1,000 years most of the Vietnamese were
absorbed into Chinese society, becoming part of the present-day
provinces of Yunnan, Fujian (Fukien), Guangdong (Kwangtung), and
Guangxi (Kwangsi). Only the southernmost group, the Vietnamese of the
Red River delta, managed to preserve their own language and other
elements of independence -- among them, the stronger economic and
social position of women. In the main, the Vietnamese of the Red River
delta accepted their homeland's status as a part of the Chinese empire,
cooperating with Chinese administrations. Although there were
occasional rebellions and declarations of independent Vietnamese
governments, they were no match for the stronger Chinese dynasties that
Under this millennium of Chinese rule, from about 100 B.C.E. to 1,000
C.E., the Vietnamese made certain gains. They learned how to improve
their agriculture and water control. The Mon-Khmer speaking elite
adapted the Chinese systems of education and bureaucracy to suit their
needs; and, while retaining their native spoken language, mastered the
Chinese written language.
Early in the 10th century, at a time of dynastic change and military
weakness in China, the Vietnamese of the Red River delta succeeded in
establishing an independent Vietnam. Chinese provincial names were
discarded, and Chinese authority came to an end. And yet, the
Vietnamese preserved many Chinese forms of social organization. They
set up a native dynasty, with an emperor who directed the bureaucracy.
In this way they governed the land and defended against Chinese
attempts to reconquer their lost territory. Vietnam was on the way to
becoming a China in miniature; but relations with China -- now
fraternal, now fratricidal -- were a continuing problem.
The China question apart, Vietnam began a new phase of its history in
the 10th century. With independence, it grew to geographic maturity,
enlarged its role in southeast Asia, and came into conflict with a
series of European military and cultural invaders.
Even before the 10th century, the Vietnamese had been pushing south
from the Red River delta. From the 10th to the 18th centuries, the
progressive extension of farmer-soldier settlements became the dominant
motif of Vietnamese history. This advance displaced many peoples -- no-
tably the Cham, who had been more influenced by Indian than Chinese
culture. The victims of Vietnam's expansion were either absorbed by the
conquerors or driven west into the areas now known as Laos and
Cambodia, where Indian cultural influences are still strong.
The Vietnamese name for this advance, Nam Tien, or "March to the
South," suggests its military character. One of the principal
motivations for the "March" was the sudden, uncontrollable flooding of
the Red River, which drove peasants south in search of farmland.
Another factor was historical rather than natural. In each of the last
four Chinese dynasties -- the Song (Sung), the Mongol-ruled Yuan
(Yüan), the Ming, and the Manchu-ruled Qing (Ch'ing) -- Vietnam
suffered and overcame Chinese invasion. The Vietnamese government
rewarded its fighting men with farmland to the south. Behind these
aggressive pioneers came other settlers. The Vietnamese often met
resistance from the Cham and had to yield ground, but in the long run
their "March to the South" could not be stopped.
The formative process of Vietnam's history culminated in the settlement
of the Mekong River delta. In the course of the 19th and 20th
centuries, this area, dominated by the major city of Saigon, rapidly
became the rice bowl for all Vietnam. The delta became the second great
population center, and Vietnam took the shape it has today.
The two loops of the "S" are connected by a cultivable strip of coastal
land. This coastline has played a key role in Vietnam's history,
reinforcing the often fragile unity between north and south. The coast,
moreover, has given Vietnam international importance because it
commands the South China Sea and occupies a central strategic position
with respect to present-day India, Indonesia, the Philippines,
Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and southern China. To the Japanese and
Europeans who were invading southeast Asian waters in the 16th century,
Vietnam had even more geographic than commercial appeal.
Since then, Vietnam has endured foreign intrusions by various countries
-- Portugal, the Netherlands, France, China, Japan, and the United
States. For some three-quarters of a century, until after World War II,
Vietnam was a French colony. But eventually every invader was driven
off. Many Vietnamese place this "modern" experience in the longer
perspective of their defeat of earlier invasions by Chinese and
Mongols. These complex and bitter experiences have created in the
Vietnamese an intense national consciousness of their history that has
helped them defend their independence against many powerful enemies.