History You Can See
Ancient Vietnam and Chinese Domination
The origins of the earliest settlers in Vietnam are mostly lost in the mists of time. The first of the Hung Kings, Hung Vuong, came to power in 2879 BC, in the northern Red River Delta, naming his kingdom Van Lang. According to legend, Hung Vuong was the eldest son of an immortal mountain fairy called Au Co, who married a dragon lord with whom she had 100 children, the Bach Viet, also known as the ancestors of the Vietnamese people. The first Hung King is credited with teaching his subjects how to grow rice. The reign of all 18 Hung Kings is known as the Hong Bang period, which lasted for about 2,500 years until 258 BC. Around this time, the Vietnam of today was divided into three states: Van Lang in the north, the Kingdom of Champa in the center, and the Indian-influenced Cambodian Kingdom of Funan in the south. For several centuries, these states waged ongoing battles for land and power. The first of four periods of Chinese domination of northern Vietnam began in 111 BC with the Han–Nanyue War and continued for 10 centuries, introducing the Chinese language, Confucianism, and advanced agricultural techniques to the area. During Chinese domination, Vietnam was known as Annam, then Tinh Hai. Chinese rule ended in AD 938 when provincial governor Ngo Quyen took control of the military and fended off the Chinese in the Battle of Bach Dang River. The mandarin system remained in place for 1,000 years after Vietnam became a sovereign nation.
What To See
The Chinese influence on Vietnam can be seen in every temple and pagoda, and in every home, where the practice of ancestor worship continues to be observed. It's also evident in art, especially the techniques used to produce ceramics, as well as the visual references to themes of Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism, and Taoism. Few actual relics remain, as sovereign Vietnam—past and present—does not like to be reminded of its domination by its populous northern neighbor. Instead, every city and town names its streets after the national heroes who helped repel the Chinese, Hai Ba Trung (the two sisters Trung), and Thi Sach (one of the Trung sister's husbands). You’ll see these names frequently as you travel around Vietnam. Alexandre de Rhodes and Han Thuyen are also honored with street names in Ho Chi Minh City.
The Lost Kingdom of Champa
Little is known of the Cham, a powerful maritime empire that ruled the central and southern lowlands of Vietnam for more than 900 years, leaving behind exquisite temple complexes and fanciful Hindu sculptures. Like the Funan Kingdom, the Kingdom of Champa was based on strong trade links with India. The Cham culture adopted Indianized art forms and architectural styles as well as written Sanskrit. From AD 2nd to the 13th century, Amaravati, now known as Quang Nam province in central Vietnam, was the capital of the Kingdom of Champa, with the city of Lam Ap Pho the kingdom's center for sea trade. Lam Ap Pho, later called Faifo, and now Hoi An, was a key stop on the Spice Route between the Persian Gulf and China.
What To See
About 50 km (31 miles) from the former Cham port of Hoi An is the most famous of all the Cham temple complexes in Vietnam, My Son, which predates Angkor Wat in Cambodia. It was heavily damaged by carpet bombing during the Vietnam War. The Po Nagar Cham Towers in Nha Trang, the Poshanu Towers in Phan Thiet, and the Thap Doi Cham Towers in Quy Nhon are also relics of the mysterious kingdom. Locals still pay their respects at the old shrines, and the sites themselves are shown the same respect as temples and pagodas (when visiting, adults should have their knees and shoulders covered). The Danang Museum of Cham Sculpture houses the world’s largest collection of Cham artifacts and sculptures, including many representations of the Hindu linga and yoni (male and female sex organs).
Ngo Quyen's military defeat of the Chinese in AD 938 marked the start of the short-lived Ngo Dynasty. The Ngo Dynasty was followed by the Dinh Dynasty, during which time the country was renamed Dai Co Viet, literally Great Viet Land. Plotting and politicking was rife during these years, as was the ever-present threat of foreign invasion, leading to the rise and fall of many ruling families, now known as the Early Le, Ly, Tran, Ho, Le, and Nguyen dynasties. The emperors of these dynasties ruled with absolute power, in charge of the judicial system and the armed forces. During this time, the rulers were expanding south, battling the Kingdom of Champa in what is now central Vietnam and the Angkor Empire of modern-day Cambodia, as well as fending off incursions from the north, including several Mongol attacks ordered by Kublai Khan. In 1802 Emperor Gia Long united the country for the first time, named the new nation Viet Nam (Southern Viet), and designated Hue the capital. This heralded the beginning of the 143-year Nguyen Dynasty, which ended in 1947 when Emperor Tu Duc ceded administration of the country to the French. This association with the French means Vietnam’s current leaders don’t favorably regard the Nguyen Dynasty, even though the founder of the dynasty, Emperor Gia Long (1762–1820), is credited with being the first to unify Vietnam's north and south.
What To See
The Imperial capital was moved to Thang Long (Ascending Dragon), now known as Hanoi, in the 11th century during the Ly Dynasty. The Imperial Citadel of Thang Long remained the capital of Vietnam for eight centuries, and the site was opened to the public to mark Hanoi's 1,000th anniversary. Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, built by Ly Thanh Tong, the third emperor of the Ly Dynasty, remains in excellent condition, and is one of the city’s most popular sights. Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake is dedicated to Tran Hung Dao, the Supreme Commander of Vietnam during the Tran Dynasty, who helped repel the Mongol hordes in the 13th century. The former capital of Hue is now home to the country's highest concentration of Imperial architecture, including the UNESCO-listed Citadel and the royal tombs of the Nguyen Dynasty emperors Minh Mang, Gia Long, and Tu Duc.
The French had a presence in Vietnam from the early 17th century, when Jesuit missionaries arrived, quickly graduating from saving souls to involving themselves in diplomacy and politics. The ruling Nguyen Dynasty attempted to expel the Catholics, and in response, France launched a military attack on Danang in 1847. Saigon was seized two years later and by 1883 Emperor Tu Duc had signed a treaty making north and central Vietnam a French protectorate. The French colonial era was to last until 1954. During this time the French divided Vietnam into three administrative areas—Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin-China—and set about ambitiously building roads, bridges, public buildings, and the Hanoi to Saigon railway, which is still used today. In 1941, the man born Nguyen Sinh Cung but better known by his assumed name of Ho Chi Minh, returned to Vietnam after decades abroad to lead the anti-French independence movement, the Viet Minh. After the fall of France in 1940 during World War II, Vietnam was provisionally administered by the Vichy Government and later occupied briefly by Japan. With Japan's surrender, Ho Chi Minh persuaded Emperor Bao Dai to abdicate and Ho Chi Minh declared himself leader of the Independent Republic of Vietnam. However, within weeks French rule was restored. The resistance that followed World War II, with Communist China supporting the Viet Minh, is known as the First Indochina War, which lasted until 1954. The Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, marking the end of the French-Indochina War. Agreement was reached among France, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union as part of the Geneva Accords to cease hostilities in Indochina and to divide Vietnam temporarily at the 17th parallel. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly Vietnamese Catholics worried that religious tolerance will not be practiced in the Viet Minh–controlled north, fled to the south with U.S. Navy assistance.
What To See
Colonial architecture can be found throughout Vietnam, some dilapidated and decrepit, some beautifully maintained. In Hanoi’s French Quarter, crumbling colonial facades line the streets between landmark colonial buildings, such as the Metropole and the Opera House. Spanning the Red River is the cantilever Long Bien Bridge, designed by Gustave Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame. In Ho Chi Minh City, the former Hotel de Ville, the Central Post Office—another masterpiece by the prolific Eiffel—and the Opera House are the most prominent public buildings from the colonial era. The existence of highland towns such as Dalat, with its large French villas, and Sapa are also credited to the former French rulers, who set up hill stations there to escape the oppressive heat of the lowlands.
War with the Americans
During the Cold War, the long-running military and political standoff between the United States and the USSR, much of the foreign policy of the United States was directed by the domino theory. This was the belief that allowing one country to fall to Communism would cause a stain of red to flow across the world's geopolitical maps, and Asia would be lost to Russian domination. Despite the forces on the ground in Vietnam since 1950, in the interest of “containment,” American involvement in the North-South war through 1964 mainly involved financially assisting the French and then the South Vietnamese government in their conflict with Communist North Vietnam. By December 1965, however, there were more than 184,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam, and by 1967 there were almost half a million. Extensive carpet bombing did little to impede the growth and advance of the Communist Vietcong army, and both sides continued to suffer heavy casualties over the next four years. In the West, the public began questioning U.S. involvement in the war—and the government's claim it was winning—in the wake of the 1968 Tet Offensive, when the Vietcong launched coordinated surprise attacks against U.S. troops in more than 1,000 cities and towns throughout Vietnam. Public support for the war in the United States declined further when news broke of the brutal My Lai Massacre, a mass killing of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by American troops the same year (1968). After much negotiation, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, and on January 27, 1973, a ceasefire was called and the United States withdrew, leaving a skeleton ground crew to advise the South Vietnamese Army. On April 30, 1975, Vietnam was "liberated" when North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the Independence Palace in Saigon, marking the end of the war.
What To See
The tanks that remain guarding the front of the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City are perhaps the starkest reminder of the victory of the north over the south. Evidence of the brutalities of the last war abound at the various museums throughout the country, including Ho Chi Minh City's grueling War Remnants Museum, Hanoi's Military History Museum, the Ho Chi Minh Museum, and the Son My Memorial, 8 km (5 miles) from Quang Ngai city. You can also explore the Cu Chi Tunnels, the extensive network of underground tunnels used by the Vietcong just outside Ho Chi Minh City, as well as the horrific prisons used by the South Vietnamese government, including the infamous tiger cages, on Con Dao Islands.
Reunification and Afterward
A decade of brutal Communist rule followed the "liberation" of South Vietnam in 1975, with harsh reprisals for those linked to the southern government and military. The reprisals, the reeducation camps, and the grinding poverty of this period led to a mass exodus from South Vietnam, with an estimated 2 million people leaving the country. The so-called boat people who survived their sea journey, and the other Vietnamese refugees, settled in America, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. Many used their culinary skills to support themselves with family-run restaurants. The tense relationship between the United States and Vietnam eased over the years, especially after Vietnam began moving toward a more open economy. In 1994 the United States lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam and a year later the two countries normalized relations. Vietnam's ascension to the World Trade Organization in 2006 further opened the doors to foreign investment and contributed to the resurgence of Vietnam's economy. Vietnam's move toward a market economy and the resumption of commercial flights between the two countries in 2004 also seemed to be the catalyst for many overseas Vietnamese, known as Viet Kieu, to return to Vietnam.
What To See
The gleaming skyscrapers in Hanoi, Danang, and Ho Chi Minh City, including the 68-story Bitexco Financial Tower, signify Vietnam's heady postwar rush toward capitalism. One of the most noticeable signs of international investment can be seen in the food and retail landscape, with foreign brands increasingly visible.
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