Archaeological excavations have revealed the existence of humans in what is now Vietnam as early as the Paleolithic age. Homo erectus fossils dating to around 500,000 BC have been found in caves in Lạng Sơn and Nghệ An provinces in northern Vietnam. The oldest Homo sapiens fossils from mainland Southeast Asia are of Middle Pleistocene provenance, and include isolated tooth fragments from Tham Om and Hang Hum. Teeth attributed to Homo sapiens 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.
By about 1000 BC, the development of wet-rice cultivation and bronze casting in the Ma River and Red River floodplains led to the flourishing of the Đông Sơn culture, notable for its elaborate bronze drums. At this time, the early Vietnamese kingdoms of Văn Lang and Âu Lạc appeared, and the culture’s influence spread to other parts of Southeast Asia, including Maritime Southeast Asia, throughout the first millennium BC.
The Hồng Bàng dynasty of the Hùng kings 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 consolidated the Lạc Việt and Âu Việt tribes to form the Âu Lạc, proclaiming himself An Dương Vương. In 207 BC, a Chinese general named Zhao Tuo defeated An Dương Vương and consolidated Âu Lạc into Nanyue. However, Nanyue was itself incorporated into the empire of the Chinese Han dynasty in 111 BC after the Han–Nanyue War.
For the next thousand years, what is now northern Vietnam remained mostly under Chinese rule. Early independence movements, such as those of the Trưng Sisters and Lady Triệu, were only temporarily successful, though the region gained a longer period of independence as Vạn Xuân under the Anterior Lý dynasty between AD 544 and 602. By the early 10th century, Vietnam had gained autonomy, but not sovereignty, under the Khúc family.
In AD 938, the Vietnamese lord Ngô Quyền defeated the forces of the Chinese Southern Han state at Bạch Đằng River and achieved full independence for Vietnam after a millennium of Chinese domination.Renamed as Đại Việt (Great Viet), the nation enjoyed a golden era under the Lý and Trần dynasties. During the rule of the Trần Dynasty, Đại Việt repelled three Mongol invasions. Meanwhile, Buddhism flourished and became the state religion.
Following the 1406–7 Ming–Hồ War which overthrew the Hồ dynasty, Vietnamese independence was briefly interrupted by the Chinese Ming dynasty, but was restored by Lê Lợi, the founder of the Lê dynasty. The Vietnamese dynasties reached their zenith in the Lê dynasty of the 15th century, especially during the reign of Emperor Lê Thánh Tông (1460–1497). Between the 11th and 18th centuries, Vietnam expanded southward in a process known as nam tiến (“southward expansion”), eventually conquering the kingdom of Champa and part of the Khmer Empire.
From the 16th century onwards, civil strife and frequent political infighting engulfed much of Vietnam. First, the Chinese-supported Mạc dynasty challenged the Lê dynasty’s power. After the Mạc dynasty was defeated, the Lê dynasty was nominally reinstalled, but actual power was divided between the northern Trịnh lords and the southern Nguyễn lords, who engaged in a civil war for more than four decades before a truce was called in the 1670s. During this time, the Nguyễn expanded southern Vietnam into the Mekong Delta, annexing the Central Highlands and the Khmer lands in the Mekong Delta.
The division of the country ended a century later when the Tây Sơn brothers established a new dynasty. However, their rule did not last long, and they were defeated by the remnants of the Nguyễn lords, led by Nguyễn Ánh and aided by the French. Nguyễn Ánh unified Vietnam, and established the Nguyễn dynasty, ruling under the name Gia Long.
Vietnam’s independence was gradually eroded by France – aided 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. By 1884, the entire country had come under French rule, with the Central and Northern parts of Vietnam separated in the two protectorates of Annam and Tonkin. The three Vietnameses entities were formally integrated into the union of French Indochina in 1887. The French administration imposed significant political and cultural changes on Vietnamese society. A Western-style system of modern education was developed, and Roman Catholicism was propagated widely. Most French settlers in Indochina were concentrated in Cochinchina, particularly in the region of Saigon. The royalist Cần Vương movement rebelled against French rule and was defeated in the 1890s after a decade of resistance. Guerrillas of the Cần Vương movement murdered around a third of Vietnam’s Christian population during this period.
Developing a plantation economy to promote the export of tobacco, indigo, tea and coffee, the French largely ignored increasing calls for Vietnamese self-government and civil rights. A nationalist political movement soon emerged, with leaders such as Phan Bội Châu, Phan Chu Trinh, Phan Đình Phùng, Emperor Hàm Nghi and Ho Chi Minh fighting or calling for independence. However, the 1930 Yên Bái mutiny of the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng was suppressed easily. The French maintained full control of their colonies until World War II, when the war in the Pacific led to the Japanese invasion of French Indochina in 1940. Afterwards, the Japanese Empire was allowed to station its troops in Vietnam while permitting the pro-Vichy French colonial administration to continue. Japan exploited Vietnam’s natural resources to support its military campaigns, culminating in a full-scale takeover of the country in March 1945 and the Vietnamese Famine of 1945, which caused up to two million deaths.
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 independence for Vietnam from France and the end of the Japanese occupation. Following the military defeat of Japan and the fall of its puppet Empire of Vietnam in August 1945, the Viet Minh occupied Hanoi and proclaimed a provisional government, which asserted national independence on 2 September. In the same year, the Provisional Government of the French Republic sent the French Far East Expeditionary Corps to restore colonial rule, and the Viet Minh began a guerrilla campaign against the French in late 1946. The resulting First Indochina War lasted until July 1954.
The defeat of French and Vietnamese loyalists in the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu allowed Ho Chi Minh to negotiate a ceasefire from a favorable position at the subsequent Geneva Conference. The colonial administration was ended and French Indochina was dissolved under the Geneva Accords of 1954, which separated the loyalist forces from the communists at the 17th parallel north with the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone. Two states formed after the partition – Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north and Emperor Bảo Đại’s State of Vietnam in the south. A 300-day period of free movement was permitted, during which almost a million northerners, mainly Catholics, moved south, fearing persecution by the communists.
The partition of Vietnam was not intended to be permanent by the Geneva Accords, which stipulated that Vietnam would be reunited after elections in 1956. However, in 1955, the State of Vietnam’s Prime Minister, Ngô Đình Diệm, toppled Bảo Đại in a fraudulent referendum organised by his brother Ngô Đình Nhu, and proclaimed himself president of the Republic of Vietnam.
The pro-Hanoi Viet Cong began a guerrilla campaign in the late 1950s to overthrow Diệm’s government. Between 1953 and 1956, the North Vietnamese government instituted various agrarian reforms, including “rent reduction” and “land reform,” which resulted in significant political oppression. During the land reform, testimony from North Vietnamese witnesses suggested a ratio of one execution for every 160 village residents, which extrapolated nationwide would indicate nearly 100,000 executions. Because the campaign was concentrated mainly in the Red River Delta area, a lower estimate of 50,000 executions became widely accepted by scholars at the time. However, declassified documents from the Vietnamese and Hungarian archives indicate that the number of executions was much lower than reported at the time, although likely greater than 13,500. In the South, Diệm countered North Vietnamese subversion (including the assassination of over 450 South Vietnamese officials in 1956) by detaining tens of thousands of suspected communists in “political reeducation centers.” This was a ruthless program that incarcerated many non-communists, although it was also successful at curtailing communist activity in the country, if only for a time. The North Vietnamese government claimed that 2,148 individuals were killed in the process by November 1957. In 1960 and 1962, the Soviet Union and North Vietnam signed treaties providing for further Soviet military support.
In 1963, Buddhist discontent with Diệm’s regime erupted into mass demonstrations, leading to a violent government crackdown. This led to the collapse of Diệm’s relationship with the United States, and ultimately to the 1963 coup in which Diệm and Nhu were assassinated. The Diệm era was followed by more than a dozen successive military governments, before the pairing of Air Marshal Nguyễn Cao Kỳ and General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu took control in mid-1965. Thieu gradually outmaneuvered Ky and cemented his grip on power in fraudulent elections in 1967 and 1971. Under this political instability, the communists began to gain ground.
To support South Vietnam’s struggle against the communist insurgency, the United States began increasing its contribution of military advisers, using the 1964 Tonkin Gulf incident as a pretext for such intervention. US forces became involved in ground combat operations in 1965, and at their peak they numbered more than 500,000. The US also engaged in a sustained aerial bombing campaign. Meanwhile, China and the Soviet Union provided North Vietnam with significant material aid and 15,000 combat advisers. Communist forces supplying the Viet Cong carried supplies along the Ho Chi Minh trail, which passed through Laos.
The communists attacked South Vietnamese targets during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Although the campaign failed militarily, it shocked the American establishment, and turned US public opinion against the war. During the offensive, communist troops massacred over 3,000 civilians at Hue. Facing an increasing casualty count, rising domestic opposition to the war, and growing international condemnation, the US began withdrawing from ground combat roles in the early 1970s. This process also entailed an unsuccessful effort to strengthen and stabilize South Vietnam.
Following the Paris Peace Accords of 27 January 1973, all American combat troops were withdrawn by 29 March 1973. In December 1974, North Vietnam captured the province of Phước Long and started a full-scale offensive, culminating in the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975. South Vietnam was briefly ruled by a provisional government while under military occupation by North Vietnam. On 2 July 1976, North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The war left Vietnam devastated, with the total death toll standing at between 966,000 and 3.8 million.
Reunification and reforms
In the aftermath of the war, under Lê Duẩn’s administration, there were no mass executions of South Vietnamese who had collaborated with the U.S. or the Saigon government, confounding Western fears. However, up to 300,000 South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps, where many endured torture, starvation, and disease while being forced to perform hard labor. The government embarked on a mass campaign of collectivization of farms and factories. This caused economic chaos and resulted in triple-digit inflation, while national reconstruction efforts progressed slowly. In 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia to remove from power the Khmer Rouge, who had been attacking Vietnamese border villages. Vietnam was victorious, installing a government in Cambodia which ruled until 1989. This action worsened relations with the Chinese, who launched a brief incursion into northern Vietnam in 1979. This conflict caused Vietnam to rely even more heavily 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 new leadership. The reformers were led by 71-year-old 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”) – which carefully managed the transition from a planned economy to a “socialist-oriented market economy”.
Though the authority of the state remained unchallenged under Đổi Mới, the government encouraged private ownership of farms and factories, economic deregulation and foreign investment, while maintaining control over strategic industries. The Vietnamese economy subsequently achieved strong growth in agricultural and industrial production, construction, exports and foreign investment. However, these reforms have also caused a rise in income inequality and gender disparities.