What Should I Know About Vietnam?

Brendan McGuigan

Vietnam is a large country in Southeast Asia. It covers 128,500 square miles (331,700 sq. km), making it a bit larger than the state of New Mexico. It shares borders with Cambodia, China, and Laos, and has coastline along the Gulf of Thailand, the Gulf of Tonkin, and the South China Sea.

A bowl of pho, a popular Vietnamese soup.
A bowl of pho, a popular Vietnamese soup.

The region was first settled millennia ago. The Hong Bang Dynasty was the first recorded major power in the area, dating from before the 3rd century BCE. In the 2nd century BCE, the Chinese invaded Vietnam, and although there were brief periods of revolt, for the most part it remained under Chinese rule until the 10th century.

Vietnam is a 128,500-square-mile country in Southeast Asia.
Vietnam is a 128,500-square-mile country in Southeast Asia.

Beginning in the 10th century, China began to have to focus on coping with its own internal struggles. For the next century the Vietnamese had a fragile independence, with the constant threat of Chinese invasion. By the 11th century, however, the nation had a cohesive vision, strong leadership, and was firmly independent. The Vietnamese state was so strong over the next few centuries that it managed to successfully repel the Mongols on multiple occasions through the 13th century, avoiding the Mongol rule that was China’s fate.

The Vietnam War raged through the 1960s and 1970s between North and South Vietnam.
The Vietnam War raged through the 1960s and 1970s between North and South Vietnam.

In the 15th century, however, powerful Ming Dynasty invaded Vietnam, seizing power and holding it for a few decades before being overthrown in turn by the Vietnamese Le Dynasty. The Le Dynasty went on to capture the capital of the southern Champa Kingdom, and continued on to capture the capital of Laos as well.

In the 16th century the country experienced a civil war, which effectively split it in two. In the late 18th century three powerful brothers from the south revolted against the southern leaders, and went on to wage war on the northern half of the country, defeating the northern ruler and the Chinese troops sent by the Qing Emperor to assist him. The country was then divided into three parts, with each brother ruling one. At the beginning of the 19th century one of the brothers conquered the other two portions of the kingdom, unifying the country and, with the help of the Qing Emperor of China, giving it the name Viet Nam.

Although the Western World had known about Vietnam as far back as the Roman Empire, it wasn’t until this period that they began to take much action in the region. The French particularly took interest in the region, and Napoleon III sent gunships to the area to secure ports. By the late 19th century the French had secured the entire country, although many unsuccessful revolutionary movements sprang up over the next few decades.

In the early 20th century the nationalist movements began looking towards establishing an independent republic, and set about to learning the skills they felt were necessary to make such a thing possible. This set the country on a course towards modernization and development with the end goal of independence. During World War II the Japanese captured Vietnam. When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, the Communist Party Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, reasserted independence as a democratic republic. The French moved in militarily to try to reclaim the nation, ultimately supporting the government of Bao Dai along with the United States and Britain. The Chinese began supplying Ho Chi Minh with weapons, and fighting in the country continued through the 1950s.

In 1954, the country was declared independent from France and divided in two at the 17th parallel. With the backing of the United States, South Vietnam began to wage war with the north, in an attempt to stop Ho Chi Minh’s communist party from dominating a unified Vietnam. The war raged on through the 1960s and 1970s, and in 1975 South Vietnam fell to the North. The newly-unified country immediately adopted a communist agenda, dictating fairly authoritarian policies, and through mismanagement damaging the economy severely.

From 1978 to 1989, Vietnam fought a war with Cambodia, in response to Pol Pot’s Cambodia raiding Vietnamese territory. Beginning in 1986, the Vietnamese government, although still Communist, began to implement a free market system. Since then the Vietnamese economy has been on the rise, and is currently one of the fastest growing economies on the planet.

With the exception of some typhoon-related dangers during certain times of year, Vietnam is relatively safe, although petty banditry does occur, particularly in more rural areas. Halong Bay, with its literally thousands of small islands, is a particular favorite for tourists seeking beaches and sun. Religious sites also dot the countryside, from the Thien Hau Pagoda, dedicated to the Chinese goddess Thien Hau, to the Hindi temple of Mariamman. Ancient cities such as My Son also offer excellent trekking opportunities, and thousands of acres of National Park can be found throughout the country.

Flights enter Ho Chi Minh City daily from Bangkok, and a few come through from Australia and other cities in Asia as well. You can also travel overland from China, Cambodia, or Laos. It is also possible to travel into Vinh Xuong via the Mekong River from Kaam Samnor.

Ho Chi Minh led the communist revolution in Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh led the communist revolution in Vietnam.

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