Origins: The Vietnamese trace the origins of their culture and nation to the fertile plains of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. After centuries of developing a civilization and economy based on the cultivation of irrigated rice, in the tenth century the Vietnamese began expanding southward in search of new rice lands. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Vietnamese gradually moved down the narrow coastal plain of the Indochina Peninsula, ultimately extending their reach into the broad Mekong River Delta. Vietnamese history is the story of the struggle to develop a sense of nationhood throughout this narrow, 1,500-kilometer stretch of land and to maintain it against internal and external pressures.
China was the chief source of Vietnam's foreign ideas and the earliest threat to its national sovereignty. As a result of a millennium of Chinese control beginning in about 111 BC, the Vietnamese assimilated Chinese influence in the areas of administration, law, education, literature, language, and culture. Even during the following nine centuries of Vietnamese independence, lasting from the late tenth century until the second half of the nineteenth century, the Chinese exerted considerable cultural, if not political, influence, particularly on the elite.
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ColonialPeriod, Independence, and War: After 900 years of independence and following a period of disunity and rebellion, the French colonial era began during the 1858–83 period, when the French seized control of the nation, dividing it into three parts: the north (Tonkin), the center (Annam), and the south (Cochinchina). In 1861 France occupied Saigon, and by 1883 it had taken control of all of Vietnam as well as Laos and Cambodia. French colonial rule was, for the most part, politically repressive and economically exploitative. The Japanese occupied Vietnam during World War II but allowed the French to remain and exert some influence. At the war’s end in 1945, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the communist Viet Minh organization, declared Vietnam’s independence in a speech that invoked the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. However, the French quickly reasserted the control they had ceded to the Japanese, and the First Indochina War (1946–54) was underway. French control ended on May 7, 1954, when Vietnamese forces defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The 1954 Geneva Conference left Vietnam a divided nation, with Ho Chi Minh's communist government ruling the North from Hanoi and Ngo Dinh Diem's regime, supported by the United States, ruling the South from Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City).
As a result of the Second Indochina War (1954–75), Viet Cong—communist forces in South Vietnam—and regular People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) forces from the North unified Vietnam under communist rule. In this conflict, the insurgents—with logistical support from China and the Soviet Union—ultimately defeated the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which sought to maintain South Vietnamese independence with the support of the U.S. military, whose troop strength peaked at 540,000 during the communist-led Tet Offensive in 1968. The North did not abide by the terms of the 1973 Paris Agreement, which officially settled the war by calling for free elections in the South and peaceful reunification. Two years after the withdrawal of the last U.S. forces in 1973, Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the communists, and on April 30, 1975, the South Vietnamese army surrendered. In 1976 the government of united Vietnam renamed Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City, in honor of the wartime communist leader who died in September 1969. The Vietnamese estimate that they lost nearly 3 million lives and suffered more than 4 million injuries during the U.S. involvement in the war.
Unified Vietnam: In the post-1975 period, it was immediately apparent that the popularity and effectiveness of Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) policies did not necessarily extend to the party’s peacetime nation-building plans. Having unified North and South politically, the VCP still had to integrate them socially and economically. In this task, VCP policy makers were confronted with the South’s resistance to communist transformation, as well as traditional animosities arising from cultural and historical differences between North and South. More than a million Southerners, including about 560,000 “boat people,” fled the country soon after the communist takeover, fearing persecution and seizure of their land and businesses. About a million Vietnamese were relocated to previously uncultivated land called “new economic zones” for reeducation.
The harsh postwar crackdown on remnants of capitalism in the South led to the collapse of the economy during the 1980s. With the economy in shambles, Vietnam’s government altered its course and adopted consensus policies that bridged the divergent views of pragmatists and communist traditionalists. In 1986 Nguyen Van Linh, who was elevated to VCP general secretary the following year, launched a campaign for political and economic renewal (Doi Moi). His policies were characterized by political and economic experimentation that was similar to simultaneous reform agendas undertaken in China and the Soviet Union. Reflecting the spirit of political compromise, Vietnam phased out its reeducation effort. The government also stopped promoting agricultural and industrial cooperatives. Farmers were permitted to till private plots alongside state-owned land, and in 1990 the government passed a law encouraging the establishment of private businesses.
Compounding economic difficulties were new military challenges. In the late 1970s, two countries—Cambodia and China—posed threats to Vietnam. Clashes between Vietnamese and Cambodian communists on their common border began almost immediately after Vietnam’s reunification in 1975. To neutralize the threat, Vietnam invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and overran Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, driving out the incumbent Khmer Rouge communist regime and initiating a prolonged military occupation of the country.
In February and March 1979, China retaliated against Vietnam's incursion into Cambodia by launching a limited invasion of Vietnam, but the Chinese foray was quickly rebuffed. Relations between the two countries had been deteriorating for some time. Territorial disagreements along the border and in the South China Sea that had remained dormant during the Second Indochina War were revived at the war's end, and a postwar campaign engineered by Hanoi to limit the role of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese community in domestic commerce elicited a strong protest from Beijing. China also was displeased with Vietnam because of its improving relationship with the Soviet Union.
During its incursion into Cambodia in 1978–89, Vietnam’s international isolation extended to relations with the United States. The United States, in addition to citing Vietnam's minimal cooperation in accounting for Americans who were missing in action (MIAs) as an obstacle to normal relations, barred normal ties as long as Vietnamese troops occupied Cambodia. Washington also continued to enforce the trade embargo imposed on Hanoi at the conclusion of the war in 1975. Soon after the Paris Agreement on Cambodia resolved the conflict in October 1991, however, Vietnam established or reestablished diplomatic and economic relations with most of Western Europe, China, and other Asian countries. Vietnam normalized relations with China in 1991 and with Japan in 1993. In February 1994, the United States lifted its economic embargo against Vietnam, and in June 1995, the United States and Vietnam normalized relations. In June 2005, a high-level Vietnamese delegation, led by Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, visited the United States and met with their U.S. counterparts, including President George W. Bush. This was the first such visit in 30 years. Relations with China took another step forward after the two countries settled their long-standing border dispute in 1999. China is now a major trading partner, and Vietnam models its economic policies after China’s.
As of late 2005, a three-person collective leadership was responsible for governing Vietnam. This triumvirate consisted of the VCP general secretary (Nong Duc Manh, April 2001– ), the prime minister (Phan Van Khai, September 1997– ), and the president (Tran Duc Luong, September 1997– ). General Secretary Manh headed up not only the VCP but also the 15-
Vietnam agreed to a common fishing zone in the Gulf of Tonkin. Vietnam claims an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles, the approximate beginning of the continental shelf.
Topography: Vietnam is a country of tropical lowlands, hills, and densely forested highlands, with level land covering no more than 20 percent of the area. The country is divided into the highlands and the Red River Delta in the north, and the Giai Truong Son (Central mountains, or the Chaîne Annamitique, sometimes referred to simply as the Chaîne), the coastal lowlands, and the Mekong River Delta in the south. The highest point in Vietnam is Fan Si Pan, at 3,143 meters above sea level, in the northwest.
Principal Rivers: A relatively dense network of rivers traverses Vietnam. The principal rivers are as follows: in the north, the Red and Thai Binh; in the center, the Ca, Ma, Han, Thach Han, and Thu Bon; and in the south, the Mekong and Dong Nai.
Climate: Vietnam’s climate is tropical and monsoonal; humidity averages 84 percent throughout the year. Annual rainfall ranges from 1,200 to 3,000 millimeters, and annual temperatures vary between 5°C and 37°C.