20th Century History
Human habitation of Northern Vietnam goes back
about 500,000 years according to archaeological evidence. The site of
present-day Hanoi has been populated for at least 10,000 years. These first
inhabitants formed a feudally organized society that first relied on
hunting, fishing and gathering, later developing animal husbandry and
agriculture. These tribes developed in relative isolation until about 2000
The Han Chinese set up a military garrison
near present-day Hanoi in 214 BC, using it as a base of operations that
would eventually control most of modern Vietnam. The next 1000 years of
Chinese rule introduced important technological innovations to the
Vietnamese, including ploughs and irrigation systems. But rebellion simmered
in every town, and the millennium was punctuated by revolution and
resistance. This tradition of rebellion shaped Vietnam's national character.
Vietnamese rebels saw their chance when
China's Tang dynasty collapsed. In 938, revolutionary leader Ngo Quyen gave
the Chinese a sound whipping and established an independent Vietnamese
state, but after his death the region fell into anarchy. In 980, Vietnam
became a semi-independent client state of China, stabilizing the situation
all for the cost of a biannual tribute.
For the next 400 years, the site of
present-day Hanoi served as the administrative seat for all of Vietnam. The
Grand Royal enclosure, now the city's Old Quarter, was constructed and the
nation's first university, the Temple of Literature, was founded during the
first century of home rule. Attacks by the Khmers, Chinese and even Kublai
Khan were repelled by national forces. All this was done with little Chinese
The Chinese never forgot their plum province,
however, and in 1400 they captured Hanoi again. National hero Le Loi's
guerrilla tactics and peasant support eventually reclaimed Vietnamese
independence. A period of nationalism and renewed interest in Confucianism
followed, a reaction to increased discontent with Europeans, their values
and their missionaries.
The missionaries didn't take the hint,
however, and in 1858 several were killed. The French had an excuse to
invade, and by 1867 south Vietnam was a French colony. Hanoi was captured in
1874. The impotent imperial court was allowed to remain, indulging itself in
various coups and capers, but the French controlled the nation.
As it had under Chinese rule, Vietnamese
nationalism simmered quietly throughout the country, waiting for an
opportunity. Young Nguyen Tat Thanh, better known by his alias Ho Chi Minh,
thought that the end of WWI was a good opening, so he tried to present a
plan for an independent Vietnam to US president Woodrow Wilson at the 1919
Versailles Peace Conference. Evidently, self-determination was for Europeans
When France fell to Nazi Germany in 1940, the
Vichy government allowed the Japanese to put troops in Vietnam. The United
States knew enough not to count on any French resistance, instead opting to
pump arms and funding into the communist-dominated Viet Minh forces. Their
leader, Ho Chi Minh, graciously accepted and began harassing the Japanese
After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
Ho called for a general uprising known as the August Revolution, and on
September 2, 1945, Ho and his National Liberation Committee (with US
officials at his side) declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
independent at a rally in Ba Dinh Square.
The French were not pleased, and fought the
Viet Minh tooth and nail for eight years, despite a massive military aid
package from the USA and formal recognition by both China and the USSR. On
May 7, 1954, the French threw in the towel and surrendered North Vietnam to
the Viet Minh. Fiercely anti-communist leader Ngo Dinh Diem was elected
(more or less; a lot of dead people voted in that election) president of
South Vietnam. Soon afterward, the USA closed its consulate in Hanoi.
In 1959, Southern cadres asked that the North
Vietnamese join them in 'armed struggle' against the Diem regime. Hanoi
responded by agreeing to help the National Liberation Front (NLF), also
known as the Viet Cong, who were mainly communist South Vietnamese resisters
with little training. Without French troops, however, the South Vietnamese
army was incredibly weak, and the Western world looked on nervously as Diem
began losing control of the situation.
The USA sent 2000 'military advisers' to South
Vietnam in 1961, the number swelling to 23,000 by 1964. By then, Hanoi was
no longer helping the NLF out with guns and training; they were sending
trained North Vietnamese troops across the border. Despite small victories,
Hanoi's war didn't seem winnable until the 1968 Tet Offensive, when Hanoi
gained the upper hand.
The USA continued to throw warm bodies - to
the tune of 3.14 million men and women - at the increasingly bloody conflict
until the 1973 cease-fire. The USA evacuated almost all troops out of
Vietnam in return for Hanoi's commitment to keep communism above the 17th
Parallel. They also cut off most financial and other aid to South Vietnam.
By 1975, the southern half of the country was running on fumes.
North Vietnam launched a massive attack on the
South on January 1975; Saigon surrendered in April. No one, least of all the
leadership in Hanoi, was prepared for reunification. At least two million
Vietnamese had died in the conflict and scars ran deep; the environment and
economy were a shambles. The violence wasn't over, either: In 1979,
answering for Vietnam's 1978 invasion of Cambodia, China attacked Hanoi. The
Chinese were repelled within 17 brutal days.
The 1980s witnessed a devastating famine that
left Hanoi with rice shortages and strict rations, a continuing guerrilla
war with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the opening of European communism.
Surprisingly, Vietnam finished the decade in much better shape than it
In February 1990, the government called for
more 'openness and criticism', but was unprepared for the seething
discontent behind the floodgates. Hanoi backtracked, but began allowing more
economic openness while keeping government structure (and media access) in a
lockbox. In 1992 Vietnam signed a peace treaty with Cambodia, and in 1994,
the USA lifted economic sanctions on the country. The two former enemies now
maintain diplomatic relations.