A millennium under Chinese rule
Every city and town in Vietnam has its Hai Ba Trung Street named after the Trung sisters who led a briefly successful rebellion in 40 AD and killed themselves when the uprising was quashed by the ruling Chinese. There are few clues to explain why the early Vietnamese were so committed to resisting assimilation by China, but despite adopting their technology, language, religion and way of life, becoming part of the Chinese Empire was a bridge too far. Regardless of the tyranny and brutality that was the Chinese response to insurrection, resistance and insurgence continued until the battle on Bach Dang River, not far from today’s Ha Long City, finally ended a thousand years of Chinese domination.
Kublai Khan repelled, and the Chinese briefly in control again
With the fire of independence burning brightly, the Vietnamese became a formidable foe. Repeated incursions by the Chinese from the north, and the Khmers and Cham from the south were all repelled. Even the might of half a million Mongols led by Kublai Khan was defeated by inferior numbers of Vietnamese on three occasions in the 13th century – the only other country in the world to withstand invasion by the great conqueror was Egypt. However, after the victories, the Chinese, with Champa support, took advantage of Vietnam’s depleted military resources to invade and re-establish direct rule. Once again, they were expelled, twenty-one years later, but this time by Le Loi’s guerrilla army.
The fall of Champa
Vietnam’s present boundaries once included much of the Kingdom of Champa, a maritime empire established in what is now Da Nang in the second century AD that expanded south to rule the southern Mekong area extending well into Cambodia. It reached its zenith about the same time as Vietnam threw off the Chinese yoke, whereupon the two countries fought almost continuously until the Cham forces were defeated in the fifteenth century, and the remainder of the population fled to Cambodia or were absorbed into the Viet population. Today, apart from several of their distinctive brick towers and a few examples of their Indianised sculptures, little remains of the glory that was Champa.
Consolidation, not expansionism
Surprisingly, the occupation of the Champa lands in the south is the only significant example of Vietnamese expansionism. Despite its periods of obvious military superiority over its western neighbours, the country’s borders have hardly changed since Le Loi’s victory. The elixir of independence was, and still is, enough.
The lessons of history
Had the French, and particularly the Americans, made a more thorough study of Vietnam’s military past, they might have had second thoughts about attempting to pacify China’s 'most unruly province’. China’s abortive incursion in 1979, when they were driven back by the Vietnamese, suggests that they might have benefited from a closer study of their own history!
The revered heroes
The names of the Trung Sisters, Le Loi and his Imperial title Le Thai To, Ngo Quyen - the military genius who broke the shackles of Chinese domination, General Tran Hung Dao - the conqueror of Kublai Khan, and a host of other heroes from the distant and recent past, are much more than just street names. Whereas people in the West pass statues and mementos of famous military figures with scarcely a glance, Vietnam literally worships its ancestors in temples all over the country. For ordinary Vietnamese people, they are not a footnote in history books, but an embodiment of the qualities of heroism and virtue that nurture the fierce desire for independence, and an everyday model upon which to base one’s own character.
The riches of independence
For those with clear memories of the relentless slaughter of the French and American wars, it seems perverse to call the Vietnamese a peace-loving nation. Many visitors from countries involved in the hostilities of the twentieth century wars in Indochina arrive in Vietnam expecting a residue of resentment. To their pleasant surprise, they are invariably accorded a welcome of great warmth. We have opened our arms to the world in a spirit of peace and reconciliation.
Vietnam is fully independent again and, for us, that is a treasure above all others.