During the first millennium BC , the Lac peoples, the ancestors of the modern-day Vietnamese, formed a Bronze Age civilization in the vicinity of the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. The Lac were primarily rice farmers, although those living in mountain valleys occasionally practiced the slash-and-burn agriculture now prevalent among nomadic tribes in the Central Highlands and the mountainous regions in the north. In the 3rd century BC , the Vietnamese kingdom of Van Lang was conquered by a Chinese military adventurer who incorporated the Red River Delta area into his own kingdom in southern China. A century later, Vietnam was integrated into the expanding Chinese empire. During 1,000 years of Chinese rule, Vietnamese society changed significantly as it was introduced to Chinese political and social institutions; Chinese architecture, art, and literature; and the Chinese written language. In AD 939, during a period of anarchy in China, Vietnamese rebels restored national independence.
During the next several hundred years, the Vietnamese Empire, then known as Dai Viet (Great Viet), gradually developed its own institutions and expanded steadily to the south. Under two great dynasties, the Ly (1009–1225) and the Tran (1225–1400), the Vietnamese fended off periodic attempts by China to resubjugate Vietnam, while gradually expanding southward at the expense of their southern neighbor, Champa. In the early 15th century, Chinese rule was briefly restored, but a national uprising led by Le Loi led to the expulsion of the Chinese and the formation of an independent Le Dynasty (1428–1788). Under the Le, expansion to the south continued, and the entire Mekong River Delta came under Vietnamese rule during the 17th century. But expansion brought problems, as a weakened Le court slipped into civil war between two princely families, the Trinh in the north and the Nguyen in the south.
The division of Vietnam into two separate political entities came at a time when European adventurers were beginning to expand their commercial and missionary activities into East and Southeast Asia. In 1771, a major peasant revolt led by the Tay Son brothers destroyed the Nguyen and the Trinh and briefly united the entire country under Emperor Nguyen Hue, ablest of the Tay Son. But a prince of the defeated Nguyen house enlisted the aid of a French Roman Catholic bishop and raised a military force that conquered the Tay Son and reunited the country under a new Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945). When the founding emperor, Gia Long, died in 1820, his son Minh Mang refused to continue the commercial and missionary privileges granted by his predecessor to the French. In 1858, French forces attacked near Saigon and forced the defeated Vietnamese Empire to cede territory in the area to the French, which became the colony of Cochin China. In 1884, France completed its conquest of the country, establishing a protectorate over central and northern Vietnam (now renamed Annam and Tonkin). In 1895, the three sections of Vietnam were included with the protectorates of Laos and Cambodia into a French-ruled Indochinese Union.
In March 1946, the French and the DRV signed a preliminary agreement (the Ho-Sainteny Agreement) recognizing Vietnam as a "free state" in the new French Union. The agreement also called for a plebiscite in Cochin China to permit the local population in that colony to determine their own future. During the summer of 1946, French and Vietnamese negotiators attempted without success to complete an agreement on the future of Vietnam. In September, Ho Chi Minh signed a modus vivendi calling for renewed talks early in 1947, but military clashes between Vietnamese and French troops in the DRV led to the outbreak of war in December 1946. The Franco-Viet-Minh war lasted nearly eight years, ending in July 1954 after a successful siege of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu by Viet-Minh forces. According to the Geneva agreement signed on 21 July, Vietnam was temporarily partitioned along the 17th parallel, pending general elections to bring about national reunification. North of the parallel, the DRV began to build a Socialist society, while in the south, an anti-Communist government under the Roman Catholic politician Ngo Dinh Diem attempted with US aid to build a viable and independent state. In the summer of 1955, Prime Minister Diem refused to hold consultations with the DRV on elections called for by the Geneva accords. On 26 October, Diem proclaimed the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), with its capital at Saigon. In a referendum held three days earlier, Diem had defeated ex-Emperor Bao Dai, and in 1956, Diem became president of the RVN under a new constitution written with US support. With the Geneva accords thus abrogated, Vietnamese guerrillas, supported by the DRV, initiated low-level political and military activities to destabilize the Saigon regime. Their efforts were assisted by Diem's own shortcomings, as he brutally suppressed all political opposition and failed to take effective measures to bring to an end the unequal division of landholding in South Vietnam. The first Vietnamese attempts to resist French rule were ineffectual. Western-style nationalist movements began to form after World War I, and an Indochinese Communist Party, under the leadership of the veteran revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, was formed in 1930. After the collapse of France in World War II, Japan forced the French administration to accept a Japanese military occupation of Indochina. During the joint French-Japanese rule, Communist forces under the umbrella of the Viet-Minh Front began to organize for a national uprising at the end of the war. In March 1945, the Japanese, nearing defeat, disarmed the French and seized full administrative control over French Indochina. At the same time, the Japanese set up a puppet government, with Bao Dai, the figurehead emperor of Vietnam, as nominal ruler. Shortly after Japan surrendered to Allied forces in August 1945, Viet-Minh forces, led by the Indochinese Communist Party, launched the nationwide August Revolution to restore Vietnamese independence. On 2 September, President Ho Chi Minh declared the formation of an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in Hanoi. Under the Potsdam agreements, Nationalist Chinese troops occupied all of Indochina north of the 16th parallel, while British troops occupied the remainder of the old Indochinese Union. Chinese commanders permitted the Viet-Minh to remain in political control of the north, but the British assisted the French to restore their authority in the south.
In December 1960, revolutionary forces in the south formed a National Liberation Front (NLF) to coordinate political activities against the Diem regime. Guerrilla activities by the People's Liberation Armed Forces (known in the United States as the Viet-Cong) were stepped up, and Hanoi began to infiltrate trained cadres from the north to provide leadership to the revolutionary movement. Despite increasing economic and military assistance from the United States, the Diem regime continued to decline, and in November 1963, Diem was overthrown by a military coup waged with the complicity of US president John F. Kennedy's administration, which had watched in dismay as Diem had alienated Buddhist elements by his open favoritism to fellow Roman Catholics. A Military Revolutionary Council, led by the popular southern general Duong Van (Big) Minh, was formed in Saigon. General Minh promised to continue efforts to defeat the insurgency movement in the south but was unable to reverse the growing political anarchy in Saigon. Early in 1964, he was replaced by another military junta. During the next 15 months, a number of governments succeeded each other, while the influence of the NLF, assisted by growing numbers of regular troops that were infiltrating from the north, steadily increased in the countryside. By early 1965, US intelligence was warning that without US intervention, South Vietnam could collapse within six months.
Beginning in February 1965, US president Lyndon Johnson took two major steps to reverse the situation in South Vietnam. American combat troops were introduced in growing numbers into the south, while a campaign of heavy bombing raids was launched on military and industrial targets in the north. In Saigon, the political situation stabilized with the seizure of power by a group of army officers led by Nguyen Van Thieu and Nguyen Cao Ky. Encouraged by the United States, the new military regime drafted a constitution, and in elections held in September 1967, Gen. Thieu was elected president of the country. By 1967, US troop strength in South Vietnam had reached over 500,000, while US air strikes over DRV territory were averaging about 100 sorties a day. The Hanoi regime attempted to match the US escalation by increasing infiltration of North Vietnamese military units into the south, but under the sheer weight of US firepower, the revolution began to lose momentum, and morale was ebbing.
On 30 January 1968, in an effort to reverse the military decline on the battlefield and encourage the growing popular discontent with the war in the United States, Hanoi launched the Tet Offensive, a massive effort to seize towns and villages throughout the south. The attempt to seize Saigon or force the collapse of the Saigon regime failed to achieve its objective, but the secondary aim of undermining support for the war in the United States succeeded. President Johnson canceled plans to increase the US military commitment and agreed to pursue a political settlement. To bring about negotiations with Hanoi, a complete bombing halt was ordered on 1 November, just before the US presidential election that brought Richard M. Nixon to office as the new Republican president. President Nixon announced a policy of "Vietnamization," according to which US forces would be gradually withdrawn and the bulk of the fighting in the south would be taken over by RVN forces. On 30 April 1970, in order to destroy enemy sanctuaries beyond the South Vietnamese border, US and South Vietnamese forces invaded neutral Cambodia. The invasion backfired, however, stimulating the rise of revolutionary activities by the Hanoi-supported Cambodian Communist movement and arousing protests in the United States that the war was being expanded. The withdrawal of US military forces continued, and in March 1972, the DRV attempted to test the capability of the South Vietnamese forces by launching a direct offensive across the 17th parallel. The "Easter Offensive" succeeded in capturing the provincial capital of Quang Tri, but further gains were prevented by the resumption of US bombing raids.
By this time, both sides were willing to compromise to bring the war to an end; on 26 October 1972, the DRV announced that the secret talks between US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and its representative, Le Duc Tho, had produced a tentative agreement. Hanoi agreed to recognize the political authority of President Nguyen Van Thieu in Saigon, while the United States agreed to complete the withdrawal of US forces without demanding the removal of existing North Vietnamese troops in the south. The negotiations briefly ran aground in late autumn, leading President Nixon to order an intensive bombing assault on the DRV, but the talks resumed in early January, and the Paris Agreement was formally signed on 27 January 1973.
The Paris Agreement and the withdrawal of US forces by no means signaled the end of the conflict. Clashes between revolutionary forces and South Vietnamese units continued in the south, while provisions for a political settlement quickly collapsed. In January 1975, North Vietnamese forces in the south launched a major military offensive in the Central Highlands. When South Vietnamese resistance in the area disintegrated, further attacks were launched farther to the north, and by late March the entire northern half of the country was in North Vietnamese hands. President Thieu resigned on 21 April, but his successor, General Duong Van Minh, was unable to achieve a negotiated settlement. The capital of the RVN, Saigon, was occupied by North Vietnamese troops on 30 April. Thus ended a war in which some 2,000,000 Vietnamese and more than 56,000 Americans were killed and an estimated 4,000,000 people were injured. In the DRV, US bombing was estimated to have destroyed 70% of the industrial plants; in the RVN, more than 4 million were homeless. During the 1950–74 period, total US economic and military aid to Vietnam was $23.9 billion (including $16.1 billion in direct military aid), representing the largest bilateral assistance program in modern history. Chinese aid to the DRV (according to intelligence estimates) probably averaged over $200 million a year. No complete figures are available on the extent of Soviet assistance to the DRV, but some scholars estimate it at about $1 billion annually.
During the next 15 months, the DRV moved to complete national reunification of north and south. Nationwide elections for a new National Assembly were held on 25 April 1976. On 24 June, the first Assembly of the unified country met and proclaimed the establishment on 2 July of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV), with its capital remaining at Hanoi. In December, the Communist Party, known as the Vietnamese Workers' Party since 1951, was renamed the Vietnamese Communist Party. The NLF was dissolved into a nationwide Fatherland Front for the entire country. The nation's Communist leadership, with Le Duan the general secretary of the Communist Party and Pham Van Dong the prime minister, remained unchanged, while loyal members of the revolutionary movement in the south were given positions of prominence at the national level. Ton Duc Thang, figurehead president of the DRV after the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969, remained in that position until his death in 1980.
Economic reconstruction and the building of a fully Socialist society proved more difficult than reunification. Nationalization of industry and collectivization of agriculture had been achieved in the north in the late 1950s, but the south proved more resistant to official efforts to end private enterprise after 1975. When the regime attempted to destroy the remnants of capitalism and private farming in the south in 1978, thousands fled, and the economy entered a period of severe crisis. Its problems were magnified by the outbreak of war with China. In December 1978, Vietnamese forces had invaded neighboring Kampuchea (known as Cambodia until 1976 and again from 1989) to overthrow the anti-Vietnamese government of the revolutionary Pol Pot. A pro-Vietnamese government was installed in early January 1979. China, which had been supporting Pol Pot to retain its own influence in Southeast Asia, mounted a punitive invasion of North Vietnam in February 1979. After a short but bitter battle that caused severe casualties on both sides, the Chinese forces withdrew across the border. China, however, continued to support guerrilla operations led by Pol Pot against the government in Kampuchea.
During the 1980s, the SRV attempted to recover from its economic crisis. Party leaders worked out a compromise permitting the survival of a small private sector while maintaining a program of gradual Socialist transformation. With the death of Le Duan in June 1986, a new leadership emerged under General Secretary Nguyen Van Linh at the Sixth National Party Congress. This leadership promised a new "openness" in political affairs and a policy of economic renovation (doi moi) to improve the livelihood of the population. A strong conservative coalition of party leaders seriously reduced Linh's effectiveness as they stressed the dangers of political liberalization and slowed the pace of economic reform. In March 1988 Prime Minister Pham Hung died, and Linh's choice of a conservative replacement, Do Muoi, was a clear concession to these groups.
Economic recovery continued to be difficult due to a serious lack of investment capital, resources, and technical skills. The SRV's internal problems were compounded by the continuing dispute with China. To protect itself from Chinese intimidation, Hanoi had formed a military alliance with the USSR and was deeply dependent upon Soviet economic assistance. The continuing civil war in Kampuchea also represented a steady drain on the SRV's slender resources and prevented foreign economic assistance, particularly from the United States. In December 1988 the constitution was amended to remove derogatory references to the United States, China, France and Japan, as an attempt to improve international relations. In August 1991 Do Muoi resigned as prime minister. His successor Vo Van Kiet favored free-market reforms. A new constitution was adopted by the National Assembly in April 1992. A general election took place in July 1992 and, for the first time, independent candidates were allowed to present themselves, but neither of the two deemed qualified were elected. On 23 September 1992, the National Assembly elected Lu Duc Anh as president and reelected Vo Van Kiet as prime minister.
In January 1989 the first direct talks between Vietnam and China since 1979 resulted in Vietnam's agreement to withdraw its troops from Cambodia by the end of September 1989 and China's agreement to end aid to the Khmer Rouge guerrillas once the Vietnamese withdrawal was achieved. Later, Vietnam insisted that the withdrawal was contingent on the end of all foreign military aid to factions opposing Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Hanoi hoped to use the September 1989 withdrawal of its troops from Cambodia as leverage for improved relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Japan, and the West. On 23 October 1991 a Cambodian peace agreement was signed, paving the way for Vietnam's eventual entry into ASEAN, which occurred in 1995.
During the 1990s, Vietnam stepped up its efforts to attract foreign capital from the West and regularize relations with the world financial system. At the same time, the country struggled with its intention not to descend too deeply into Western style consumerism, as demonstrated in 1996, when the government, while continuing to court foreign investment, banned consumergoods advertising in foreign languages. That move angered Western investors and free-market Vietnamese, but marked the beginning of a countrywide attempt to purge society of overt Western decadence. Analysts attributed the drive to the aging hard-line leadership who looked at the doi moi reforms with intense skepticism.
After joining ASEAN in 1995, Vietnam began reframing its trade laws and began instituting legal reforms aimed at codifying its sometimes capricious statutory system. During 1995, a significant year in Vietnam's opening up to the world, the Communist Party held two meetings to discuss the establishment of a law-based civil society to replace the decades-old system of rule by fiat. In this spirit, the National Assembly passed a series of laws aligning the country with international standards on copyright protection—needed for World Trade Organization (WTO) membership—and other areas. An extensive document, called the Civil Code, was passed containing 834 articles ostensibly granting the Vietnamese people greater civil liberties. Other measures were decidedly investor-unfriendly, such as Prime Minister Kiet's decree that no more land would be turned over from rice production to industrial use. Subsequently, Vietnam's foreign investment rate slid from a peak of $8.6 billion in 1996, to just $1.4 billion in 1999.
In June 1996, the Communist Party held its eighth congress, its first full congress since 1991. Much was expected from the congress in light of the country's ambiguous and, at times, conflicting moves toward openness and reform over the 12 years of doi moi. The congress returned to power the aging leadership, granting additional five-year terms to General Secretary Do Muoi, President Le Duc Anh, and Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet. The Party issued decrees in favor of continued economic reform and international investment, but balked at the kind of market liberalization most internationalist investors perceive as necessary to the creation of a viable economy.
After the long war between the Communists and the United States, 30 April 2000 marked Vietnam's reunification. Celebrations of the occasion, with military parades and a carnival atmosphere, were followed by the 6 May funeral of former prime minister Pham Van Dong. One of the original troika leading Vietnam during the struggle against France and the United States, Dong (born in 1906) had been an influential, unswerving Communist conservative. It remains to be seen whether the inevitable winnowing of Vietnam's "gerontocracy" will result in significant liberalization.
Severe, violent unrest in the countryside during 1997 led to punishment of rural officials for corruption, and increased awareness of agricultural concerns. As much as 80% of Vietnam's population lives in farming communities. Expressions of rural discontent continued to emerge, even in the form of peasant anticorruption protests in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The Party hierarchy was somewhat reshuffled during 1997's central committee meetings. Tran Duc Luong was selected as the new president (the third most powerful rank in the troika including general secretary and prime minister.) Phan Van Khai became prime minister. The ultimate hard-liner, Do Muoi, was succeeded as the Party's general secretary by Gen. Le Kha Phieu. Muoi remained a highly influential advisor to Phieu, and some observers feel that Muoi's constant pressure to hold the hard line kept Phieu from coming into his own as a possibly more progressive leader.
As aftereffects of the Asian economic crisis stunted the growth of Vietnam's economy, the country remained poor at the beginning of the 21st century. In spite of strides in rice production, literacy and education, unemployment outpaces economic growth. Rural infrastructure languishes, and the urban gap between a rich elite and struggling masses is enormous. Socialist rhetoric and retrenchment failed to heal the divide, which also exists between North and South. Some effort has been made to recognize Party officials from the South, such as early 2000s appointment of Truong Tan Sang, who had been Ho Chi Minh City's Party head, to lead the Party's economic commission. The reformists within the Party have never been completely marginalized, only outmaneuvered by the old-time Marxists. Retired General Tran Do's open criticism of corruption and other failures of the system resulted in his expulsion from the Party in January 1999. General Tran Do endured other forms of harassment, but it was not as severe as that meted out to other dissidents, due to his revered war veteran, communist faithful, status. He died on 9 August 2002.
Issues of importance relevant to Vietnam's reintegration into the international system have included the status of Vietnamese refugees; border and troop withdrawal disputes with Cambodia, Thailand, and the People's Republic of China; conflicts over the Spratly and Paracel island groups in the South China Sea; conflicts with the United States over the recovery of the remains of US soldiers missing-in-action (MIA); and Vietnamese cooperation in a diplomatic settlement in Cambodia. In October 1991 Vietnam agreed to accept the forced repatriation of Vietnamese refugees—known as boat people—who were designated economic migrants, not seekers of political asylum. The boat people were in camps around Asia from 1975–1994. The "comprehensive plan of action" adopted by the UN High Commission for Refugees in 1989 reduced the number of boat people fleeing Vietnam. In 1994, the Commission decided that all those still living in camps were to be repatriated.
The Soviet economic assistance on which Vietnam had depended, withered away with the collapse of the USSR, although technical help from Russia remains important. With the loss of major Soviet aid, Vietnam's relations with the West began to warm considerably. In June 1992, Vietnam announced that all South Vietnamese officials had been released from reeducation camps, a US-mandated prerequisite for lifting its embargo against Vietnam. As a result, on 3 February 1994 President Bill Clinton lifted the US trade embargo against Vietnam. At the time Clinton lifted the embargo, there were still 2,238 US servicemen listed as missing. Vietnam agreed to cooperate with their recovery to the "fullest possible extent." Vietnam and the United States established full diplomatic relations in 1995. Trade between the United States and Vietnam has still been stymied by wrangling over agreements, including a stalemate in trade normalization talks in May 2000; however, in December 2001, Vietnam and the United States normalized trade relations. Vietnam does not want to be perceived by China as overly friendly with the United States, and the Party elite is very reluctant to embark on the economic overhaul that the United States demands. This resistance to change mandated from outside has kept Vietnam from World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization benefits, but has earned it some admiration among those who oppose those institutions' dominance. Vietnam's international economic relations often appear confused or confusing to observers, as the Party attempts to balance a certain level of openness with the strong will to preserve a socialist system that has become a rarity in the global economy.
Print and broadcast media remain firmly state-dominated. In January 2002, the Communist Party ordered the seizure and destruction of unauthorized books written by leading dissidents. Relations with Canada soured when Vietnam executed a Vietnamese-Canadian woman on heroin charges in April 2000. The US government (particularly members of Congress) remains critical of Vietnam's human rights policies, including arbitrary arrest and detention of citizens. In contradiction to assertions of commitment to the cause of human rights, authorities continue to severely limit freedom of speech, press, assembly and association, workers' rights, and rights of citizens to change their government. In 1995, for instance, nine Vietnamese were sentenced to 4–15 years in prison for attempting to convene a conference on democracy and human rights. Six members of a banned Buddhist group were sentenced to up to five years in prison for "sabotaging religious solidarity," and two longtime Communist Party members were sentenced to 12–15 months in jail for calling for political pluralism. Members of Vietnam's ethnic minorities such as the indigenous hill peoples have had difficulty protecting their land from logging and other encroachments. To celebrate the reunification anniversary in 2000, a large-scale amnesty of prisoners was held, which may have included political dissidents.
A May 2000 report, "Vietnam: Silencing of Dissent" by Human Rights Watch, detailed ways in which those expressing views counter to the Party line are subjected to "harassment and intimidation," although it noted that Vietnam has fewer actual political prisoners than in the past. The arrival of Internet access in Vietnam began to provide a means for free expression, although so far Internet content is government-monitored. In August 2001, the government passed a decree that imposed stricter regulations on Internet cafes and imposed fines for illegal Internet usage, while opening up provision of Internet services to privately owned businesses, including foreign companies. The government controlled the operation of the sole Internet access provider. In August 2002, the government proposed severe penalties for Internet cafe owners who allow customers to visit anti-government or pornographic websites. There were approximagely 4,000 Internet cafes in 2002.
The controversy between the People's Republic of China and the SRV over the control of the Spratly and Paracel archipelagoes in the South China Sea dates to the early part of the 20th century. After the Vietnam War, when oil supplies became an issue, the dispute intensified, leading to numerous armed clashes between China and Vietnam. Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia claim all or part of the Spratly and Paracel archipelagoes. These competing claims have broad geopolitical implications regarding oil reserves, fishing rights, rights of passage for ships, prevention of nuclear dumping, and security in the region. In 1995, China occupied Mischief Reef, on an island in the area claimed by the Philippines and later that year China signed an agreement with a US oil exploration firm to drill for oil in waters claimed by Vietnam. As a member of ASEAN, Vietnam took its complaint to that body. In March 1997, a meeting of the ASEAN ambassadors was convened in Hanoi and the regional bloc emerged united in opposition to China's move against what they officially recognized as Vietnam's legal territory, marking the first time the ASEAN nations stood up in defiance of Beijing. The disputes over the islands remain unresolved as of early 2003.
At the ninth Party congress held in April 2001, reform-minded National Assembly chairman Nong Duc Manh was chosen as General Secretary to replace the unpopular Le Kha Phieu, who was increasingly seen as an obstacle to Vietnam's modernization. Manh is believed to be the illegitimate son of Ho Chi Minh. There is evidence of some division within the Party, as some more conservative members are concerned about the perceived negative effects of economic growth, such as corruption and drug trafficking, whereas a more reformist bloc is interested in separating the government from the Party and in creating a greater role for the private sector. In 2002, the Party revised its rules to allow members to engage in private business. At the meeting of the National Assembly in July 2002, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai and General Secretary Nong Duc Manh, among others, identified corruption as one of the government's main challenges. By September, more than 100 government officials had been arrested, more than 50 police officers had been suspended from duty, and two members of the Central Committee were expelled from the Party for dealings with Nam Cam, a crime figure involved in drug, prostitution, and protection rackets.
In National Assembly elections held on 19 May 2002, approximately 700 candidates competed for 498 seats, some of whom were independents. However, a government body, the Fatherland Front, was responsible for screening candidates. No opposition parties contested the vote. In July 2002, President Tran Duc Luong was reappointed for a second term by the National Assembly, which also reappointed Prime Minister Phan Van Khai for a second five-year term.