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The History of Vietnam

The History of Vietnam

By Wendy Updated Jun. 22, 2021

Vietnam is a charming country with much to commend itself to the curious traveler. Tourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, and visitors are attracted by the delicious food, spectacular beaches, and warm-hearted people.

Despite Vietnam’s current popularity as a tourist destination, the country has a complex history of colonization and conflict. To fully appreciate its present delights, it is helpful to understand what has led Vietnam to become the wonder that it is today.

A Brief Timeline

Early History

For over a millennium, North Vietnam was ruled by China. As a result, Vietnam adopted China’s political and educational systems, along with Confucianism. After the Chinese were driven out, Le Thai To became the first emperor of the country and moved the capital to Hanoi. A monument to Le can be seen in Ly Thai To Park in Hanoi.

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Events Before the Nguyen Dynasty (1802–1945 AD)

Before French colonialism, Vietnam was ruled by a succession of warring clans, until in 1776, power was wrested from the Nguyen family. The only surviving member, Anh, fled the country.

Following Anh’s departure, the capital Hue, along with much of the rest of the country, came under the control of three brothers from Tay Son. Their army soon overthrew the Trinh lords in the north and each brother claimed a portion of the country to rule.

China saw this power shift as an opportunity to regain control and once again invaded Vietnam. The Chinese were soundly defeated, however, during the battle of Dong Da in 1788 and 1789, and were forced to retreat. For the first time in over 200 years, North and South Vietnam became united as one country.

Meanwhile, after leaving the country to regroup and gather support, Anh Nguyen finally found allies. Tired of being persecuted, the French missionaries in Vietnam agreed to help Nguyen regain power in exchange for unhindered religious practice. In 1802, Anh retook the country, and declared himself Emperor Gia Long.

French Colonial Period (1887–1954 AD)

Following Gia Long’s taciturn protection and death, missionaries were seen as a source of foreign influence and a threat to Vietnamese culture and tradition. Ironically, it was this popular resistance to missionaries that prompted France to intervene, and by the late 1800s, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos had together become the French colony known as Indochina.

Although France’s occupation was largely negative for the Vietnamese people, there were a few positive changes. Many primary schools were opened, and after its foundation in 1902, the University of Hanoi became a key institution of learning. Furthermore, many railways were constructed for exporting rubber. French architecture, much of which has survived, replaced many Vietnamese structures.

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First Indochina War (1946–54 AD)

After the fall of France during WWII, Japanese rule slowly replaced the French government in Indochina. Resistance by the Vietnamese to both regimes was lead by Ho Chi Minh, head of the Communist Party, and in 1945, Vietnam declared itself independent.

This, however, was not the last of Vietnam’s foreign occupation and true independence had yet to be won. For nine years a guerrilla war was carried out against France, finally ending in 1954 after the battle of Dien Bien Phu.

An agreement officially ending the war was signed, and once again Vietnam was divided, this time into the communist North and Catholic-controlled South.

The Vietnam War (1955–75 AD)

In 1959, the North led a campaign to ‘liberate’ the South. Fighting resumed and thousands were displaced or killed.

Disliking the North’s pro-communist ideology, the U.S. and other foreign countries began sending troops to combat what it saw as ‘communist expansion’. In the ensuing years, approximately 1.5 million troops and civilians died from causes directly or indirectly related to the fighting.

In 1975, following years of protest and declining support in America, foreign soldiers finally left the country.


Almost immediately after the foreign withdrawal, troops from the North pushed their way into Saigon, and the name of this Southern capital was soon changed to Ho Chi Minh City. Over the next few years, tens of thousands of anticommunist dissidents fled the country. It would not be until the late 1980s that Vietnam would truly begin its recovery; but recover it has.

Today, in the peaceful yet busy cities of Vietnam, scars of the war are barely visible. The economy is booming and the people are among the most caring in the world. Vietnam is truly a hidden gem that should be explored before it disappears under a tide of modernity.

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Vietnam - Explore the Wonders

Treasures of the Nguyen Dynasty

The scars of the war are barely visible, but visitors to Vietnam can still see reminders of Vietnam’s conflict-heavy history and of the different dynasties, countries and ideologies that shaped it.

It was during the Nguyen Dynasty that the Hue Monuments were constructed. The most prominent of these is the Hue Citadel, built on the banks of Perfume River, which earns its name from the aromatic fruit blossoms that tumble into the waterway during autumn.

The citadel once contained the Imperial and Forbidden Cities and the Royal Palace. Today you can stroll around the beautifully manicured grounds and take in the full splendor of this former capital.

Thien Mu Pagoda is an icon in Hue. Its seven stories stand protectively overlooking the city. Today, tourists are allowed into the temple gardens, which contain a stupa and the sculpture of a giant turtle.

Further down-river, you can explore the majestic tombs of several Emperors including Minh Mang, Tu Duc, and Khai Dinh. These mausoleums are nestled amid lush forests and offer a escape from the city to serenity.

Perfume River tours can be organized for you to explore the citadel, pagoda, and tombs.

Another of the monuments is the Temple of Literature (Van Mieu). Here you can catch a glimpse of the feudal educational system in 19th century Vietnam.

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Take a Walk through Paris - in Vietnam

As a result of French colonialism, you can taste banh mi sandwiches, caramel coffee with condensed milk, and even Vietnamese crème brûlée .

In Ho Chi Minh City, Notre Dame Cathedral remains on the list of the most visited attractions and the Central Post Office is a breathtaking mix of renaissance and gothic architecture.

Be a Historical Pilgrim

Many ancient buildings and monuments miraculously survived Vietnam’s rocky past. The Vietnam War Memorial and War Remnants are in Ho Chi Minh City. These exhibits are powerful portrayals of citizens who were affected by past wars, and the photographs on display are raw and honest.

You can also visit the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi. This museum boasts a large collection of artillery, including tanks, guns and mines.

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Top 9 Destinations in Vietnam

Top Things to Do in Vietnam

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Top 9 Attractions in Ho Chi Minh City

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