Revised: April 01, 2017

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a long, narrow, “S”-shaped country of 127,243 square miles (329,556 square kilometers). It extends about 1,000 miles from southern China southward to the Gulf of Thailand. It is bordered on the west by Laos and Cambodia and on the east by the south China Sea. At the center of the “S,” Vietnam is less than 30 miles wide. The northern and southern parts of the country are somewhat wider, with the north reaching a maximum width of 350 miles.

Vietnam MapThis southeast Asian nation has a population of about 90 million people. The ethnic Vietnamese, who make up nearly 94 percent of the population, are thought to be descendants of peoples who migrated into the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam from southern China. There are also about three million members of mountain tribes, found mainly in the Central Highlands and in the Annamese Cordillera mountain chain in the north; about two million ethnic Chinese, most of whom live in large cities; about 500,000 Khmer, or ethnic Cambodians; and about 50,000 Cham, descendants of a Malayo-Polynesian people who dominated the area that is now southern Vietnam before the arrival of the Vietnamese.

Religions include Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Roman Catholicism, Cao Dai (a mixture of aspects of Roman Catholicism and various Asian religions), Hoa Hao (a Vietnamese offshoot of Buddhism), Islam, Protestantism, and animism. Most Vietnamese practice the mutually compatible religions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. About three million are Catholics, concentrated in the southern part of the country. About one million practice the Cao Dai religion and about one million belong to the Hoa Hao sect. The number of Protestants is small, and they are mostly found among the tribesmen of the mountains, where American and European missionaries were active until recently. Almost all of the Cham are Muslims.

The country’s official language is Vietnamese and the capital city is Hanoi.
The official flag is red with a large yellow star in the center

Vietnam occupies the eastern coast of the Southeast Asian peninsula. It is bordered by the South China Sea on the west and south, China to the north, and Laos and Cambodia to the west. The terrain of Vietnam is varied, with mountainous regions, thick forested areas, and lowlands leading down from the rugged mountains to coastal plains and river deltas. Major Vietnamese cities include Hanoi in the north, Da Nang in the mid coastal region, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon) to the south.

Although the Vietnamese are newcomers to North America, they are heirs to a culture far older than the United States, and even older than any of the national societies of Europe. The first known historical records of the Viets in the Red River Delta of what is now northern Vietnam were written by the Chinese in the second century B.C. Vietnamese archaeologists have traced their civilization back even further, to the Phung-Nguyen culture that existed before 2000 B.C.

While the village constituted the basis of rural Vietnamese folk culture, many of the nation’s formal institutions were introduced from the great neighbor to the north, China. Even the name of the country is derived from Chinese: ” Viet ” is a variant pronunciation of the Chinese word ” Yueh “, which designates the “hundred” tribes that populated the southern region of China, and ” Nam, ” which is the same as ” nan ” in Chinese and means “south.” Vietnam’s close but troubled relations with its huge northern neighbor have shaped many of its political and social structures and have, in recent years, played a crucial role in the creation of a refugee crisis.

As the Chinese empire of the Han dynasty extended its control over the area to the south, the Viets accepted Chinese administrative designations for their territory and the local rulers were redefined as prefectural and district officers. Despite some early rebellions against Chinese rule (one in particular was instigated by the Trung sisters, who remain Vietnamese national heroes for their struggles against the Chinese in the first century A.D. ), Vietnam was a part of the Chinese empire until the successful war for independence in the tenth century. Despite the adoption of Chinese forms of government, Chinese written characters, and Chinese-style Buddhism, the Vietnamese have continued to be wary of their powerful neighbor.

Until the fifteenth century, the Vietnamese occupied only the northern part of what we now know as Vietnam. The southern portion constituted the empire of the Cham, Champa, and part of the Khmer, or Cambodian, territory. By 1471, however, under the rulers of the Le dynasty (modeled after the Chinese “emperors”), Vietnam succeeded in conquering almost the whole of Champa. This success not only brought the newly enlarged country into conflict with the Khmers, but it also gave the country its present elongated shape, wide at the top and bottom and exceedingly narrow in the middle where the mountains that run down its center approach the sea coast. This geographical feature, often described as two heads and a little body, divided the country into two regions.

While Vietnam’s early history was dominated by its struggles with neighboring China, modern Vietnam has been greatly influenced by France. Vietnam’s early contacts with Europe were primarily forged through Catholic missionaries, particularly Jesuits, who arrived in 1615, after they had been prohibited from entering Japan. France, as the most powerful of Catholic nations in the seventeenth century, was especially active in supporting these religious endeavors, through the Societe des Missions Etrangeres. Alexandre des Rhodes, a French Jesuit, along with some of his Portuguese colleagues, was instrumental in creating a new system of writing, which was later adopted throughout Vietnam. This form of writing became known as quoc ngu —national language—and uses the Latin alphabet to transcribe phonetically the Vietnamese spoken language. This system was adopted throughout Vietnam in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Through the work of missionaries, the French gained influence in Vietnam long before the arrival of a single French soldier or administrator. When a peasant rebellion, known as the Tay-son, reunified the country in 1788 under the rule of a rebel leader who had himself proclaimed emperor, the surviving heir of the southern Nguyen family, Nguyen Anh, sought the assistance of France. Because of the revolution in France, this claimant to the throne received only token French ships and volunteer troops that nonetheless helped him reestablish himself at Saigon in 1789. The French also constructed forts for him and trained his troops, which contributed to Nguyen Anh’s success in taking control of the entire country by 1802.

Nguyen Anh’s son, the Emperor Minh-mang, facilitated a revival of the Confucian religion to reestablish order in the country and to support his own position as an emperor. The spread of Catholicism presented a danger to the Confucian order in the eyes of Minh-mang, who consequently initiated a policy of persecution against Catholics in 1825.

By the nineteenth century, the French were struggling to catch up to other European countries in the competition for colonies. The French Emperor Napoleon III took up the cause of the Catholics in Vietnam and used their persecution as a pretext for invading the country. His envoys seized Saigon and the three surrounding provinces in 1862. Minh-mang’s grandson, Tu-duc, had to choose between opposing a rebellion in the north and effectively fighting the French. In 1863 he officially ceded the three provinces to France and agreed to the establishment of a French protectorate over Vietnamese foreign relations. In the 1880s, following a war between France and China, which still claimed sovereignty over Vietnam, the French extended their control over the rest of Vietnam. They held the southern part, known as Cochinchina, as a colony, and central and northern Vietnam—respectively named Tonkin and Annam—as protectorates. The two latter territories were placed under the nominal rules of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty, whom the French tightly controlled and manipulated.

As in other parts of Southeast Asia, the system of colonial domination created in the late nineteenth century was maintained until the rise of an Asian imperial power, Japan. A variety of Vietnamese nationalist movements had developed in response to French rule. The anti-imperialist stance expressed in Lenin’s analysis of colonialism attracted some, including the young man who joined the French Socialist Party in 1920 and later became known by the adopted name of Ho Chi Minh. Following the surrender of France to Japan’s ally, Germany, Ho Chi Minh’s forces were left as the only effective resistance to Japan in Vietnam.

When Japan surrendered in August 1945, the Communist-dominated nationalist organization called the Viet Minh staged the August Revolution and easily seized power. The last of the French-controlled Vietnamese emperors, Bao-dai, abdicated and Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of Vietnam, proclaiming the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, on September 2, 1945. Japanese forces remained in Vietnam, however, and the Allies moved in to disarm them and send them home. China, still under the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai Chek, was given the task of disarming the Japanese in northern Vietnam, while the British were assigned to the territory south of the sixteenth parallel. While the Chinese allowed the Viet Minh to retain control of Hanoi and the north, the British helped the French seize control of the south and reestablish French colonial power. After the British left in January 1946 and the Chinese left in the spring of that same year, the country was again divided into north and south.

At first the French and the new Vietnamese government accepted one another, albeit uneasily, as neither was prepared for open conflict. In March 1946, Ho Chi Minh signed an agreement with the French in which he accepted the deployment of French troops in the north, while France agreed to recognize the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, on the condition that this state would remain part of the Indochinese Federation (including the parts of Vietnam under direct French rule, Cambodia, and Laos) within the French Union. Ho Chi Minh and the French also agreed to hold a popular referendum to decide whether Cochinchina should join Vietnam or remain a French colony.

France was not interested in seeing a truly independent power in Vietnam, and the Viet Minh had no desire to see their country continue under colonial rule. In late 1946 and early 1947, tensions between the two sides erupted into combat and the first Vietnam War began. In February 1947, following the Battle of Hanoi, France reoccupied Hanoi and the Viet Minh once again assumed the position of guerrillas, fighting in the mountains.


It was a long time before either side was able to gain a decisive victory. In the late 1940s France, realizing that it could not win the war militarily, added a political dimension into the conflict, accusing the Viet Minh of fighting for communism and not for independence. France created a State of Vietnam, at the head of which they placed the former emperor Bao-dai, to whom they granted more independence than what they agreed to give Ho Chi Minh in 1946. The United States and other non-communist countries quickly recognized the new Vietnamese state, while China, the Soviet Union, and other communist counties recognized the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. In one single move, France succeeded in transforming their war of colonial re-conquest into an anti-communist crusade, and made an imperialist conflict into a quasi-civil one. Despite their machinations, the move did not help them on the battlefield. In the early 1950s, the growing army of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, under the command of General Vo Nguyen Giap, began a series of offenses against the French. They achieved a famous victory at Dien Bien Phu in May 1954. The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu led to in an international conference on Vietnam in Geneva, which resulted in a cease fire and a temporary division of the country into North Vietnam, governed by Democratic Republic from Hanoi, and South Vietnam, which was entrusted to the French and their State of Vietnam with Bao-dai as the Chief of State and Ngo Dinh Diem as the Prime Minister in Saigon. Some South Vietnamese who sympathized with Ho Chi Minh’s government moved north. About one million northerners, between 600,000 and 800,000 of whom were Catholics, fled south on U.S. and French aircraft and naval vessels.

Ngo Dinh Diem proved to be an energetic leader, putting down armed religious sects and criminal groups. He also demanded that France remove all its troops from Vietnam. In 1955, Diem organized and won elections that forced Bao-dai to abdicate. Diem proclaimed Vietnam a Republic with him as its first president. Supported by the United States, Diem refused to take part in the elections for national re-unification that had been promised by the Geneva Conference, which led to terrorism and other forms of resistance to his regime in many parts of South Vietnam.

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