Vietnam before French colonisation

vietnam before french colonisation
A map showing the topographic regions of Vietnam.

Today, Vietnam is a major Asian nation with a population approaching 90 million. Vietnam is situated between the eighth and 24th parallel, north of the equator. The shape of Vietnam is long and narrow; it is more than 1,600 kilometres in length with an area spanning almost 330,000 square kilometres. Vietnam has an extensive coastline on the South China Sea and also shares land borders with China, Laos and Cambodia. Much of its climate is subtropical and monsoonal, though there is significant variation from north to south. Most of Vietnam is covered by rainforest or heavy foliage and more than four-fifths of its terrain is mountainous. There are several major river systems, which the Vietnamese people rely on for water, transport and irrigation. The two largest river systems are the Mekong in the south and the Red River in the north. The lower reaches of these rivers fan into large deltas and coastal plains. With their water and fertile soil, these deltas are home to most of the nation’s agricultural production. Rice is Vietnam’s most significant crop, in fact, it is the world’s second-largest rice exporter. Though rice is grown everywhere, the vast majority is produced in the fertile floodplains of the Mekong Delta.

Human civilisation in Vietnam dates back to ancient times. Several ethnic groups have shaped and contributed to Vietnamese civilisation. The earliest human migrations and settlements in Vietnam are thought to have come from the north. Archaeological studies in northern Vietnam have turned up artefacts and utensils of Chinese manufacture. But Vietnam’s broad coastline and accessibility by sea have also allowed frequent visits and settlement from many seafaring peoples, including the Khmer (Cambodians), Malay, Javanese, Indians and others. By its medieval period, Vietnam was something of a ‘melting pot’, containing different ethnicities and languages and great diversity in social, religious and cultural values. Later, Vietnam’s prominent position in the South China Sea saw it become an important stop for ships plying the maritime ‘Silk Route’ between east and west.

medieval vietnam
Hoa Lu, the medieval capital of Vietnam, in the Red River delta region

Medieval Vietnam evolved into two separate kingdoms: Bac Bo and Champa. Bac Bo was the northernmost region, named for the Gulf of Tonkin. By around 300BC this area had become known as Nam Viet; its inhabitants were called the Lac Viet. They were mostly rice farmers, cattle herders and fishermen, though many Lac Viet were also skilled at bronze working, ceramics and weaving. In 111BC northern Vietnam was occupied by the Chinese Han Empire, which called the region Annam and claimed it as a southern province of China. The Han sent in their own governors, bureaucrats and generals to manage the region and transform it into a Chinese province. These officials demanded high taxes and ordered reforms to agriculture; they also suppressed Viet language and education and imposed Chinese social, cultural and religious values. Apart from some brief periods, the Chinese ruled Bac Bo for a millennium.

vietnam confucius
The Chinese philosopher Kong Fuzi, or Confucius

This long period of domination led to Chinese belief systems becoming entrenched in medieval Vietnam. The most prominent of these was Confucianism, a philosophy and system of ethics based on the teachings of Chinese philosopher Kong Fuzi or Confucius (551-478BC). Confucianism was not a religion but more a philosophy and code of conduct; it stressed morality, self-discipline, loyalty and obedience to one’s elders and superiors, as well as humaneness and self-sacrifice for the benefit of others. Though not developed for conquest, Confucian teachings about obedience and loyalty proved useful to the Chinese, as they imposed control over Bac Bo. By around 200AD Buddhism, imported by traders and travellers from southern India, had also taken root in Vietnam. Several emperors of the medieval period were raised as Buddhists. It would eventually be endorsed as a state religion in Vietnam. In time, Buddhism became the popular religion of the peasant classes while Confucianism was practised largely by the middle classes, royal officials and the wealthy.

It was during the era of Chinese domination that Vietnam’s feudal social structure took shape. Most land was owned by the emperor and his family, high-ranking mandarins or Buddhist monasteries. The vast majority of the Lac Viet lived as peasants, working for and paying tribute to their landowner. Most were taxed heavily and obliged to perform unpaid work on roads, temples or the landlord’s own buildings. The heavy exploitation of the peasantry fuelled regular rebellions and uprisings, though they were usually small and locally-organised, and thus easily defeated. Rebellions led by warlords or nobles were less common but more successful. Some of these uprisings resulted in the restoration of Viet independence, such as an insurrection led by the Trung sisters (40-43AD). But they were usually short-lived: the Chinese would return in great numbers and regain control.

“Vietnamese history is characterised by two themes. The first is the effort to preserve the national identity against foreigners… The second theme is territorial expansion, most notably the march to the south… Pham Quyunh noted the repeated divisions that wars have caused his country: “We are a people in search of a country – and we do not find it.””
Spencer Tucker, historian

Vietnamese independence was not secured until the 10th century. In 939, Viet general Ngo Quyen comprehensively defeated a Chinese force at Bach Dang River. Three decades later, Viet warlord Dinh Bo Linh consolidated independence by negotiating a series of compromises with the Chinese. Rather than resisting the Chinese entirely, Dinh Bo Linh agreed to rule Vietnam as a vassal state. The Viet people would abide by Chinese law and send regular tribute payments north, in return for a large degree of political autonomy. For the next nine centuries, the northern half of Vietnam was called Dai Viet and was ruled by a series of local dynasties.

vietnam before colonisation
Ruins from the southern Vietnamese kingdom of Champa

The southern half of Vietnam was occupied and ruled by the Kingdom of Champa. Its people were called the Cham. Unlike the Lac Viet, their ethnic origins were Malay and Polynesian rather than Chinese. The Cham kingdom was more an affiliation of tribal groups and communities than a centrally governed dynasty. The Cham were less influenced by the Chinese and more influenced by foreigners from the west, especially the Khmer from Cambodia and journeymen traders from India. Both Buddhism and Islam were popular in Champa but the dominant religion was Hinduism, imported from India. Champa’s prominent position in the South China Sea – between India, Java and China – contributed to its rise as an important trading region. Cham coastal communities exported large amounts of sandalwood, ivory, aloe and handicrafts, dealing with merchants as far away as Baghdad. Many Cham sailors became pirates and patrolled the South China Sea in search of plunder.

Champa’s trading peak was the three centuries between 800 and 1100AD. From the 13th century, the Cham were frequently at war with their northern neighbours, the Lac Viet. The Cham invaded the north around 1370 and reached as far as Hanoi, which they raided and occupied. But the rise of the powerful Le emperors – Vietnam’s longest-ruling dynasty – spelt the end of the Champa kingdom. In 1470, Le armies invaded the south, ransacked the capital and took thousands of Cham prisoners, including the entire royal family. This opened up the south to migration and settlement by the Lac Viet people, while the Cham were pushed toward the south-eastern coast. Their descendants can still be found there today, living in tiny pockets not far from the Mekong Delta.

1. Vietnam is a major nation in south-east Asia, with a population approaching 90 million. It is an important agricultural producer and a land of ethnic and geographical diversity.
2. Vietnam has been populated by a variety of people and racial groups since ancient times. Demographically it was something of a ‘melting pot’ of racial groups and cultures.
3. In its early history, northern Vietnam was colonised by China’s Han dynasty. They ruled it as a southern province of China and imposed Chinese language, law, culture and values on the Viet people.
4. Vietnam became independent in the 10th century and for the next 900 years or so was ruled by a succession of local dynasties, such as the Nguyen.
5. The southern kingdom of Vietnam, Champa, was populated with people of Polynesian and Malay origins rather than Chinese. Champa was an important trading kingdom until it was conquered by the north in the 1400s.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Vietnam before French colonisation”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date],