The original home of the Vietnamese people is the area around the Red River Delta, in what is now northern Vietnam. Not much is known about their history up to the time when they were conquered by the Chinese Empire, about two thousand years ago. For most of the next thousand years the Chinese ruled the Vietnamese, but they did not impose much Chinese culture; they regarded Vietnam as a semi-civilized border area, far from the mainstream of the Empire. When Vietnam regained its independence in the tenth century AD, its civilization was still more Southeast Asian than Chinese.
From the tenth to the eighteenth centuries, the Vietnamese gradually began to imitate more and more elements of Chinese culture. Formal education eventually came to be conducted mostly in Chinese, and the Vietnamese government came to be staffed by Confucian scholars--Vietnamese who had studied the Chinese classics in the original Chinese, and passed Chinese-style civil service examinations to qualify for top government jobs. However, the Vietnamese defended their political independence very strongly; when Chinese armies tried to reconquer Vietnam in the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Vietnamese fought and defeated them.
From about 1200 AD onward, the Vietnamese spread southward from the Red River Delta. They completely destroyed the kingdom of Champa, in what is today south-central Vietnam. The area south of Champa had been controlled by the Khmers (the present-day inhabitants of Cambodia) until the Vietnamese took it. Vietnamese control reached the Camau Peninsula, the extreme southern tip of modern Vietnam, about 1715. The government in the North eventually lost control over the settlers pushing southward. For about two hundred years there were two governments in Vietnam: one ruling the traditional homeland in the North, and one ruling the southern border areas. Between 1787 and 1802 the southerners conquered the North, and from 1802 onward all Vietnam was ruled by a single government. The imperial capital was at Hue, a little south of the line where the country had formerly been divided.
France conquered Vietnam in the second half of the nineteenth century, the great age of European colonialism. The process of conquest was not as easy as it was in most colonies; Vietnamese resistance was substantial, and the French had to take Vietnam a piece at a time rather than all at once. However, by 1885 it was clear that France was going to conquer all of Vietnam, and by 1895 the French had stamped out all serious resistance. They administered Vietnam in three sections: Cochinchina, the area around the Mekong River Delta at the south end of Vietnam, was the most prosperous section because land was so plentiful. The Vietnamese had only conquered this area a few generations before the French arrived, and not enough settlers had as yet come down from the North to build a very dense population, such as existed in most villages of central and northern Vietnam. Cochinchina was the first area in Vietnam that the French had conquered, and French influence there was very strong. The number of French colonial administrators, and the amount of rice land actually owned by Frenchmen, was higher in Cochinchina than in other areas of Vietnam.
Tonkin, centering on the Red River Delta in the North, was more densely populated and therefore less prosperous. Its administration contained more Vietnamese and fewer Frenchmen than that of Cochinchina.
Annam occupied the long stretch of coastline between the two great river deltas. Its people lived mostly in very crowded villages right along the coast; few Vietnamese lived in the hills and mountains further inland. Colonial rule in Annam was indirect; the French maintained a puppet emperor in the city of Hue, and the emperor's officials administered the countryside under French supervision. Traditional institutions survived longer in Annam than in Tonkin and Cochinchina. These included the old system of Chinese education and also the communal landholding system, in which much rice land was owned collectively by a village rather than by individuals within that village. (It was not farmed collectively; the village divided it up among individual families for them to farm.) Interestingly, this traditionalist area produced a disproportionate number of Vietnam's modern nationalist leaders.
The Vietnamese people lived mostly in the lowlands, along the coasts and in the river deltas. In the lowlands there were also a few Chams (remnants of the kingdom of Champa), Khmers, and Chinese (most of the Chinese had come in the 19th and 20th centuries, and lived in the towns.) The hills and mountains--northern and western Tonkin and the inland areas of Annam--were occupied mostly by non-Vietnamese minority groups. The French called these people the Montagnards; the Vietnamese called them the Moi (savages) and did not generally get along with them very well.
France joined the three sections of Vietnam together with Laos and Cambodia to form what was called French Indochina.
France never established a very good relationship with the Vietnamese, who repeatedly rebelled against French rule. In 1930 a Vietnamese calling himself Nguyen Ai Quoc (meaning "Nguyen the Patriot"), who later changed his name to Ho Chi Minh, founded the Indochinese Communist Party (ironically, he had been converted to Communism while in France). From that point onward there was a substantial Communist component in the nationalist movement. The French police, however, were able to keep the Communists and all other Vietnamese political movements too weak to pose any serious threat to French rule.
Next section: The Emergence of the Viet Minh
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Copyright © 1998 Edwin E. Moise. Opinions expressed in this page are my own. They could not very well be the opinions of Clemson University, which does not have opinions on the subjects involved. Revised July 20, 2014.