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  • Other Names: 大越 (V: Đại Việt), 安南 (Annam)
  • Japanese: ベトナム (betonamu), 越南 (etsunan, V: Việt Nam, C: Yuènán)

Vietnam, also known as Dai Viet and Annam at various times historically, is a Southeast Asian country which runs largely along the coast, facing the South China Sea to its east. It borders Laos and Cambodia to the west, and China's Yunnan and Guangxi provinces to the north. As the majority of the population has always lived along the coasts, and each river valley is divided from the next by difficult mountains, Vietnam has long been a heavily maritime society, with far more travel and transport taking place by boat than by road.[1]

Vietnam is the sole "Sinicized" Southeast Asian country with a strong connection to Chinese Buddhist and Confucian culture, in contrast to the more "Indic" or "Sanskritic" cultures of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia. The territory of Vietnam was controlled by China for nearly one thousand years in the first half of the Common Era, before gaining independence in 939, amidst the fall of the Tang Dynasty. Though controlled by various independent Vietnamese dynasties & polities for nearly its entire history after that, Chinese cultural influences remained quite fundamental to Vietnamese political culture, literary culture, worldview, and arts. Vietnam regularly employed a rhetoric comparing itself not against other Southeast Asian polities, but against China, in a dichotomy in which South [i.e. Viet Nam] and North [i.e. China] both possessed culture and civilization, but possessed distinct cultural features from one another.[2] Vietnam remained a loyal tributary to the Chinese court, particularly during the Ming and Qing Dynasties; Vietnamese elites engaged in Chinese cultural practices such as literati painting and calligraphy, and all Vietnamese writing employed Chinese characters up until the early 20th century. Vietnamese was first written in roman script in 1527, but the modern Vietnamese alphabet was developed a century later, by French Jesuit missionary Alexandre de Rhodes, and did not replace Chinese characters as standard until the 20th century.[3]

Early History

Vietnam was conquered by the Han Chinese Empire in 111 BCE, and remained under Chinese control in one form or another through China's various periods of disunity, for over a thousand years, until 939 CE. Over the course of this lengthy period, Vietnam was Sinicized through increased use of Chinese written language, the introduction of the exam system, the rise of Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, Chinese-style clothing and marriage ceremonies, the establishment of Confucian schools, and a militia employing Chinese technology.[4] Towards the end of this period, Japanese had at least some kind of experience of Vietnam at least as early as the 8th century, when on two occasions official missions to Tang Dynasty China got blown off-course and shipwrecked in Vietnam.

The earliest coins minted in Vietnam were produced in the 970s. The coins were inscribed Thai Binh hung bao, using the Vietnamese era name Thai Binh, a declaration or symbol of Vietnam's independence under ruler Dinh Bo Linh.[5]

The Ly Dynasty ruled from 1010 to 1225.[6]. Like the Tran Dynasty which followed it, the Ly emphasized Vietnamese cultural distance and differentiation from China, embracing Cham & other Southeast Asian influences, and taking a hostile stance against Song Dynasty China.

The Mongol Empire may have established a colony of some sort in Champa in the 1290s or so, but it was embattled; a mission had to be sent in 1295 to ascertain what had happened to generals and senior officials dispatched there, from whom there had been no communication. This mission, which continued on to Cambodia, included Zhou Daguan, whose diaries are a valuable resource for historians today.[7] Meanwhile, Vietnamese language was written down for the first time in the 13th century, using Chinese characters, known in Vietnamese as chữ nôm.[3]

The Ming-Ho War ended in 1406 with Ming victory, and Vietnam remained under Chinese control until 1428. This brief 22-year period represents the only period of Chinese control over Vietnam in the last thousand years.

Lê Dynasty

Renewed independence from the Ming marked the beginning of the Lê Dynasty, which lasted from 1428 until 1788. Still, in contrast to the Ly-Tran eras which came before, the Lê dynasty was comparatively Sinic, or Sinophilic, in its political cultural leanings. Vietnam remained a loyal tributary to the Ming, and later the Qing, however, for the remainder of the early modern period. Vietnamese officials were thus regularly seen in Beijing, and a small number of young Vietnamese scholar-bureaucrats studied at Beijing's National Academy, alongside Korean, Ryûkyûan, and mostly Chinese students.

The Lê Dynasty, along with the Nguyễn Dynasty which followed, observed a stance of trong de ngoai vuong - literally, "inside emperor, outside king" - in its interactions with China. Each Vietnamese ruler's first act was typically to declare himself emperor, and his second, to seek investiture as "king" from China. In a sense, this resembles the omote and uchi pattern of domestic politics in Tokugawa Japan, in which daimyô considered themselves near-sovereign within their respective "countries," but when interacting with Tokugawa authorities, were merely loyal vassals, retainers, invested in their feudal holdings. Sino-Vietnamese relations during the Ming and Qing dynasties were also characterized by a relationship as unequal empires, with the Chinese emphasizing that the two were "unequal," and the Vietnamese emphasizing that they were both "empires." Vietnamese rulers also asserted their independence, even as they continued to pay tribute & to receive investiture, by occasionally having their envoys refuse to perform the full kowtow; when China demanded the king then appear at the Chinese capital in person to personally express his apologies, the Vietnamese ruler almost without exception refused. The only time a ruler of Vietnam visited China was in 1790, and even then, Vietnamese records claim that he did not travel there, but sent a double. Similarly, when Chinese envoys traveled to Vietnam, Chinese protocol dictated that the Imperial envoy sit facing south, with the Vietnamese king in the subordinate southerly position; with the exception of only one occasion, Vietnamese rulers insisted on instead sitting facing east and west, a position of equality with the Chinese envoy.[8]

The Vietnamese made their first contacts with the Ryûkyû Kingdom around 1480; the Rekidai Hôan records an exchange around that time in which a minister of Malacca informed the king of Ryûkyû that a number of Ryukyuans had become shipwrecked or castaway in Vietnam, and a violent clash had erupted. The first formal relations between Vietnam and Ryûkyû were established, however, some 30 years later, in 1509, when a Ryukyuan representative first formally visited Vietnam.[9]

Nguyễn & Trinh

In the 16th-18th centuries, Vietnam was divided, effectively, into three polities. Tonkin, in the north, was ruled by the Trinh family, and Quang Nam in the central region, was ruled by the Nguyễn, while the southern region was the independent and ethnically distinct polity of Champa.[10] The Trinh and Nguyễn domains were ruled by "lords," however, both under the ostensible authority of the emperor-kings of the Lê Dynasty. This split has been identified as a rather significant event in the overall longue durée development of Vietnamese identity and nationhood. The cultural and political center at Hanoi lost its monopoly on that centrality, and was no longer the sole authority on what "Vietnam" was; its territory was no longer the only Vietnam. Northern records relate the split as a betrayal by the Nguyen, and indeed the Trinh declared this a rebellion, expressing a sense of betrayal, calling upon the Nguyen to relent, appealing to their loyalty to their ancestors, enumerating the Nguyens' transgressions, and threatening the Nguyen with violence should they not obey. This was very much the same formula, and the same language, employed numerous times by China in chastising and threatening Vietnam (as whole) as, likewise, being a rebellious south, betraying its lords to the north.[11]

The split grew out of the rebellion of Mac Dang Dung, who seized Hanoi for a time before being pushed back by Nguyen Kim and his son Nguyen Hoang, who restored the Le Dynasty. The Mac held onto a foothold near the Chinese border, however, and conflict between the Mac and the Trinh & Nguyen forces continued for much of the 16th-17th centuries. Efforts to push the Mac out of Hanoi began in the 1520s, and finally succeeded in 1592, with Nguyen Hoang leading a seven-year-long campaign against the Mac again in 1593-1600. Though based in the north, the Mac launched periodic raids on the south via sea, and were only finally eliminated in the 1670s or so.[12]

The first contact between Quang Nam and any Japanese is believed to have been with the pirate Shirahama Kenki, who came raiding ships and shores in 1585. He was driven off by Nguyễn ships, but returned in 1599. The Nguyễn captured him, and wrote to Japan to ask what to do with him; Tokugawa Ieyasu's 1601 response to Lord (Chúa) Nguyễn Hoang, explaining the red seal ship system,[13] is considered the beginning of formal relations between the two polities.[14] These were the first of some fifteen letters exchanged between Nguyễn Hoang and Ieyasu which survive from the period from 1601 until Nguyễn's death in 1613.[15] An earlier document, however, dated to 1591, was discovered in 2013; seemingly written by the same Lord Nguyễn Hoang, it is addressed to the "King of Japan," referring presumably to Toyotomi Hideyoshi.[16]

From about 1590 to 1640, the Quang Nam port town of Hoi An, the largest port in all of Vietnam,[17] was home to a major Nihonmachi (Japantown), where a few tens of independent Japanese merchant families played a prominent role in the local trade. Some, such as Araki Sotaro, married daughters of the Nguyễn family.[18] On average, more than ten Japanese ships visited the port every year during the period of the "red seal ships," that is, between roughly 1590 and 1635; this represented fully a quarter of all Japanese maritime economic activity, more than that of any other individual port.[19] Vietnam was likely the second most major source of silk imports into Japan during this period, after China.

Some of these merchants married into the Nguyễn family, and the Nguyễn lords exchanged formal diplomatic correspondence with the likes of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, in 1591 and 1601 respectively. When war broke out between Tonkin and Quang Nam in 1627, the Nguyễn, along with members of the local Japanese community in Quang Nam, wrote to the Tokugawa shogunate, requesting that trade and formal relations with Tonkin be cut off. As a result, though Tonkin also saw some Japanese trade & settlement, it was to a considerably lesser degree. Some scholars argue that Japanese trade at Tonkin was considerably smaller in volume to begin with, however, as Hoi An was simply a more major port, where Chinese silk was more available, in contrast to Tonkin, which supplied for the most part only local products.[20]

Suminokura Ryôi is likely the most famous of the traders who were active in Tonkin.[21] Fighting began in earnest between Tonkin and Quang Nam in 1633, and lasted until 1673, when the two made peace and defined borders between them. Members of the Quang Nam community served, at times, as interpreters, translators, and advisors to the Nguyễn lords, and the Nihonmachi was permitted to be self-governing to an extent. Funamoto Yashichirô was one such head of the Japanese community, holding that position beginning in 1618. Formal envoys from Quang Nam also traveled to Japan on a handful of occasions.

The Dutch East India Company first appeared in Hoi An in 1633; for the remainder of that decade, before Tokugawa kaikin (maritime restrictions) policies cut off Japanese overseas trade, the Japanese continued to dominate the port's local economy, leaving the Dutch with second-choice of the remaining goods (mainly textiles), and at higher prices due to the diminished supply after Japanese merchants bought their fill each season. From 1640 onwards, however, the Japanese trade shrank and eventually died, and the Japanese community in Hoi An, as elsewhere throughout Southeast Asia, assimilated into the local Vietnamese community and effectively disappeared.

The English East India Company closed its factory in Vietnam in 1697. The Dutch similarly closed their factory in Hanoi, in Trinh territory, in 1700, but remained active in Nguyễn territory for some time after that.

Mining was quite important in the northern territory of Tonkin, and Chinese merchant organizations were heavily involved in there. As of the 1760s, taxes on Chinese mines accounted for roughly half the annual income of the Trinh lords.[22]

The Lê Dynasty fell in 1788 to the Tay Son Rebellion, which had begun in 1771. Though Qing Dynasty China attempted to intervene (or interfere), the Vietnamese pushed the Qing forces out of their territory as early as the following year. The Tay Son state lasted only a few decades; like the Ly-Tran dynasties of earlier times, and quite unlike the Le-Nguyen dynasties it overthrew, the Tay Son state rejected political or cultural closeness to China, and embraced a more strongly Southeast Asian identity.

Nguyễn Dynasty

The Nguyễn Dynasty began in 1802, marking an end to the short-lived Tay Son state. Despite French colonization, this dynasty officially continued all the way up until 1945.[23]


Vietnam sent its last tributary mission to Beijing in 1882.[24]

The Sino-French War ended in 1885 in French victory, and China was forced to renounce any claims to Vietnam. French Indochina was formed in 1887 out of Cochinchina, Annam, and Tonkin (i.e. the territories comprising Vietnam today) and Cambodia. The French later annexed Laos into French Indochina following the Franco-Siamese War.[3]

In the modern era, Marxist-Leninist communism took root in Vietnam, as the socialist movement there tied its ideologies into rhetoric of national liberation and opposition to imperialism. They posited Vietnam as the "outpost of socialism in Southeast Asia," and the "spearhead of the world national liberation movement," declaring the world to be divided between the socialist democracies, led by the USSR, and the capitalist imperialists, led by the United States. Vietnamese socialist ideology, borrowed from that of Soviet Russia, identified four conflicts in the world: those between the socialist countries and the capitalist system; between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; between imperialism and colonial & dependent states; and between the various imperialist countries. It also identified three chief revolutionary forces in the world: the world socialist system within the socialist countries, the socialist movements within the capitalist/imperialist countries, and the national liberation movement.[25] Vietnamese rebels rose up against French rule in the early 1950s, leading to French withdrawal from Vietnam in 1954, and the division of the country into North and South. This then led to the lengthy Vietnam War, in which Communists and anti-Communists fought for dominance of Vietnam; ultimately, the United States and other allies of the anti-Communist forces retreated and gave up on the war, leaving all of Vietnam to the Communists.


  • Alexander Vuving, "Operated by World Views and Interfaced by World Orders: Traditional and Modern Sino-Vietnamese Relations," in Anthony Reid (ed.), Negotiating Asymmetry, NUS Press, 2009, 73-92.
  1. Craig Lockard, “‘The Sea Common to All’: Maritime Frontiers, Port Cities, and Chinese Traders in the Southeast Asian Age of Commerce, Ca. 1400–1750.” Journal of World History 21, no. 2 (2010): 221.
  2. Anthony Reid, "Early Southeast Asian categorizations of Europeans," in Stuart Schwartz (ed.), Implicit Understandngs: Observing, Reporting, and Reflecting on the Encounters Between Europeans and Other Peoples in the Early Modern Era, Cambridge University Press (1994), 268.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Gallery labels, Wing Luke Museum, Seattle.[1]
  4. David Kang, “Hierarchy in Asian International Relations: 1300-1900.” Asian Security 1, no. 1 (2005): 58.
  5. Gallery labels, British Museum.[2]
  6. Vuving, 80.
  7. Zhou Daguan, Peter Harris (trans.), A Record of Cambodia - The Land and its People, Silkworm Books (2007), 44-85.
  8. Vuving, 81-82.
  9. Hoang Anh Tuan, "Vietnamese-Japanese Diplomatic and Commercial Relations in the Seventeenth Century," Institute for Cultural Interaction Studies, Kansai University, The International Academic Forum for the Next Generation Series, vol. 1 (March 2010), 20-21.
  10. Tonkin (東京, lit. "Eastern Capital", V: Đông Kinh) was also known as Đàng Ngoài (塘外, lit. "outside the dikes"), while Quang Nam (広南) was also known as Quinam, Cochinchina, and Đàng Trong (塘中, lit. "inside the dikes").
  11. Keith Taylor, "Nguyen Hoang and the Beginning of Vietnam's Southward Expansion," in Anthony Reid (ed.), Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era, Cornell University Press (1993), 60.
  12. Taylor, 42-65.
  13. That authorized merchants would carry formal licenses marked with red seals, and that everyone else could be regarded as a pirate or smuggler, to be dealt with as the foreign polity (in this case, the Nguyễn court) saw fit.
  14. Li Tana, Nguyen Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 60-61.
  15. Hoang, 22.
  16. 「ベトナムから秀吉に?「日本国王」あての書簡発見」, Asahi Shimbun, 17 April 2013.
  17. Alexander Woodside, “Central Vietnam's Trading World in the Eighteenth Century as Seen in Le Quy Don's 'Frontier Chronicles” in Keith Taylor and John K. Whitmore (eds.), Essays into Vietnamese Pasts (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University, 1995), 162.
  18. Matt Matsuda, Pacific Worlds, University of Cambridge Press (2012), 89.
  19. Chingho A. Chen, Historical Notes on Hội An (Faifo) (Carbondale, Illinois: Center for Vietnamese Studies, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1974), 13.
  20. Hoang, 21-22.
  21. Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard University Press, 1992), 22.
  22. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 78-79.
  23. Kikuchi Seiichi 菊池誠一, 17 seiki no Hoi An Nihonmachi ato wo sauguru 17世紀のホイアン日本町跡を探る. in Dai-betonamu ten kōshiki katarogu Betonamu monogatari 大ベトナム展公式カタログベトナム物語, Kyushu National Museum (2013), 13.
  24. Anthony Reid, "Introduction," in Reid & Zheng Yangwen (eds.), Negotiating Asymmetry: China's Place in Asia (NUS Press, 2009), 17.
  25. Vuving, 84.