‘In Vietnam’, the French historian Pierre-Richard Feray emphasizes, ‘the links between the past and the present are so continuous that oblivion of the first makes the second incomprehensible’.
Returning from war-time Hanoi, the American writer Susan Sontag also remarked, ‘(here) history is lived, felt it is not at all the abstract exercise expounded on by Western intellectuals’.
It is not just a platitude to say that in order to know Vietnam and its culture, a basic knowledge of history is indispensable. But it is sometimes bewildering for the uninitiated to plunge into the dense and turbulent history of this people, for it is ‘a long ‘martyrology’, as the history of the Jews’.
In order to help my foreign friends untangle the history of Vietnam, I often suggest they learn this formula by heart:
1000 + 1000 + 900 + 80 + 30, which means
1000 years + 1000 years + 900 years + 80 years + 30 years.
This is only a very approximate periodization, a rough rounding off of the dates to help make recall easier.
- 1000 – Fewer than 1000 years before Christ. A formative period for the Vietnamese national identity. The civilization of the Viets in the Red River basin, Bronze Age.
- 1000 – More than 1000 years, 179 B.C. – 938 A.D. Chinese domination; numerous insurrections.
- 900 years of national independence, 938-1858. National dynasties, territorial expansion to the south. Relations with China: cultural influence and resistance to invasion.
- 80 years of French colonization, 1862-1945. The first French conquests date from 1858. French- Japanese occupation from 1940-1945.
- 30 years, the war of independence and revolution, from 1945-1975. War of resistance to the French, 1945-1954, ended at Dien Bien Phu. Resistance to the Americans, 1965- 1975, ended by the taking of Saigon.
- Since 1975, efforts to overcome the social and economic crisis. The politics of renovation beginning in 1986.