For more than a thousand years, until the middle of the tenth century, the region we today call Vietnam lived under the rule of imperial China, first under the Han dynasty and then under the T’ang dynasty. Throughout this millennium of Chinese domination, the Vietnamese people nonetheless maintained a sense of cultural independence. They even managed several fierce revolts, although these rebellions were intermittent and never met with success.
Although Vietnam gained independence from China in 939, Chinese rule returned under the Ming dynasty, and Vietnam did not become truly independent until the 1400s, when the Chinese empire weakened. By the 1600s, Vietnam was divided between two powerful families. The Trinh controlled northern Vietnam, with a capital at Hanoi. The Nguyen controlled the south, including the fertile Mekong River delta, and maintained a capital at Hue.
In 1858, as European powers were scrambling to outdo one another in imperial wealth and power, France invaded Vietnam. After forcing a peace treaty in 1862, the French established a colonial government for Vietnam in the form of a protectorate that the French called Cochin China. Bypassing the traditional capitals of Hanoi and Hue, they instead established a colonial capital at Saigon, in the south of Vietnam. In 1883, France added the more northerly regions of Tonkin and Annam to its imperial holdings, and in 1893 combined all their Vietnamese and Cambodian protectorates with the territory of Laos to form French Indochina.
Because Vietnam was controlled by other nations for so much of its history, it had a long, violent tradition of fighting against imperial overlords. These conflicts often lasted for generations, but in the end Vietnamese resolve always overcame the patience and resources of conquering powers. With a long heritage of resistance, many twentieth-century Vietnamese were prepared to fight against more powerful nations, even if it took decades and exacted a high cost in human lives.
Although much is made of the divide during the Vietnam War between U.S.-backed South Vietnam and Soviet-backed North Vietnam, this north-south split actually went back centuries, to the divide between the northern Trinh family and southern Nguyen family in the 1600s. During Vietnam’s periods of independence since that time, its northern and southern halves frequently faced each other in a kind of civil war. The split between the communist North and U.S.-backed South that began in the 1950s was therefore not purely a result of the United States and USSR carving out spheres of influence—it was also an echo of a cultural division that had persisted for generations.
Although Vietnam fought the Chinese and the French, it also received profound cultural influences from them. The centuries of Chinese rule, for instance, brought several varieties of Buddhism that the Vietnamese adopted widely. Furthermore, the influx of the French in the late 1800s brought elements of Western society, many of which Vietnamese culture had absorbed by the 1950s. Many Vietnamese elites attended Western-style schools, spoke French more comfortably than Vietnamese, and were Catholic. Many had also spent time in Europe, where they were exposed to even more Western cultural influences than were present in Vietnam.