millennium under Chinese rule
Every city and town in Vietnam has its Hai Ba Trung Street
named after the Trung sisters who led a briefly successful
rebellion in 40 AD and killed themselves when the uprising
was quashed by the ruling Chinese. There are few clues to
explain why the early Vietnamese were so committed to resisting
assimilation by China, but despite adopting their technology,
language, religion and way of life, becoming part of the
Chinese Empire was a bridge too far. Regardless of the tyranny
and brutality that was the Chinese response to insurrection,
resistance and insurgence continued until the battle on
Bach Dang River, not far from today’s Ha Long City, finally
ended a thousand years of Chinese domination.
Kublai Khan repelled,
and the Chinese briefly in control again
With the fire of independence burning brightly, the Vietnamese
became a formidable foe. Repeated incursions by the Chinese
from the north, and the Khmers and Cham from the south were
all repelled. Even the might of half a million Mongols led
by Kublai Khan was defeated by inferior numbers of Vietnamese
on three occasions in the 13th century – the only other
country in the world to withstand invasion by the great
conqueror was Egypt. However, after the victories, the Chinese,
with Champa support, took advantage of Vietnam’s depleted
military resources to invade and re-establish direct rule.
Once again, they were expelled, twenty-one years later,
but this time by Le Loi’s guerrilla army.
The fall of Champa
Vietnam’s present boundaries once included much of the Kingdom
of Champa, a maritime empire established in what is now
Da Nang in the second century AD that expanded south to
rule the southern Mekong area extending well into Cambodia.
It reached its zenith about the same time as Vietnam threw
off the Chinese yoke, whereupon the two countries fought
almost continuously until the Cham forces were defeated
in the fifteenth century, and the remainder of the population
fled to Cambodia or were absorbed into the Viet population.
Today, apart from several of their distinctive brick towers
and a few examples of their Indianised sculptures, little
remains of the glory that was Champa.
Surprisingly, the occupation of the Champa lands in the
south is the only significant example of Vietnamese expansionism.
Despite its periods of obvious military superiority over
its western neighbours, the country’s borders have hardly
changed since Le Loi’s victory. The elixir of independence
was, and still is, enough.
The lessons of history
Had the French, and particularly the Americans, made a more
thorough study of Vietnam’s military past, they might have
had second thoughts about attempting to pacify China’s 'most
unruly province’. China’s abortive incursion in 1979, when
they were driven back by the Vietnamese, suggests that they
might have benefited from a closer study of their own history!
The revered heroes
The names of the Trung Sisters, Le Loi and his Imperial
title Le Thai To, Ngo Quyen - the military genius who broke
the shackles of Chinese domination, General Tran Hung Dao
- the conqueror of Kublai Khan, and a host of other heroes
from the distant and recent past, are much more than just
street names. Whereas people in the West pass statues and
mementos of famous military figures with scarcely a glance,
Vietnam literally worships its ancestors in temples all
over the country. For ordinary Vietnamese people, they are
not a footnote in history books, but an embodiment of the
qualities of heroism and virtue that nurture the fierce
desire for independence, and an everyday model upon which
to base one’s own character.
The riches of independence
For those with clear memories of the relentless slaughter
of the French and American wars, it seems perverse to call
the Vietnamese a peace-loving nation. Many visitors from
countries involved in the hostilities of the twentieth century
wars in Indochina arrive in Vietnam expecting a residue
of resentment. To their pleasant surprise, they are invariably
accorded a welcome of great warmth. We have opened our arms
to the world in a spirit of peace and reconciliation.
Vietnam is fully independent again and, for us, that is
a treasure above all others.