Jun 15, 2009


France's involvement can be traced to Alexandre de Rhodes, a Jesuit priest who converted many Vietnamese to Catholicism in the early 1600s. Rhodes improved on earlier works by Portuguese missionaries and developed the Vietnamese romanized alphabet Quốc Ngữ. It was another priest, Pierre-Joseph Pigneaux de Béhaine, who intertwined Vietnam's and France's destinies. By the late 1700s, Vietnam was in turmoil. For the last 150 years, two noble families had partitioned and ruled the country. The Nguyễn Lords ruled the South and the Trịnh Lords ruled the North. The two fought a long war against each other starting in 1627. The war ended with no change to the borders in 1673. For the next 100 years, the Trịnh tried to administer a peaceful but rather stagnant state in the north, while the Nguyễn embarked on a major expansion of their lands south into Champa and then Cambodia. By 1770, the Nguyễn Lords had doubled the size of the territory they controlled but at the cost of three major wars with Cambodia and Siam over the last 50 years.

Starting in 1771, the Tay Son (Viet: Tây Sơn) brothers, Nguyễn Văn Nhạc, Nguyễn Văn Lữ, and Nguyen Van Hue (Viet: Nguyễn Văn Huệ) fought a savage war against the Nguyễn Lords in southern Vietnam. Many peasants had become tired of the corruption and tyranny of both the Trịnh and Nguyễn officials and eagerly joined the uprising of the Tây Sơn, who enacted social reforms in the lands they captured. In 1776, the Tây Sơn army captured Saigon and killed nearly the entire Nguyễn family, all except for Nguyen Phuc Anh (Viet: Nguyễn Phúc Ánh). As a result of the victory, Nguyễn Văn Nhạc declared himself king of the south.

But Nguyễn Phúc Ánh was not beaten. He made a deal with the former enemies of the Nguyễn, the King of Siam, and a largely Siamese army and navy attacked the south in 1782. The war lasted for some years before the Tây Sơn defeated Nguyễn Ánh and his Siamese allies.

In 1786, with Nguyễn Ánh defeated, Nguyễn Văn Huệ marched north with an army. The Royal army refused to even fight Huệ and the Trịnh Lord ended up killing himself. The last Emperor of the Lê dynasty, Lê Chiêu Thống, then went to the Qing Manchu Chinese emperor and asked for troops to put down this pesant rebellion. The Chinese agreed and sent an army south. In 1787, the Manchu army captured Hanoi and reinstalled the Lê King and a Trịnh Lord. A few months later Nguyễn Văn Huệ fought the Chinese near present day Hanoi and won a major victory in a surprise attack during the Tết holiday (The same tactic would be used centuries later by Võ Nguyên Giáp in 1968). After declaring himself King (Quang Trung), Nguyễn Huệ died mysteriously at the age of 40, leaving a young son as his successor. The surviving Tây Sơn brothers began to fight with each other and Huệ's son, as each claimed rule over all of Vietnam.

Taking sides with Nguyễn Ánh, Pigneaux sailed to France with Nguyễn Ánh's youngest son. At Louis XVI's court, Pigneaux brokered the Little Treaty of Versailles, which promised French military aid in return for Vietnamese concessions. The French Revolution intervened and Pigneaux's ambition seemed for naught. Undaunted, Pigneaux went to the French territory of Pondicherry, India. He secured two ships, a regiment of Indian troops, and a handful of volunteers and returned to Vietnam in 1788. One of Pigneaux's volunteers, Jean-Marie Dayot, reorganized Nguyễn Ánh's navy along European lines and defeated the Tây Sơn navy at Quy Nhơn in 1792. A few years later, Nguyễn Ánh's forces captured Saigon. Pigneaux died in Saigon in 1799. Another volunteer, Victor Olivier de Puymanel would later build the Gia Định fort in central Saigon.

As a result of the Tây Sơn internal conflicts, and due to his own skills as a leader, Nguyễn Ánh was able to defeate the Tây Sơn brothers in turn. In his final campaign he captured and killed Nguyễn Văn Huệ's son and conquered Hanoi in 1802. With all of Vietnam under his control, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long.

Gia Long also tolerated Catholicism. However he and his successors were staunch Confucians and admirers of China, not of France. His successors, Ming Mạng and Tự Đức, brutally suppressed Catholicism and attempted to undo French influence. Tens of thousands of Vietnamese and foreign-born Christians were massacred during this period, an act which provoked the Catholic nations of Europe to retaliate. An adherence to Confucianism during this time also meant that the Emperors refused to allow any modernization or technological advancement. When conflict came, as a result of this isolationist policy, the Vietnamese were completely out-matched.

Under the orders of Napoleon III of France, the landing of French forces in the port of Đà Nẵng in August 1858, heralded the beginning of the colonial occupation which was to last almost a century. France assumed sovereignty over Annam and Tonkin after the Franco-Chinese War (1884-1885). French Indochina was formed in October 1887 from Annam, Tonkin, Cochin China, and the Khmer Republic; Laos was added in 1893.

With the death of Tự Đức in 1883, a succession of Emperors were quickly elevated and just as quickly deposed. The teenage Emperor Hàm Nghi left the Imperial Palace of Huế in 1885 and started the Cần Vương, or "Aid the King", movement. Hàm Nghi asked the people to rally with him to resist the French. He was captured in 1888 and exiled to French Algeria. A former mandarin Phan Đình Phùng continued the Cần Vương movement until his death in 1895.

In 1905 Vietnamese resistance centered on the intellectual, Phan Bội Châu. Phan Bội Châu looked to Japan, which had modernized itself and was practically alone among Asian nations to resist colonization. With Prince Cường Để, Phan Bội Châu started two organizations in Japan: Duy Tân Hội and Việt Nam Công Hiến Hội. Due to French pressure, Japan deported Phan Bội Châu to China. Witnessing Sun Yat-Sen's 1911 nationalist revolution, Phan Bội Châu was inspired to create the Vietnam Quang Phục Hội movement in Guangzhou. From 1914 to 1917, he was imprisoned by Yuan Shikai's counter-revolutionary government. In 1925, he was captured by French agents in Shanghai and spirited to Vietnam. Due to his popularity, Phan Bội Châu was spared from execution and placed under house arrest, until his death in 1940.

In 1940, Japan, coinciding with their ally Germany's invasion of France -- invaded Indochina. Keeping the German-controlled Vichy French colonial administration in place, the Japanese ruled from behind the scenes in parallel. As far as the Vietnamese were concerned, this was a double-puppet government. The symbolic Emperor Bảo Đại collaborated with the Japanese, just as he had with the French, causing no trouble and ensuring his lifestyle could continue.

Meanwhile, in 1941 Hồ Chí Minh, a trained Communist revolutionary, returned to Vietnam and joined the Việt Minh, which means "Vietnamese Allied." Hồ was a founding member of the French Communist Party in the 1920s in Paris. He spent many years in Moscow and participated in the International Comintern. At the direction of Moscow, he first convinced everybody of his patriotic intention and absorbed the various Vietnamese revolutionist groups into the Việt Minh. In order to win trust he de-emphasised his Communist ties by dissolving the Indochinese Communist Party, which he had created in Hong Kong in 1930.