THE DILAPIDATED APARTMENT COMPLEX Nguyen Van Luc had shown me was called the Quang Trung Quarters, named for an eigh¬teenth-century emperor who had routed Chinese invaders. The name was no surprise: The Vietnamese name projects, streets, and temples for their ancient partisans, some of them women, who fought China for a millennium to protect Vietnam’s cultural and national identity. The first major insurrection against China was led by the Trung sisters, Trac and Nhi, who liberated Vietnam in A.D. 40 and established an independent state that reached from Hue to southern China. One of their commanders, a woman named Phung Thi Chinh, was said to have given birth during the battle and continued to fight with the baby strapped to her back. Another woman, Trieu Au, wore armor and rode an elephant- into battle against the Chinese in A.D. 248, leading a force of 3,000 warriors. “I want to rail against the wind and the tide, kill the whales in the sea, sweep the whole country to save the people from slavery, and I refuse to be abused,” she is remembered as saying. Defeated at the age of twenty-three, she commit¬ted suicide. Like the Trung sisters, as well as other heroes and heroines who fought the invaders from the north, she remains venerated by a peo¬ple whose recorded history is engraved with bloodshed and struggle.
Archaeologists have unearthed basalt tools and handaxes showing that Vietnam was occupied during the Bronze Age, between 5,000 and 3,000 B.C., by fifteen tribes of small, dark-skinned people of Melanesian or Austronesian stock. The dominant group was known as the Viet. The word nam means “south,” meant to distinguish the region from China. Actually there never has been a country named “Vietnam,” any more than there has been one named “Greatbritain.” It is Viet Nam, just as it is Ha Noi, Sai Gon, Plei Ku, and Da Nang. The compression of the words is the result of a cultural insensitivity taken by headline writers at U.S. newspapers during the early stages of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
The beginnings of Vietnam, like that of many Asian countries, are buried in myths of mystical emperors and 4,000-year-old kingdoms— folklore that pleases the Vietnamese by reinforcing their belief that the country’s roots are as deep and old as those of their traditional rivals in China. Vietnam’s recorded history, in Chinese annals, dates back to the second century B.C. when Trieu Da, a renegade Chinese general, con¬quered Au Lac in the northern mountains of Vietnam and proclaimed himself emperor of Nam Viet, a kingdom that stretched nearly to pres¬ent-day Danang. A century later Nam Viet was annexed as the Chinese province of Giao Chi.
It was not long before the Vietnamese rebelled against China and its attempts to introduce new taxes and to tighten administrative control. Starting with the Trung sisters’ military campaign, Vietnam would strug¬gle to resist Chinese domination and assimilation for 1,000 years. Invari¬ably, the Vietnamese absorbed many elements of Chinese culture. They became Buddhists and Taoists and followed the moral and social doctrine of Confucianism: Community is more important than the individual; your worth as a person is determined by your public actions; parents and elders arc to be honored, ancestors worshipped; spontaneity is a sign of disrespect; education is nearly as important as family. They borrowed from Chinese institutions and from the Chinese language. But in the end a distinct Vietnamese culture, heritage, and language were put in place.
Throughout the first century A.D., Vietnam knew periods of inde¬pendence and subjugation, each accompanied by terrible battles. Despite dynastic squabbles and their own cxpansionistic goals, the Viets (the pre¬dominant ethnic tribe) were always quick to respond to charismatic lead¬ership. Often one man—Emperor Le Loi, in defeating the Chinese in 1426 in a battle near Hanoi, or Ho Chi Minh, in taking on the French and the Americans nearly 500 years later—was able to harness public sentiment and energy as a powerful fighting force. In each case the cause was Vietnam’s independence. Le Loi celebrated his victory over the Chi¬nese in 1426 by providing the defeated army with boats and horses to carry its soldiers home. A Vietnamese poet, Nguyen Trai, commemorated the triumph with these words:
Henceforth our country is safe.
Our mountains and rivers begin life afresh.
Peace follows war as day follows night.
We have purged our shame for a thousand centuries,
We have regained tranquilityfor ten thousand generations.
With their northern border secured by Le Loi—every major city has a major boulevard named for him—the Victs turned their attention to the enemy in central Vietnam, where the Champa Empire had flourished for 1000 years. In 1471, the Viets killed 60,000 Chams in a decisive battle and captured 36,000 others, including the king and fifty members of the royal family. The Champa Empire slowly disintegrated. The remaining 80,000 Vietnamese who today trace their origin to the Chams are fully integrated into society, as one of Vietnam’s fifty-four minority groups, and have little left to remember their kingdom by except temples and sculptures, 300 of which are preserved in a museum in Danang.

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