About that time Vietnam began its golden age under Emperor Le Thanh Tong. (Most foreign journalists in Hanoi today have their offices in a government building on Le Thanh Tong Street.) According to histo¬rian Stanley Karnow, Tong was a Confucian scholar who fielded an army of 200,000 men and “devoted much of his tireless energy to the advance-ment of learning.” He expanded the national university, organized poetry contests, banned the practice of branding slaves on the face, and devel¬oped a liberal legal code that protected citizens against abuses by the elit¬ists and bureaucrats in the royal court known as mandarins. Women were given near equality with men. What emerged was a distinct country whose history had been forged in its resistance to China.
Nguyen Trai wrote:
Our country, Dai Viet, has long been A land of ancient culture,
With its own rivers and mountains, ways and customs.
Different from those in the north [China].
But his hope that 10,000 generations would know peace was prema¬ture. Ruling families fought each other for nearly 200 years, starting in the mid-i500S, and Vietnam slipped into turmoil, divided north and south along roughly the same line that would mark the DMZ during the American War. In 1772, three brothers began a seven-year peasant revolt, known as the Tay Son Insurrection, against the Nguyen Dynasty’s feudal rulers. Their ragtag rebel army captured the tiny port of Saigon and killed 10,000 Chinese merchants. Fearing that the brothers might take over all of Vietnam, China sent another army south, in 1778, to crush the rebel¬lion. With peace restored, the emperor ordered his soldiers to exhume one of the brothers’ bodies and urinate on it in front of the man’s widow and son. Internal conflicts continued, but the Vietnamese managed to push the southern Khmer people out of the Mekong Delta and into Cambodia. By the mid-eighteenth century Vietnam’s borders had been extended to about what they are today.
Vietnam’s strategic location—a 1,900-mile coastline on the South China Sea, straddling the sea-lanes that link the Indian and Pacific Oceans—soon caught the attention of sundry foreigners, from traders to pirates to potential occupiers. By the late eighteenth century, Hoi An near Danang was already bustling with ships from Portugal, Holland, and England. Jesuit missionaries were prowling the interior, converting Bud¬dhists to Christianity. France was casting covetous glances. In 1861 France captured Saigon and began extending its influence north and west. By 1879 Saigon had a French governor, and by 1883—seven years before the birth of Ho Chi Minh—France had divided Vietnam into three entities, running Tonkin in the north and Annam in the Central Highlands as protectorates and Cochinchina in the south as a colony.
Ho Chi Minh did not live to see the reunification of Vietnam. He died having seen the South only briefly, in 1911, when he set off for Europe to become an expatriate, never having known a Vietnam free of foreign in¬fluence. He presumably understood little about his Southern country¬men, except those who shared his vision of a unified communist nation. But in a message to Americans during the war in the 1960s, he said, “We will spread a red carpet for you to leave Vietnam. And when the war is over, you are welcome to come back because you have technology and we will need your help.”
A decade later, in April 1975, as a fleet of 100 helicopters was evacuat¬ing the last Americans from Saigon to carriers in the South China Sea, the U.S. pilots noted with alarm that the red warning light on their con¬trol panels flashed, indicating that North Vietnamese SAMs had locked onto their choppers, whenever they were over land. But no missiles were fired and no helicopters were lost.
The Americans left on the red carpet Ho Chi Minh had offered.

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