“Vietnam” by Christopher Goscha

Vietnam is often featured in Western media and culture as the battleground where the US actually lost a war in the 20th century. This is unfortunate because it obscures a fascinating Southeast Asian nation that is now on the cusp of significant economic growth and prosperity. Vietnam: A New History presents a more comprehensive account of the country by explaining how it came about, originating as a collection of tribal entities in the north over two thousand years ago that coalesced into kingdoms that gradually expanded, combined, and suffered colonization by the French before becoming united in the 20th century after a brutal war with the US.

Yet the story of Vietnam cannot be told without highlighting the significant influence, and interference, of outside actors, whether indirect rule and cultural influences from China, colonization by France or war with the US. As a local student guide told me when I visited the country a few years ago, “We fought the Chinese for a thousand years, the French for 100, and the Americans for 20.” There was no boastfulness or arrogance in her remark, just a matter-of-factness that reflected the country’s turbulent past, coveted by a much larger neighbor and powerful Western nations.

But Vietnam had not always been an innocent victim: it expanded by taking over and absorbing weaker kingdoms like the Cham and waging war against the neighboring Khmers. Vietnam had its origins in the Red River region near Hanoi, its expansion south was a continual process over several hundred years from the 15th century that gradually saw Vietnam take its modern shape. The fact that part of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta was actually taken from neighboring Khmer, the precursor of what is now Cambodia, hundreds of years ago is a reminder that European powers were not the only ones in world history to colonize and conquer.

Vietnam: A New History, Christopher Goscha (Basic Books, September 2016; Allen Lane, June 2016)
Vietnam: A New History, Christopher Goscha (Basic Books, September 2016; Allen Lane, June 2016)

Though Vietnam has a history stretching back well over a thousand years, it only really came into being as a single entity a couple of centuries ago when the emperor Gia Long declared a unitary state in 1802. Most of the book is devoted to the time from this period on to Vietnam’s colonization under the French, and the 20th century, with the more that one thousand years of pre-French colonization period condensed into the first two chapters.

The section covering the French colonial era is comprehensive, covering various aspects from the economy to societal make-up. These chapters are actually the book’s most informative, especially as in contrast with the US-Vietnam War, about which a lot of literature and film has been and continues to be produced, the French colonial period is not well known or often covered in Western media, even—as the author stresses—in France.

There is also a good account of Vietnam’s place on the international geopolitical stage, first as a useful tool of the colonial era as France sought to hold onto its dwindling international prestige and obstruct Vietnamese self-rule to prevent its other colonies from getting similar ideas, and then as an actor during the Cold War. The short-sightedness of the French in giving the Vietnamese as few political rights as possible meant that it was almost inevitable that their rule would be violently resisted and decisively cast off. Even after 100 years of colonization, French rule is hardly remembered with much nostalgia, if any at all, though signs of their influence remain: coffee, baguettes, and colonial cathedrals and opera houses.

The French only formed a tiny part of the population, numbering at most only in the tens of thousands but retaining the top positions in administration for themselves. The French ruled Vietnam not as a single colony, but divided into three parts: Tonkin (the north), Annam (the central) and Cochinchina (the south). The French also colonized and annexed neighboring Laos and Cambodia, and later tried to rule these two plus their three Vietnamese colonies as a united entity. This resulted in Vietnamese resistance taking on a regional scope as they supported fledgling Cambodian and Laotian resistance movements while ironically, the French sought to use Vietnamese talent to help administer those two colonies.

Not surprisingly, France’s colonization led to growing sentiment for Vietnamese unification which is where the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Communists come into play. The invasion by the Japanese and the temporary ousting of French rule during World War II provided the chance for Ho and his Communist followers to create the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in 1945, thus setting the stage for all-out war with the French and the division of Vietnam into north and south. After the French pulled out following their shock military defeat by the Communists at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, war between the two Vietnams then followed, leading to US intervention and the devastating, drawn-out war many of us are most familiar with.

This is when Vietnam’s place in modern history as much more than just a French colony becomes assured. For the French and the US, it was where they suffered their worst defeats in war and accelerated the decline of the former as a global force. Concurrently, the rise of Ho’s Communist regime led to the country becoming a participant in the Cold War as the US and the Soviet Union contested global supremacy, which was then complicated by tensions between the latter and China. After defeating the Americans, Vietnam would fall out with China, while attempting to maintain its influence in neighboring Laos and Cambodia. War with Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge led to invasion from China in 1979, and despite forcing the Chinese back, Vietnam would endure international ostracism in the ensuing decade, with China aided in this by the US.

Goscha’s last chapters detail Vietnam’s economic modernization as it turned away from Communist central planning, following its neighbor China, while still grappling with maintaining authoritarian control, a challenge that is ongoing and also mirrors China.

The many wars and conflicts of the 20th century that Vietnam went through were a continuation of its past as a complex, turbulent but resilient country that managed to survive while continually resisting outside actors such as its giant northern neighbor and Western powers, while itself subjugating weaker neighbors.

Despite the summary treatment of Vietnam’s first millennium which is squeezed into just two chapters, as a history of modern Vietnam, the book is a worthy addition to this sparse category.

Hilton Yip is a writer currently based in Hong Kong and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.