The early history of Vietnam is that of Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China. The first Europeans to arrive were the Portuguese in 1535. Dutch, French, and English traders came in the 17th cent., at which time missionaries entered the area, winning many converts to Roman Catholicism. The persecution of missionaries and of their Vietnamese converts by the ruler of Vietnam was a factor prompting French conquest in the 19th cent. The French captured Saigon in 1859, and after a period of warfare, organized (1867) the colony of Cochin China. In 1884, France declared protectorates over Tonkin and Annam; in 1887 it merged Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China with Cambodia to form a union of Indochina, to which Laos was added in 1893.
A nationalist movement arose in Vietnam in the early 20th cent. and gained momentum during the Japanese occupation in World War II. The Japanese allowed the French Vichy administration to continue as a figurehead power until Mar., 1945, when they ousted it and established the autonomous state of Vietnam (comprising Tonkin, Annam, and Cochin China) under the rule of Bao Dai, the emperor of Annam. The Bao Dai government quickly collapsed, and at the end of World War II, the Viet Minh party (the League for the Independence of Vietnam, a coalition of nationalist and Communist groups), headed by Ho Chi Minh, established a republic with its capital at Hanoi.
The Chinese Nationalists, who occupied N Vietnam for seven months after the war (in accordance with a decision made at the Potsdam Conference), did not challenge Ho's power. The French attempted to reassert their authority in Vietnam following the war, and the British, who occupied S Vietnam, permitted French troops to land and assisted them in suppressing native resistance. In Mar., 1946, France signed an agreement with Ho Chi Minh, recognizing Vietnam as a free state within the Indochina federation and the French Union. French troops were then permitted to replace the Chinese in the north. However, differences immediately arose over whether Cochin China was included in the independent state of Vietnam; in June, 1946, France supported the establishment of a separate republic of Cochin China.
Fighting broke out (Nov., 1946) between Vietnamese and French troops in Haiphong, and French ships shelled the city, killing some 6,000 civilians. The next month the Viet Minh attacked the French at Hanoi, ushering in the prolonged and bloody guerrilla conflict that became known as the French Indochina War (1946–54). In an attempt to win popular support, the French in 1949 reinstalled Bao Dai as the ruler of Vietnam, of which Cochin China was then recognized to be a part.
Spurred by the Communist takeover of mainland China, which brought Chinese Communist forces to the northern border of Indochina by Dec., 1949, France concluded a treaty (ratified Feb., 1950) granting Vietnam independence within the French Union. The new state was promptly recognized by the United States, Great Britain, and other states; meanwhile the Ho regime was recognized by the USSR, Communist China, and other Soviet allies. Except for Thailand (which recognized Bao Dai), the states of Southeast Asia held aloof from both regimes.
Bao Dai failed to win the general support of the Vietnamese, many of whom saw him as a French puppet. Thousands of non-Communists joined the Viet Minh, and the war reached an eventual stalemate, with the French controlling the cities and a few isolated outposts and the Viet Minh occupying most of the countryside. France formally asked U.S. aid for the Bao Dai regime in Feb., 1950. By 1954, the United States was paying about 80% of the French war costs in Vietnam. The French military situation deteriorated rapidly in early 1954 as Viet Minh forces closed in on Dienbienphu, upon which the French had staked the defense of the Red River delta. Dienbienphu fell in May, and at the Geneva Conference of 1954, France had to accept disadvantageous terms for an armistice. The truce agreement was signed by representatives of the French Union and of the Viet Minh forces.
As a temporary expedient after the Vietnamese defeat of French forces, Vietnam was divided into two parts along a line approximating the 17th parallel (lat. 17°N). North Vietnam, where the Viet Minh were the strongest, went to the Communist government of Ho Chi Minh, while South Vietnam was placed under the control of the French-backed government of Bao Dai. Freedom of movement between the two areas was to be permitted for a period of 300 days, thereby facilitating the regroupment of Communist forces in the north and non-Communist forces in the south. During this period some 900,000 people, many of whom were Catholics or individuals fleeing the land reform program initiated by the Ho Chi Minh government, migrated south. The unification of the country under one government was to be effected through general elections, later scheduled for July, 1956. These elections, which were considered likely to favor the Communists, were never held; the South Vietnamese government refused to participate on the grounds that it had not signed the Geneva agreements and was therefore not bound by them.
A few months after the partition of Vietnam in 1954, South Vietnam withdrew from the French Union and thus attained complete sovereignty. In a referendum held in Oct., 1955, the electorate deposed Bao Dai as chief of state and approved the establishment of a republic with Ngo Dinh Diem as president. The republic, proclaimed on Oct. 26, 1955, was recognized as the legal government of Vietnam by the United States, France, Great Britain, and other Western powers. Diem was faced with a war-torn economy and serious political chaos as numerous factions and individuals vied for power. He suppressed the Cao Dai, a religious sect with its own private army (the Binh Xuyen), and the Hoa Hao, an occultist religious group, both of which opposed him. But his authoritarian policies—rigid press censorship, interference with elections, restriction of opposition parties, and mass arrests—drew increasing criticism.
North Vietnam, meanwhile, continued to be dominated by Ho Chi Minh, who maintained good relations with both China and the USSR, receiving enormous aid from both countries while skillfully protecting the independence of his country. A three-year economic rehabilitation program (1958–60) and a five-year plan (1961–66), financed with Soviet and Chinese aid, were aimed at improving both industry and agriculture. Electric power production was increased fifteenfold, new mineral deposits were located, mining operations were expanded, and many new industries were established, especially in Hanoi and Haiphong. Also constructed were a large iron-and-steel complex at Thai Nguyen, a chemical combine at Viet Tri, and a textile complex at Nam Dinh. Much national effort was also devoted to the support of Communist insurgents in South Vietnam (the Viet Cong), who operated under the leadership of the National Liberation Front, an organization alleged to be indigenous to South Vietnam.
By late 1961, the Viet Cong had won control of virtually half of South Vietnam with little local opposition. The United States increased its military and economic aid to combat the Communist threat and at the same time put pressure on President Diem for democratic reforms. In Apr., 1961, Diem was reelected president, but many voters boycotted the election. Resentment against the government was dramatized by the Buddhist crisis, which erupted in May, 1963, as a result of government persecution. A number of self-immolations by Buddhist monks followed. Large antigovernment demonstrations provoked police shootings, mass arrests, and more repressive government measures. These actions, along with the increasing loss of territory to the Viet Cong, prompted Diem's own military commanders to resort to a coup (Nov. 1, 1963), in which Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu (who headed the secret police), were murdered. A period of great political instability followed, with frequent changes in government, mounting disorders, and continued religious unrest (both Buddhist and Catholic).
In 1964 regular units of the North Vietnamese army began infiltrating into South Vietnam by way of what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. The guerrilla conflict expanded into open warfare. The United States, deeply committed to the support of the non-Communist government of South Vietnam, became increasingly involved militarily, sending troops and then engaging in systematic bombing (see Vietnam War). The U.S. bombing of North Vietnam began after two U.S. destroyers were reportedly attacked (Aug., 1964) by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. The bombing was directed at military and industrial targets and extended to Hanoi and Haiphong.
In June, 1965, a military junta came to power with Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu as chief of state and Air Vice Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky as prime minister. Their regime was strengthened by the capture (1966) of Buddhist rebel strongholds in Da Nang and Hue. A new constitution (approved Mar., 1967) provided for a strong executive and a bicameral legislature. In Sept., 1967, Thieu and Ky were elected president and vice president respectively. The problems they faced were aggravated by the rapidly accelerating war. Heavy fighting in the rural areas forced thousands of people to seek refuge in the cities, where serious overcrowding ensued. Heavy damage was sustained in the Tet offensive of early 1968, especially in Hue and in the Saigon area.
Later in 1968 the United States, in response to increasing pressure by the American public, began a policy of "de-escalation." In Mar., 1968, raids north of latitude 19°N were halted to promote peace negotiations, and in Nov., 1968, all bombing ceased. Peace talks between the United States and Hanoi were begun in Paris. During this time, South Vietnam had become increasingly dependent upon U.S. aid, which reached massive proportions, and the presence of U.S. troops, whose numbers peaked at almost 550,000 in 1969 dislocated the traditional agricultural economy. Peace talks made little headway, and in early 1970 U.S. "protective action" air strikes against military installations south of latitude 19°N were resumed, as well as air strikes against North Vietnamese forces in Laos and Cambodia.
In Oct., 1971, President Thieu of South Vietnam was reelected for another four-year term; he ran unopposed as other candidates, fearing a rigged election, refused to participate. In his second term President Thieu faced serious problems. The gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops, which had begun in 1969, adversely affected the economy, bringing a severe recession. At the same time, the endless war fed a raging inflation. In Apr., 1972, in response to a major Communist drive from North Vietnam, the United States reinstituted mass bombings throughout the country; Haiphong harbor and six other North Vietnamese ports, as well as rivers and canals, were mined and effectively closed to shipping. Heavy, concentrated air strikes (as many as 340 a day) continued, with one temporary halt (Oct. 24–Dec. 18), until Dec. 30, 1972, inflicting enormous damage.
The country's industrial plant was destroyed, transportation lines were cut, and many non-military targets—including the extensive system of dikes in the Red River delta and numerous residential areas—were hit. Morale nevertheless remained high; damaged transportation facilities were constantly repaired, and "ant tactics" kept supplies laboriously moving from China. Despite the declaration of a cease-fire in Jan., 1973, fighting continued. While the fighting prevented any attempt at economic recovery in the south, North Vietnam was able to begin reconstruction with foreign aid, and in less than a year the shipyards at Haiphong, the iron- and steelworks at Thai Nguyen, and many small factories were again in operation. In 1974, South Vietnam came into direct conflict with China, which seized the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
President Thieu gradually assumed dictatorial powers; he abolished local self-government, restricted the press, arrested thousands of suspected Viet Cong sympathizers, and increased the number of executions. Mass protest demonstrations (Oct., 1974) in Saigon caused Thieu to reorganize his cabinet in an attempt to quiet the opposition. In early 1974 the constitution was amended to permit him to seek a third term in 1975, at the same time increasing that term from four to five years. During 1974 Thieu decided to abandon military defense of outlying areas, which were becoming increasingly difficult to hold without the U.S. presence. In Jan., 1975, the North Vietnamese began a major offensive, and the repeated withdrawal of South Vietnamese troops quickly enabled the North Vietnamese forces to gain a decisive advantage. By April President Thieu resigned and fled to Taiwan, the remaining government of South Vietnam surrendered, and the North Vietnamese entered Saigon without opposition.
In June, 1976, the country was officially reunited. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vietnam expanded its control of Southeast Asia by invading Cambodia (where it toppled the regime of Pol Pot and installed a Vietnamese-backed government) and also by establishing a military presence in Laos. These actions alienated Vietnam from China, its long-time ally, and generally worsened its international relations. In 1979, Vietnam and China fought a brief, but intense border war. Vietnam succeeded in establishing close ties with the Soviet Union during this period, a necessity in consideration of the severe economic difficulties caused by the war. Despite substantial aid from the Soviet Union, Vietnam continued to experience economic problems, exacerbated by a U.S. trade embargo. Economic hardship prompted the flight of great numbers of refugee boat people.
In the late 1980s changes in national leadership resulted in a policy reorientation toward privatization and efforts to attract foreign investment. In 1991, Do Muoi was chosen as party leader; Vo Van Kiet became premier and Le Duc Anh became president. Relations with China were normalized the same year. By the early 1990s the country had experienced limited success in revitalizing its economy, although there was no corresponding attempt to introduce political liberalization. In 1994 the United States ended its embargo, in response to Vietnamese cooperation in the search for missing American servicemen. A U.S. liaison office was opened in Hanoi early in 1995, and in July the United States extended full recognition to Vietnam. Also in 1995, Vietnam was admitted to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In 1997, Le Kha Phieu took over as general secretary of the Communist party; Phan Van Khai, an economic reformer, became premier, and Tran Duc Luong was chosen as president. Vietnam's economy was affected by the Asian financial crisis of 1997–98, and the country was forced to devalue its currency. China and Vietnam signed an agreement settling disputes concerning their shared land border in 1999, and the following year demarcated their territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin. In 2000, Vietnam and the United States signed an agreement designed to normalize trade relations between the two countries.
Le Pha Phieu was replaced as party leader in 2001 by Nong Duc Manh, a moderate regarded as more receptive to further economic reform. There was speculation that Manh, an ethnic Tai, was chosen in part to help ease ethnic tensions that had sparked violence in the Central Highlands. The government continued to move forward slowly on economic reforms, largely out of necessity, but by 2010 the economy, despite its growth, was hampered by its dependence on relatively inefficient state-run companies and by the effects of the 2008 global financial crisis. Manh was reappointed party leader in 2006, and Nguyen Tan Dung, a southerner with experience in Vietnam's security forces, and Nguyen Minh Triet, the party chief for Ho Chi Minh City, became premier and president, respectively.
Manh retired in 2011 and was succeeded as party leader by Nguyen Phu Trong, the former chairman of the National Assembly; Truong Tan Sang, a southerner and high-ranking party leader, became president the same year. Tensions with China increased in 2011 over economic interests in the South China Sea, where China was more confrontational in asserting its extensive claims. The revision of the constitution in 2013 (effective 2014) was notably mainly for continuing the role of state-owned companies in the economy and further entrenching the Communist party's political power.