Two Divisions of Vietnam

   by Charles Kimball

After the elimination of Champa, Vietnam was able to expand south without opposition. Saigon became Vietnamese in 1697, and so did the rest of the Mekong delta by 1757; both had been part of Cambodia before this time, but the Khmer state was now too far in decline to defend its borders. With the annexation of the southernmost province, Soc Trang (1840), Vietnam reached its present-day frontiers. There were also attempts to put pro-Vietnamese monarchs in charge of Cambodia and Laos, though none of these succeeded for long.

The transformation of Vietnam from a small compact state into a realm 1,000 miles long caused severe growing pains. Two cultures developed: a heavily populated, conservative north, and a bolder, more aggressive south. During the next three centuries Vietnam was divided twice, and the two halves were at war much of the time.

The first and shorter division came almost as soon as Champa was gone. Between 1497 and 1527 ten weak kings rose and fell from the throne, most of them usurpers. Finally the ambitious governor of Hanoi, Mac Dang Dung, ordered the reigning monarch to commit suicide, and claimed the throne for himself. However, the deposed Le family found two generals who remained loyal to them, Nguyen Kim and his son-in-law Trinh Kiem. Between 1533 and 1545 they regained control of the lands south of the Red River delta, but then Nguyen Kim was assassinated, and his sons were too young to finish what he started. This setback prolonged the civil war until 1592, when the Le, Nguyen, and Trinh families conquered Hanoi and most of the north. The Mac rulers fled to Cao Bang, on the Chinese frontier, and there they remained, always threatening to come back, until the Chinese stopped supporting them in 1677.

Theoretically the Le monarch was in charge of the whole country again, but he was really a figurehead; the Nguyens administered the south from Hue, and the Trinhs handled the day-to-day affairs of the north from Hanoi. Now there were four dynasties (Le, Mac, Nguyen and Trinh), each claiming to be the true rulers over all of Vietnam. The Nguyens and Trinhs forgot the friendship of their ancestors, and now they got along like scorpions in a bottle. Both families prepared for war, which broke out in 1620 when the Nguyens refused to submit any longer to Hanoi. For over half a century the Trinh rulers tried in vain to conquer the south. The failure of the last campaign in 1673 was followed by a truce that lasted nearly a century. During this time both the Nguyens and Trinhs paid lip service to the Le dynasty but maintained two separate governments in the two halves of the country.

In 1772 a new civil war began. This time it was started by three brothers named Nhac, Lu, and Hue'; history calls them the Tay Son brothers, after the name of their village. Originally bandits in the Robin Hood style, the Tay Sons declared war on all three ruling houses when they gathered enough peasant support to form an army of their own. In 1777 they massacred the Nguyen family, except for one member, Nguyen Anh, who escaped. While the Tay Sons were campaigning in the north, Nguyen Anh attempted to establish himself as king of Saigon, but he was driven out by the Tay Sons in 1783. In the north the Tay Sons also succeeded, overthrowing the Le and Trinh dynasties in 1786.

For a short time Vietnam was reunited under the Tay Son brothers, but Nguyen Anh was able to make a comeback. In the meantime he had gained the friendship of a powerful French bishop, Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, who saw great opportunities for missionaries in Vietnam if he could place a pro-Christian king on the throne. Pigneau went to Paris in 1787, taking along Nguyen Anh's seven-year-old son as proof of his good faith. Unfortunately the French government was broke--it was only two years before the French Revolution would begin--so no aid came from the court of Louis XVI. All Pigneau could do was collect funds from interested merchants, which he used to hire mercenaries on the way back to Vietnam. With their help Nguyen Anh captured Saigon and the Mekong delta in 1788. Most of the mercenaries got bored and quit afterwards, but Nguyen Anh now had the power base he needed. In a series of campaigns that lasted 14 years, Nguyen Anh defeated the Tay Sons and gained control of the entire country. When Hanoi and Hue fell to his armies in 1802, he moved his capital to Hue. To signify that he now ruled all of Vietnam, he changed his name to Gia Long, a name referring to the provinces containing Saigon (Gia Dinh) and Hanoi (Thanh Long). For his French benefactor, who died in 1799, Gia Long erected a fine tomb, and during the rest of his reign (1802-19) he kept French advisors at his court. There was full toleration of missionaries during his lifetime, but his successors were less friendly to Christians. That would eventually give the French an excuse to come back in force. The French were too busy with affairs at home to get involved in Vietnam until the mid-19th century, but they would return someday, now that the door had been opened for them.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball