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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

7 - Dai Viet (Vietnam before the Nineteenth Century)


When a new Vietnamese dynasty, the Nguyen (1802–1945), was established in 1802 in several important senses it was a realm “that had never before existed.” Never before had the whole of what we think of today as Vietnam been brought together under unified rule, and only now (from 1803), for the first time, did it actually begin to be called “Vietnam.” A glance at any map of modern Vietnam also reveals a country with a somewhat peculiar configuration, which is partly a result of that surprisingly late political culmination and partly a natural consequence of physical geography. There are two large population centers: one in the north in the Red River delta, and one in the south along the Mekong River delta, awkwardly joined together by a long narrow neck of coastland squeezed between the mountains and the sea. Another consequence of Vietnam's historical evolution as a country is that it today contains some fifty-four different recognized ethnic minority populations (although ethnic diversity is hardly unique to Vietnam, and ethnic Vietnamese do constitute a large majority of the total population). Yet, despite some significant late developments, in other important senses Vietnam is truly ancient.

The Origins of Civilization in Vietnam

Wet-field rice agriculture may have been introduced (from farther north, having probably originated in the Yangzi River region of what is today China) into the Red River area shortly after 2500 bce. Bronze metallurgy in the Red River region dates from perhaps 1500 BCE. By about 500 BCE, the Dong Son culture (ca. 600 BCE–200 CE) – so named by modern archeologists because of a type-site located in northern Vietnam – had begun producing magnificent bronze drums of a characteristic style known as Heger I, demonstrating considerable cultural sophistication (see Figure 7.1). With Dong Son, the region also enters the Iron Age. Although these remarkable Dong Son bronze drums are commonly identified with Vietnam, they have been found widely scattered throughout Southeast Asia, and it is still a matter of debate whether their manufacture began in the Red River area of what is today Vietnam or in Yunnan Province of what is today southwest China. The largest concentration of these bronze drums, moreover (of a somewhat later and larger type known as Heger II), are found in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces in south China.