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Vietnam before the French Conquest
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The modern nation of Vietnam has the portion of the Pacific Ocean known as the South China Sea as its natural eastern boundary. To its west lie Laos, Cambodia, and the Gulf of Thailand. It shares its northern border with China. Geographically the nation is fragmented by steep mountains and valleys, as well as rivers and jungles. Similarly a variety of ethnic groups arrived in the area over the course of time. The dominant group, the Viet or Vietnamese, tended to occupy the most fertile lands near the ocean, having migrated south from what is now China.
The first known Vietnamese kingdom was formed in 208 B.C. by an outsider, a Chinese general. It extended geographically from Canton to Danang. A century later this kingdom was annexed by the Chinese Han emperors. The Viets adopted many innovations from China, including a Confucian system of government, but resisted assimilation and repeatedly rebelled. Until the entry of Europeans on the scene, much of Vietnamese history can be characterized in the broad strokes of its sometimes independent, sometimes tributary relationship with China or whoever ruled China. For instance, the Vietnamese fielded one of the few armies that defeated those of Kublai Khan. [Karnow 99-101]
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to attack East Asia. Their ships probably touched upon the Vietnamese coast in the early 1500’s. They established a permanent settlement in 1535 at Danang, but found Macao to be a better base of operations. They traded with, rather than conquered, Vietnam, until their global empire fell apart later in that century. The Dutch, French, and English joined the Chinese, Indians, and Arabs who had long traded along the shores between China and Egypt. The Vietnamese, even when divided among themselves in civil wars, had little difficulty in resisting attempts at colonization by the Europeans. The Dutch and English had offices in Hanoi and the French had a post at Pho Hien. In 1768 a French attempt to conquer Vietnam was an utter failure. Overextended, the European nations focused their resources on more lucrative trade with China, softer targets for colonization, and in particular on conquering and pillaging the Indian subcontinent. The Vietnamese had the luxury to fight among themselves. [Karnow 57-58]