Archive for July, 2010

The Incredible. The Unbeatable. Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung

Posted in Dynastic History, Heroes of Vietnam Week, Modern History with tags , , , , , , , on July 25, 2010 by Ian Pham

The Tây Sơn Dynasty (1788-1802)There is a reason why I chose the words “incredible” and “unbeatable” to describe this next individual.  Besides being the general that never lost, Emperor Nguyễn Huệ was the only man with the ambition of turning Vietnam into a modern superpower.  Nguyễn Huệ emerged from the ashes of the Tây Sơn Rebellion to become Emperor Quang Trung, a visionary leader who would bring the Kingdom of Vietnam onto the brink of greatness.

A Nation in Peril

Before the rise of the Tây Sơn movement in 1770, Vietnam was facing a troubling period of lawlessness and civil destruction.  After three centuries, the Lê Dynasty had crumbled into a puppet government of two governing factions, the Trịnh Lords in the North and the Nguyễn Lords in the South.  Both the Trịnh and Nguyễn parties were afflicted with rampant corruption, tyranny, and criminal activities.  As a result, the country was ravaged by anarchy.

The story begins with three brothers, Nguyện Nhạc, Nguyễn Lữ, and Nguyễn Huệ.  Born in the western mountains of Bình Định, these brothers were well versed in literature, well taught in military, and well trained in the martial arts.  Together, the trio came to be known as the Tây Sơn brothers.  The name “Tây Sơn” literally means “Western Mountains,” attributing to their place of origin.

As they witnessed the civil strife of their country, the Tây Sơn brothers decided to take action.  In order to save Vietnam from its self-destructive path, the Tây Sơn brothers would have to rise against the disgraceful governments and punish them for what they have done to the nation.  The Tây Sơn brothers established an army from their village, quickly drawing support from nearby villages as well.

The Tây Sơn Rebellion

As the support for the Tây Sơn grew larger, so did their army.  The people of Vietnam were also fed up with the tyrannical rule of the Trịnh and Nguyễn Lords and were happy to join the Tây Sơn movement.  Interestingly, the slogan that the Tây Sơn ran by was “seize from the rich, distibute to the poor,” gaining them mass support from the peasant population.

Now that they had a powerful army, the time was right for the Tây Sơn to attack the ruling classes.  First off were the Nguyễn Lords, since they controlled the south and were in closer proximity to the Tây Sơn.  With Nguyện Nhạc as the leader, the Tây Sơn army attacked the Nguyễn controlled areas of Qui Nhơn and Gia Định (early Saigon), destroying the Nguyễn rulers and returning their land to the farmers.

With the Nguyễn Lords out of the way, the Tây Sơn moved north, swiftly defeating the Trịnh Lords as well.  After eliminating the factions, the Tây Sơn brothers returned the throne to the emperor Lê Chiêu Thống, acknowledging him as the one true legitimate ruler of Vietnam.  However, when the Tây Sơn brothers left, the Lê emperor lost control of his kingdom again, the same way as before.  Once again, the country descended into civil chaos.

So far a second time, the Tây Sơn brothers had to march north and punish the corrupted officers of the Lê Dynasty.  This time however, the brothers will not simply leave.  Though they still acknowledged the emperor as the legitimate ruler, the brothers divided the territories of Vietnam among themselves, becoming the new de facto rulers of the country.  Nguyện Nhạc controlled the North,  Nguyễn Huệ controlled the Central, and Nguyễn Lữ controlled the South.

The Betrayal by Lê Chiêu Thống

When Lê Chiêu Thống realized that he had lost his kingdom yet again, the cowardly emperor fled to China, asking the Qing Dynasty to help him reclaim his kingdom.  The Manchus’ response to Emperor Le’s request was a definite “yes!”  The Qing Emperor was amazed by the foolishness of Lê Chiêu Thống, immediately taking this chance to capture Vietnam.

So with a large invading army, the Qing Dynasty marched into Vietnam and seized the capital city, Thăng Long.  The Qing assured Lê Chiêu Thống that he was safe, and that the Manchus would handle everything for him.  The weak-minded Lê Chiêu Thống accepted, becoming a puppet of the Qing and handing the entire country over to the invaders from China.

Emperor Quang Trung

Outraged by this betrayal, the Tây Sơn army, now under the leadership of Nguyễn Huệ, mobilized and prepared to attack the Qing occupants.  Before the Tây Sơn marched north however, a leader needed to be chosen.  With the support of his soldiers and the population, Nguyễn Huệ accepted this role, taking the name of Emperor Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung.  As the new emperor of Vietnam, Quang Trung sent a warning to the Qing, promising to move his army into Thăng Long in fourteen days.

When Quang Trung’s message reached the Qing occupants at Thăng Long, they simply dismissed it as an empty threat.  Marching from Central Vietnam to Thăng Long in only fourteen days?  Taking on such an impossible task was laughable in the eyes of the Qing.  To Quang Trung however, this was just another obstacle to overcome.

With his indomitable spirit, fierce determination, and the unbreakable support of the Tây Sơn Army, Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung did the impossible and reached Thăng Long from Bình Định in the time he promised.  However, he decided to hide his presence from the Qing, who were still unaware of his arrival.  The Qing were getting too comfortable, giving Quang Trung the perfect chance to launch a surprise attack.

The Lunar Offensive

When Quang Trung and his forces reached the outskirts of Thăng Long, he refrained from attacking the Qing right away.  As a strategic maneuver, Nguyễn Huệ decided to wait until Tết, the Lunar New Year, to battle the Manchu, giving all of his soldiers time to rest in the meantime.  It was during Tết when the Qing were most unprepared, distracted by the festivities of the Lunar New Year.

On that night, while the Qing soldiers were celebrating, the forces of Nguyễn Huệ struck.  The ferocious surprise by the Emperor Quang Trung left the Qing army dumbfounded.  In the five day battle that followed the Lunar Offensive, the smaller army of Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung , consisting of only 100,000 soldiers, astonished the disoriented forces of the Qing army, composed of more than 200,000 soldiers.

As a result of his excellent leadership and brilliant strategies, the Tây Sơn Army destroyed the Manchu invaders, driving them out of Vietnam.  With his mission complete, Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung unified the entire country in 1788, under the wing of the Tây Sơn Dynasty.  After his rise, Emperor Quang Trung immediately instituted ground-breaking reforms through all corners of Vietnam, drawing out an ambitious plan to modernize the entire country.

The Emperor’s Plan

In only four years, from 1788-92, Emperor Quang Trung was keen on transforming Vietnam into a modern superpower.  Nguyễn Huệ wanted to rebuild the army of Vietnam, starting the transition from blades and arrows to more modern weaponry, such as guns and other firepower.  The navy was also an important part of his agenda.  Emperor Quang Trung aspired to create a powerful navy, using newly developed weapons and technology.

Emperor Nguyễn Huệ then drew out plans to reform the education system of Vietnam.  From the start, he realized that the teachings of Confucius had become obsolete, useless in terms of economic growth and societal benefits.  As a new way of thinking, Quang Trung pushed for an education system similar to the west, where science and technology would be the main focus of the enlightened mind.  The Chinese writing characters were replaced with the Nôm characters of ancient Viet, promoting the literature of Vietnam and rejecting that of the Han.

In order to modernize the country, Nguyễn Huệ Quang Trung understood that the economy was important.  To stimulate international trade, the emperor began to establish closer relations with the west.  As the ruler of an aspiring nation, Emperor Quang Trung was open to having closer ties with the European powers and America.  He was tolerant of the western thinkers, allowing his people to come in contact with their ways of thinking.

The Victory Over the Qing

The final item on his agenda, was the containment of China.  In beginning to modernize his military, Emperor Quang Trung sent a clear signal to the Qing, that if they ever tried to invade again, the losses would be much, much greater than the gains.  Every Chinese Dynasty in the past demanded that Vietnam send gifts as a sign of respect to the Chinese Empire, symbolizing their tributary relationship.  Nguyễn Huệ, however, rejected the Qing’s demands, clearly stating that Vietnam and China are equal, and that it was out of the question to comply with such a trivial request.

Nguyễn Huệ wanted more than just the containment of China, he also aimed to retake the provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong (Quảng Tây and Quảng Đông).  In ancient times, Guangxi and Guangdong were part of Vietnam.  However, the Han Dynasty captured these provinces during their invasion of Nam-Viet.  For this reason, Emperor Quang Trung was determined to take them back.

Using his diplomats, Nguyễn Huệ demanded the Qing return these provinces, and that failure to comply would result in the invasion of China by the army of Vietnam.  Fearing further conflicts with the Vietnamese Emperor, the Qing Dynasty reluctantly accepted.  With his plans in motion, the future looked bright for Vietnam.  In four years of his reign, Vietnam was starting its transition from a medieval kingdom into a powerful modern state.  However, before Quang Trung could complete his ambitious goals, tragedy struck.

Nguyễn Huệ’s Legacy

After four short years of rapid progress, Vietnam was struck a fatal blow in 1792.  For unknown reasons, Emperor Quang Trung had simply passed away.  No one could figure out the causes of his death.  Some theorized that it was an illness, others believe he was assassinated.  The first idea seems unlikely, since the emperor was only 40 years old at the time.  He was an athletic individual who was well trained in the martial arts.  The second reason appears more plausible, since Nguyễn Huệ had many enemies, defeating the lords of Trịnh, Nguyễn, and even the Manchu Qing.

Emperor Quang Trung was a military genius who never lost a single battle.  Under his leadership, the Tây Sơn defeated the Trịnh and Nguyễn Lords, the Qing Dynasty, and even obliterating the invading armies from Khmer and Siam.  Through the eyes of the emperor, Vietnam was an empire just waiting to emerge.  Sadly, the emperor passed away, unable to fulfill his dream.

When Nguyễn Huệ died, he left behind a blueprint that no one could fulfill.  He was a visionary leader who steered Vietnam in the right direction, creating the foundations for a powerful, modern nation.  However, his successor was much too young to make this plan come true.  At the tender age of ten, Cảnh Thịnh, Quang Trung’s son, was launched into the position of emperor.  Though he was a bright young man, he was still just a kid.

As a result, the Tây Sơn Dynasty fell apart, leaving behind a plan that would never come to be.  One could only imagine what would happen if Emperor Quang Trung lived to the end of his life.  The nation would have been strong, the people would be prosperous, and the sick disease known as Communism never would have infected the country.  To lose a leader of such extraordinary proportions is simply heartbreaking.  His legacy, the brief rise of Vietnam, was the flower that never blossomed, and the empire that never was.

* * * * *

That concludes our special event, Heroes of Vietnam!  I Hope you found this experience somewhat educational, or at least entertaining.  Thanks for reading!

Lê Lợi, Nguyễn Trãi, and the Defeat of the Ming Dynasty

Posted in Dynastic History, Heroes of Vietnam Week with tags , , , , , , on July 24, 2010 by Ian Pham

The Lê Dynasty (1428-1788)

“It is true that our nation has sometimes been weak and sometimes been strong, but never in time have we suffered from a lack of heroes.”

– Nguyễn Trãi, 1428 (Great Declaration on the Victory Over China)

Fallen to the Ming

After the fall of the Trần Dynasty in 1400, the nation of Vietnam (Đại Việt) descended into a period of civil chaos.  Like the fall of other dynasties in the past, a time of violence and power struggle plagued the country following the end of the Trần.  Hồ Quý Ly, a government official in the Trần government, had just taken power from the last emperor of the Trần Dynasty, establishing a new dynasty under his own family name, the Hồ.

The Hồ Dynasty only reigned for a short time however, from 1400 to 1407.  Civil disorder and numerous revolts among the population of Vietnam put the Hồ Dynasty in a weak governing position.  Recognizing the vulnerable state of the country, the Ming Dynasty of China quickly rushed their army into Vietnam, smashing the Hồ, and capturing the entire country.  Once again, for a short time, the nation of Vietnam had fallen into the hands of the Chinese.

When the Ming Dynasty invaded Vietnam, they kidnapped many Vietnamese talents, such as architects, generals, poets, etc., and brought them back to China.  One of these skilled individuals happened to be the father of Nguyễn Trãi, the man who would play a pivotal role in the expulsion of the Ming in the years to come.  As the Ming army took his father to the border, young Nguyễn Trãi followed them, tearfully pleading that they not take him away.  His father responded by telling him not to cry, that the best way to avenge him was to rebuild the nation, and restore freedom to the Vietnamese people.

The Warrior

As his father left sight, Nguyễn Trãi took these words to heart, and embarked on a mission to defeat the Ming.  In order for him to drive out the invaders, Nguyễn Trãi needed to find others who would support his cause.  The young man’s search for military muscle eventually led him to Lê Lợi, a rebel leader in Thanh Hoa province.  Like Nguyễn Trãi, Lê Lợi also wanted to kick out the Ming, and had the fighting capabilities to help.  At that time, the Chinese forces greatly outnumbered that of Lê Lợi, therefore he needed to raise an army with enough strength to resist them.

As a talented intellectual, poet, and strategist, Nguyễn Trãi had the capability to help Lê Lợi build his army.  With his political and strategic wisdom, the young Nguyễn Trãi created a plan to mobilize the population of Vietnam and unite them against the forces of Ming.  Through different methods of propaganda, Nguyễn Trãi managed to attract many followers who were willing to join Lê Lợi’s army.

One of Nguyễn Trãi’s most clever methods for catching peoples’ attention was his idea of writing a message that said “Join Lê Lợi, Defeat the Ming” on thousands of leaves and letting them wash down the river.  As the leaves reached the villages, the people would see the message on them and perceive that as a sign from heaven.  Nguyễn Trãi’s main goal in orchestrating these ingenious recruitment strategies was to generate immense support for Lê Lợi among the population, characterizing him as the real “Son of Heaven,”  who’s destiny was to liberate the Vietnamese people and lead them to prosperity.

The Mastermind

His plan worked perfectly, as they were able to recruit a steady stream of fighters into their army.  Finally, with enough military strength, Lê Lợi and Nguyễn Trãi were ready to take on the Ming.  Since the Chinese still greatly outnumbered the Vietnamese, Lê Lợi would use guerilla warfare as his main tactic.  In the fight against the Ming, Lê Lợi would command the military, Nguyễn Trãi would be his main advisor, strategist, and propagandist.

In war, Nguyễn Trãi motivated the soldiers, giving them the drive to fight for what is right.  One brilliant strategy of Nguyễn Trãi was to incite his own forces, at the same time damaging the morale of his enemies by convincing them that what they are doing is wrong.  He would send messages to the enemy camps, shaming them for occupying another’s homeland.

Using the patriotism and determination of his soldiers, referring to Trần Hưng Đạo, Lý Thường Kiệt, and the heroes of the past, Nguyễn Trãi reminded them that with enough determination, anything was possible.  With Nguyễn Trãi’s strategic genious and Lê Lợi’s military expertise, their army was successful against the Ming on many fronts, drawing more allies as their fight goes deeper.

The Victory Over China

Finally, after ten years of rebellion, from 1418-1427, Nguyễn Trãi and Lê Lợi were victorious, firmly defeating the army of the Ming Dynasty and driving them out of Vietnam.  With this hard-fought victory, General Lê Lợi became the next emperor of Vietnam, declaring the establishment of the Lê Dynasty.  Nguyễn Trãi would become his chief advisor, penning a great declaration on the victory over the Ming and the crimes they’ve committed in Vietnam.  The name of this declaration came to be known as the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo (Great Declaration on the Victory Over China)” and is still one of the most famous poetic works in Vietnamese culture today.

It is possible to argue that without Lê Lợi, Nguyễn Trãi would never have had the manpower to eliminate the Ming.  On the other hand, it is almost certain that without Nguyễn Trãi, there was no way Lê Lợi could have mobilized the Vietnamese people into a powerful army such as theirs.  Nguyễn Trãi was the brain of the operation and Lê Lợi was the muscle.  They were a formidable team, expelling the Ming and restoring independence to the Vietnamese people after a brief period of Ming occupation.

Trần Hưng Đạo and the Mongol Invasions

Posted in Dynastic History, Heroes of Vietnam Week with tags , , , , , , , on July 23, 2010 by Ian Pham

The Trần Dynasty (1225-1400)The Mongols

In the thirteenth century, a devastating force swept through the continent of East Asia, leaving a path of destruction in their trail.  Killing without mercy, fighting without end, and striking fear across the east, the world seemed to crumble at their feet.  The ones responsible for these ruthless invasions came to be known as the Mongol warriors, led by the famous Genghis Khan.  After uniting the rival tribes in Mongolia, Genghis Khan would embark on an ambitious mission to conquer all of Eurasia.

Many civilizations fell at the hands of Genghis and his Mongols, whose conquests paved the way for what came to be known as the Mongol Empire.  This empire included many countries between Europe and Asia such as Poland, Afghanistan, Iraq, Germany, Ukraine, and even pieces from the Russian Empire.  After Genghis’s death, his grandson Kublai was chosen as his successor.  It was Kublai Khan who completed his grandfather’s mission, engulfing all of China and successfully incorporating it into the Mongol Empire.

Surrender or Fight?

When the Mongols completed their conquest of China in 1279, the Yuan Dynasty was established.  The new rulers of the Chinese Empire then switched their sites to China’s southern neighbor, the young nation of Đại Việt, as their next target.

With news of the Mongols’ impending conquest, the emperor of Đại Việt was faced with a choice: surrender or fight.  The odds were, as it often was, unfavourable for the small Vietnamese state.  It was obvious that the Mongols had a much larger fighting force.  Having just conquered the enormous country of China in its entirety, engaging the Mongols was almost suicide.

The choice was too important for the emperor to make on his own, so he decided to take the matter into the hands of his people.  He informed his people of the coming invasion, that they were outnumbered many-to-one, and what the detrimental possibilities were.  So through a referendum, he asked his people: surrender or fight?

The unanimous response to this question was a resounding “fight!”  It didn’t matter how much they were outnumbered by, the Vietnamese people refused to let the country fall to foreign invaders, no matter what.  So with the people behind him, the Vietnamese emperor drew out a plan, and the fearless general Trần Hưng Đạo was summoned to lead the fight against the Mongol invaders.

Ready for War

Prior to the referendum, in 1257, the Mongols had already attacked the Vietnamese capital of Thăng Long, burning the city to the ground.  Fortunately, emperor Trần Thánh Tông and his generals quickly expelled the Mongol forces from Đại Việt, forcing them to return to China.  This successful ousting of the Mongol invaders would be known as the first victory over the Mongol Empire.  However, the Mongols would be back.  Next time with a larger entourage.

When the Yuan warriors returned to Vietnam in 1285, they demanded passage through the country to invade the Kingdom of Cham, along with the submission from the Vietnamese emperor as a tributary.  Obviously, the young emperor Trần Nhân Tông would not allow this to happen.  As a result of his refusal, the enraged Mongols of the Yuan prepared for another assault on the nation of Đại Việt.

The Mongol threat was very great and the chances of victory were slim.  How could a nation as small as Đại Việt resist a force that had wreaked havoc across all of Eurasia?  It didn’t matter, because after the referendum, the choice was clear.  The people of Đại Việt will fight, and it would be a fight to the death.  Under the command of General Trần Hưng Đạo, the Mongols would get a taste of bitter defeat.

The Invasions

The Mongols kicked off their invasion in 1285 the same way they did in 1258, by marching into the city of Thăng Long, the capital of Đại Việt.  However, Trần Hưng Đạo had already evacuated the city, burning off all the food and supplies, leaving the invaders with little resources to sustain themselves.  Realizing that the emperor and his occupants had moved southward, the Yuan soldiers immediately pursued them.  The invaders chased after the Viet forces, not knowing that they were playing right into the hands of General Trần.

The more they chased, the more supplies they consumed.  As a result, the Mongol army was riddled with fatigue, starvation, and disease.  When the time was right, Trần Hưng Đạo and his forces bombarded the exhausted Yuan army with a series of counter-attacks along the river fronts.  The brilliant offensives overwhelmed the Yuan invaders, causing their forces to quickly evacuate Đại Việt.  On the retreat, the Mongol armies were harassed by the forces of Đại Việt, who were cleverly stationed on the routes leading back to China.  Many Yuan soldiers died on the retreat from Đại Việt, including Sogetu, a Mongol commander.

Humiliated by this failed campaign, the infuriated Kublai Khan prepared for another expedition into Đại Việt.  In 1287, Kublai Khan deployed a  massive army, consisting of more than 500,000 soldiers, into Đại Việt under the command of Prince Toghan.  They were successful at first, capturing several provinces at the borders and defeating the soldiers of Đại Việt under General Trần Khánh Dư.  However, the victories were short-lived, as Trần Khánh Dư regrouped his forces and retaliated by cutting off the Mongols’ supply lines, leaving them with little to fight on.  At the same time, General Trần Hưng Đạo had recaptured the lost regions, and when the Mongols reached Thăng Long, the city was empty again.

The casualty rate of the Mongol army was getting too high, and the war no longer seemed worth it.  As a result, Prince Toghan decided to bring his army back to China.  Omar, a commander of the Yuan army, was ordered by Toghan to withdraw his troops through Bạch Đằng Bay, the place where Ngô Quyền destroyed the forces of the Southern Han centuries before.  Trần Hưng Đạo was about to repeat this victory, only this time, against the forces of Yuan.

The Return to Bạch Đằng Bay


Like his predecessor, Ngô Quyền, General Trần Hưng Đạo had anticipated his enemies using the River of Bạch Đằng as a strategic location.  Therefore, he decided to launch a preemptive strike, borrowing the very same tactics used by Ngô Quyền against the Southern Han in 938.  Under General Trần’s orders, large wooden stakes were planted beneath the waters of Bạch Đằng Bay, prior to the Mongols’ arrival.  With the traps in place, the forces of Đại Việt waited at Bạch Đằng for the Mongols to pass through.

As the Mongol fleet reached Bạch Đằng River, Trần Hưng Đạo was there to meet them.  Inevitably, a battle broke out between the forces of Yuan and Trần.  In a similar fashion to Ngô Quyền, the forces of Đại Việt pretended to lose, sailing away from the ships of the Yuan.  Just like the the Southern Han, the overconfident Mongol fleet pursued them with great vigour, consequently entangling themselves in the traps beneath the waves.

At that moment, with the stakes ripping through the Mongol ships, impaling the soldiers on board, a barrage of flaming arrows fell from the sky, incinerating the entire Mongol fleet.  More than 400 warships were completely destroyed by Trần Hưng Đạo’s soldiers, permanently neutralizing the Yuan army.  With the entire fleet eliminated, the Mongols could no longer go on fighting.  Prince Toghan’s retreating forces were also crushed by Đại Việt’s army at the China-Vietnam border, adding insult to their injuries.  With the Mongols subdued on all fronts, the forces of Đại Việt were finally victorious.

The war was over, the impossible was done.  Đại Việt had miraculously defeated the mighty Mongol Empire, forcing their leaders to retreat on three separate occasions.  The victory at Bạch Đằng Bay was a valuable lesson to the Mongols, and they never invaded again.  Trần Hưng Đạo was praised for his ingenious generalship against the Mongols invaders.  After his passing, the royal family blessed upon him the title of Hưng Đạo Đại Vương (Hưng Đạo, the Grand Commander).  This glorious victory would ensure the continuation of the Việt tradition, reminding the people of any nation that with enough determination, anything is possible.

Lý Thường Kiệt: the Protector of Đại Việt

Posted in Dynastic History, Heroes of Vietnam Week, Poetry with tags , , , on July 22, 2010 by Ian Pham

The Lý Dynasty (1009-1225)

“Over the mountains and rivers of the South, lives the Southern Emperor,
As it says now and forever in the Book of Heavens,
That whoever dares to invade our land,
Will be defeated without mercy.”

– Lý Thường Kiệt, 1076

After the expulsion of the Chinese empire in 938, the newly reborn state of Nam-Việt underwent a short period of chaos and power struggle.  Many powerful families from different provinces in Nam-Việt vied for control of the throne.  As a result, several monarchs reigned for a short time, losing their powers to other families competing for the crown.  Finally, in 1009, the Lý Dynasty was founded, and the emperor proclaimed that the young nation would be named Đại Việt (Great Việt).

Having just expelled the Chinese from Vietnam only one century before, the new rulers of Đại Việt were determined to keep them from returning.  One of the brightest generals of the Lý Dynasty went by the name of Lý Thường Kiệt.  Winning two major wars against the Song Dynasty of China, along with several battles versus the kingdoms of Champa and Khmer, Lý Thường Kiệt is one of the most prominent figures in Vietnamese history.

Born in 1019 in the city of Thang Long (Hanoi), his birth name was Ngô Tuấn.  Starting out as a cavalry captain in 1036, Ngô Tuấn later went on to become the leader of the Imperial Guard.  Thanks to his talents, Ngô Tuấn rose through the ranks of the Vietnamese army and was awarded the name of Lý Thường Kiệt by the royal family.

When news of an incoming invasion by the Song Dynasty reached the people of Dai Viet (Vietnam) in 1075, emperor Lý Nhân Tông sent generals Lý Thường Kiệt and Tôn Đản to launch a surprise attack on the Song forces.  Lý Thường Kiệt and Tôn Đản were both hugely successful on their mission, soundly defeating the Chinese forces on their own soil.

In retaliatian, the Song Dynasty made alliances with the Khmer (Cambodian) and Cham kingdoms to invade Đại Việt together.  Once again, emperor Lý Nhân Tông sent Lý Thường Kiệt to confront the invaders. Sure enough, General Lý was victorious.

As a result of the victories, the Song Dynasty never dared invade again.  With the Chinese subdued, the Lý Dynasty under General Lý Thường Kiệt carried out two successful assaults on the Champa Kingdom, ensuring security from them as well.

Even though he did help win major wars against foreign countries, Lý Thường Kiệt’s contributions to Vietnam were more than just military.  As a distinguished poet, he was also accredited with penning the first Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, a poem titled “Nam Quốc Sơn Hà (Over the Mountains and Rivers of the South).”

Ngô Quyền and the Struggle for Independence

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes of Vietnam Week with tags , , , on July 21, 2010 by Ian Pham

10th Century (897-944)General Ngô Quyền was the man to successfully end the Chinese occupation of Vietnam once and for all.  This monumental victory took place at the River of Bạch Đằng in 938A.D., where thousands of Chinese soldiers lost their lives while many others fled.

With the destruction of the Tang Dynasty in China and numerous uprisings among the Vietnamese population, the region of southern China known as Annam (Vietnam) was beginning to break away from the stranglehold of the Chinese Empire.  After being dominated by the northern invaders for more than 1000 years, the people of Vietnam were ready for one final struggle against the Southern Han.

The Life of Ngô Quyền

Before he accepted the leadership role in the fight for independence, Ngô Quyền was still a government official of the Red River Valley.  He served under Dương Đình Nghệ, a Vietnamese administrator who would prove to be one of the most important people in Quyền’s life.  As Ngô Quyền’s mentor, Dương Đình Nghệ saw the potential of his talented protege.  In the year 931A.D., he promoted Ngô Quyền to the rank of General, gave him the power to preside over Ái Châu province, and his daughter’s hand in marriage.

As he rose through the ranks of the military with the support his wife and the blessing of his great mentor, the future was bright for General Quyền.  Sadly, in 938A.D., his mentor and father-in-law was murdered by a rival rebel leader by the name of Kiều Công Tiễn.  Though he was hurt by this tragedy, Ngô Quyền was still prepared to take the leadership position and avenge the man who guided him.

His first order of business as the successor to Dương Đình Nghệ was to capture his teacher’s killer.  In the same year of succeeding Dương’s post, General Ngô Quyền defeated the forces of Kiều Công Tiễn, ending with the execution of the man himself.  With his mission successful, Ngô Quyền was now ready to face the Southern Han, who were now preparing to launch an attack on the people of Vietnam and crush the rebellion.

The Battle at Bạch Đằng Bay

Before Ngô Quyền’s rise, his mentor Dương Đình Nghệ had been controlling Vietnam semi-autonomously, though technically still under the control of the Southern Han.  The news of Nghệ’s death came as an opportunity for the Chinese to recapture the southern region.  Ngô Quyền had already anticipated their invasion, so he decided to plant a trap for the Han army.

The Chinese planned to launch their attack from the River of Bạch Đằng, a vulnerable location where the most damage can be made.  Having foreseen this strategy beforehand, General Ngô Quyền had his soldiers install a myriad of large, sharp poles into the river, concealed by the waves and currents.

On the day of the battle, the Chinese engaged the Vietnamese forces, unaware of the traps that lay ahead.  Under General Quyền’s orders, the Vietnamese forces feigned defeat, luring the unsuspecting enemy into the ingeniously hidden ambush.  The overconfident forces of the Southern Han pursued the retreating ships, still oblivious to Ngô Quyền’s plan.  At the perfect moment, the wooden traps emerged from beneath the waves, capturing the warships of the Southern Han.

The time was right for General Ngô Quyền to deliver the finishing blow.  On his command, General Ngô Quyền’s forces unloaded everything they had on the Chinese ships, obliterating the forces of the Southern Han.  Thousands of Chinese soldiers met their end at Bach Bạch Đằng, including the commander, Liu Hung-tsao.

This momentous victory over the Chinese came to be known as the Battle of Bạch Đằng of 938.  After 1000 years of Chinese occupation, an independent Vietnam was finally born again.  As the man who made history, Ngô Quyền proclaimed himself the new king of Nam-Việt, carrying on the ancient traditions of the people of Lạc Việt.  From then on, the people of Vietnam would always defend their nation.  Future Chinese dynasties would try to invade, but never again will the invaders succeed.

Lady Triệu: The Goddess Who Fought the Wu

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes of Vietnam Week with tags , , , , on July 20, 2010 by Ian Pham

Third Century (225-248A.D.)Triệu Thị Trinh was a female warrior who fought against the Chinese occupants in the third century.  Her story takes place during the Three Kingdoms period in China, after the collapse of the Han Dynasty.  During this time, Vietnam was occupied by the Kingdom of Wu.  Similar to the Han, life under the Wu was bleak and oppressive.  The people of Nam-Việt needed a hero, and the courageous Lady Triệu rose to the occasion.

Lady Triệu, also known as Triệu Trinh, was orphaned as a child and lived under the household with her older brother.  When she turned 20 years old, Triệu Trinh fled to the mountains to follow her older brother.  It was there that she learned her revolutionary ways, meeting many Vietnamese warriors who were ready to fight the Wu.

Her older brother, Triệu Quốc Đạt, feared for her safety and asked her to reconsider joining the rebels.  Triệu Trinh did not accept, telling him that she refused to bow her head down and become another slave to the Chinese invaders.  Her brother was taken by her words and in the end, he respected her decision.

“All I want to do is ride the storms, tame the crashing waves, kill the sharks of the Eastern Sea, cleanse the land, and save the people from drowning.  I refuse to mimic the others, bow my head down, lower myself, and become another concubine!”

– Triệu Thị Trinh, 248A.D.

From then on, Triệu Thị Trinh fought alongside the rebels, engaging the Wu forces and resisting the kingdom from China.  Her bravery, intellect, and valor in battle earned her the name of Lady Triệu.  The warriors also chose her as the leader of their organization.  Lady Triệu was remembered as a strong, intelligent, and beautiful woman, able to tame the heart of any warrior that stands in her way.  She marches fearlessly into battle, wrapped around a silky golden robe, riding on the back of a ferocious elephant.

Under her leadership, the rebels managed to take on the Kingdom of Wu for a short time.  The rebels forces were small, often fighting the much larger army of the Wu Kingdom.  After six months of vigorous battles, Lady Triệu and her forces were finally defeated in battle.  Though they fought valiantly, the Wu forces were much too large for the rebels to withstand.

After escaping from the grasps of the enemy, Triệu Trinh found refuge in the region of Bồ Điền.  In the tradition of the Trung Sisters and the ways of the warrior, to defend her honour and the honour of her brethren, Lady Triệu Thị Trinh ended her own life.  The year was 248A.D. and Triệu Trinh was only 23 years old.

Lady Triệu is remembered, along with the Trung Sisters, as one of the most celebrated female heroes in the history of Vietnam.  In a time when no one else dared to oppose the Wu, Lady Triệu stepped up and fought them to the death.  Though she never succeeded in expelling the Chinese, her courage inspired future generations to keep on fighting and never give up.  Lady Triệu has become a legendary figure of strength and resilience, a goddess in Vietnamese folklore.  In the 10th century under the Dynasty, a temple was built in her memory.  The emperor of the Dynasty also gave her the honourary title of Lady Triệu: The Honourable, Courageous, and Virtuous Woman.

The Trưng Sisters and the First Great Rebellion

Posted in Ancient History, Heroes of Vietnam Week with tags , , , on July 19, 2010 by Ian Pham

First Century (40-43A.D.)
One of the glorious events in Vietnam’s history is the great revolution led by the Trưng Sisters in the first century against the Han Dynasty of China.  In the early periods of Chinese domination, the Trưng Sisters managed to bring independence to the people of the Việt origin for a brief moment in time.  Though their reign was short-lived, their contributions to the Vietnamese tradition will be remembered for many years to come.

The sisters of Trưng were born in the province of Mê Linh, they were the daughters of a Vietnamese lord and are well educated in the arts of literature and war.  The elder sister goes by the name of Trưng Trắc and the younger goes by the name of Trưng Nhị.  The sisters lived in an era when Vietnam was under the rule of the Han Dynasty.  After the Triệu Dynasty of Vietnam was defeated by the Han in 111B.C., the Chinese Empire annexed and incorporated all of Nam-Việt (Vietnam) as part of its territory.

The story of the Trưng Sisters begins with the murder of Trưng Trắc’s husband, Thi Sách.  He was one of the few individuals to stand up to the Han Dynasty’s cruel and oppressive treatment against the people of Nam-Việt.  As a result, the Chinese executed Thi Sách as a way to intimidate and further demoralize the Vietnamese people.  As Thi Sách’s wife, Trưng Trắc’ swore to avenge the death of her husband and free the people of Nam-Việt from their sadistic oppressors.

With the help of her younger sister, Nhị, Trưng Trắc established a small militia within her village.  This small group of fighters later grew into a revolutionary force that spread thoughout all of Nam-Việt.  Thousands of men and women from all over the southern regions showed their deepest support for the new freedom fighters.  Under the leadership of Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, the people of Nam-Việt liberated the country, driving out the Han invaders in the year 40A.D.  With the Chinese gone, the Trưng Sisters declared themselves the Queens of Nam-Việt and established a new Vietnamese Kingdom directly south of China.

This period of independence would only last for a short time however.  The Chinese were shamed in defeat and were determined to redeem themselves.  To avoid a second humiliation, the Chinese sent a massive expeditionary army into Nam-Việt under the fierce leadership of General Ma Yuan.  The kingdom of Nam-Việt fought the returning invaders courageously, though they were strongly outnumbered.  In the end, the independent kingdom was overpowered by the massive military might of the invading Han forces.  As a result, the kingdom of Nam-Việt fell back into the hands of the Han Dynasty in 43A.D.

The soldiers of Nam-Việt all gave their lives, now the Trưng Sisters were prepared to do the same.  Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị refused to be captured by the enemy and surrendering was not an option.  So with the Han army steadily approaching the Sisters of Trưng at the river of Hát, Trắc and Nhị leaped into the waters, out of the reach of the Han soldiers.  By taking their own lives, the Trưng Sisters preserved their pride and honour, and defying the Chinese once again.

Even though the Trưng Sisters’ rebellion only lasted for three short years, the significance of their actions reverberated in the hearts of the Việt people.  This heroic fight would be a guiding light for future generations of the Vietnamese freedom movement, giving hope to the fighters in their darkest hours.  Even today, the Trưng Sisters are revered and loved as the first liberators of the Vietnamese people.  In Vietnam, many temples and shrines are built to honour these bright and courageous women.