Trần Hưng Đạo and the Mongol Invasions
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 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.