Archive for Bach Dang River

Year One: 938, The Year Vietnam Broke Free

Posted in Ancient History, Dynastic History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2018 by Ian Pham

Bach Dang Battle 938(Wikimedia)

Let us be clear, first and foremost, that Vietnam, its history, its language, its culture, and its people, has existed long before the year 938 A.D. There are at least two thousand years of popular recorded Vietnamese history, and much more information available about Vietnam out there covering even further back than these two millennia. This article does not make the case that 938 is the year that Vietnam began. No, this article simply seeks to highlight the significance of the year 938, because, while there are many, many major dates in the history of Vietnam before and after 938, that particular year holds a very important place in Vietnam’s history.

938 A.D. was the year that the people of Vietnam defeated China in a decisive war, ended the thousand years of Chinese occupation once and for all, achieved independence, and created for themselves a sovereign nation that was distinctly Vietnamese. It was a new beginning for the Vietnamese people, the year that Vietnam was reborn, and the dawn of a new era of independence after a destructive thousand years of Chinese domination. This is the significance of the year 938, and why it is argued here to be “Year One” of a new Vietnamese epoch.

So many heroes and so many lives were sacrificed, up to and including the year 938 to achieve the triumph of the Vietnamese people over the Chinese occupiers. This momentous victory culminated at Vietnam’s Bạch Đằng River, where a small Vietnamese naval force, under the leadership of General Ngô Quyền, destroyed an invading army from the Southern Han kingdom of China. It was at Bạch Đằng, with this victory, that China’s thousand years of domination over Vietnam effectively came to an end (Bolt & Garrett, 1999).

Prior to the 938 Battle of Bạch Đằng, Vietnam was still an occupied territory under the Southern Han of China. The millennium of Chinese domination over Vietnam formally began in the year 111 B.C., when the Han Dynasty of China, under the command of Emperor Wu Di, overran the ancient kingdom of Nam-Việt (ancient Vietnam) (Tran, 1920: 44-47). From that period, all the way until 938 A.D., the Vietnamese people initiated many fights for independence. Although some of these efforts yielded short-lived successes, such as the revered and truly consequential Trưng Sisters’ Rebellion in the first century (40 A.D. – 43. A.D.) (ibid, 49-50), a conclusive and lasting victory did not occur until Ngô Quyền’s monumental triumph over the Southern Han at Bạch Đằng in 938. It was then and there that Chinese domination was ended once and for all.

General Ngô Quyền, the man who led the fight against the Southern Han in 938, was born in Vietnam’s Sơn Tây province (Chapuis, 1995: 70). According to the historian Tran Trong Kim, Ngô Quyền was 47 years old when he died in the year 944 (89), thus marking his age at either 40 or 41 at the Battle of Bạch Đằng, depending on whether his birthday (unknown in this article) occurred before or after the battle. In any case, one can see here that Ngô Quyền was not very old at the time he led the Vietnamese to victory.

Before Ngô Quyền took the helm as leader of the resistance, a man named Dương Đình Nghệ, Ngô Quyền’s mentor and father-in-law, led the Vietnamese rebel forces. Certain feats accomplished by Dương Đình Nghệ showed him to be a strong and effective leader.

In 931, having already established control over some originally Vietnamese territories in the crumbling Chinese empire, the elder Nghệ launched an attack on Southern Han forces in Đại La, expanded the scope of his control, and effectively consolidated a governorship over a quasi-independent Vietnamese territory (Taylor, 2013: 45-46).

During this time, though the Vietnamese area was indeed ruled by a Vietnamese leader, it was, on paper, still under the control of the Southern Han. Having achieved recognition from a weak and reluctant Southern Han (Taylor, 46), the Governor Nghệ had big plans for his territory. However, due to his assassination, Governor Nghệ would only rule for a span of six years and was unable to carry out his goals (Tran, 76). In 937, Dương Đình Nghệ was betrayed and murdered by one of his own generals, Kiều Công Tiễn, who then sought help from the Chinese to consolidate his usurpation (Taylor, 46). Consistent with their approach to any traitor to the Vietnamese nation, the Chinese were happy to assist the treasonous Kiều Công Tiễn in causing damage to Vietnam’s interests.

During this time, Ngô Quyền was serving under Dương Đình Nghệ as the administrator of what is modern day Thanh Hóa province. The two men had a close relationship, for it was Nghệ who recognized the talents of Ngô Quyền in earlier times, promoted Quyền to oversee the operations of Thanh Hóa, and granted his daughter’s hand in marriage to Quyền. Upon hearing the news of his mentor’s death, Ngô Quyền mobilized his own forces to confront Kiều Công Tiễn and avenge his father-in-law (Tran, 76).

Marching northward, Ngô Quyền killed the traitor Kiều Công Tiễn in 938, and promptly shifted his attention to the incoming Chinese invasion (Taylor, 46; Tran, 76). From China, the Southern Han ruler, Liu Gong, braced his forces for an attempt to recapture the Vietnamese territory.

Anticipating the Southern Han’s attack, Ngô Quyền “stationed his men at the estuary of the Bạch Đằng River where the sea routes entered the plain and where he prepared to receive the Southern Han fleet with iron-tipped poles planted in the bed of the river,” (Taylor, 46).

Prior to the Battle of Bạch Đằng, the Southern Han heeded the call of the traitor Kiều Công Tiễn, and “mobilized a fleet of warships, commanded by the crown prince, to bring an army to the aid of its would-be ally,” (ibid). According to Chapuis, this invading force was known as the “Yunnanese expedition,” (70), and was led by Liu Gong’s son, the crown prince Liu Hungcao (Anderson, 2007: 43), [known as Hoằng Tháo in Vietnamese records (Chapuis, 70)].

As history shows, even after the death of Kiều Công Tiễn, the Southern Han continued their invasion of Vietnam without their “would-be ally.” An examination by James Anderson demonstrates that during this period, in what the Chinese describe as the “Five Dynasties” period, the aspirational Southern Han dynasty north of the Vietnamese regions were showing renewed interest in once again capturing full control of Vietnam and its people (43). These findings cast doubt on the Southern Han’s apparently benevolent intentions of simply helping a potential ally, embodied by the treasonous Kiều Công Tiễn. Instead, it is more apparent that the Southern Han, though claiming to assist an ally in need, sought to exploit the situation in Vietnam to capture and reestablish Chinese control over the Vietnamese once more.

The Southern Han’s Yunnanese expedition arrived in the autumn of 938, and was met by the forces of General Ngô Quyền at Bạch Đằng River (Anderson, 43; Taylor, 46).

As part of their strategy, it was the forces of Ngô Quyền who initiated the naval confrontation versus the Southern Han fleet (Chapuis, 70). The Việt forces instigated the fight during high tide, when the river waters covered the giant iron stakes they had planted beneath the waves. As the tide gradually fell, Ngô Quyền’s forces feigned a retreat, prompting a chase by the Southern Han’s forces. In their pursuit, the invaders sailed directly over Ngô Quyền’s trap (Tran, 70). With the fall of the tide, the Chinese ships became entangled, the stakes ripping through the Chinese ships and impaling the soldiers onboard (Anderson, 43). It was then that Ngô Quyền and the Việt forces launched their counter attack, against an ensnared Southern Han naval fleet that could neither fight back nor escape. As a result, at Bạch Đằng River, Ngô Quyền and his navy obliterated the Chinese invading forces (Tran, 76), drowning half of the Chinese expedition (Anderson, 43).

From the battle, the Southern Han’s naval commander, the crown prince Liu Hungcao, was captured by Ngô Quyền’s forces and subsequently executed (Tran, 76). With the destruction of its invading fleet, and the loss of Prince Hungcao, who was both the leader of the fleet and the heir to the Southern Han’s throne, the defeat at Bạch Đằng River marked “the end of Southern Han ambitions in An Nam,” (Taylor, 46). [Side note: An Nam was the Chinese’ derogatory name for Vietnam, meaning “Pacified South,” and is a label “much resented by the Vietnamese,” then and now (Bolt & Garrett)].

With the Southern Han invaders vanquished, and his position over the Vietnamese realm solidified, Ngô Quyền purged himself of any designations associated with the old Chinese order, and took on the role as “King” of a newly independent Vietnamese throne (Anderson, 43). The new Vietnamese King then set up his independent capital at Cổ Loa, an ancient site north of the Red River Delta, where the legendary Vietnamese ruler King An Dương founded his ancient kingdom of Âu Lạc (257 B.C. – 207 B.C.) more than a thousand years before Ngô Quyền’s time (Anderson, 43-44; Taylor, 46).

Ngô Quyền’s decision to set up his government at this specific location signified his purpose to be a “Vietnamese leader who was independent from northern [Chinese] control” (Anderson, 44). In so doing, King Ngô Quyền declared his own dynasty, separate from the Chinese (Taylor, 46). It was a monarchic regime, viewed by some as “the first manifestation of Vietnam’s national identity,” (Chapuis, 70).

And with that, in the year 938 A.D., a new Vietnamese nation was born, after more than one thousand years of Chinese domination.

The Battle of Bạch Đằng of 938 would be recorded famously in the annals of history, and the mastermind behind the brilliant strategies that resulted in that victory, the General (and later, King) Ngô Quyền, joined the “pantheon of Vietnamese national heroes,” (43). Successive generations, such as the dynasties of the Đinh, the “Early” Lê, the Lý, the Trần (Tran, 76), and all those after them, stemmed from the foundation laid by Ngô Quyền and the brave Vietnamese who made the ultimate sacrifice before and up to that monumental victory at Bạch Đằng River.

It was at that critical juncture that a new Vietnamese homeland was born. At Bạch Đằng River, after a thousand years of trying, trying, and trying some more, our Vietnamese ancestors realized our destiny in 938, affirming the right to exist of the Vietnamese people, and of a Vietnamese homeland, always and forever.

For this reason, with the undying truth that Vietnam and its people possess thousands of years of history long before the Battle of Bạch Đằng Bay, the year 938 A.D. stands immortal in the history books of the Vietnamese people, and is argued here to be “Year One” of a new Vietnamese era.



Anderson, James. The Rebel Den of Nùng Trí Cao: Loyalty and Identity Along the Sino-Vietnamese Frontier. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007.

Bolt, Ernest & Amanda Garrett. “The End of Chinese Domination: The Battle of Bach Dang (938).” From Pre-Colonial Vietnam: Study Module for Online Course (Richmond University, 1999). (accessed Dec. 30, 2017).

Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam: From Hong Bang to Tu Duc. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Taylor, Keith W. A History of the Vietnamese. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Tran, Kim Trong. Việt Nam Sử Lược. Vietnam: Thanh Hoa Publishing, 1920.


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.

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.