Vietnam's national identity has been shaped by over two millennia of invasion, resistance and internal conflict. In 111 B.C.E. China's Han Dynasty conquered the Red River Delta in the northern part of modern Vietnam and ruled the area, which it called Annam, for nearly 1,000 years. In 1284, Kublai Khan's half-million man invasion force was virtually destroyed by Vietnamese guerillas. The Vietnamese gradually began moving south toward the Mekong Delta, and in 1471 conquered the Champa Kingdom in what is now central Vietnam. For hundreds of years, feuding families in the north and south waged a series of civil wars.

In the mid 19th century, France, lagging seriously behind the other European powers in Asian colonial holdings, saw Vietnam as an easy way to expand its sphere of influence in the region. Using the persecution of Catholic missionaries by Emperor Minh Mang as a pretext for invasion, French and Spanish forces entered the port city of Da Nang in August 1858. By 1887 France controlled the entire Indochinese peninsula, including modern-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. For the next half-century it ruled Indochina with an iron fist, quickly crushing any sign of nationalist rebellion.

As the Second World War spread across Europe, France was conquered by Nazi Germany in June 1940. Three months later, Japanese forces occupied Indochina with the cooperation of the French Vichy government. With the displacement of France's brutal colonial regime, several nationalist and communist organizations quickly formed to resist the Japanese occupation. The largest of these was the Vietnam Doc-Lap Dong Minh Hoi, or Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh.

After the war ended in 1945, France attempted to reassert control in the region. But the Viet Minh quickly seized local control in most of Indochina, and declared an independent country, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Negotiations between France and the Viet Minh failed, and nine years of war followed. While France (with financing from the United States) had overwhelming superiority in weaponry, the Viet Minh was able to compensate through sheer force of numbers, recruiting guerrilla fighters from the local peasant population. The communist takeover of China in 1949 provided the Viet Minh with an important ally, and by the middle of 1954 France realized that the war could not be won. An international conference held in Geneva in July 1954 called for an armistice, free elections within two years, and a temporary partitioning of the country at the seventeenth parallel.

The United States opposed the Geneva Accords, and set out to sabotage the agreement and create a separate, non-communist government in south Vietnam. Ngo Dinh Diem, the new U.S.-supported leader in the south, announced that he had no intention of carrying out national elections as called for in the Geneva Accords. Instead, he renamed the southern part of the country the Republic of Vietnam, and held separate elections (which were not monitored by international observers) in which he was elected president. Diem quickly built a dictatorship centered around his family. His support of landowners over peasants, and the government's brutal reprisals against those who had supported the Viet Minh during the war, engendered growing resentment in the South Vietnamese countryside. By early 1960 communists and communist sympathizers in the South, with assistance from Hanoi, began a low-level guerrilla war against the Diem government. In late 1960, the National Liberation Front (NLF), or Viet Cong, was established to lead the guerrilla war against Saigon. As the conflict widened in the early 1960s, the U.S. increased military aid to the Diem regime, but resisted sending in American ground troops. By 1963, the U.S. realized that Diem's reluctance to engage the NLF directly and the increasing corruption and brutality of his officials were incompatible with American objectives in Vietnam. On November 1, South Vietnamese officers overthrew and executed Diem in a U.S.-backed coup.

In August 1964, after two alleged attacks on a U.S. destroyer in international waters off the North Vietnamese coast, Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, giving President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to wage all-out war against North Vietnam without a formal declaration of war from Congress. Within months, the first U.S. ground troops had arrived, and the U.S. had begun sustained bombing of targets in North Vietnam in an operation called "Rolling Thunder." By the end of the year, there were nearly 185,000 American military personnel in Vietnam. This number would increase to over 500,000 troops by early 1968. On January 31 of that year, during the Vietnamese new year's celebration, Tet, North Vietnamese forces carried out more than 150 simultaneous attacks throughout South Vietnam, taking the U.S. almost completely by surprise. While the Tet Offensive was widely seen as a military defeat for the North, it was a public relations victory, with heavy news coverage of the offensive and its aftermath helping to galvanize anti-war sentiment in the United States.

As popular support back home for the war evaporated, the U.S. scaled back its military involvement, and began looking for a way out. Years of peace talks finally culminated in the Paris Peace Accord of January 1973, which called for a cease-fire and for the U.S. to pull all troops and equipment out of Vietnam. While the U.S. did pull out its forces, a cease-fire did not occur, and North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces took Saigon on April 30, 1975. Nearly 150,000 refugees, mostly ARVN officers, government officials and their families, fled Saigon as the capital fell. Many settled in the United States.

The fall of Saigon, and the conflicts with China and Cambodia that followed, prompted a mass exodus of "boat people" from Vietnam. By some estimates, nearly half of the hundreds of thousands who set out across the South China Sea in rickety boats succumbed to drowning, starvation, dehydration or pirates. The lucky ones reached refugee camps in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Philippines, from where many were permitted to emigrate into the United States, France, Canada, and other countries. As members of this first wave gained refugee status, the Vietnamese government allowed many of their relatives to join them. In total, it is estimated that over two million Vietnamese fled the country in the years following the end of the Vietnam War.

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Read Lam describe his personal struggles with the Vietnamese Diaspora, here

For additional information about the Vietnamese Diaspora, click here

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