The country of Vietnam is a land with many fascinating and in-depth histories that span from prehistoric times all the way to modern day.
Vietnam has a large coastline situated along the Gulf of Thailand and the South China Sea. To the north is China’s Guangxi province and to the west is Laos’s Savannakhet province. Vietnam is known for the Dong Son culture, knwon for its bronze drums that have been found across Southeast Asia. For most of its history, the country now known as Vietnam was made of two regions: northern Vietnam was largely under Chinese rule, while the Cham kingdoms in the south were a collection of independent Indic polities located along the coastline. Vietnam is home to many Unesco World Heritage Sites, six of which are cultural: Hue, Hoi An, My Son Sanctuary, Thang Long Citadel, Ho Citadel and the Trang An Landscape Complex (a mixed natural and cultural site).
This page covers the archaeology of Vietnam as a whole, and you can find more details about the other countries in their respective pages or explore the Resource Guide for thematic areas. There’s also the Virtual Archaeology page where you can visit Southeast Asian archaeological sites online, learn something from the Online Lecture Library, or find recent academic papers for more up-to-date research.
The earliest evidence for human occupation in Vietnam comes from the Paleolithic era (45,000 to 10,000 years ago), while hominid (Homo erectus) fossils have been discovered in northern Vietnam dating approximately 500,000 years. For the periods involving prehistoric humans, Vietnamese nomenclature identfies a number of distinct assemblages (cultures) during the prehistoric period, including the Palaeolithic Son Vi culture, to the Bronze Age cultures of Phung Nguyen and Dong Son. Neolithic settlements appear in northern and southern Vietnam around 2,000 BCE, likely due to migrations of people from China.
Some of the most notable prehistoric cultures in Vietnam include the Hoabinhian culture, a lithic industry using unificial flakes made from cobbles that has been used to describe many other similar assemblages across Southeast Asia; the Bronze Age Dong Son culture, noted for their skill in bronze casting (exemplified by the Dong Son drums) but also associated with rice agriculture and animal domestication; and the Su Huynh culture found in Southern Vietnam, who are thought to be the likely ancestors of the Cham people.
From the 2nd century CE, a collection of Indianized kingdoms known as Champa emerged from the southern to central coasts of Vietnam. These kingdoms facilitated trade between China, Java and India . Champa is known for its many Hindu temples, most notably the Po Nagar tower in Khánh Hòa Province and the My Son sacntuary in Quang Nam province. Champa was likely influenced by ancient Funan kingdom in neighbouring Cambodia.
In the northern part of modern-day Vietnam, tradition holds that the Hồng Bàng dynasty established the first Vietnamese state in 2879 BCE. From the third century BCE, records become more reliable and the Au Lac and Nanyue kingdoms emerge, signalling the beginning of Vietnamese history. From the first century BCE, Vietnam was part of the Chinese Han Empire and fell under its sporadic control. Chinese rule lasted until the 10th century, punctuated by periods of rebellion, invasion and independence. The establishment of the Dai Viet Empire in the second half of the 10th century marked the first time that Vietnam came under an officially unified rule independent of China. Over the course many succeeding dynasties, Dai Viet expanded southwards, coming into conflict and eventually absorbing Champa by the 19th century.
Like many other countries in Southeast Asia, European colonialism played an important role in the history of Vietnam. The first Europeans in Vietnam were Portuguese who reached the region in 1544, but it was the French that developed substantial trading interests in the 18th and 19th century. The French eventually came to take control of all of Vietnam as part of French Indochina which included Cambodia and Laos. French rule, and the rule of the Nguyen Dynasty, ended in 1945 following the end of World War II. South Vietnam subsequently became a part of the Republic of Vietnam, which was officially declared on September 2, 1955. The North was controlled by the Communist government of North Vietnam and became a separate state on October 28, 1954. In 1976 North and South Vietnam were reunited into the Communist state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In recent decades, Vietnam has transformed from a Third World country to an emerging market.
Archaeology plays an important role in projecting Vietnamese power and sovereignty through history. Examples include Vietnamese research into territorial claims over the contested Truong Sa (Spratly) and Hoang Sa (Paracel) Islands, the archaeology of the Battle of the Bach Dang River, in which Vietnamese forces successfully repelled the invading Southern Han army and ended Chinese domination. Today, archaeology is usually carried out by the Institute of Archaeology, which is part of Vietnam’s Academy of Social Sciences, and often in collaboration with local museums. There are also many active research collaborations with overseas scholars investigating a wide range of interests.
Recommended by Amazon
There are a number of books relevant to the archaeology and history of Vietnam, and the list below is my personal recommendation based on what I have in my library or have read, and easily available. There are some local-language publications that are not available in the internet, and newer books are higher up on the list. Some of these links are affiliate links and I may receive a commission if you click on them and make a purchase. For other sources of reliable academic information, you should also check out the books page for latest releases and the occassional free book, as well as the journals page for the latest scientific research.
- *new* Viet Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present by Ben Kiernan
- The Origins of Ancient Vietnam (Oxford Studies in the Archaeology of Ancient States) by Nam C. Kim
- Vibrancy in Stone: Masterpieces of the Danang Museum of Cham Sculpture by Peter D. Sharrock and Vo Van Thang
- Old Citadels of Viet Nam by The Gioi Publishers
- The People between the Rivers: The Rise and Fall of a Bronze Drum Culture, 200–750 CE by Catherine Churchman
- The Nguyen Dynasty: Stories of the Lords and Emperors of the Nguyen Family (16th-20th Centuries) by Bui Huong Giang (Ed.)
- Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c.400 BCE–50 CE by Erica Fox Brindley
- Royal Hue by Vu Hong Lien
- A Brief Chronology of Vietnamese History Paperback by Ha Van Thu and Tran Hong Duc
- Vestiges of Champa Civilization by Tran Ky Phu’o’ng
- Ancient Vietnam: History, Art and Archaeology by Anne-Valerie Schweyer
- Champa and the archaeology of My Son (Vietnam) by Andrew Hardy, Mauro Cucarzi and Patrizia Zolese
- Dong Son Drums in Viet Nam
Most Popular Vietnamese Archaeology Posts
via Radio Free Asia, 07 September 2021: A 19th century Qing Dynasty letter suggests that China did not consider the...Read more
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Vietnam Archaeology News Archive
The news reports indexed below usually link to external sites that were active at the time of posting; sometimes websites may be temporarily down or may have reorganised their underlying architecture or have even closed down – in these cases the links may not be available. Most of the news articles archived are in English; this is largely because I do not have a working competency in Vietnamese, although when I am made aware of stories in this and other languages I try to index them.
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These are links to external sites and unless stated, I have no connection with the organisations or entities in these links or control over their content. They are sorted alphabetically, but you should also explore the Resources page which have links sorted by themes. If you have a link to suggest, please get in touch!
- Cham Studies – Website was established for the purpose of gaining a deeper and more refined understanding of the civilization of Champa and the Cham people.
- France-Vietnam des patrimoines partagés en ligne – Online repository of shared French and Vietnamese documentary heritage, a collaboration between the National Libraries of France and Vietnam.
- SUNDASIA – Project exploring how prehistoric tropical communities adapted to cycles of coastal inundation over the last 60,000 years in northern Vietnam, and how these data can help inform models and responses to modern climate-induced rising seas in this region.
- Vietnam Archaeology and Cultural Heritage – Website run by Alex Giang.
- Vietnam Institute of Archaeology – Viện khảo cổ học is the national research institution under the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.
- Vietnam Maritime Archeology Project – To promote Underwater Cultural Heritage and Maritime Archeology in Vietnam. Facebook page.
- Vietnam National Museum of History (Hanoi) – The Vietnam National Museum of History is a public service unit under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, which is at the forefront of the system of Vietnam’s history-society museums.
- Vietnam National Museum of History (Ho Chi Minh City) – The southern branch of the Vietnam National Museum of History in Ho Chi Minh City.
- Viet Nam prehistory – A quick and pictorial overview of the prehistory of Viet Nam.