A Short History of Vietnam – Oversimplified, and with True Size Maps

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Generic photo of rice paddies in Vietnam – the good stuff is below

It’s hard to believe that a country as “small” as Vietnam could have a population of over 90 million people, but is that really the case? This Southeast Asian powerhouse is home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the world, from lush rainforests and rolling hills to busy cities and white-sand beaches. Just where does this all fit in such a “tiny” country? Well, in fact, Vietnam is bigger than most people think. It only looks small because of the Mercator Projection, which is the image most people are familiar. So while trying to fix this, let’s take this opportunity to through a short history of Vietnam (if oversimplified), along with map overlays courtesy of TheTrueSize.com.

Vietnam vs China

China: Population 1.4 Billion

Vietnam is a country with a complicated pre-history, having been occupied by the Americans, and the French, but not before the Chinese did the same for centuries, along with small independent kingdoms before that. For about a thousand years, Vietnam was under constant Chinese rule. There were a few periods of Vietnamese independence, but for the most part, the Vietnamese people were ruled by their northern neighbors. This period of history was marked by two main things: economic integration with China and assimilation of various parts of Chinese culture. This reflects in the multitude of loan words, architecture styles, and even in paintings of rural landscapes.

Vietnam vs France

France: Population 67 million

This was followed with European involvement. The French occupation of Vietnam was a complicated period that shaped the country in many ways. The French were interested in Vietnam because of its location – it’s close to China, and smack-dab in the middle of Southeast Asia. They also saw it as a potential colony, since they were already ruling over much of Africa and Asia. The French began occupying Vietnam in 1858, and it wasn’t long before they started clashing with the Vietnamese people. The French were “difficult”, and they taxed the Vietnamese people heavily, both financially and labour-wise. They also tried to force the Vietnamese to adopt French culture, which the Vietnamese both accepted and resisted in different regions of the country, to varying degrees. The conflict between the French and the Vietnamese went on for decades, and it was only during WW2 that things started to change.

Vietnam vs Japan

Japan: Population 125 million

But not necessarily for the better, as the Japanese empire, hungry for resources, came down from the north. They quickly took over Vietnam, having already taken parts of China by this time. While the Japanese were in control of Vietnam, they occupied it for political and economic reasons – “protection” against other colonial powers. The Vietnamese people weren’t happy about this new regime, but there wasn’t much they could do about it without help from outsiders.

Vietnam vs the USA

The United States: Population 330 million

This is when American involvement began. At that time, the US was already heavily involved in Asia, and it didn’t take long for the Americans to get involved. This involvement in Vietnam led to a battle that we all know about: the battle of Dien Bien Phu. This battle was a tipping point in the fight for Vietnamese independence, as it led to a ceasefire agreement with the French. The Americans, however, stayed on for a “few” more years.

Vietnam vs the Philippines

The Philippines: Population 110 million

Around this time, a lot of Boat People crossed the South China Sea, where they hoped to find a new life – in the Philippines. This is true for many Southern Vietnamese people, and those from other parts of Indochina, who were displaced. After a short period, many of them either returned to Vietnam or moved on to other countries. Some of them went to the US and Canada, some to former colonizer France, some settled in nearby Australia, and others went to welcoming countries that now make up most of the Vietnamese diaspora. Half a million people from Vietnam (as well as Cambodia and Laos) found refuge in the Philippines, very few stayed.

Vietnam vs South Africa

South Africa: Population 60 million

History moves on though, and it’s now Vietnam’s turn to welcome people into its borders. In the early 1980s, Vietnam’s economy started to open up to foreign investment… and of course English Teachers, many of whom come from basically the other side of the planet.


Hopefully things continue to look up for this amazing country. Again, it’s “small”, but it’s definitely BIG. Take your time to explore the region, meet friendly locals, eat all the amazing food, but make sure to familiarise yourself with even just the most simple of history.

Thoughts and comments (or any historical corrections!) would be much appreciated.


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