Nam quốc sơn hà ('Mountains and Rivers of the Southern Country' in English) is a famous 11th-century Vietnamese poem. Called "Vietnam's first Declaration of Independence," it asserts the sovereignty of Vietnam's rulers over its lands. According to mythology, it was read by God’s envoys in support of Vietnamese troops who fought against invaders from the north.
As ambassador, I followed the advice of the defense attache, Colonel Tuấn T. Tôn, and visited Bạch Đằng River, near Hai Phong, with Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet. Admiral Swift and I stood beneath towering statues of three Vietnamese leaders who had successfully guarded the country against northern aggression: Generals (and later emperors) Ngô Quyền, Emperor Lê Đại Hành, and Trần Hưng Đạo.
There, I read that 11th Century poem, Nam quốc sơn hà:
Sông núi nước Nam, vua Nam ở
Rành rành định phận ở sách trời.
Cớ sao lũ giặc sang xâm phạm,
Chúng bay sẽ bị đánh tơi bời!
The Emperor of the South reigns over mountains
and rivers of the South,
as it stands written forever in the Book of Heaven.
How is it then that you strangers dare to invade our land?
Your army shall be shamed and beaten.
At the Bạch Đằng River, Vietnam’s great military heroes—Ngô Quyền, Lê Đại Hành, and Trần Hưng Đạo—had defeated northern aggressors by sinking stakes into the mud, using the weight of their adversaries for self-impalement. Admiral Swift and I examined one of the original iron-tipped stakes. Swift understood that honoring these generals from past centuries would help bring about a decision to tighten Vietnam’s security ties with the United States in the present.
In 938, after more than 750 years of Chinese occupation, General Ngô Quyền led his military forces to defeat the Chinese in the first battle of Bạch Đằng. Then, in 981, Emperor Lê Đại Hành defeated a Song Dynasty fleet in the second battle of Bạch Đằng, and again he used stakes planted in the water.
The next five centuries are referred to as Vietnam’s “Independent Period,” when the country was ruled by the Ngô, Đinh, Lê, Lý, Trần, and Hồ dynasties. Even so, during this time, the Vietnamese were forced to push back against encroachment from the north. In 1288, General (later Emperor) Trần Hưng Đạo used the “self-impalement” strategy for a third time, in that instance to repel Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies. Like Ngô Quyền and Emperor Lê Đại Hành before him, General Trần Hưng Đạo used iron-tipped stakes to achieve victory in the third and final battle of the Bạch Đằng River. More than four Mongol hundred Mongol vessels were lost or captured, ending Kublai Khan’s attempt to invade Vietnam and also effectively ending the Mongols’ campaign to conquer Southeast Asia.
Why would this be of interest to an American diplomat? For eleven centuries—from Vietnam's birth as a nation to the present—dealing with China has been the central challenge of Vietnam’s foreign policy. Other countries—France, and the United States—would come and go, but China is always there.
There is a second reason for understanding this history. Vietnam’s strategy with France and the United States, at least metaphorically, was the same strategy as during the three battles of Bạch Đằng: use the weight of Vietnam’s adversaries for self-impalement. It’s a strategy that Vietnam has used successfully for eleven centuries, so it’s not unreasonable to think that it will still be used going forward.
Interested in this story? Ted Osius’s book, "𝐍𝐨𝐭𝐡𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐈𝐬 𝐈𝐦𝐩𝐨𝐬𝐬𝐢𝐛𝐥𝐞: 𝐀𝐦𝐞𝐫𝐢𝐜𝐚’𝐬 𝐑𝐞𝐜𝐨𝐧𝐜𝐢𝐥𝐢𝐚𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧 𝐰𝐢𝐭𝐡 𝐕𝐢𝐞𝐭𝐧𝐚𝐦," with a Foreword by John Kerry, will be published October 2021 in English by Rutgers University Press, and in Vietnamese in 2022.
Get a 30% discount for both the hard copy (and free shipping - only in America) and ebook by applying the promo code RFLR19 if you preorder on Rutgers University Press.
For further information about the book, please visit www.tedosius.com and sign up with your email address.