According to Vietnamese Legend, the People of Vietnam descend from the Dragon King Lac Long Quan and his wife, the Water Fairy Au Co and the first Vietnamese kingdom, the Kingdom of Annam, was founded in 2874 B.C. The modern Kingdom was unified in 1788 by the King of Hue, titled The Emperor of Annam since 1802.

The oldest evidence of human habitation in Vietnam has been dated to 500,000 years ago. Artifacts, dated to 8,000 B.C., from Neolithic cultures have also been found. People may have engaged in agriculture as far back as 7,000 B.C. (about the time rice agriculture developed in China).

Archaeologists have found vestiges of Homo Erectus in the caves of Lang Son and Nghe An Provinces. During the Pre-Paleolithic Age, also known as the Son Vi Era (between 30,000 to 10,000 years ago), the population of Vietnam was rather large and widespread. During the Neolithic Age groups of people with different cultural attributes mixed together. These people used sophisticated trimmed stone axes, produced stone rings, and designed pottery goods. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com,Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The Vietnamese people represent a fusion of races, languages, and cultures, the elements of which are still being sorted out by ethnologists, linguists, and archaeologists. As was true for most areas of Southeast Asia, the Indochina Peninsula was a crossroads for many migrations of peoples, including speakers of Austronesian, Mon-Khmer, and Tai languages. The Vietnamese language provides some clues to the cultural mixture of the Vietnamese people. Although a separate and distinct language, Vietnamese borrows much of its basic vocabulary from Mon-Khmer, tonality from the Tai languages, and some grammatical features from both Mon-Khmer and Tai. Vietnamese also exhibits some influence from Austronesian languages, as well as large infusions of Chinese literary, political, and philosophical terminology of a later period. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The area now known as Vietnam has been inhabited since Paleolithic times, with some archaeological sites in Thanh Hoa Province reportedly dating back several thousand years. Archaeologists link the beginnings of Vietnamese civilization to the late Neolithic, early Bronze Age, Phung-nguyen culture, which was centered in Vinh Phu Province of contemporary Vietnam from about 2000 to 1400 B.C.. By about 1200 B.C., the development of wet-rice cultivation and bronze casting in the Ma River and Red River plains led to the development of the Dong Son culture, notable for its elaborate bronze drums. The bronze weapons, tools, and drums of Dong Sonian sites show a Southeast Asian influence that indicates an indigenous origin for the bronze-casting technology. Many small, ancient copper mine sites have been found in northern Vietnam. Some of the similarities between the Dong Sonian sites and other Southeast Asian sites include the presence of boat-shaped coffins and burial jars, stilt dwellings, and evidence of the customs of betel-nut-chewing and teeth-blackening. *

Early People in Vietnam

The earliest inhabitants of Vietnam are believed to have been Negritos. Around 4,000 years ago Austronesian (Indonesian) people from the north began moving into what is now north Vietnam. Later Austroasiatic (Mo-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesian) peoples arrived. Then, around 2,500 years ago Viet (Yueh) and Tai peoples came down from southern China. The early northern Vietnamese kingdom of Van Lang was created from a mixing and merging of these peoples.

The first modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) arrived in Southeast Asia around 50,000 years ago. Their stone-age technology remained little changed until a new Neolithic culture evolved about 10,000 years ago. Stone tools discovered in Houaphanh and Luang Prabang provinces in Laos attest to the presence of prehistoric man in the hunter-gatherer stage in Lao territory from at least 40,000 years ago. The Hoabinhian culture is named after an archaeological site in northern Vietnam. Hoabinhian hunter-gatherers spread throughout much of Southeast Asia, including Laos. Their descendants produced the first pottery in the region, and later bronze metallurgy. In time they supplemented their hunting, fishing and gathering by horticulture and eventually rice cultivation, introduced down the Mekong River valley from southern China.

Chinese Culture Spreads to Asia and Then the Pacific

The ancestors of modern Laotians, Thais and possibly Burmese, Cambodians, Filipinos and Indonesians originated from southern China. The Austronesian family of languages of which are spoken as far west as Madagascar, as far south of New Zealand, as far east as Easter island and all Philippine and Polynesian languages most likely originated in China. A great diversity of these languages is found in Taiwan, which has led some to conclude they originated there or on the nearby mainland. Others believe they may have originated in Borneo or Sulawesi or some other place.

The ancestors of modern Southeast Asian people arrived from Tibet and China about 2,500 years ago, displacing the aboriginal groups that occupied the land first. They subsisted on rice and yams which they may have been introduced to Africa.

Pottery and stone tools of southern Chinese origin dating back to 4000 B.C. have been found in Taiwan. The same artifacts have been found in archeological sites in the Philippines dating back to 3000 B.C. Because there were no land bridges linking China or Taiwan with the Philippines, one must conclude that ocean-going vessels were in regular use. Genetic studies indicate that closest genetic relatives of the Maori of New Zealand are found in Taiwan.

Southern Chinese culture, agriculture and domesticated animals (pigs, chickens and dogs) is believed to have spread from the Philippines through the islands of Indonesia to the islands north of New Guinea. By 1000 B.C., obsidian was being traded between present-day Sabah in Malaysian Borneo and present-day New Britain in Papua New Guinea, 2,400 miles away. Later southern Chinese culture spread eastward across the uninhabited islands of the Pacific, reaching Easter Island (10,000 miles from China) around 500 A.D.

Inventions such as the animal harness and iron-making gave the ancient Chinese a technological advantage over their Stone Age neighbors. As people of Chinese origin moved across Asia they displaced and mixed with the local people, mostly hunter-gatherers whose tools and weapons were no match against of those the Chinese. It is also likely that many of the indigenous people died form diseases introduced by the people from China just as the original inhabitants of America were killed off by European diseases for which they had no resistance.

Not everyone agrees with these theories. Based on links between ancient Chinese history, the early Thai language and archeological discoveries in Southeast Asia, the scholar Paul Benedict has argued that Southeast Asia was a “focal point” for the cultural development of ancient man. There is some evidence that the earliest known agriculture and earliest metal working took place in Southeast Asia. Benedict is author of Austro-Thai Language and Culture .

Bronze Age Vietnam

In the Bronze Age (about 4,000 years ago), there were three major cultural centers in Vietnam: 1) Phung Nguyen - Dong Son (The North); 2) Long Thanh - Sa Huynh (The Centre); and 3) Cau Sat, Doc Chua - Dong Nai (The South). These three major cultural centers had a close and long mutual relationship and contributed to the traditional culture of Vietnam. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism~]

In 2005, Associated Press reported: "The discovery of a Bronze Age burial site in northern Vietnam could help resolve a dispute among archaeologists about the evolution of agriculture in the region and the origins of modern-day Vietnamese people, Marc Oxenham, an archaeologist from the Australian National University, said. He is part of a team of Australian and Japanese researchers studying the cemetery that was discovered near Man Bac, about 90 kilometers south of Hanoi. [Source: Meraiah Foley, Associated Press, February 10, 2005 <>]

"The burial site dates back to Southeast Asia’s early Bronze Age, between 3,500 and 4,000 years ago, when the area's inhabitants were shifting from hunting and gathering to a more agricultural subsistence. Archaeologists disagree over whether early inhabitants of the region developed agricultural practices for themselves or adopted techniques from migrating tribes originating in what is now China, where the earliest signs of farming date back at least 8 000 years, Oxenham said. He said preliminary evidence from the newly discovered burial site tended to support the latter theory. <>

"Initial examinations of the bodies indicated that some of the inhabitants belonged to an ethnic group resembling today's indigenous Australians, while other bodies were more typically Asian in appearance, Oxenham said. Earlier burial sites in the region contain remains of only the first ethnic group. Oxenham said the presence of Asian-looking bodies in the cemetery - along with an array of agricultural artifacts buried with inhabitants from both ethnic groups - added to the theory that settlers from modern-day China introduced early farming practices to the region. <>

"The presence of various ethnic groups buried at the site could also signal the origins of Vietnam's modern-day population, he said."We may be getting a major change in the population structure going on in the cemetery," he said. "We may also be seeing a very significant population change at the time." The presence of both ethnic groups side-by-side in the cemetery indicated that there was a significant degree of intermixing between the two races, possibly marking the earliest known origins of the modern-day Vietnamese population, which became fairly well established by around 2000 B.C., Oxenham said. <>

Intact burial sites were extremely rare in Vietnam, Oxenham said, due to the heavy acidity of the soil. "Man Bac is surrounded by steep, jagged limestone outcrops that have contributed to reducing the normally acidic soils to more alkaline soils, thus aiding the preservation of biological material," he said.

Dong Son Civilization

The sophisticated Bronze Age Dong Son culture—famous for its bronze drums—thrived in the Hong (Red) River valley from the seventh century B.C. to the A.D. second century.The People from the Dong Son (Dongson) era, also known as the Lac Viet, are regarded as the ancestors of modern Vietnamese. Dong Son is named after a village south of Hanoi, where their artifacts were first discovered.

The Dong Son have been called Southeast Asia's most distinctive early civilization. The Dong Son survived by hunting, fishing and growing rice. They were also skilled metalworkers, producing unique bronze drums. The Dong Son civilization ended when the Chinese invaded present-day Vietnam in the 2nd century B.C.

The Dong Son culture produced a wealth of bronze items, including tools, vessels, ornaments, weapons, arrowheads, axes, and bells, as well as ceramics and beads. The most impressive group of objects they made were large, decorated gongs, or "drums" or "kettle drums" as they are often called. The broad distribution of Dong Son bronze drums is one of the strongest indicators that trade between Viet Nam and Southeast Asia was widespread during this period. Early Chinese texts indicate Chinese commercial interest in the region and detail the objects of trade that they sought, such as rhino horns, elephant tusks, medicinal plants, and forest products. The Chinese held sway in northern Viet Nam for a thousand years, and their influence is evident in later Dong Son artifacts.

Artifacts from the Dong Son were first excavated in the 1920s. It is now generally thought that it was not the actual political center of the culture, but merely one of the Dong Son principalities loosely linked to each other. The center of the Dong Son culture was the central region of the Red River basin.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

The Dong Son society was an agricultural one based on the wet rice cultivation. The images on of the Dong Son drums vividly described the activities associated with rice production such as people carrying plows, buffaloes and oxen working the fields and farmers milling rice with hand pestles. Water rituals were well depicted on the face and body of the drums. Scenes of boat race are believed to represent village festivals to celebrate the supreme role of water in agriculture. Images of Dong Son warriors and their weapons are found carved on many drums. Many types of weapon were represented: cross-bow, javelin, hatchet, spear, dagger and body shield. These images confirm the historical setting of the Dong Son time as its people was in constant fighting for survival against the people from the North. [Source: Viettouch >><<]

Social events were well depicted on the drums through images of dancers, musicians and musical instruments. There were bronze drums, bells, castanets, the senhs (rattlers made of bamboo cylinders taped to the arm or leg to make sound when dancing) and the khens (instruments with 4 to 6 long pipes attached to a resonance box). On the Ngoc Lu and Hoang Ha drums, images of Dong Son people sit in line on the floor beating the bronze drums with drumsticks. Dancers in ceremonial garments processing in a counter clockwise direction, each dancer holding an instrument or a weapon with one hand while the other hand forms some sort of rhythmic gesture. >><<

Dong Son Drums

Dong Son drums (also called Heger Type I drums) are bronze drums fabricated by the Dong Son culture, in the Red River Delta of northern Vietnam. The drums were produced from about 600 BC or earlier until the third century AD, and are one of the culture's finest examples of metalworking. The drums, cast in bronze using the lost wax method, are up to a meter in height and weigh up to 100 kg. Dong Son drums were apparently both musical instruments and cult objects. They are decorated with geometric patterns, scenes of daily life and war, animals and birds, and boats. More than 200 have been found, across an area from eastern Indonesia to Vietnam and parts of Southern China. [Source: Wikipedia]

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: The Dong Son produced “large bronze "kettle drums" or gongs, in which dancers and processional performances are also depicted. Together with some cave paintings they give the earliest existing information about the theatrical arts in Southeast Asia. Working with bronze was practiced in Vietnam probably from the second millennium B.C. onward and it reached its technical and artistic peak around 500 BC–100 AD. The earliest examples were cast in one piece. Later, when gong manufacturing spread to other parts of Southeast Asia, as far as Bali, the gongs were also cast in two pieces, utilising the so-called lost wax method. The basic design of Dong Son gongs consists of a flat tympanum and sides that narrow in the middle. Dancers are often portrayed within the middle section of the tympanum decorations. They are shown in line formations in identical, energetic poses. In their hands they hold different kinds of weapons such as spears, sticks and axes. The dancers wear extremely large feathered headdresses and their lower bodies are covered with long, skirt-like costumes. Similar kinds of dances are still performed in some remote areas in Southeast Asia. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

Describing a Bronze Drum from the 5th–3rd century B.C., Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "Bronze drums are the characteristic artifact of the Dong Son culture. Hundreds of drums, some weighing up to 440 pounds (two hundred kilograms), have been found in Viet Nam, southern China, and throughout Southeast Asia. This drum has the rounded shoulders and large size that typify the earliest Dong Son drums. The drums served as regalia, ritual instruments, and burial objects. When played, they were suspended from a crossbar, supported by sticks, over a hole in the ground, which served to enhance their resonance. Craftsmen cast the drums in one piece using the lost-wax technique. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society; the piece is from Hoang (Mieu Mon) Village, My Duc District, Ha Tay Province; now in the National Museum of Vietnamese History, Hanoi, LSb 5724]

Many bronze drums of the Dong Son period have been reported in South and Southwest China, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Indonesia. In Viet Nam, approximately 140 drums were discovered in many locations throughout Viet Nam from the high land region of the north to the plains of the south and as far as to the Phu Quoc island.

In 2003, Sapa-DPA reported: A farmer unearthed a 2 000-year-old, bronze drum in northern Vietnam, officials said. "We are still evaluating the drum but I can say it is valuable," said Nguyen Manh Cuong, a worker from Lao Cai provincial museum. Pham Van Hien dug up the 22 kilogram drum while excavating land in Vo Lao commune, said Tay Lu Xuan Dang, an official from the commune 170 kilometers northwest of Hanoi. [Source: Sapa-DPA, May 9, 2003]

"It is beautiful. The surface is rusty, but otherwise, the piece is in good condition," said Cuong. The farmer's reward for turning the drum over to local authorities has not yet been decided, but will be hundreds of dollars, the museum official said. Previously, stone axes, bronze arrow heads and other rudimentary tools have been found in the commune, but never a musical instrument, said Dang, the commune official from the Tay ethnic minority group. "Because 96 percent of our commune's population is ethnic Tay, we don't tend to know the value of these things. So we just threw them away," Dang said. The drum is believed to be from the Dong Son period, which makes it between 2,000 and 2,500 years old, the museum official said.

Technology, Artistry and Craftsmanship of Dong Son Drums

Scholars have traditionally traced its bronze-casting technology to northern China. This theory was based on the assumption that bronze casting in eastern Asia originated in northern China; however, this idea has been discredited by archaeological discoveries in north-eastern Thailand in the 1970's. In the words of one scholar, "bronze casting began in Southeast Asia and was later borrowed by the Chinese, not vice versa as the Chinese scholars have always claimed". Such interpretation is supported by the work of modern Vietnamese archaeologists. They have found that the earliest bronze drums of Dong Son are closely related in basic structural features and in decorative design to the pottery of the Phung Nguyen culture.[Source: Viettouch >><<]

Most of the bronze drums were made in Viet Nam and South China but they were traded to the south and west such as Java and Bali islands, and were valued by people with very different cultures. The Dong Son bronze drums exhibit the advanced techniques and the great skill in the lost-wax casting of large objects, the Co Loa drum would have required the smelting of between 1 and 7 tons of copper ore and the use of up to 10 large castings crucibles at one time. Most scholars agree the Dong Son drums display an artistic level reaching perfection that few cultures of the time could rival. The Dong Son drums, especially the early ones, were decorated with very rich and well composed images of objects, humans and animals. These images together provided a lively description of the Dong Son society, its people, their daily chores as well as their spiritual life and ceremonial activities. >><<

The decorative images on the tympanum follow a common pattern: at the center is a star encircled by concentric panels of human or animal scenes interspersed with bands of geometric motifs. Birds, deers, buffaloes and hornbills were depicted. Historians have identified the connection between Van Lang and the word vlang (or blang), a large bird in the Austro-Asiatic Viet language. Furthermore, the Hung kings also chose a heron, an aquatic bird, as the totem of Van Lang. >><<

Functions of the Dong Son Drums

It is still uncertain whether the bronze drums were made for religious ceremonies, to rally men for war, or for another secular role. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theater Academy Helsinki wrote: There has been much speculation about the function of these gongs. It is now thought that they were connected with both ritual and rank, with many found buried in the graves of high-ranking individuals. The materials with which they were made and the skills needed to manufacture them were such that only the wealthy would have been able to own them. The tympana of the gongs are decorated with a rich variety of motifs, some impressed into the wax through the use of moulds before the bronze was cast and some carved on the wax by hand. The motifs include the central star or sun, which has been identified by Vietnamese scholars as the Solar Star, the central axis of Dong Son cosmology. Comb-teeth motifs, concentric circles and birds surround it. Human figures are also depicted, as well as extremely informative portrayals of everyday life, agricultural scenes, rituals and handsome warships with feathered warriors. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen,Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theater Academy Helsinki |~|]

The Karen ethnic group of Myanmar and Thailand still use bronze drums today. Zhuang people in Yunnan practice use ningdongs that have same decorations as Dong Son drums.]Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The use and manufacture of bronze drums is the oldest continuous art tradition in Southeast Asia. It began some time before the 6th century B.C. in northern Vietnam and later spread to other areas such as Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and China. The Karen adopted the use of bronze drums at some time prior to their 8th century migration from Yunnan into Burma where they settled and continue to live in the low mountains along the Burma - Thailand border. During a long period of adoption and transfer, the drum type was progressively altered from that found in northern Vietnam (Dong Son or Heger Type I) to produce a separate Karen type (Heger Type III). In 1904, Franz Heger developed a categorization for the four types of bronze drums found in Southeast Asia that is still in use today. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“The vibrating tympanum is made of bronze and is cast as a continuous piece with the cylinder. Distinguishing features of the Karen type include a less bulbous cylinder so that the cylinder profile is continuous rather than being divided into three distinct parts. Type III has a markedly protruding lip, unlike the earlier Dong Son drums. The decoration of the tympanum continues the tradition of the Dong Son drums in having a star shaped motif at its center with concentric circles of small, two-dimensional motifs extending to the outer perimeter. =

“Bronze drums were used among the Karen as a device to assure prosperity by inducing the spirits to bring rain, by taking the spirit of the dead into the after-fife and by assembling groups including the ancestor spirits for funerals, marriages and house-entering ceremonies. The drums were used to entice the spirits of the ancestors to attend important occasions and during some rituals the drums were the loci or seat of the spirit. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“It appears that the oldest use of the drums by the Karen was to accompany the protracted funeral rituals performed for important individuals. The drums were played during the various funeral events and then, among some groups, small bits of the drum were cut away and placed in the hand of the deceased to accompany the spirit into the afterlife. It appears that the drums were never used as containers for secondary burial because there is no instance where Type III drums have been unearthed or found with human remains inside. The drums are considered so potent and powerful that they would disrupt the daily activities of a household so when not in use, they were placed in the forest or in caves, away from human habitation. They were also kept in rice barns where when turned upside down they became containers for seed rice; a practice that was thought to improve the fertility of the rice. Also, since the drums are made of bronze, they helped to deter predations by scavengers such as rats or mice. =

Important Dong Son Drums

The Heger 1 drums of the Dong Son culture were classified and divided into five groups by the Vietnamese scholar Pham Huy Thong in 1990, a division that implied a chronological succession. The earliest, group A, comprisees a set of large and intricated decorated drums. Group B consists of a smaller drums which almost universally have a group of waterbirds in flight as their key motif on the tympanum and the mantle designs. Group C has a central panel on the tympanum made up of a row of plumed warriors placed inside another panel of waterbirds in flight. Toads line the tympanum's edge while the mantle was decorated with either patterns involving boats or geometric patterns. The drums listed below have been dated to the 5th to 1st century B.C. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Ngoc Lu drum is regarded as the most important of the Dong Son drums. The drum was accidentally discovered in 1893 in Hà Nam Province, southeast of Hanoi, rather than during a planned expedition. In contrast to most other drums of the Dong Son, the tympanum bears three concentric panels, which depict animals or humans, interleaved with bands of geometric or circular patterns. The innermost panel appears to be a self-referencing depiction, as it is decorated with pictures of humans who appear to be performing a ceremony involving the drums themselves. Other musical instruments and rice growing and harvesting activities are also shown. The two outer panels are decorated with scenes of deer, hornbills and crane egrets. +

The Hoàng Ha drum was discovered in Ha Son Binh Province in 1937 near the village of Hoàng Ha, with an outer panel of crane egrets and an inner panel which shows a procession similar to that described in the Ngoc Lu drum, the most famous of the Dong Son drums. Four feathered men are depicted walking in a line, brandishing spears, with two musicians in tow. A person is depicted standing under the eaves of a house, beating a drum while the rice fields are unattended, allowing a bird to eat the rice that was intended for threshing. The boats depicted on the mantle of the drum are very similar, with an analogous cleft prow, archer standing on raised platform and a drum. However, the drum is different from the Ngoc Lu drum in that the animal is absent. +

The Co Loa drum hows a procession similar to that described in the Ngoc Lu drum, the most famous of the Dong Son drums. The drum only has two warriors with spears, in contrast to that of the Ngoc Lu drum. Another difference is that the ensemble of percussionists consists of three drummers, with one drum lying under the eaves of the house. Meanwhile, an extra person is depicted in the rice threshing process. The person has long hair and is winnowing grain into a bowl. The percussion ensemble is also depicted differently in that the drummers are not all drumming in synchronisation. Two of the drummers are depicted making contact with the drum, while the other two drummers have their batons in the raised position. +

The Song Da drum was discovered in Ha Son Binh Province in the 19th century. The drum shows a procession similar to that described in the Ngoc Lu drum, the most famous of the Dong Son drums. This drum varies in that it depicts four sets of men in procession with feathered headgear, rather than two. Also, each set comprises three or four people none of whom appear to be armed. The posture of the men was interpreted as that they were participating in a dance rather than a military ceremony. In this drum, only one pair of people are depicted as threshing rice, and there is no cymbal player. However, the general motifs, such as the boats on the mantle, remain in place. +

The Quang Xuong drum from Thanh Hóa Province is another specimen, which is believed to be possibly later in origin. However, the drum is smaller and the images are harder to interpret. Large drums found in northern Vietnam were generally in the minority, as most drums have simple decorations with fewer representations of people. The Ban Thom drum has only an inner panel with four houses and plumed humans standing alone or in couples. +

Origins of the Vietnamese and the Van Lang Kingdom

During the Dong Son period, only one state had formed. The unified culture prevailing in this region stretched from the Sino-Vietnamese border to the northern banks of the Gianh River. The nation of the ancient Viet people existed as the Van Lang Nation, which was ruled by the Kings Hung. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

According to the earliest Vietnamese traditions, the founder of the Vietnamese nation was Hung Vuong, the first ruler of the semilegendary Hung dynasty (2879-258 B.C., mythological dates) of the kingdom of Van Lang. Hung Vuong, in Vietnamese mythology, was the oldest son of Lac Long Quan (Lac Dragon Lord), who came to the Red River Delta from his home in the sea, and Au Co, a beautiful Chinese immortal. Lac Long Quan, a Vietnamese cultural hero, is credited with teaching the people how to cultivate rice. The Hung dynasty, which according to tradition ruled Van Lang for eighteen generations, is associated by Vietnamese scholars with Dong Sonian culture. An important aspect of this culture by the sixth century B.C. was the tidal irrigation of rice fields through an elaborate system of canals and dikes. The fields were called Lac fields, and Lac, mentioned in Chinese annals, is the earliest recorded name for the Vietnamese people. [Source: Library of Congress *]

According to Vietnamese legend Âu Co gave birth to 100 children. Lac Long Quân led 50 of the children to the coastal region and settled them to propagate his race. Âu Co took 49 children up to the mountainous area. The eldest among these children was Hùng Vuong, who became king and established the country Van Lang and made Phong Châu its capital.

The Hung kings ruled Van Lang in feudal fashion with the aid of the Lac lords, who controlled the communal settlements around each irrigated area, organized construction and maintenance of the dikes, and regulated the supply of water. Besides cultivating rice, the people of Van Lang grew other grains and beans and raised stock, mainly buffaloes, chickens, and pigs. Potterymaking and bamboo-working were highly developed crafts, as were basketry, leather-working, and the weaving of hemp, jute, and silk. Both transport and communication were provided by dugout canoes, which plied the network of rivers and canals. *

Au Lac

The last Hung king was overthrown in the third century B.C. by An Duong Vuong, the ruler of the neighboring upland kingdom of Thuc. An Duong Vuong united Van Lang with Thuc to form Au Lac, building his capital and citadel at Co Loa, thirty-five kilometers north of present-day Hanoi. Records of this kingdom can be found in the annals written by the Chinese historian, Xi Ma Tin. Remains of the Co Loa Citadel, which was built during the An Duong Vuong period, can still be seen today.

An Duong's kingdom was short-lived, however, being conquered in 208 B.C. by the army of the Chinese Qin dynasty (221-207 B.C.) military commander Trieu Da (Zhao Tuo in Chinese). Reluctant to accept the rule of the Qin dynasty's successor, the new Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Trieu Da combined the territories under his control in southern China and northern Vietnam and established the kingdom of Nam Viet (Nan Yue in Chinese), meaning Southern Viet. Viet (Yue) was the term applied by the Chinese to the various peoples on the southern fringes of the Han empire, including the people of the Red River Delta. Trieu Da divided his kingdom of Nam Viet into nine military districts; the southern three (Giao Chi, Cuu Chan, and Nhat Nam) included the northern part of present-day Vietnam. The Lac lords continued to rule in the Red River Delta, but as vassals of Nam Viet. *


From the 1st to 6th centuries AD, southern Vietnam was part of the Indianized Cambodian kingdom of Funan – famous for its refined art and architecture. Known as Nokor Phnom to the Khmers, this kingdom was centered on the walled city of Angkor Borei, near modern-day Takeo. The Funanese constructed an elaborate system of canals both for transportation and the irrigation of rice. The principal port city of Funan was Oc-Eo in the Mekong Delta and archaeological excavations here tell us of contact between Funan and China, Indonesia, Persia and even the Mediterranean.

After the A.D. 1st century complex polities began emerging in what is now Cambodia. The most powerful of these was known as Funan by the Chinese, and may have existed across an area between Ba Phnom in Prey Veng Province and Oc-Eo in Kien Giang Province in southern Vietnam. Funan was a contemporary of Champasak in southern Laos (then known as Kuruksetra) and other lesser fiefdoms in the region. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Funan was the first large Southeast Asian civilization. It was centered on the lower Mekong Delta in present-day Cambodia and Vietnam and stretched into Thailand, and, possibly, Malaysia. Funan lasted from the A.D. 1st century to 7th century. Archeologists are still not sure where the Funanese capital was. They are currently excavating a site at Angkor Borei in Cambodia, which they think may have been it. Funan is a Chinese name, and it may be a transliteration of the ancient Khmer word bnam (mountain). What the Funanese called themselves, however, is not known. Although very little is known about Funan, much has been made of its importance as an early Southeast Asian centre of power.

Even the Chinese, who considered most everyone around them to be Barbarians, marveled over Funan's treasures of gems and gold. Funan was a convenient stopover point for Hindu traders on their way to China. The Funanese were in power when Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced to Southeast Asia.

Funan, the earliest of the Indianized states in Southeast Asia, generally is considered by Cambodians to have been the first Khmer kingdom in the area. Its capital, Vyadhapura, probably was located near the present-day town of Phumi Banam in Prey Veng Province. The earliest historical reference to Funan is a Chinese description of a mission that visited the country in the third century A.D. Funan reached its zenith in the fifth century A.D.. Beginning in the early sixth century, civil wars and dynastic strife undermined Funan's stability, making it relatively easy prey to incursions by hostile neighbors. By the end of the seventh century, a northern neighbor, the kingdom of Chenla, had reduced Funan to a vassal state. [Library of Congress]

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "The Fu Nan culture flourished in the Mekong River delta in southern Viet Nam and was a center of Southeast Asian trade between the first and fifth century. This period saw an increase in international trade from the Mediterranean to China. Westerners sought the gold of the East, and with the development of more advanced sailing ships that harnessed the power of the monsoon winds, transoceanic travel became possible. Few details are known about the Fu Nan people; however, it is evident that they were a technically advanced seafaring people with the means to participate in trade on a large scale. One third-century source describes their ships as two hundred feet long and able to carry seven hundred men and an extensive cargo. [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

The Funan Empire collapsed in the 6th century, under the pressure of the vassal state, Kambuja to the north of Cambodia. One of the kings, Icanavarman I, based his capital at Sambor Prei Kuk (30 kilometers northeast of present-day Kompong Thom in Cambodia).

Funan Culture

During the first century A.D., when Rome ruled the Mediterranean, the Funanese traded widely, established a wonderful tradition of Hindu-influenced art and architecture, and became skilled goldsmiths and jewelers. They also built an irrigation system, impressive even by today's standards, and used an extensive network of canals for both transportation and agriculture.

Funan was essentially an Indian civilization set in Southeast Asia. Ruled by Hindu rulers and influenced by the culture of the Indian Pallava kingdom, it absorbed of Indian concepts of jurisprudence, astronomy, literature and universal kingship. The Sanskrit language was used in Funan courts. It gave birth to the first writing system and inscriptions used in Southeast Asia.

Most of what historians know about Funan has been gleaned from Chinese sources. According to Lonely Planet: These report that Funan-period Cambodia (1st to 6th centuries AD) embraced the worship of the Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu and, at the same time, Buddhism. The linga (phallic totem) appears to have been the focus of ritual and an emblem of kingly might, a feature that was to evolve further in the Angkorian cult of the god-king. The people practised primitive irrigation, which enabled successful cultivation of rice, and traded raw commodities such as spices with China and India. [Source: Lonely Planet]

Indianization was fostered by increasing contact with the subcontinent through the travels of merchants, diplomats, and learned Brahmans (Hindus of the highest caste traditionally assigned to the priesthood). Indian immigrants, believed to have arrived in the fourth and the fifth centuries, accelerated the process. By the fifth century, the elite culture was thoroughly Indianized. Court ceremony and the structure of political institutions were based on Indian models. The Sanskrit language was widely used; the laws of Manu, the Indian legal code, were adopted; and an alphabet based on Indian writing systems was introduced. [Library of Congress]

Cambodia's modem-day culture has its roots in Funan. It is from this period that evolved Cambodia's language, part of the Mon-Khmer family, which contains elements of Sanskrit, its ancient religion of Hinduism and Buddhism. Historians have noted, for example, that Cambodians can be distinguished from their neighbors by their clothing - checkered scarves known as Kramas are worn instead of straw hats. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Funan Government and Economy

According to the Library of Congress: Funan emerged in the second century B.C. as the earliest and most significant power in Southeast Asia. Its Hindu ruling class controlled all of present-day Cambodia and extended its power to the center of modern Thailand. The Funan economy was based on maritime trade and a well-developed agricultural system; Funan maintained close commercial contact with India and served as a base for the Brahman merchant-missionaries who brought Hindu culture to Southeast Asia. [Source: Library of Congress]

Funan traded with the Mediterranean, Persia, India, China and Indonesia. At the Funanese site of Oc-Eo in Vietnam Roman artifacts (including a gold medallion dated at A.D. 152) have been found as well as a seal rings with Sanksit inscriptions, a life-size Hindu statue, gems, crystal beads, a gold bell, and gold-and-sapphire rings.

Modern-day archaeological findings provide evidence of a commercial society centered on the Mekong Delta that flourished from the 1st century to the 6th century. Among these findings are excavations of a port city from the 1st century, located in the region of Oc-Eo in what is now southern Vietnam. Served by a network of canals, the city was an important trade link between India and China. Ongoing excavations in southern Cambodia have revealed the existence of another important city near the present-day village of Angkor Borei.

During the Funan period the population was probably concentrated in villages along the Mekong River and along the Tonle Sab River below the Tonle Sap. Traffic and communications were mostly waterborne on the rivers and their delta tributaries. The area was a natural region for the development of an economy based on fishing and rice cultivation. There is considerable evidence that the Funanese economy depended on rice surpluses produced by an extensive inland irrigation system. Maritime trade also played an extremely important role in the development of Funan. The remains of what is believed to have been the kingdom's main port, Oc Eo (now part of Vietnam), contain Roman as well as Persian, Indian, and Greek artifacts. [Library of Congress]

By the fifth century A.D., the state exercised control over the lower Mekong River area and the lands around the Tonle Sap. It also commanded tribute from smaller states in the area now comprising northern Cambodia, southern Laos, southern Thailand, and the northern portion of the Malay Peninsula. [Library of Congress]


In the 6th and 7th centuries Funan was weakened by civil wars and absorbed by the pre-Khmer civilization of Chenla (Zhenla). Chenla endured for around 200 years. In the 8th century it split into two kingdoms. Lower Chenla was located east of Tonle Sap. Upper Chenla extended from the northern shore of Tonle Sap northward up the Mekong River into southern Laos. Chenla was conquered by Khmers.

From the 6th century, Cambodia’s population gradually concentrated along the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Rivers, where the majority remains today. The move may have been related to the development of wet-rice agriculture. From the 6th to 8th centuries it was likely that Cambodia was a collection of competing kingdoms, ruled by autocratic kings who legitimised their absolute rule through hierarchical caste concepts borrowed from India.

This era is generally referred to as the Chenla period. Again, like Funan, it is a Chinese term and there is little to support the idea that Chenla was a unified kingdom that held sway over all of Cambodia. Indeed, the Chinese themselves referred to ‘water Chenla’ and ‘land Chenla’. Water Chenla was located around Angkor Borei and the temple mount of Phnom Da, near the present-day provincial capital of Takeo, and land Chenla in the upper reaches of the Mekong River and east of Tonlé Sap Lake, around Sambor Prei Kuk, an essential stop on a chronological jaunt through Cambodia’s history.

Chenla flourished from southern Cambodia to southern Laos. The first stone inscriptions in the Khmer language and the first brick and stone Hindu temples in Cambodia date from the Chenla period. Little archeological evidence exist on Funan or Chenla. Most of what is known about them is based on Chinese texts. Many historian now think they were relatively minor states and the only reason they were mentioned in Chinese texts is because they paid tribute to the China. States that may have been more powerful but didn’t pay tributes were not mentioned.

King Mahendravarman reigned form 607 to 616 over Chenla. He was a son of a king. The century following the death of Jayavarman I, the last known king of the kingdom, in the second half of the 7th century, was a dark period in the history of Chenla. According to a Chinese accounts, in the 8th century, the country of Chenla was divided into land and water Chenlas. The obscurity prevails and this monument might be neglected thereafter. The history. However, is traced again with the accession of Jayavarman II, who founded a new polity that is now referred as Angkor in the beginning of 9th century.

Impact of the Chenla

The people of Chenla also were Khmer. Once they established control over Funan, they embarked on a course of conquest that continued for three centuries. They subjugated central and upper Laos, annexed portions of the Mekong Delta, and brought what are now western Cambodia and southern Thailand under their direct control. [Library of Congress]

The royal families of Chenla intermarried with their Funanese counterparts and generally preserved the earlier political, social, and religious institutions of Funan. In the eighth century A.D., however, factional disputes at the Chenla court resulted in the splitting of the kingdom into rival northern and southern halves. According to Chinese chronicles, the two parts were known as Land (or Upper) Chenla and Water (or Lower) Chenla. Land Chenla maintained a relatively stable existence, but Water Chenla underwent a period of constant turbulence. [Library of Congress]

Funan and Chenla gave way to the Angkor Empire with the rise to power of King Jayavarman II in 802. Late in the eighth century A.D., Water Chenla was subjected to attacks by pirates from Java, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula. By the beginning of the ninth century, it had apparently become a vassal of the Sailendra dynasty of Java. The last of the Water Chenla kings allegedly was killed around A.D. 790 by a Javanese monarch whom he had offended. The ultimate victor in the strife that followed was the ruler of a small Khmer state located north of the Mekong Delta. His assumption of the throne as Jayavarman II (ca. A.D. 802-50) marked the liberation of the Khmer people from Javanese suzerainty and the beginning of a unified Khmer nation. [Library of Congress]

Funan Art

Nancy Tingley of the Asia Society wrote: "More than three hundred Fu Nan archeological sites have been identified in the Mekong Delta region; these sites are characterized by domestic architecture built on stilts, terracotta wares and buff-colored ceramics, gold jewelry, and Buddhist and Hindu architecture and sculpture. A preponderance of imagery from this region is associated with the worship of the Hindu god Vishnu, and several examples are on view here. Extensive excavations of the city of Oc Eo have yielded rich local artifacts and a few examples of international contact, including Roman coins and jewelry, Chinese sculpture, and Indian beads. The dominant position of the Fu Nan people in international trade fell significantly by the sixth century and then came to a halt around 650." [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society **]

Describing an Ekamukhalinga from the 6th century Tingley wrote: "The Hindu god Shiva is frequently worshipped in his linga (phallus) form, which according to ritual texts signifies Shiva’s highest level of being. This is an example of an ekamukhalinga, or one-faced linga. The linga is generally installed in the garbhagrha ("womb," or central, chamber) of the temple, and is the primary object of worship for devotees of Shiva. The form of the linga is divided into three sections, a square section that alludes to Brahma the Creator; an octagonal section, to Vishnu the Preserver; and the cylindrical upper portion, to Shiva the Destroyer." [Source: Nancy Tingley, Asia Society, found at the Oc Eo site, My Lam Village, An Giang Province; now in Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5532]

Describing Three Intaglio made from carnelian and crystal from the 6th century, Tingley wrote: "These intaglios, along with Indian inscribed gems, cameos, and Roman medallions, attest to the cosmopolitanism of Oc Eo. The use of carnelian for stone seals was common in the western ancient world. A close look at these carnelian intaglios reveals that they were produced with a rotary abrasive tool, which creates a round edge at the end of a cut. In contrast, the crystal intaglio was more coarsely carved with a chisel, and was probably made at a different location. Several similar crystal examples with figures seated in the posture of royal ease were excavated at Oc Eo." [Source: ** found at Oc Eo site, My Lam Village, An Giang Province now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 2248, BTLS 2258, BTLS 2253]

Describing a stone lintel from the late 7th century, Tingley wrote: " The lintel of a Southeast Asian temple, positioned above the doorway, served as the sculptural focus for the temple’s entrance and provided a large surface for deep relief carving. The lintel framed the image of the primary deity inside and was one of the first views the devout had of the building. As in this example, early lintels often included a curved arch that imitated wooden prototypes." [Source: ** found at Thuy Lieu Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5977 ]

Bronzes combine elements of indigenous animism with tantricism. Buddhism. Describing a bronze Vishnu from the 7th century, Tingley wrote: "Vishnu was the most popular Hindu god during the Fu Nan period, and four-armed images of him are abundant throughout the Mekong Delta region. In these images, he holds a conch (a symbol of the origin of existence); a mace, which also serves to support the figure in this example; a clod of earth; and a wheel (a symbol of power), broken here. The long dhoti he wears recalls earlier images of Vishnu, but also suggests Pallava south Indian influences. The silvery patina of this piece reveals that the bronze is of high tin content, which is typical of Southeast Asian bronzes. The large hands and the backward thrust of the second pair of upper arms are also common in sculpture of this early period." [Source: ** found at the Tan Phu site, Tan Hoi Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 1585]

Describing Three Elephants made of gold sheet from the 7th–8th century, Tingley wrote: "The site of Go Xoai, excavated in 1987, included a square brick temple measuring approximately 50 feet (15.4 meters) on all sides. The temple contained a smaller structure in its western section. In this secondary structure, the excavator found a hole filled with white sand and ash, as well as a thin inscribed gold leaf text; inlaid jewelry; and tortoise, snake, eight elephants, and a number of lotuses all in gold repoussé. The dedication of a temple in Southeast Asia was an important religious and secular event that involved the practice of burying gold and other precious objects in the foundation. The Agni Purana, an Indian text of which the Southeast Asians were aware, states that a tortoise and five objects of cosmological significance were to be buried in the base of the temple." [Source: ** found at the Go Xoai site, Duc Hoa District, Long An Province; now in the Long An Museum, BT87-M1-I-3]

Describing a stone Surya from the 7th–8th century, Tingley wrote: "Surya, the sun god, is an important generative force derived from Indian Vedic and other solar deities. When portrayed without his chariot and attendants, he can be distinguished by the two lotuses he holds and his heavy clothing. Early images of Surya have been found in many areas of Southeast Asia. His importance derives not only from his independent identity as sun god, but also from his close association with the Hindu god Vishnu. In this sculpture, Surya’s headdress recalls that of Vishnu, although this headdress has an octagonal form, rather than the more common circular shape." [Source: ** at the Ba The Village, An Giang Province; now in the Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City, BTLS 5527]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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