In 1257, 1284, and 1287, the Mongol armies of Kublai Khan invaded Vietnam, sacking the capital at Thang Long (renamed Hanoi in 1831) on each occasion, only to find that the Vietnamese had anticipated their attacks and evacuated the city beforehand. Disease, shortage of supplies, the climate, and the Vietnamese strategy of harassment and scorched earth tactics foiled the first two invasions. [Source: Library of Congress *]

When the country was invaded by the Mongols, General Tran Hung Dao, wrote a proclamation to the army which is one of the jewels in the treasury of our national literature: I can neither eat nor sleep, my heart aches, and tears trickle down from my eyes; I am enraged at being unable yet to tear the enemy to pieces, pluck out his liver, taste his blood. But you are neither disturbed nor ashamed by the humiliation suffered by your king and your fatherland. You who are officers and generals of our royal army, how can you serve the enemy without feeling hatred? How can you listen to the music greeting enemy envoys without choking with anger? You spend your time watching cock fights, gambling, tending your gardens, looking after your wives and children. You are busy making money and forget about state affairs.

"The pleasures of hunting prevail in your minds over your military preoccupations. You are absorbed in wine and song. If the country were invaded by the Mongols, your cock's spurs would not be able to pierce their armour, your gambling tricks could not replace military strategy. You may possess immense gardens and fields but even a thousand taels of gold could not redeem your lives. Your wives and children would only encumber you; all the gold in the world could not buy the enemy's head, Your hunting dogs could not drive him away, your wine could not intoxicate him to death, sweet songs could not seduce him. Then both You and I would be in the enemy's clutches. Not only could I no longer enjoy my appanages, but you too would lose all your privileges; not only would my family be broken up, woe would also befall your wives and children; both royal ancestral temples and your own ancestors' graves would be trampled upon; dishonour would stain both my name and yours, not only during our lifetime, but for centuries to come. Would you then persist in pleasure-seeking?" ~

Mongols in South-East Asia

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Present-day Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, were the targets of Kublai Khan's last efforts at expanding Mongol lands southward from China. The jungle-covered, hot and humid lands of Southeast Asia were quite different from the steppes of Central Asia and stretched the Mongol armies to their limits. There were also the challenges of a sea transport and unfamiliar styles of warfare.

According to historian Stephen Turnbull: “The Mongols had fought everywhere from the steppes of Mongolia to the snowy forests of Russia, from the mountains in Korea to the deserts of Syria but it was in the jungles of south-east Asia were the Mongols were faced with conditions and factors that were the most unfamiliar to them. These factors, most notably the heat and humidity took their toll on the Mongol military. Dense jungles, tropical swamps and long rivers were not suited to Mongol styles of warfare and although the Mongol army was able to adapt they were essentially never in their element during any of their south-east Asian campaigns.” [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull; Bloodswan: *^*]

The Mongol wars in Southeast Asia marked the southern limit of the Mongol conquests. By this time the Mongol empire had split into various khanates with the most notable being the Il-khans of Persia, the Golden horde of Russia and the Jagadai khanate of central Asia. On top of this was the Yuan dynasty of China founded by Kublai Khan. A series of wars between the khanates effectively ended Mongol expansion westward whilst the campaigns against Japan and in Southeast Asia ordered under Kublai ended eastward expansion of the Yuan Mongol-Chinese Empire. These campaigns were very costly and many ended without effectively achieving their goals. The Mongol failures in Southeast Asia and Japan also marked the beginning of the end of Mongol power in China by undermining the Yuan dynasty's formidable military reputation.

First Mongol Invasion of Vietnam

At the beginning of the 13th century, Gengis Khan, having unified Mongolia, started a war of conquest against China. In 1253, Kublai conquered the Dai Ly kingdom (now Yunnan Province), thus reaching the Vietnamese frontier. The Mongols demanded passage through Dai Viet in order to attack the Song from the south (1257), but the Tran refused. A Mongol army invaded Dai Viet, smashed its defenses, and seized the capital Thang Long, which was put to the sword and burnt to the ground. The King Tran left the capital, which was also abandoned by its inhabitants. The Mongol army were not able to obtain food and fared badly in the tropical climate. A Vietnamese counter-offensive drove the Mongols out of the capital. In retreat, the enemy was attacked by local partisans from an ethnic minority group living in the Phu Tho region. This was the first Mongol defeat. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: “In 1253 Kublai Khan annexed the Chinese province of Yunnan in a successful out-flanking move against Song China. During this campaign the Mongols destroyed the Nanzhao kingdom based at it's capital of Dali. The campaign itself was carried out by Uriangkhadai, the son of the famous Mongol general Subodai Bahadur. In 1257 Uriangkhadai led another expedition into the lands that we now know as Vietnam. At the time of the campaign Vietnam was divided by two kingdoms. In the north was the kingdom of Annam with their capital at Hanoi and in the south was the Champa kingdom whose capital at the time was Vijaya. The Mongol advance against the Annamese was so rapid and devastating that the king fled to an offshore island and in 1258 recognised Mongol authority over his kingdom by sending his son as a hostage to the Khan's court.[Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: *^*]

Second Mongol Invasion of Vietnam

When the Mongol leader Kublai Khan asked the Vietnamese emperor for permission to cross Vietnamese territory to attack Champa the emperor refused and a Vietnamese army turned back a 500,000-member Mongol army. Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: It was not until 1273 that the King of Champa received a command to pay homage to the Khan. Recalling the fate of Annam, the king immediately sent a tribute of 20 elephants to the Mongol court. However in 1281 his successor, King Jaya Indravarman IV refused to continue paying this humiliating tribute. Kublai responded to this by sending one of his leading officals, Sodu on a sea expedition against the king. Commanding a force of 100 ships and 5,000 men, Sodu landed on the Champa coast, but the king withdrew to the mountains and a fierce guerrilla war prevented the Mongols from making any headway.*^*[Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: *^*]

According to the Vietnamese government: "Once they had become the overlords of China, the Mongols grew more and more demanding towards Dai Viet. Despite concession, by the Tran, the Mongol court remained intransigent, dreaming of conquering both Dai Viet and Champa. Relations between the two countries remained tense, and Mongols envoys behaved with arrogance at the Tran court. The Tran were not inactive, but rather made serious preparations for the country's defense. In 1281, Tran Di Ai, a member of the royal family, was sent as an envoy to China. The Mongols persuaded him to accept his investiture by them as king of Dai Viet. He returned to the country with an escort of 1,000 soldiers to ascend the throne. However, the Mongol escort was beaten and he was captured. In the meantime, the Mongols had completed preparations for an expedition by sea against Champa. At the end of 1282, a Mongol general, Toa Do (Gogetu), landed in Champa and seized its capital in 1281. But Cham resistance decimated the Mongol army. In 1284, Toa Do began withdrawing his troops, regrouping them in the northern part of Champa near the Vietnamese frontier, and awaiting further developments. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Kublai had been making preparations for a powerful expedition against Dai Viet and Champa; under the command of his son Thoat Hoan (Toghan), 500,000 cavalrymen and infantrymen were to rush southward to push the frontiers of the Mongol empire to the southernmost part of the Indochina peninsula. King Tran Nhan Tong was aware of the enemy's strategy. As early as 1282, he had assembled and consulted all the princes and high-ranking dignitaries on the action to be taken; their unanimous response was to fight. Tran Quoc Toan, only 16 years old, recruited a guard of 1,000 men to go to the front. At the close of 1283, all the princes and dignitaries were ordered to put their troops under the supreme command of Tran Hung Dao. A congress of village elders from all over the country was convened and the following question put to them: "Should we capitulate or fight?" A great cry rose from the assembly: "Fight!" ~

The Mongols demanded that their troops be allowed to pass through Dai Viet territory for the invasion of Champa. At the close of 1284, they crossed the frontier. The Vietnamese force, totaling a mere 200,000 men, was unable to withstand the first onslaught. Tran Hung Dao ordered the evacuation of the capital and was asked by the king: "The enemy is so strong that a protracted War might bring terrible destruction down upon the people. Wouldn't it be better to lay down our arms to save the population?" The general answered: "I understand Your Majesty's humane feelings perfectly, but what would become of our ancestors' land, of our forefathers' temples? If you want to surrender, please have my head cut off first". The king was reassurred. Hung Dao wrote a handbook on military strategy for his officers' use and issued a famous appeal which so inspired his men that they all had "Death to the Mongols!" tattooed on their arms. In the villages placards were put up enjoining the population to resist the invader by every possible means and, if necessary, to take refuge in the forests and mountains and continue the struggle. ~

War Elephants and Guerrilla Warfare in Second Mongol Invasion of Vietnam

According to historian Stephen Turnbull: “War elephants would have played a part in the battles. The Mongols had faced elephants before in Persia but not in the numbers they probably faced during their south-east Asian campaigns. In Vietnam elephants had an established military role. Vietnamese elephants carried only one warrior as well as a mahout. The elephants took an active role in the fighting themselves and were described as taking on foot soldiers and hurling them into the air and attacked with their tusks. Another important note to point out was that the Mongol cavalry was useless in the jungle. The elephants were much better suited to jungle fighting. An interesting development in the use of elephants was also used against Sodu. A two man crossbow was used on the back of the elephant and acted as a mobile artillery unit. This technique was used by the Champa against the Khmer empire in 1177. “ [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull; Bloodswan: *^*]

The Champa had many fortified jungle fortresses, some with walls nine meters in height. The Mongols were forced to ask the Annam empire for assistance but the king Tran Thah-ton was not willing to allow a large Mongol force in his territory despite paying regular tribute to the Mongols. Soon the Annam kingdom also resisted against the Mongols. The guerrilla wars continued to take their toll on the Mongols and soon pestilence broke out in the Mongol camp. This added to the unfamiliar troubles of heavy rainfall and stifling heat which caused a severe drop in Mongol morale. In the summer of 1285 the Mongols were defeated at the decisive battle of Siming where Sodu was killed.*^*

Second Defeat of the Mongols by the Vietnamese

In early 1285, the Mongols captured several posts, crossed the Red River and entered Thang Long. The capital was ransacked and its inhabitants massacred. General Tran Binh Trong was taken prisoner. When the enemy tried to win him over he said: "I would rather be a ghost in the south than a prince in the north", and was subsequently executed. The Mongol general Toa Do left Champa to join up with the army led by his colleague O Ma Nhi (Omar). A Vietnamese army under the command of Tran Quang Khai was beaten off when it tried to block his way in Nghe An Province. The Mongol fleet was sailing up the Red River. Many princes and nobles, among them LeTac and Tran Ich Tac, betrayed their country. The Tran court had to take refuge in Thanh Hoa Province. The Mongols controlled the greater part of the Red River Delta and Thanh Hoa and Nghe An provinces, i.e. the majority of the country's territory. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

However, in the process the Mongols were forced to distribute their forces among a multitude of vulnerable posts and patrols whose task was to keep communications open. In the first months of 1285, local chiefs in the uplands inficted losses on the Mongols, while in the delta the population, leaving a vacuum before the enemy, denied them all access to supplies and put them in a most difficult position. The determination of the Tran command was thus able to be brought into full play. ~

From Nghe An Province, Toa Do's troops, harassed by guerrillas, tried to move up the Red River and join the Mongol army stationed farther north. The Trap sent 50,000 men to intercept them, and the Mongols suffered an overwhelming defeat at Ham Tu (Hung Yen Province). Fired up by this victory, Tran Hung Dao's troops dashed towards the capital. Chuong Duong, an outpost 20 kilometers south of Thang Long, was taken. And when the King Tran with his troops left their Thanh Hoa refuge to advance toward the capital, the population rose up, harassing the rearguard of the Mongol armies. Enemy troops evacuated Thang Long and withdrew north of the Red River. The bulk of the Vietnamese forces threw themselves into battle against Toa Do's army, which was crushed at Tay Ket in July 1285; the Mongol general was killed and 50,000 of his men captured. ~

After posting troops along the route taken by the enemy as they retreated towards China, Hung Dao staged a frontal attack on the Mongol army. As the latter drew back, it fell into ambushes. Thoat Hoan, the Mongol commander-in-chief, escaped by hiding in a bronze cask. By August 1285, the whole country had been liberated, and the Mongol army of half a million strong defeated. ~

Mongols Invade Vietnam for the Third Time

In 1287, an army of 300,000 Mongols returned with the purpose of the fighting the Vietnamese not the Chams. Under the Vietnamese hero, Tran Hung Dao, a Mongol fleet was lured into a battle fought on Vietnamese terms. Borrowing a tactic used by Ngo Quyen in 938 to defeat an invading Chinese fleet, the Vietnamese discreetly drove iron-tipped stakes into the bed of the Bach Dang River (located in northern Vietnam in present-day Ha Bac, Hai Hung, and Quang Ninh provinces) at night, and the next day, with a small Vietnamese flotilla, lured the Mongol fleet into the river just as the tide was starting to ebb. Trapped or impaled by the iron-tipped stakes, the entire Mongol fleet of 400 craft was sunk, captured, or burned by Vietnamese fire arrows. The Mongol army retreated to China, harassed enroute by Tran Hung Dao's troops. [Source: Library of Congress]

Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: “The campaign into Annam was launched in 1286 and reached Hanoi the following year. The city was captured and the king fled once again. Not completely satisfied with his victory, the Mongol commander Toghon returned during the hot season of 1288. After the Annamese captured a number of Mongolian settlements they had shortage of food and the Toghan found himself in a tight corner. Toghan had to split his army into two and retreat home. Bridges and roads were destroyed and attacks were launched by the Annamese. In early April a supply fleet led by Omar fled home along the Bach Dang river. [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: *^*]

Before the attack on the Vietnamese, Kublai Khan was forced to abandon plans for a third invasion of Japan in order to make preparations for a revenge expedition against Dai Viet. As the Tran princes sought to recruit new troops, General Tran Hung Dao said to them: "The strength of an army lies in its quality, not numbers". And to the anxious king he said, "Our troops are now better trained, while the enemy, having suffered a defeat, has lost morale. Victory will be easier". In late 1287, Thoat Hoan again crossed the frontier with 300,000 men while a Mongol fleet of 500 vessels headed for the Vietnamese coast. The King Tran again left the capital. The Mongol general O Ma Nhi sent him this warning: "Even if you fled to the sky I'd go after you. I'd pursue you to the bottom of the seas, to the heart of the forests, if necessary!" The Mongols sought to occupy more and more territory, but found only deserted areas around them. The Yuan (name of the Mongol dynasty) annals relate: "The Chiao Chih (Dai Viet) population hid their rice and fled". The invading army ran short of supplies. Thoat Hoan ordered the capital set on fire, then withdrew north of the Red River; during that time, his troops were constantly harassed by the Tran army and the population. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

Defeat of the Mongols by the Vietnamese at Bach Dang in 1288

At Van Don on the coast (near present-day Halong), General Tran Khanh Du kept a close watch on Mongol supply convoys. He caught the enemy fleet unawares, destroyed it and seized the cargoes of food. The enemy was greatly demoralized on hearing the news. The Mongols pillaged the countryside, but the population put up a heroic resistance. Thoat Hoan was told by his generals: "We have no more citadels left, no more food; the strategic passes have been lost, and summer will soon come with its retinue of diseases. We'd better withdraw". The Mongol retreat was effected by land through Lang Son and by sea, the fleet sailing down the Bach Dang River. ~

Historian Stephen Turnbull wrote: “After evacuating civilians from the new capital of Thang Long, the Annamese decided to launch an offensive against the Mongolians in an estuary of the Bach Dang river. The Annamese general was Tran Hung Dao. He used the same tactic as a famous Vietnamese general had done several centuries before him against a Chinese invasion at the same location. He carefully planted stakes under the water at a chosen location and organised ambush parties along the river. The trap was now set.*^* [Source: “The Mongols” by Stephen Turnbull; “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Conquests” by Stephen Turnbull, Bloodswan: *^*]

"Once the Mongols reached Bach Dang, some Annamese boats harassed the Mongols then fled. As the Mongols pursued thousands of boats ambushed them. Inflicted with a sudden and strong attack, the Mongols tried to withdraw to the sea in panic. Hitting the stakes, their boats were halted and many were sunk. At that time, a number of fire rafts quickly rushed toward them setting fire to several Mongolian vessels. Frightened, the Mongolian troops jumped down to get to the banks where they were dealt a heavy blow by a big army led by Tran Hung Dao. The Mongolian supply fleet was totally destroyed and Omar was captured.t the same time another army led by Dai Viet made continuous attacks and defeated Toghan's army on its route of withdrawal through Lang Son. Toghan risked his life making a short cut through forests to flee home.*^*

According to the Vietnamese government:Tran Hung Dao used Ngo Quyen's old stratagem, iron-tipped stakes planted at the mouth of the river. General Pham Ngu Lao was sent to Lang Son to guard the mountain passes. Tran Hung Dao himself took the bulk of the troops across the Hoa River (Kien An Province) and launched a big offensive. When crossing the river, Hung Dao publicly swore the following oath: "If the Mongols are not defeated, we will not recross this river". At high tide, the Mongol fleet sailing down the Bach Dang was engaged by a small Vietnamese fleet which soon retreated. O Ma Nhi's forces were pursuing it when Tran Hung Dao's army turned up. The Mongol fleet beat a hasty retreat, but by this time the tide was ebbing and the Mongol junks broke up on the iron-tipped stakes. O Ma Nhi was taken prisoner and 100 of his junks were destroyed and another 400 captured (April 3, 1288). Thoat Hoan was terrified on learning the news, and hurriedly withdrew. His troops were decimated during their retreat, the third Mongol defeat. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The kings of Annam and Champa realised the need to negotiate with the Mongols in order to escape further attack. Both kingdoms offered token tribute to Kublai and submitted to Mongol authority. As both kings had anticipated though this simply meant that they were left alone. In late 1288, in the Confucian way, Vietnam sent emissaries to apologize for the "irresponsible behavior" of their soldiers while they sued for peace. King Tran offered a tribute to the Mongol court. In 1289, he handed over the captured Mongol generals and officers. The Chinese court wanted more than this formal recognition of suzerainty but its demands were not accepted. In 1293, the Mongols began organizing another expedition but Kublai died in 1294 and his son Timour abandoned the project. The new ruler established friendly relations with Dai Viet, which continued to pay tribute annually to the Mongol court. ~

Bach Dang Stake Yard

When local people in a marshy zone of Yen Giang Commune—in Yen Hung District, Quang Ninh Province, which borders the Chanh River—built a dyke in 1953, they discovered the Bach Dang stake-yard—which contained the remains of hundreds of stakes arranged in the zigzag-shape (like the letter Z). Some were vertical; others are inclined 15 degrees to the east. Most of the stakes were made of ironwood. They were beveled on one end Their heads were broken. Their average length ranged from 2 to 2.8 meters, with the longest being 3.2 meters. The beveled part is 0.8 to 1 meter. The stakes lie 0.5 to 1.5 meters under ground. The whole area—which covers 220 square meters—is now protected by a dyke. Of the stakes, 42 remain intact 2 meters under a layer of mud and jut out 0.2 to 2 meters. The density of stakes in the southern part of the ground is roughly one stake for every square meter. The density of stakes in the southern part of the ground is roughly one stake for every 1.5 to 2 square meter. [Source: Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism ~]

The stakes are believed to be remnants of April 1288 Vietnamese defeat of the Mongols at Bach Dang in which the wooden stakes were used to trap the Mongol army of Tran Hung Dao in the river as the Vietnamese moved in for the kill. By some reckonings 300,000 men were either killed or taken prisoner, and 400 enemy warships were destroyed. Bach Dang Victory in 1288 was a glorious victory and the Bach Dang Stake Yard in Yen Giang Lagoon is treasured by Vietnamese as evidence of this magnificent achievement. The site was officially recognized as one of Vietnam’ s historic vestiges on March 22, 1988, the 700th anniversary of a great victory at Bach Dang against Mongol invaders. ~

Just three kilometers away from the town center, the Tran Hung Dao Temple lies at a strip of land stretching to the middle of the river in Yen Giang Commune. Legend has it that when Tran Hung Dao came to Trung Ban mound to investigate the topography of the locality to prepare for the Bach Dang battle, his hair knot got loose. He stopped, pushing his sword in the ground, to twist his hair into a chignon. The local fishermen saw this and built a temple dedicated to him right in this place. ~

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 2015

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