Vietnam's history stretches back 4000 years. The founders of the Vietnamese state originated in the northernmost area of Vietnam; they spread south through the Red River Delta and formed Van Lang, meaning "country of cultured people."
China conquered the area in the 2nd century BC, ruling for a thousand years. During this time, the Vietnamese adopted many Chinese customs, from rice-farming methods to administrative systems. However, the Vietnamese managed to maintain a distinct culture and nationhood. Uprisings and rebellions cemented Vietnamese solidarity.
In the 11th century, Vietnam freed itself from Chinese rule. For the next eight centuries the Vietnamese expanded their territory southwards, conquering and absorbing other groups and civilizations such as the Champa and Khmer. By the late 18th century, Vietnam had consolidated its rule, yet French colonization ended this process in the 19th century. Colonization was disastrous: the rural economy was devastated, peasants lost their land and there was widespread poverty. As under Chinese rule, there were numerous uprisings. The most influential anti-French leader was Ho Chi Minh, head of what would eventually be known as the Vietnamese Communist Party. The French, although aided by the Americans, lost ground in the north. In May 1954, under the Geneva Agreement, Vietnam north of the 17th parallel became an independent communist state.
In South Vietnam, unrest continued. Supported by Russia and China, northern forces crossed the 17th parallel to liberate the south from foreign rule. In retaliation, the southern government invited foreign military aid, which came from the United States. The subsequent Vietnam War took the lives of over four million Vietnamese and some 60,000 foreign soldiers. Much of the country was badly damaged by bombs and defoliants. In 1976 Vietnam was reunified under communist rule as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Since reunification, Vietnam has struggled with violence, political corruption and oppression. War with the Cambodian Khmer Rouge forces and China lasted until UN intervention in 1989. Thousands of Vietnamese have been imprisoned or sent to "re-education camps." Disastrous economic policies and an enormous army have all been significant drains on the country's resources. Today, Vietnam is struggling to re-establish itself. A policy of dôi moi (renovation) was introduced in 1986 to move the economy into the free-market system. Small shopkeepers are now allowed to work independently and small landowners have greater liberty to determine their own crops. Foreign investment in the form of joint ventures is increasing, and the economy is slowly picking up.