The first historical record of Vietnamese military history dates back on the era of Hồng Bàng, the first recorded state in ancient Vietnam to have assembled military force. Since then, military plays a crucial role on developing Vietnamese history due to its turbulent history of wars against China, Champa, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.
The Southern expansion of Vietnam resulted with the destruction of Champa as an independent nation to a level that it didn't exist anymore; total destruction of Luang Prabang; the decline of Cambodia which resulted to Vietnam's annexation of Mekong Delta and wars against Siam. In most of its history, the Royal Vietnamese Armed Forces was often regarded to be one of the most professional, battle-hardened and heavily trained armies in Southeast Asia as well as Asia in a large extent.
General Võ Nguyên Giáp
on the date of the PAVN's establishment in 1944. Chief of General Staff Hoàng Văn Thái
wearing a pith helmet and holding the flag.
The PAVN was first conceived in September 1944 at the first Revolutionary Party Military Conference as "armed propaganda brigades" to educate, recruit and mobilise the Vietnamese to create a main force to drive the French colonial and Japanese occupiers from Vietnam. Under the guidelines of Hồ Chí Minh, Võ Nguyên Giáp was given the task of establishing the brigades and the Armed Propaganda Unit for National Liberation came into existence on 22 December 1944. The first formation was made up of thirty one men and three women, armed with two revolvers, seventeen rifles, one light machine gun, and fourteen breech-loading flintlocks. The United States' OSS agents, led by Archimedes Patti – who was sometimes referred as the founding father of the PAVN due to his role, had provided ammunitions as well as logistic intelligence and equipments and they had also helped training these soldiers which was later become the vital backbone of the later Vietnamese military to fight the Japanese occupiers as well as the future wars.
The group was renamed the "Vietnam Liberation Army" in May 1945. In September, the army was again renamed the "Vietnam National Defence Army". At this point, it had about 1,000 soldiers. In 1950, it officially became the People's Army of Vietnam.
Võ Nguyên Giáp went on to become the first full general of the VPA on 28 May 1948, and famous for leading the PAVN in victory over French forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and being in overall command against U.S. backed South Vietnam at the Fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975.
French Indochina War
On 7 January 1947, its first regiment, the 102nd 'Capital' Regiment, was created for operations around Hanoi. Over the next two years, the first division, the 308th Division, later well known as the Pioneer Division, was formed from the 88th Tu Vu Regiment and the 102nd Capital Regiment. By late 1950 the 308th Division had a full three infantry regiments, when it was supplemented by the 36th Regiment. At that time, the 308th Division was also backed by the 11th Battalion that later became the main force of the 312th Division. In late 1951, after launching three campaigns against three French strongpoints in the Red River Delta, the PAVN refocused on building up its ground forces further, with five new divisions, each of 10–15,000 men, created: the 304th Glory Division at Thanh Hóa, the 312th Victory Division in Vinh Phuc, the 316th Bong Lau Division in the northwest border region, the 320th Delta Division in the north Red River Delta, the 325th Binh Tri Thien Division in Binh Tri Thien province. Also in 1951, the first artillery Division, the 351st Division was formed, and later, before Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, for the first time in history, it was equipped by 24 captured 105mm US howitzers supplied by the Chinese People's Liberation Army. The first six divisions (308th, 304th, 312th, 316th, 320th, 325th) became known as the original PAVN 'Steel and Iron' divisions. In 1954 four of these divisions (the 308th, 304th, 312nd, 316th, supported by the 351st Division's captured US howitzers) defeated the French Union forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, ending 83 years of French rule in Indochina.
Vietnamese troops in Vietnam War, 1967
Soon after the 1954 Geneva Accords, the 330th and 338th Divisions were formed by southern Vietminh members who had moved north in conformity with that agreement, and by 1955, six more divisions were formed: the 328th, 332nd, and 350th in the north of the DRV, the 305th and the 324th near the DMZ, and the 335 Division of soldiers repatriated from Laos. In 1957, the theatres of the war with the French were reorganised as the first five military regions, and in the next two years, several divisions were reduced to brigade size to meet the manpower requirements of collective farms.
By 1958 it was becoming increasingly clear that the South Vietnamese government was solidifying its position as an independent republic under Ngô Đình Diệm who staunchly opposed the terms of the Geneva Accord that required a national referendum on unification of north and south Vietnam under a single national government, and North Vietnam prepared to settle the issue of unification by force.
Infiltrators on the move in Laos down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
In May 1959 the first major steps to prepare infiltration routes into South Vietnam were taken; Group 559 was established, a logistical unit charged with establishing routes into the south via Laos and Cambodia, which later became famous as the Ho Chi Minh trail. At about the same time, Group 579 was created as its maritime counterpart to transport supplies into the South by sea. Most of the early infiltrators were members of the 338th Division, former southerners who had been settled at
Xuan Mai from 1954 onwards.
Regular formations were sent to Southern Vietnam from 1965 onwards; the 325th Division's 101B Regiment and the 66th Regiment of the 304th Division met US forces on a large scale, a first for the PAVN, at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. The 308th Division's 88A Regiment, the 312th Division's 141A, 141B, 165A, 209A, the 316th Division's 174A, the 325th Division's 95A, 95B, the 320A Division also faced the US forces which included the 1st Cavalry Division, the 101st Airborne Division, the 173d Airborne Brigade, the 4th Infantry Division, the 1st Infantry Division, and the 25th Infantry Division. Many of those formations later became main forces of the 3rd Division (Yellow Star Division) in Binh Dinh (1965), the 5th Division (1966) of 7th Military Zone (Capital Tactical Area of ARVN), the 7th (created by 141st and 209th Regiments originated in the 312th Division in 1966) and 9th Divisions (first Division of National Liberation Front of Vietnam in 1965 in Mekong Delta), the 10th Dakto Division in Dakto – Highland in 1972 south of Vietnam.
Vietnam People's Army signals
General Trần Văn Trà one-time commander of the B2 Front (Saigon) HQ confirms that even though the PAVN and the NLFV were confident in their ability to defeat the regular ARVN forces, US intervention in Vietnam forced them to reconsider their operations. The decision was made to continue to pursue "main force" engagements even though "there were others in the South – they were not military people – who wanted to go back to guerrilla war," but the strategic aims were adjusted to meet the new reality.
We had to change our plan and make it different from when we fought the Saigon regime, because we now had to fight two adversaries — the United States and South Vietnam. We understood that the U.S. Army was superior to our own logistically, in weapons and in all things. So strategically we did not hope to defeat the U.S. Army completely. Our intentions were to fight a long time and cause heavy casualties to the United States, so the United States would see that the war was unwinnable and would leave.
Captured photo shows VC crossing a river in 1966.
During the Vietnamese Lunar New Year Tết holiday starting on 30 January 1968, the PAVN launched a general offensive in more than 60 cities and towns throughout south of Vietnam against the US Army and Army of the Republic of Vietnam-(ARVN), beginning with operations in the border region to try and draw US forces and ARVN troops out of the major cities. In sequential coordinated attacks, the U.S Embassy in Saigon, Presidential Palace, Headquarters of ARVN and ARVN's Navy, TV and Radio Stations, Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Saigon were attacked and invaded by commando forces known as "Dac Cong".
This offensive became known as the "Tet Offensive".
The offensives caught the world's attention day-by-day and demoralised the US public and military, both at home and abroad. The PAVN sustained heavy losses of its main forces in southern military zones. Some of its regular forces and command structure had to escape to Laos and Cambodia to avoid counterattacks from US forces and ARVN, while local guerrillas forces and political organisations in South Vietnam were exposed and had a hard time remaining within the Mekong Delta area due to the extensive use of the Phoenix Program and were never restored.
Although the PAVN lost militarily to the US forces and ARVN in the south, the political impact of the war in the United States was strong. Public demonstrations increased in ferocity and quantity after the Tet Offensive. Onwards from 1970, the 5th, 7th, and 9th divisions had fought in Cambodia against US forces, ARVN, and Cambodian Prime Minister Lon Nol's troops but they had gained new allies: the Khmer Rouge and guerrilla fighters supporting deposed Prime Minister Sihanouk. In 1975 the PAVN were successful in aiding the Khmer Rouge in toppling the Lon Nol's US-backed regime, despite heavy US bombing.
After the withdrawal of most United States' combat forces from Indochina because of the Vietnamization strategy, the PAVN launched the ill-fated Easter Offensive in 1972. Although successful at the beginning, the South Vietnamese repulsed the main assaults with U.S. air support. Still North Vietnam gained significant territories.
Nearly two years after the full United States' withdrawal from Indochina in accord with the terms of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the PAVN launched a Spring Offensive aimed at uniting Vietnam. Without direct support of its US ally, and suffering from stresses caused by dwindling aid, the ARVN was ill-prepared to confront the highly motivated PAVN, and despite numerical superiority of the ARVN in tactical aircraft, armoured vehicles and overwhelming three to one odds in regular troops, the PAVN quickly secured victory within two months and captured Saigon on 30 April 1975, effectively ending the 70 years of conflict stemming from French colonial invasion of the 19th century and unifying Vietnam.
Sino-Vietnamese conflicts (1975–1990)
Towards the second half of the 20th century the armed forces of Vietnam would participate in organised incursions to protect its citizens and allies against aggressive military factions in the neighbouring Indochinese countries of Laos and Cambodia, and the defensive border wars with China.
- The PAVN had forces in Laos to secure the Ho Chi Minh Trail and to militarily support the Pathet Lao. In 1975 the Pathet Lao and NVA forces succeeded in toppling the Royal Laotian regime and installing a new, and pro-Hanoi government, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, that rules Laos to this day.
- Parts of Sihanouk's neutral Cambodia were occupied by troops as well. A pro US coup led by Lon Nol in 1970 led to the foundation pro-US Khmer Republic state. This marked the beginning of the Cambodian Civil War. The PAVN aided Khmer Rouge forces in toppling Lon Nol's government in 1975. In 1978, along with the FUNSK Cambodian Salvation Front, the Vietnamese and Ex-Khmer Rouge forces succeeded in toppling Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea regime and installing a new government, the People's Republic of Kampuchea.
- During the Sino-Vietnamese War and the Sino-Vietnamese conflicts 1979–90, Vietnamese forces would conduct cross-border raids into Chinese territory to destroy artillery ammunition. This greatly contributed to the outcome of the Sino-Vietnamese War, as the Chinese forces ran out of ammunition already at an early stage and had to call in reinforcements.
- While occupying Cambodia, Vietnam launched several armed incursions into Thailand in pursuit of Cambodian guerillas that had taken refuge on the Thai side of the border.
Both in Cambodia and in Laos, the heavily armed and battle-hardened People's Army of Vietnam were a valuable ally to the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge forces, providing economic and military aid, also with new weapons, technologies and intelligence. Some claimed that just like the US Army's relationship with the ARVN, Kingdom of Laos and the Khmer Republic, the PAVN was the real power standing behind them and played key roles in bringing both the Khmer Rouge and Pathet Lao to power. When Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge began the Cambodian Genocide, targeting Vietnamese as well, it was instrumental in toppling his regime.