Trung sisters
The exploits of these heroines of Vietnam's first independence movement are cited by scholars as early examples of the prominent roles women have played in Vietnamese society.
Trung Trac was the widow of a nobleman in northern Vietnam killed for plotting with other nobles to overthrow their Chinese masters. In A.D. 39 she took up her late husband's cause, joined by her younger sister Trung Nhi. Together they led other rebellious nobles in the overthrow of a Chinese stronghold. The sisters seized control of 65 citadels and declared themselves queens of an independent state that stretched from Hue to southern China. Their reign was short-lived. Lacking the support of the peasantry, ill-equipped and ill-trained, their forces succumbed to superior Chinese troops, first at Lang Bac near present-day Hanoi, then decisively at Hat Mon, now Son Tay.
The sisters could not face defeat and in A.D. 43 drowned themselves where the Day and Red rivers meet. The Hai Ba ("Two Sisters") pagoda in Hanoi and the Hat Mon pagoda in Son Tay province commemorate their deeds. An avenue in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is named for them.

Ly Bon and Ly Thai To (Ly dynasties)
His kingdom may have lasted only about three years in the 6th century, but Ly Bon is considered Vietnam's first great champion for independence. His fame began with his defeat of the Chinese at Long Bien in 542. In two years he controlled most of what is now northern and central Vietnam, and he proclaimed himself emperor of what he called "Van Xuan," a name that implied it would last "One Thousand Springs." In 547, however, the Chinese reasserted themselves and chased Ly Bon to Laos, where tribesmen killed him and sent his head to his enemies.
Over the next 50 years two other Viets -- Ly Xuan (589-590) and Ly Phat Tu (590s-603) -- followed Ly Bon's footsteps in attempting to drive the Chinese out. They failed, but their reigns and Ly Bon's are sometimes called the Earlier Ly dynasty. Despite its brevity, the Earlier Ly dynasty prepared the way for the independent state of Dai Viet.
But it was not until Ly Thai To picked up the remnants of Ngo Quyen's short-lived reign in the mid-10th century that Dai Viet became reality. In the early 11th century Ly Thai To brought Ngo Quyen's Nam Viet under centralized control and called it Dai Viet. The so-called Later Ly dynasty founded by Ly Thai To endured from 1009 to 1225. The Ly emperors modernized agriculture, created a civil service based on the Chinese model and established a capital at Hanoi, centered in the Red River valley. Despite its progress, Dai Viet still had to contend with the Islamic Champa kingdom to the south, and the two countries fought several wars over the succeeding centuries. Dai Viet also warred with Angkor, the Khmer empire that was then the most powerful country in Southeast Asia.
The Later Ly dynasty was supplanted by the Tran dynasty in 1225 that took up the cause against Champa and successfully repulsed three Mongol invasions from 1257 to 1287. Emperor Tran Anh Ton made Champa a vassal state in 1312, but his successors had to fight almost constantly to keep it. In 1400 an angry Viet general seized control and invited the Chinese back. It was not until 1428 that Le Loi drove out the Chinese, re-established Viet control and founded the Later Le dynasty.

Ngo Quyen (Ngo dynasty)
A provincial prefect, Ngo Quyen defeated the Chinese in 938-39 and founded the kingdom of Nam Viet in the Red River valley in what is now northern Vietnam. It marked a turning point in Vietnam's history.
Despite numerous assaults by the Chinese, Nam Viet remained independent until the 19th century when it was seized by the French. Ngo Quyen's reign led to the first Vietnamese dynasty to have some endurance, albeit short, ending when the joint rule established by his sons collapsed in 954.
The military tactics Ngo Quyen employed in throwing out the Chinese were often imitated by Vietnamese generals over the centuries.

Tran Hung Dao
A brilliant and innovative military strategist, Tran Hung Dao looms large in the history of Vietnam. A nephew of King Tran Thai Ton of the Tran dynasty, he became legend with his command of the Vietnamese military in defeating two Mongol invasions.
Tran Hung Dao was named commander of Vietnam's armed forces as the Mongols, under Kublai Khan, looked to expand their empire from China in the early 1280s. As the Mongols began moving into northern Vietnam in 1283, Tran Hung Dao gave a famous speech to his troops, calling for national unity and resistance. He adopted a defensive position as the Mongols moved in, then employed guerrilla warfare and scorched-earth tactics to set up a counter-offensive that drove the Mongols back into China.
When the Mongols returned in 1287, Tran and his forces again took a defensive posture. Once the Mongols had occupied the capital, the Vietnamese forces went on the offensive. This time, Tran borrowed a strategy from a 10th century Vietnamese warrior by planting iron-tipped spears deep in the Bach Dang River, then luring the Mongol fleet into battle. The Mongol boats were all sunk or captured.
Tran Hung Dao's legacy of guerrilla warfare against a more powerful enemy was a model for 20th-century communist guerrillas. And his call to the whole of Vietnam for national unity and resistance inspired the North Vietnamese during the Indochina wars of 1946-75.

Le Loi (Later Le dynasty)
Although basically independent, Vietnam (then known as Dai Viet) was occupied by Chinese overlords of the Ming dynasty starting in 1407. Le Loi, a wealthy landowner angered by the way the Chinese exploited the peasants, declared himself the "Prince of Pacification" and from 1418 to 1426 led several revolts that forced out the Chinese. Making himself emperor with the name of Le Thai To, he restored diplomatic relations with the Mings in 1428 and established a dynasty that would last for 360 years. His reign was noted for its land reforms, including the declaration that even women and children were entitled to a fair share of land.
The greatest ruler of the so-called Later Le dynasty was Le Thanh Tong, who took the throne in 1460 and organized the country into provinces, districts and departments, establishing a system of government run by officials appointed on the basis of Confucian civil service examinations. The government registered the population, instituted land taxes, and drew up civil and penal codes that used Confucian principles. Tong also pushed dynastic control into southern Vietnam, and in 1471 reduced the formerly powerful Champa kingdom into a narrow strip on the peninsula's southern edge.
In the mid-16th century the Later Le monarchs were usurped by the aristocratic Trinh family and henceforth reigned in name only. The Trinhs lost control of southern Vietnam to the Nguyen family starting around 1600 and war raged between the two families from 1627 to 1673. At that point they declared a truce, leaving the Nguyens in control of the south from Hue and the Trinhs in control of the north. Both families, and the Later Le dynasty, were vanquished by the Tay Son brothers in the 1770s and 1780s.

Alexandre de Rhodes
Alexandre de Rhodes, a Jesuit missionary, was the first Frenchman in Vietnam when he arrived in 1619. He converted 6,700 Vietnamese, by his estimate, but was expelled in 1630 because the mandarins feared Christian dogma would subvert the Confucian-based prerogative of the monarch.
After a stay in the Portuguese colony in Macau, de Rhodes returned to southern Vietnam in 1640, staying until 1646 when he was condemned to death. The sentence was commuted to permanent exile and de Rhodes returned to Europe. In soliciting French investors to support his return, de Rhodes exaggerated the wealth of silks, spices and gold in Indochina -- thus setting the stage for France's long fascination with the region.
He also produced a Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese dictionary with a romanized script that not only helped convey Christianity to the populace but also promoted literacy. He died in 1660 before he could carry out another planned mission to Vietnam.

Tay Son brothers
Nguyen Hue, Nguyen Nhac and Nguyen Lu from the village of Tay Son in southern Vietnam are regarded by many historians as precursors of the nationalist movement of the 20th century. From 1771 until 1787 they led a movement known as the Tay Son rebellion that essentially reunited the country, ultimately overthrowing the Nguyen family in the south, the Trinh family in the north, and the Later Le dynasty that ruled Vietnam in name only.
Each brother assumed control of a portion of the country. The revolt promised political and social reforms and initially had broad support from the peasant and merchant classes. But the brothers failed to overturn the repressive system of land ownership, and their followers drifted away. By 1802 their descendants had been vanquished by Nguyen Anh (last survivor of the Nguyen family and later Emperor Gia Long) with the help of European troops and arms.

Nguyen Du
A military man and civil servant born in 1765 in a village in northern Vietnam, Nguyen Du would become his country's most celebrated literary figure.
Nguyen Du passed the traditional mandarin examinations at the age of 19. Soon after, he took a position in the military, as several generations of his family had before him. Later, Nguyen Du returned to the mountains near the village where he grew up. He was summoned back to governmental duties in 1802 under a new ruler and served in many official posts.
In 1813, Nguyen Du was named to head a delegation to Peking. It was on this mission that his life took a fateful turn. He came across a Chinese novel that dated from the Ming period and translated it into Vietnamese. The resulting epic poem, titled "Kim Van Kieu," combined Chinese, Confucian and Buddhist themes, from karmic retribution for sins to the determination to endure and triumph over personal tragedy. It became a national treasure. Nguyen Du went on to write several more well-known poems in both Vietnamese and Chinese before his death in 1820.

Gia Long (Nguyen dynasty)

The last Vietnamese royal dynasty was founded in 1802 by Emperor Gia Long (formerly Nguyen Anh), who claimed the throne by defeating the Tay Son brothers with the aid of French mercenaries and European arms. Gia Long was of royal lineage, the nephew of Hue Vuong, an heir to the throne who died in prison during a civil war in 1766. Gia Long made Cambodia a vassal state, repaired the Mandarin Road running the length of the country, established a postal system, built public granaries to weather famines, and made monetary and legal reforms. But his reign was notable for its resistance to European commercial, technical and religious inroads, a policy of isolation that ultimately would undermine the dynasty's ability to deal with aggressive French colonialism.
Gia Long's successor, Minh Mang, was so anti-European that he barred French missionaries and forbade Christian preaching. When a peasant revolt broke out in 1833 aided by missionaries, he began a purge of Christians. Over the years numerous Vietnamese converts and French nationals were killed. The policy was continued by Emperor Tu Duc, which ultimately gave France an excuse to invade Vietnam in 1858 in the name of protecting its citizens. In 1862 the French forced Tu Duc to cede three eastern provinces of southern Vietnam -- which the French called Cochinchina -- and by 1885 they had gained control of the entire country.
Subsequent Nguyen emperors reigned under the hand of the French. The last was Bao Dai, who abdicated in 1945 when the Viet Minh, the nationalist movement led by Ho Chi Minh, seized power from the departing Japanese. Bao Dai later fled to Hong Kong but returned as nominal sovereign in 1949 during France's abortive attempt to reassert colonial control from the insurgent Viet Minh. In 1955, after a referendum called for a republic and Ngo Dinh Diem became president, Bao Dai retired to France where he resumed something of the lifestyle he had previously enjoyed as the "Playboy Emperor." He died in 1997.

Phan Boi Chau

One of the pioneers of Vietnam's anti-colonial movement, Phan Boi Chau spent parts of two centuries fighting for the sovereignty of his native land.
Born in 1867 to a father who stressed the importance of education, Phan Boi Chau began his resistance activities in 1885, organizing his fellow students against the French. When that initial effort failed, he returned to his studies and earned a doctorate in 1900. His nationalist fervor stronger than ever, he set about organizing a proper resistance movement. He formed the Duy Tan Hoi, or Reformation Society, and aligned with Prince Cuong De, a member of the royal family.
In 1905, Phan Boi Chau moved the base of his operations to Japan, where he sought the advice and partnership of fellow revolutionaries. This effort proved to be a disappointment, and he returned to Vietnam several years later. Phan Boi Chau gave up on the idea of putting a puppet ruler on the throne and reorganized his resistance movement in China. After a failed attempt to assassinate the French governor-general of Indochina, he was imprisoned in China for three years, during which time he wrote the first of two autobiographies.
When Phan Boi Chau was freed from prison, he resumed his resistance to the French. In 1925, he was arrested again. The French eventually pardoned him, but Phan Boi Chau lived the rest of his life under surveillance. He died in 1940, leaving behind a wealth of writings that inspired Vietnam's future revolutionaries. He is celebrated as one of his country's great patriots.

Ho Chi Minh
Son of a nationalist father, Ho was born on May 19, 1890, in Kimlien, Nghe-An province, in central Vietnam. After receiving his initial education from his father and at a village school, Ho studied at the Lycee Quoc-Hoc in the old imperial capital of Hue. It was a school designed to perpetuate Vietnamese nationalist traditions. In 1912 he went to France, where he worked at many odd jobs and became active in socialist politics and as an advocate of Indochinese independence. During World War I he visited the United States. At the Versailles peace conference, he petitioned the delegates on behalf of Vietnamese self-determination but was ignored. In 1920 Ho became a founding member of the French Communist Party.
He went to Moscow in 1922, joined the Comintern and met with Lenin. In 1925 he went to China to work for the Soviet mission with Chiang Kai-Shek's government. After Chiang turned on the communists in 1927, Ho fled to Moscow. During the 1930s he founded the Indochinese Communist Party, studied in Moscow and fought alongside Mao. In 1940 he returned to Vietnam. He founded the Viet Minh, the League for the Independence of Vietnam.
On September 2, 1945, Ho and his league declared Vietnamese independence. When the French colonial rulers tried to reassert their authority, Ho settled for nominal autonomy as a member of the French Union. The French-Vietnamese truce broke in late 1946, initiating a war that ended in 1954 with the Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu. From that time Ho's primary goal was the reunification of Vietnam. He pursued this particularly through support of the Viet Cong guerrillas fighting the Southern government. Even though South Vietnam received ever-increasing support from the United States (which after 1964 began to bomb the North), Ho remained confident of victory and rejected negotiations with Washington. Only in 1968, after the U.S. bombardments of North Vietnam stopped in the wake of the Tet Offensive, did his government agree to talks. Shortly after this turning point in the war, Ho died of a heart attack at the age of 79 on September 3, 1969.

Le Duan
Le Duan assumed the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party upon the death of Ho Chi Minh in 1969. As general-secretary of the party at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, he led the country through the difficult reunification period, the invasion of Cambodia, the split with China, the eviction of most of the ethnic Chinese population and a new alliance with the Soviet Union. A founding member of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930, Duan was a consummate revolutionary. He was imprisoned twice by the French and established a covert party organization in South Vietnam after the country's partition in 1954. He died in 1986.

Le Duc Tho
Le Duc Tho is best known for negotiating the Paris cease-fire with U.S. presidential adviser Henry Kissinger in January 1973. Both were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year, but Tho refused to accept it. He was one of the founders of the Indochinese Communist Party along with Ho Chi Minh and was imprisoned by the French twice in the 1930s and 1940s. In the late 1950s he directed the Viet Cong guerrilla campaign against the Diem regime in South Vietnam. He also directed the offensive that vanquished the South Vietnamese government in 1975. Three years later he played a similar role in the early stages of Vietnam's military presence in Cambodia. He was a member of the Politburo until 1986 and died in 1990.

Vo Nguyen Giap
On both the political and military fronts, Vo Nguyen Giap made an indelible mark on his country.
Born in 1912, Vo Nguyen Giap had rebellion in his blood; his father was a strident anti-colonialist. While still in high school (where a fellow student was future Communist Party leader Ho Chi Minh), Vo Nguyen Giap joined the Revolutionary Party of Young Vietnam. He earned a law degree in 1937 and began teaching at a university in Hanoi, where his communist leanings attracted a flock of converts.
Vo Nguyen Giap's military career began taking shape in 1941, when he allied himself with a guerrilla leader in hopes of forming an army to drive the French out of Vietnam. He brought his troops to Hanoi in August 1945, alongside Ho Chi Minh, who declared Vietnam's independence. Vo Nguyen Giap was named commander-in-chief of the armed forces, as well as commander of all police and internal security. Nine years later, he engineered the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu, which spelled the end of the French colonialist regime. But his finest hour was yet to come.
When Vietnam was divided in July 1954, Vo Nguyen Giap became commander-in-chief of the North Vietnamese armed forces. It was in this role that he led North Vietnam to victory in the Vietnam War. In an interview with CNN in 1996, Vo Nguyen Giap said of the victory over the United States, "We had ingenuity and the determination to fight to the end. ... It was the people who made the difference, not the weapons."

Nguyen Van Linh
As general-secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party from 1986 to 1991, Nguyen Van Linh began the free-market reforms known as doi moi (renovation) that promoted ventures by overseas investors and helped liberate Vietnam from its economic insularity. Linh had come a long way since he was a teen-ager jailed by the French for insurrection in the 1930s. A stealthy guerrilla leader who used several aliases, Linh joined the Indochinese Communist Party in 1936 and advanced through the ranks. After the country's partition in 1954 he became an underground leader in South Vietnam, and when victory came in 1975 he was made party chief of Saigon (later Ho Chi Minh City). He was elevated to the Politburo, dropped, then reinstated before becoming party leader in 1986. After he retired in 1991, he lamented that some of his reforms had been abused. He died in 1998.

Le Kha Phieu

Le Kha Phieu was named general-secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party in December 1997 following an expected shake-up in the Politburo that saw the resignations of Do Muoi as general-secretary, Le Duc Anh as president and Vo Van Kiet as prime minister. Born in December 1931, Phieu is a graduate of the military college and spent much of his party career as a military commander. Most recently he was the army's political commissar. He is a three-star general. One of Phieu's stated goals is to get tough on corruption; not even "giant rats" would be safe, he said.

Phan Van Khai
Phan Van Khai was confirmed as prime minister by the National Assembly in September 1997, replacing his mentor, Vo Van Kiet, then 74, a fellow southerner, whom he had served for five years as deputy prime minister for economic affairs.
Khai is known as a reformer and as a popular politician in his hometown of Ho Chi Minh City. He was born in December 1933 in the Chu Chi suburb of what was then Saigon. Khai joined the resistance against the French at age 14. After the country's partitioning in 1954, he was among those who headed north to continue the struggle for liberation. He was 21. He studied foreign languages in Hanoi and economics for five years in Moscow. He joined the Vietnamese Communist Party at age 26 and served on the National Reunification Committee in the mid-1970s. Starting in 1978 he served in the local government of Ho Chi Minh City and was elected mayor in 1985, serving until 1989. He was named to the party's Politburo in 1991 and appointed to the cabinet; the next year he was named deputy prime minister.
Observers describe Khai as well versed in economic affairs, a straight talker and a capable negotiator who has embraced doi moi (renovation) even as he remains a party man. On his election in 1997 the South China Post in Hong Kong called him an "avowed reformer." He also is said to be outspoken against corruption.

Tran Duc Luong
Tran Duc Luong was elected president of Vietnam by the National Assembly in September 1997, and was said to be a compromise candidate to succeed Le Duc Anh, then 76, who retired because of ill health, according to official accounts.
Born in May 1937 in central coastal Vietnam, Luong is a university-trained geologist. He was appointed general director of the General Department of Geology in 1979. Two years later he completed an economics management course in Moscow. He speaks Russian, English and French. He joined the Communist Party in 1959 and was elected to the National Assembly in 1981. He rose within the party hierarchy to the Central Committee in 1991 and to the Politburo in 1996. From 1987 to 1997 Luong was deputy prime minister and Vietnam's permanent representative to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, the Soviet bloc's economic development agency whose purpose declined after 1990.
Luong's tenure as president so far has been marked by several trips abroad to drum up investment, trade and agricultural cooperation. His notable visits in 1998 were to Moscow and Bangkok. In late 1999 his five-day trip to India marked the first time a Vietnamese head of state had visited since Ho Chi Minh did so in 1958.