There was no other force during the 12th and 13th centuries more formidable than the Mongolian army. First under the leadership of Genghis Khan, then later by his descendent, Kublai Khan, the Mongols tore across Asia, conquering the many localized governments, either through the strength of their army, or through shrewd political moves. Either way, the Mongols came up against very little resistance to their expansion of Empire, that is until they tried to conquer Vietnam.
In 1225, Vietnam saw the rise of the powerful Tran dynasty. Although having a good grasp on the throne previously, the Tran sealed the fate through the use of a political marriage; That of one of its own members and an eight year old girl, who was a member of the then ruling Ly dynasty. Regardless of the ethical questions that raises, the Tran helped Vietnam through one of its most prosperous times under the Tran Dynasty.
The Tran Dynasty carried out several public works projects. They enacted land reforms, improved public administration, and encouraged the study of Chinese literature. It seems that things were going well for the Vietnamese people, but they were unaware of the danger looming right around the corner.
The First Mongolian Invasion
In 1257, the Mongol empire started knocking on Vietnam’s door. The Viet Dai (Norther Vietnam) refused to listen to this knocking, and when the Mongol Army came to the capital of Thang Long, they found the village deserted, and plague and disease ran rampant through the area. This was an example of the Viet Dai’s successful use of “scorched earth warfare”. Rather then let the enemy scorch their village and rape their women, they beat them to the punch and burned their own villages down. It appears to have worked though, because the Mongols turned tail and focused their attention on an easier mark.
The Second Mongolian Invasion
There was relative peace in Vietnam for the following years, that is until Kublai Khan came to rule the Mongol empire, and in 1287, sent his prince Toghan to help him get through so he could get to Champa. The Emperor of Viet Dai, Trn Hng o, didn’t like this idea so he fought back, but Prince Toghan fought harder and captured the capital city Thang Lo. Trn Hng o decided he would try the old trick used before, and burned the crops down and ran away. The Mongols gave chase, but were soon worn down from fatigue and tropical diseases. The Vietnamese saw their chance and launched a counter strike against the Mongolian army on waterfronts so they wouldn’t be able to utilize their cavalry. The Mongols were driven back, molested and harrassed by smaller minority groups along the way.
The Third Mongolian Invasion
Two years later, Kublai Khan sent Prince Toghan down to Vietnam again, this time with a much larger army. This time he had better luck, and made it much farther south into Vietnam. Prince Togham managed to capture very important border stations in an attempt to control the supply of Viet Dai. His success was short lived though.
While Prince Togham was capturing border towns, his supply fleet was ambushed and taken. Upon news of this, a Vietnamese General by the name of Trn Hng o recaptured Dai Than in the north and changed the direction of the war. After a few mixed battles with the Vietnamese fighting in the jungles using guerilla tactics, Prince Togham decided to withdraw his armies. The only way out for his fleet was through the Bach Dang river. Months prior to this battle, Trn Hng o had his men bury metal stakes in parts of the river that would lower and raise depending on the tide. He had used a small vessel as a decoy, and the Mongols followed the boat into the deadly waters. As the tide receded, the ships were pierced by these stakes. The entire Mongol fleet was finished off in this fashion.
Prince Togham was lucky he was a Prince, because he was able to escape back to China on horseback rather than by ship. Trn Hng o is hailed as one of Vietnam’s great national heroes for his cunning in this battle, and for keeping the independence of Vietnam.