The country now known as Vietnam took shape gradually between the fifteenth and early nineteenth centuries as the power of successive ruling dynasties spread south from the region called Tonkin. By the 1820s most of the country was under the control of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. But no sooner was this political unification achieved than it was undermined by the forces of Western imperialism, spearheaded by France.

French expansion in Indochina began in the 1850s and by 1893 all of present-day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos constituted a French colony under the name of the Indochinese Union. Vietnam itself was divided into three protectorates: Tonkin in the north, Anaam in the center and Cochinchina in the south. Vietnam's nominal head of state was the reigning emperor of the Nguyen dynasty but in fact he was a mere figurehead, real power being vested in the French Governor-General of Indochina and his administration. In late 1940 Japan occupied Indochina, though leaving the Vichy French administration in place. But in May 1945 the Japanese deposed the French authorities and proclaimed an Empire of Vietnam under Japan's protection, an arrangement that came to a swift end with the latter's surrender in August. The Emperor Bao Dai abdicated, transferring power to the Viet Minh (Vietnamese Communists) under Ho Chi Minh, who proclaimed a Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But the French were unwilling to give up their Indochinese colony and upon their return to power in southern Vietnam they proclaimed an Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina. France's long-range plan was to unite all of Vietnam as an autonomous state within the French Union (colonial empire) and to that end they persuaded Bao Dai to return as Head of State. This being accomplished, the State of Vietnam was formally established in 1949. The immediate sequel was the outbreak of war between France and the Viet Minh: a bloody conflict that raged until 1954.

From the beginning the Vietnamese were ill content with French rule and in the first half of the twentieth century various political parties appeared, whose proclaimed aim was to secure the country's independence. The most important of these were the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam (Vietnam Nationalist Party after 1945).

France's defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh ended colonial rule in Indochina, but Vietnam did not achieve independence as a single country. In the north the Communists under Ho Chi Minh established themselves in power, while in the south a non-communist nationalist regime took shape. The Geneva Conference of 1954 failed to resolve the differences between the two regimes and the country's partition was formalized. In the north was the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (the DRV or North Vietnam); in the south was the Republic of Vietnam (the RVN or South Vietnam). Both regimes claimed sovereignty over the whole of the country, and the DRV sought to make good its claim by organizing an insurgency in the RVN. Communist China lent its support to this enterprise, and in the Cold War atmosphere of the time it was inevitable that the Western powers would come to the support of the non-communist side. The United States had been unwilling to intervene on behalf of the French colonial regime but was willing to support independent South Vietnam. As the Communist insurgency burgeoned the US was slowly but surely drawn into the conflict, which became a proxy war between the superpowers. Though eventually the insurgent forces embodied in the National Liberation Front were crushed by the US and the RVN, North Vietnam's direct military intervention prolonged the war, exhausting the US will to persevere and fatally undermining the RVN. The US withdrew from the war in 1973 and in 1975 a full-scale North Vietnamese invasion culminated in the collapse of South Vietnam and the long-postponed unification of the country, which was styled the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.





Standards of the Tay Son Dynasty  •  Eighteenth Century


Standard of the Emperor Minh Mạng


Standard of the Emperors Gia Long and Tu Duc
National Flag  •  1863-85


Standard of the Nguyen Dynasty  •  Nineteenth Century- 1945

Red and yellow were the basic colors of the flags of the Vietnamese dynasties, red symbolizing the royal bloodline and yellow symbolizing the Vietnamese people. Western-style flags of simple design were used from the eighteenth century onward. The final ruling dynasty, that of Nguyen, employed a yellow flag and later a Chinese-style flamed pennant, yellow and red, charged with a dragon. This pennant survived into the colonial era, being used as a personal flag by Bao Dai, the last Vietnamese emperor and head of state of autonomous Vietnam. A rectangular version also existed.




The Tricolor


Flag of the French Protectorate of Indochina


Governor-General of French Indochina


National Flag of the Great South  •  1885-90


National Flag of Vietnam  •  1890-1920


National Flag of Vietnam  •  1920-45


National Flag of the Empire of Vietnam  •  May-August 1945



Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina  •  1946 & 1946-48


State of Vietnam  •  1949


State of Vietnam  •  1949-55

The national flag of French Indochina was the Tricolor, though reportedly a flag of the French Protectorate, yellow with a canton of the Tricolor, also existed. The French Governor-General had a flag of the standard pattern for that office: dark blue with a canton of the Tricolor. As the three major components of of French Indochina—Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—were nominally independent, they had flags of their own. For Vietnam these were flags of the reigning dynasty. The 1885-90 flag of the Great South (as Chochinchina was called at the time) was golden yellow with the name of the state in red; later flags were simple striped variants, yellow and red, these being colors associated with the Nguyen dynasty and the Vietnamese people. The puppet Empire of Vietnam set up by the Japanese in 1945 also used a flag of this pattern.

The return of the French colonial administration led to the creation of an Autonomous Republic of Cochinchina in 1946. Its flag was yellow with three blue stripes, the latter probably representing Vietnam's three regions: Tonkin, Annam, & Cochinchina. Though sources differ, this initial flag seems to have been replaced by one with three blue and two white stripes. The Autonomous Republic was expanded in 1948-49 by adding Tonkin and Annam and was renamed the State of Vietnam. Its initial flag was yellow with two full and one broken stripe, said to represent the Chinese ideograph for "southern direction." But the head of state, Bao Dai, soon replaced it with a flag bearing three full stripes. These were said to represent the country’s three regions, while the yellow field represented the Vietnamese people as a whole.




National Flag, Republic of Vietnam  •  1955-75


National Flag, Democratic Republic of Vietnam  •  First Pattern


National Flag, Democratic Republic of Vietnam  •  Current Pattern

The Republic of Vietnam continued to use the flag of the preceding State of Vietnam. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam's flag was red with a large golden yellow star. Originally this had been the flag of the Communist-organized League for the Independence of Vietnam; it became the DRV's national flag in 1955. The first version had a star of the type much used on early Russian Communist flags: so constructed that an imaginary circle touching its inner angles was half the diameter of an imaginary circle touching its outer points. Later a conventional star was substituted.




Communist Party of Vietnam Since 1930


Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam  •  1939-45
Vietnam Nationalist Party Since 1945


Vietnam Revolutionary League  •  1942-45



Flags of the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong)  •  1955-75

The flag of the Vietnam Communist Party dates from 1930. Obviously inspired by the flag of the USSR, it is red with a hammer and sickle colored golden yellow. The flag of the Vietnam Nationalist Party, as it has been called since 1945, appears to have been inspired by the flag of the Chinese Nationalist Party, as was the Vietnam Revolutionary League's flag. The flag of the DRV's proxy organization in the RNV—the National Liberation Front—was horizontally divided, red over light blue, with the same large star. There were several variants of this flag: with the communist-style star as shown, with a conventional star, and with the star reduced in size. The version shown on the right was often seen at antiwar rallies in the United States. It was used briefly in 1975 as the flag of the provisional communist government of South Vietnam, which was dissolved when the South was united with the North and the country was renamed the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.