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Contemporary Vietnam is the product of many factors, but several moments in particular stand out. Nam tiến, meaning “Southern Advance,” refers to the migration of people from the Red River Delta, the traditional heartland of Vietnamese civilization, to what are now the central and southern parts of the country. As a result of this process, which unfolded over hundreds of years, two regional polities emerged: Đàng Ngoài (literally “Outer,” meaning northern) and Đàng Trong (literally “Inner,” meaning southern). During the Lê Dynasty (1428–1788), members of two clans began to wield executive power: the Trịnh family in Đàng Ngoài and the Nguyễn family in Đàng Trong. Throughout this period, new social, cultural, and economic patterns also appeared. In the late 18th century Tây Sơn rebels subdued the Trịnh and Nguyễn lords (chúa) and caused the Lê Dynasty to collapse. Instituting the pattern of north–south political unity, the Tây Sơn established the template for monarchs of the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802–1945) and for communist revolutionaries in the 20th century. During the French colonial occupation (1862–1954), colonists thoroughly refashioned the natural and built environments and created new economic realities. By dividing the country into three administrative units—the protectorate of Tonkin (northern Vietnam), the protectorate of Annam (central Vietnam), and the colony of Cochinchina (southern Vietnam)—the colonists further amplified regional identities. The French occupation also directly led to the First Indochina War and clearly contributed to the Second. After Northern Vietnamese (and their allies) defeated Southern Vietnamese (and their allies), a new united national polity emerged: the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with the Vietnamese Communist Party in command. At the conclusion of both Indochina Wars significant numbers of Vietnamese fled the country. To a striking degree, the ideological differences that divided Vietnamese in earlier decades are still evident in contemporary times.

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Vietnam’s Central Highlands—or Tây Nguyên—area is usually described as remote, backward, and primitive, but this region has played a central role in the history of the surrounding states and the wider East and Southeast Asia region. Far from isolated, the Central Highlands engaged in trade in precious forest products with lowland states and beyond since at least the emergence of the Hinduized Cham states from the first centuries ce onward. Lowland and coastal states needed the support of local leaders and traders in order to boost their trade and tax revenues. In addition, as a buffer between various rivalrous polities now known as Vietnam, Champa, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, the area occupied a strategic position in the wider mainland Southeast Asia region. With the emergence of a unified, neo-Confucianist Vietnamese state the region lost its centrality until the late colonial era, when its strategic value turned it into a battleground among various Vietnamese parties, France, and the United States. It was here that the outcome of the Indochina wars was determined, but at a terrible price for the local population. After the adoption of economic reforms in reunified Vietnam the Central highlands regained its economic centrality, predicated on the global prominence of its valuable cash crops such as coffee, tea, rubber, pepper, and cashew. This coffee boom was based on the labor of lowlander in-migrants, who displaced and dispossessed the highlanders in the process, turning the national and international integration of the Central Highlands and its renewed centrality into a tragic experience for the Central Highlanders. By taking the centrality of the Central Highlands seriously, I arrive at an alternative historical periodization.