Understanding the physical and cultural geographies of northern Vietnam is useful for our exploration of how invasions were mapped. Northern Vietnam's rivers, seas, hills, valleys, plateaus, and mountains played a role in the potential spread of disease vectors. This physical landscape also played a role in the spread of information through knowledge and social networks, as Maren Ehlers explores for smallpox vaccines in Tokugawa Japan.
Lê Bá Thảo (1923-2000), a medical student, Việt Minh partisan, and later famous geographer of Vietnam, has written that the Red River Delta is the result “of both the Red River and the Thái Bình river systems, but for reason of convenience and habit, the delta is named after the principal river system (the Red River)” (Lê 1997, 318).
In a recent “sketch” of the history of the Red River Delta, Li Tana explores the complex histories of the Red and Thai Binh river systems. Geological and archeological work suggests that erosion and sedimentation rates have been far from constant. For instance, from about 2000 to 1000 years before present, the northeastern delta expanded rapidly compared to the western delta. This era roughly corresponds to a period of incorporation of the delta into the Chinese empire along with expanded deforestation and increased economic activity. During the following 1000 years to the present, delta expansion has shifted to the southwestern delta. The changing names of the Red River signal some of this complexity. In fact, the name “Red River” only emerged recently during the nineteenth century, perhaps introduced by the French who noted the “red” color (due to a heavy sediment load) of the river (Li 2016).
Topological maps of the Red River delta resembling current visualization of the delta began to appear in the nineteenth century. The following commercial map published in Paris in 1886 shows several things. First, French knowledge of the Red River Delta was quite limited. French conquest of the Nguyen imperial court, and control over central and northern Vietnam, was only completed in 1885. The blank area around the delta was unknown and simply left blank. Second, physical geography was of keen interest, hence the topographic map. Third, this was a colonial map in the sense that it depicted the Red River Delta in French imperial geographies. The inset shows the underseas cables linking the Red River Delta to the rest of Indochina, Singapore, and eventually France.
A Google map image from 2020 oriented with north at the top reproduces early images of the delta as a green, wedge-shaped space.
The cultural geography of the Red River Delta has also been mapped.
The Red River Delta in particular, and northern Vietnam in general, are considered the cradle of Vietnamese civilization. Lê Bá Thảo argues that “the history of the conquest of the Red River delta” created the “Red River civilization” (Lê 1997, 317). As Weiting Guo shows for elsewhere in the Sinosphere, Vietnamese civilization has often been viewed in terms of its relationship to water. The Red River has been a short and swift river with frequently floods and both irrigation and flood control have been key communal projects and state functions among Vietnamese. The following map from Henri Brenier's Essai d'Atlas statistique de l'Indochine française shows the extent of both the dike and irrigation networks that help control water flows (Brenier 1914, 222).
Two important population centers in northern Vietnam are Hanoi, the current capital of Vietnam, and Thai Nguyen, an industrial center. A page later in this path explores cartographic representations of these urban spaces and their relationship to the surrounding countryside.
One final characteristic of the physical geography of northern Vietnam is the difference between the delta and the surrounding hills and mountains. The Việt Bắc, one of the strongholds of the Việt Minh during the First Indochina War, was located in these hills and mountains adjacent to the border with China.