Before they built dykes, the Viet people had lived as hunters and collectors
of wild fruits in hilly areas such as the present-day Phu Tho, Hoa Binh, Thanh Hoa provinces.
Age of innocence: The image of children flying kites on a winding green dyke during the summer months is a nostalgic keepsake in the minds of those who no longer live in the countryside.
There was a revolution in Vietnamese agriculture at the start of the Dong Dau (Bronze Age) and the Iron Age, when people discovered how to raise pigs, chickens, dogs and sticky rice. This was when rice became the chief staple of Vietnam, and came to be seen as a "totem."
Even today, sticky rice is used as a key offering by the Vietnamese people in their ceremonies and worship practices.
As their population increased, the Vietnamese people moved down to the plains of the Hong (Red) River Delta where conditions for agriculture were better. The delta offered more access to water from ponds, lakes and rivers, but also offered a major challenge in the form of irrigation and water management.
They could only survive through proper water management and the cultivation of rice in wet paddies.
The construction of dykes was a challenge beyond anything a single village or community could manage on its own.
The ancient Vietnamese had to unite various tribes to construct dykes for their mutual benefit, and the most respected chief would be called vua (king).
The history of the Vietnamese state can be traced back to those chiefs who knew how to unite people in the common cause of water control and defence against foreign invasions.
The early people’s desire for control over the waters of the Hong River is reflected in the legend of Son Tinh and Thuy Tinh (Mountain Spirit and Water Spirit).
The successful marriage of Son Tinh and the king’s daughter, My Nuong, demonstrates the success of the early attempts to conquer the natural flow of the waters.
Defensive strategy: An irrigation system was built in 1958 to water the vast farmlands of the three provinces of Bac Ninh, Hung Yen and Hai Duong and protect them from flood.
Dykes cannot simply be built and left alone; the skill was shared from one generation to another. As early as the 3rd Century BC, foreigners visiting Vietnam noted the presence of huge dykes along its rivers.
"The district of Phong Khe has dykes to hold back the water from the Long Mon [now Da] River," said Giao Chau Ky (The Report on Giao Chau - then the name of Vietnam).
Later, the Han Thu (Documents of the Han) observed, "To the northwest of Long Bien district there are dykes to keep back the river water."
By the 9th Century AD, the historical record stated, "Cao Bien ordered the people to construct a dyke around the Dai La citadel with a total length of 8,500m and height of 8m." At the time, Hanoi was known as Dai La Citadel.
When Ly Cong Uan took the throne in 1010, he became the first king of the Ly Dynasty - Vietnam’s first feudal dynasty.
He ordered that the capital be moved from Hoa Lu to Dai La and renamed it Thang Long (now Hanoi), with the ambition of controlling the waters of the Hong River.
In 1077, the Ly Dynasty ordered the construction of a 30km long dyke on the Nhu Nguyet River, now Cau River in the northern province of Bac Ninh.
Twenty-six years later, the dynasty issued Vietnam’s first-ever decree on dyke construction.
As the Tran Dynasty replaced the Ly, the feudal courts not only continued to strengthen the river dykes system but also started the construction of coastal dykes.
They appointed mandarins and officials called Ha De Chanh Pho Su (chief and deputy mandarins for dyke protection) to take care of the dykes.
Under the Le Dynasty in 1664, King Le Huyen Tong issued a detailed regulation on dyke protection and the dykes were strenghtened with rocks.
However, the Nguyen Dynasty could be the most ignorant period of dyke protection in the history of Vietnam. Throughout their reign, the Nguyen courts rarely invested in dyke construction and protection. The many poems from the period reveal that there were 18 dyke brakes under their rule in Hung Yen Province alone.
The reunification of Vietnam in 1975 led again to a united effort in dyke development. A department of dyke management was created in the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The State issued the Decree on Dyke Protection and reinforced the existing system to a new level.
The power of nature: Hanoi underwater, after the great flood of August 1971 overwhelmed the dyke system.
Throughout Vietnamese history, the dykes have played an important role in everyday life.
Since ancient times, the mobilization of people to dyke construction sites helped build up the nation’s common identity. Agrarians saw the dykes as a matter of life and death, and as the protector of their crops - especially rice.
The dykes were sometimes ascribed with the hard-working, intelligent, innovative and flexible characteristics of the Vietnamese. They reinforced the sense of community of the people that helped them fight foreign invaders, and regain independence after 1,000 years of feudal Chinese domination. They also created a new cultural space within which the Vietnamese village prospered.
People who dared to move outside of the dyke to live were seen as having strong characters and unwilling to obey the village code and other restrictions.
This idea has even been used to explain the observation that Vietnamese farmers in the Cuu Long (Mekong) Delta seem to be more outgoing than the more reserved people of the Hong (Red) River Delta.
Each Vietnamese village has its own local culture, linked to the others by the roads built on top of the dykes.
A Russian historian once wrote: "Vietnam has a wet paddy civilization attached to a dyke civilization. These two factors combined have a strength that has made Vietnamese culture endure time and history."