Trấn Hưng Đạo is the national hero of Vietnam and one of the greatest unsung heroes of military history. A bone-crunching asskicker who would rather have unhesitatingly suffered a violent, horrific death at the business end of a pack of gigantic man-sized demon leeches than dishonor his badass reputation in the most trivial sort of way, this guy forged a rag-tag band of untrained citizen-soldiers into the world's first guerrilla army, and then led them head-first into an all-out war with the Invincible Mongol Horde during the height of the Khans' power. And, amazingly, thanks to his unstoppable military genius, a couple flaming boats, and a few thousand bamboo poles tipped with iron spikes, he won.
Trấn, who I will from here on out refer to as Tran Hung Dao (yes, I realize this is a total rape and pillage of the Vietnamese language, but if I have to navigate the Character Map for those letters every time I want to write the dude's name it's going to take me a month and a half to write this thing), was one in a line of Vietnamese shitkickers who didn't let idiotic bullshittery stand in the way of their quest for badass awesomeness. His great uncle had been the Imperial Regent for the Vietnamese Ly Dynasty (meaning that he was basically like Jaffar from Aladdin), and when Uncle Tran decided that Emperor Ly was a total waste of human skin surrounding a vapid core of solid congealed dumbass, he usurped the throne, forced the Emperor to become a monk, married the Princess off to his nephew, and then spent the next couple years surfing the corpses of his vanquished political rivals out of Saigon on a river of blood (Note: This was back when Charlie still surfed). Tran Hung Dao therefore became a Prince, and this stone-cold stunner's no-bullshit attitude and ability to bend a pair of scissors in half with his biceps made him perfect for the job of Supreme Military Grand Warlord Commander of Vietnam.
Well things in 'Nam were going fine until the year 1271 when Kublai Khan – grandson of Genghis, Great Khan of the Mongols, and scourge of English Literature students everywhere – completed his mission to drive over the armies of Imperial China with a steamroller and install his own dynasty on the throne of what had up until recently been the world's wealthiest empire. Now, of course, if you know anything about the 13th century Mongols, you know that they weren't exactly a laid-back group of individuals who were content to sit back with infinite wealth and chill in their gold-plated mansions when there were still people out there that needed killing, and it wasn't long before the emissaries of this unstoppable, seemingly-invincible Mongol Horde came knocking on the doors of the Vietnamese capital with a simple offer – surrender or die.
Tran Hung Dao had already been the Supreme Commander of the Vietnamese army for a few years when Kublai Khan's goons came strolling into town yelling a bunch of jibber-jabber bullshit nonsense about coughing up tribute and forking over precious silks and sending hot babes back to Beijing to be boned non-stop by the Khan, and needless to say he wasn't too happy about it. The Emperor (Tran's uncle) presented his country's number-one badass with the simple facts of the situation – the Mongols had half a million dudes battle-hardened by decades of constant war against the most powerful nations in the world, ruled over an Empire consisting of tens of millions of subjects, and had never been defeated on the field of battle by anyone ever. The Vietnamese had 200,000 farmers armed with pitchforks and sticks who were more comfortable harvesting rice than face-punching douchebags. Maybe surrender was the best option.
Fuck no. For centuries the kings and queens of the land known as Dai Viet had fought a never-ending death feud with the Emperors of China, and the Vietnamese are a tough, resilient group of people living in a borderline-inhospitable death-jungle –these guys were no stranger to battling back invasion, and Tran Hung Dao wasn't going to let them start bending over and taking it on his watch. Tran responded by busting out a total mega pump-up speech so hardcore it would have given George S. Patton a boner, ripped his shirt off Hulkamania-style, and then sent the Mongol emissary back to his masters with a Vietnamese arrow sticking out of his eye (and a giant erect penis drawn on his chest in purple Sharpie). The men who witnessed these three acts of Ultimate Manliness were so fucking psyched up by his speech that they all went out and got "Death to the Mongols" tattooed on their arms (no kidding, they seriously did this) and I of course can think of nothing more awesome than launching yourself into combat after getting a 13th century stick-and-poke tattoo swearing vengeance on the enemy of your homeland.
|And now, you remain calm when your emperor is humiliated; you remain indifferent when your country is threatened! You, officers, are forced to serve the barbarians and you feel no shame! You hear the music played for their ambassadors and you do not leap up in anger. No, you amuse yourselves at the cockfights, in gambling, in the possession of your gardens and rice fields, and in the tranquility of family life... if the enemy comes, will your cocks' spurs be able to pierce his armor? Will the ruses you use in your games of chance be of use in repulsing him? Will the love of your wives and children be of any use in the Army? Your money would neither suffice to buy the enemy's death, your alcohol to besot him, nor your music to deafen him.
All of us, you and I together, would then be taken prisoner... And not only would I lose my fief, but your property too would fall into enemy hands. It would not be my family alone that would be driven out, but your wives and children would also be reduced to slavery. It would not be only the graves of my ancestors that would be trampled under the invader's heel, but those of your ancestors would also be violated. I would be humiliated in this life and in a hundred others to come, and my name would be ignominiously tarnished. Your family's honor would also be sullied forever with the shame of your defeat. Tell me: Could you then indulge yourselves in pleasures?
- Speech to his General Staff prior to the Mongol Invasion of Vietnam
But Kublai Khan was not impressed. In 1285 he sent his ungodly-tremendor huge force of bona-fide professional ball-crushing hardasses across the border into Vietnam, where they immediately proceeded to put their dicks in the mashed potatoes the same way they'd put their dicks in pretty much everything and everyone else in the world up to this point. Surprisingly enough, the sweet tats and iron testicles of the Vietnamese didn't offer much protection against catapults, composite recurve shortbows, and the mashing hooves of trample-happy evil demon-horses, and within a few months the Mongols ripped the Vietnamese defenses apart, massacred the entire population of the capital (present-day Hanoi), and burned the entire city to the ground – only some quick thinking by Tran Hung Dao saved the Emperor, and only then when Tran personally hacked his way out of the city with the Imperial family running close behind him in a scene that must have resembled a 13th century Vietnamese version of Arnold shouting "GET TO DA CHOPPAAAAHHHH!!" at the end of Predator.
In the overwrought Hollywood movie version of Tran's life, this is the point where they play the sad music, the hero gazes despairingly off into the distance, and it seems like this guy is totally boned beyond all comprehensive meaning of the word boned. The main body of the army had been crushed. Prominent generals were either deserting, defecting to the enemy, or being executed for not deserting and/or defecting, and any POWs caught sporting those sweet "Death to the Mongols" tattoos were beheaded on the spot. The King, looking at his shattered army, said to his beloved general, "The enemy is so strong that a protracted war might bring terrible destruction down upon the people. Wouldn't it be better-to lay down our arms to save the population?"
Tran Hung Dao answered: "If you want to surrender, you'll have to cut my head off first."
This wasn't the end. It was just getting started. Cue the pump-up music and montage of John Rambo grabbing extra M-16 magazines and tying a bandana around his head.
This is what comes up when you run a
Google Image Search for "Vietnamese Martial Arts".
Ok, yes, he'd been defeated, but now Tran had seen what this strange force of alien invaders had to offer – and he adapted to fight them. Tran decided to say fuck this, "meet them in open combat and watch them trample all my men's balls into sludge" shit – instead of going toe-to-toe in a battle he couldn't win, his army disappeared into the jungle – and nobody fucking fights in the jungle quite like the Vietnamese. From hidden bases in the jungle these warriors launched coordinated raids against Mongol supply trains, hammered critical outposts, and then vanished back into thin air before the Mongols could figure out what the damn hell was going on. When the Mongols approached a town, Tran had it evacuated, ordered the fleeing citizens to burn anything they couldn't carry, and left the Khan's men a big smoldering wasteland to conquer. When the Mongols brought a massive force together for a coordinated attack, Tran tricked them into fighting in waist-deep mud, where their horses were more of a pain in the balls than a help and the jungle warriors of Vietnam could run right up to them and impale their riders on sharpened stakes. This is guerilla fucking warfare at its finest, folks, and Tran Hung Dao is doing this shit in the goddamned 13th century at a time when the fucking crossbow was considered high-tech weaponry.
Frustrated by the enemy, out of supplies, and dying from cholera and other horrible tropical diseases, the Mongols said "fuck it," and started an all-out retreat. Then, just like the Russians would do to Napoleon a few hundred years later, Tran ran up and asshumped them – hammering the retreating, demoralized enemy and inflicting massive destruction on them every single step of their way back to Beijing. By 1286 the decimated Mongol force crossed back in China, and Tran personally led the detachment that liberated the capital.
Greatest statue ever?
Kublai was fucking pissed, and in 1287 he came back to finish the job. This time, however, the main thrust of his attack was a massive naval invasion of 500 gigantic Chinese-built warships sailing up the Bach Dang River into the heart of Vietnam. This ridiculous armada hauled ass towards the center of the Vietnamese countryside, bypassing the jungles and swamps that had caused the land forces so much trouble, and this time around all that stood in their way was a tiny, rag-tag fleet of flat-bottomed Vietnamese ships that resembled canoes rather than badass war frigates. The Mongols took one look at this pathetic Vietnamese navy and ordered a full-scale attack. The Vietnamese fought back for a short while, but it was obvious they were totally outclassed so they dropped their shit ran for it like crazy. The Mongols pursued, eager to crush their enemies once and for all.
Then the tide went out. And, unfortunately for our pals the Mongols, in the days leading up to the battle Tran had planted a bunch of gigantic fucking scary-looking bronze-tipped bamboo spikes in the river bed, basically turning the entire river into a nasty aquatic punji pit. The small Vietnamese boats were fine, but the Mongol ships were immediately impaled – those that didn't sink outright were hung up like piñatas waiting to be whacked into debris.
It was then that the fire boats showed up. Dozens of burning ships, sailing straight into the middle of the Mongol formation, lighting everything they passed on fire and then crashing into the helpless enemy vessels. As if that wasn't enough, Tran had also pre-positioned archers on the river banks, and once the trap was sprung those suckers started pelting the fleet with fire arrows as well, turning one of the largest invasion fleets in Medieval history into basically one gigantic raging inferno of charred wood and burning corpses. The Mongols lost 400 ships and 80,000 men in a single day – including their Admiral, who was captured and executed (Kublai's own son only survived by hiding in a drainage ditch). The Vietnamese lost 4,000 soldiers.
"When the enemy advances roaring like fire and wind, it is easy to overcome them."
The Vietnamese King offered peace, returned all the Mongol POWs, and said, "don't fuck with us again." They didn't. Kublai called his troops home and the Mongols never returned.
Tran was so badass that he would be proclaimed not only a national hero, but a living god, and his portrait would be worshipped in Buddhist temples across Vietnam (and, to a lesser degree, still is today). He would go on to write a number of books on military strategy that are still relevant today, and his forward-thinking theories on guerilla war influenced commanders like Vo Nguyen Giap – a dude who used Tran's style of combat quite effectively as commander of the NVA during Vietnam's recent wars against the forces of Western democracy.
Tran Hung Dao died in 1300 at age 73 and his ashes were spread under his favorite oak tree. His death anniversary is a national holiday in Vietnam.
"Every century has produced heroes who have sacrificed their lives for their country.
If they had remained at home to die by the fire, would their names have been inscribed
on bamboo and silk to live eternally in Heaven and on the Earth?"
Freedom for Vietnam
Chapuis, Oscar. A History of Vietnam. Greenwood, 1995.
Clarke, Bruce B.G. Expendable Warriors. Greenwood, 2007.
History of Vietnam. eM Publications, 2010.
Marr, David G. Vietnamese Anticolonialism. Univ. of California Press, 1990.