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To set the historical stage for the advent of the French, when the Nguyen Dynasty seized power in 1802 and shifted the capital to Hue. The importance of Thang Long suddenly shrank to that of an ignominious provincial capital with a governor appointed by Hue. In 1805, The second Nguyen emperor, Minh Mang, even went so far as to tear down Thang Long’s Citadel and to replace it with his own smaller, a fortress-style citadel to bring home to the Hanoians exactly where power lay. In the south, uprisings in Saigon against the Nguyen in 1833 were brutally put down by Minh Mang, leaving a festering of ill will.

From the early nineteenth century, both France and England had coveted opening the lucrative Chinese market. Following the Opium Wars in 1842 in China, the British obtained trading rights and in a treaty of 1857, ‘favoured nation” status. The thinking of the French went something like this. By establishing a foothold in Southeast Asia, by controlling the deltas of the Red River in the north and the Mekong River in the south, whose sources arose in China. French traders would be able to penetrate deep into China along these rivers, However, in an early expedition up the Mekong led by Francis Garnier and Daudart de Lagnee, the shallow rapids of southern Laos known as the Four Thousand Islands, proved an insurmountable obstacle. Not to be deterred, the French built a short railway alongside the rapids and a railway bridge over the river a bit upstream. Today, nothing remains of this optimistic tropical venture but a rusty engine on an isolated length of the track, stranded in a Lao village. In terms of building it think the Burma Railway. The Mekong in the south having proved un-navigable for heavy shipping, France decided to take Tonkin, the north of Vietnam, in order to gain access to China up to the Red River.

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