Born in 1225 AD Trấn Hưng Đạo is not only a national hero of Vietnam he is also one of the greatest unsung military generals in the history of the world (See Ref: Here). He was a fierce fighter and a military genius, at a time when the Mongol swarm was annihilating everything in its way Trấn Hưng Đạo defeated them and made retreat not only once but three times.
What’s even more amazing is that he lead a rag tag band of untrained farmers and citizens against the Mongol herd which at that time was at the peak of its power and it was led by Kublai Khan.
Trấn Hưng Đạo is widely credited as the first military general to successfully wage a guerrilla war, he used his military genius to defeat a much more larger and powerful enemy.
The great uncle of Trấn Hưng Đạo was the Imperial Regent for the Ly Dynasty which at that time ruled Vietnam, his uncle rebelled against the Emperor, forced him to become a monk and took over the country. Trấn Hưng Đạo became a prince and due to his physical prowess and strict attitude he was made the Supreme Military Grand Warlord Commander of Vietnam.
At around 1271 the Mongols had driven the Chinese Imperial army from the country had taken control of the country for themselves, China at that time was the wealthiest country in the world. But the Mongols were not the kind of people to slow down due to all the riches of the world, the continued their mission to plunder and conquer every major kingdom the came across.
So it was inevitable that sooner or later the Mongols will come knocking a the door of Vietnam with a simple request, surrender or die.
Trấn Hưng Đạo had been the Supreme Commander of Vietnamese army for a few years when the Mongols arrive, his uncle and Emperor of Vietnam explained the situation to Trấn Hưng Đạo which was that the Mongol army has half million experienced soldiers and a track record of zero defeats on the battlefield and Vietnam only had 200,000 farmers armed with sticks and pitchforks and it looked like surrender was the only logical choice.
However, Vietnam had a long history of brutal battles with China and the people of Vietnam were no pushovers either, they were a resilient and tough group of people who lived in an extremely inhospitable environment.
Trấn Hưng Đạo gathered his people and gave an epic speech which pumped up the bloods of people so much that many of them went and tattooed “Death to the Mongols” on their arms.
The Mongols under the leadership of Kublai Khan eventually attacked in 1258, he sent a large number of troops across the border and into Vietnam armed with catapults and composite recursive shortbows. They were also accompanied by cavalry and they stormed through the Vietnamese defenses, the capital city was entirely destroyed and almost all the population was massacred within a few months.
Trấn Hưng Đạo managed to save the Emperor and successfully escaped with the Imperial family thanks to his quick thinking.
The Mongols had crushed the main body of the Vietnamese army and most of the generals were either defecting to the enemy or deserting the army, ever one with the tattoo “Death to Mongols” was immediately beheaded.
Reported the Emperor had said to Trấn Hưng Đạo: “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?”
Trấn Hưng Đạo replied: “If you want to surrender, you’ll have to cut my head off first.”
He had seen what was the enemy capable of and what tactics it used in the battlefield, in his mind the battle had just begun. Considering the huge size of the opposing army he ditched the idea of fighting openly and took his army in the Jungle. There is no other nation that can fight in Jungles as extensively as the Vietnamese, a skill they displayed during the US-Vietnam war more recently.
Trấn Hưng Đạo began what is widely considered the first guerilla warfare against the Mongols, his army would come out of the Jungle attack the supply lines of the enemies , inflict as much damage as possible and then disappear in the Jungle again. Whenever the Mongols approached the city Trấn would evacuate the town in advance and burned everything useful so that the enemy could not find anything other than ashes. Large Mongol forces were tricked into the Jungles and swamps, their horses would get stuck in the mud up to their waste enabling the Vietnamese soldiers to attack the riders with their spears. This was guerilla fighting at its best and it was the 13th century.
Trấn Hưng Đạo successfully forced the Mongol army to retreat and also attacked and killed them while they were retreating, by 1286 the Mongol army had retreated back to Beijing.
It angered Kublai Khan even more and he sent another army in 1287, this time he sent one of the largest naval fleets ever compiled for battle, the fleet contained almost 500 giant warships and they sailed in the Bach Dang river towards Vietnam.
Trấn Hưng Đạo once again proved his military genius by using the familiar landscape for his advantage, he installed giant bamboo spikes with steel tips in the river bed, these spikes could not be seen at high tide. He successfully predicted the route and timing of the Mongol fleet and then lured them towards the booby traps.
The large Mongol ships got stuck on the spikes while the shorter Vietnamese ships had no problem navigating through them. Once the ships were stuck Trấn Hưng Đạo put some ships on fire and sent them in the middle of the stuck Mongol armada. Everything these ships touched burst into flames, ships ere burned to ashes along with their crew and soldiers.
Reportedly the Mongols lost 80,000 soldiers in one day while the Vietnamese lost 4,000, the Emperor of Vietnam offered peace to Kublai Khan and released all prisoners of war on the condition that they will never return.
The loss suffered by the Mongols was so enormous that Kublai Khan agreed and the Mongols never returned to Vietnam.
Trấn Hưng Đạo died at the age of 73 in 1300 AD due to natural causes, his ashes were spread under his favorite oak tree and Vietnam has declared his death anniversary as national holiday.