5 more countries that are impossible to conquer

US Army Vietnam War
A US infantry patrol moves up to assault a Viet Cong position during Operation Hawthorne, in Dak To in South Vietnam.

  • Conquering a country means not only defeating its military but its population as well.
  • Throughout history, some peoples have been particularly successful at resisting invaders.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The true conquest of a country is more than just invading its land borders. To truly conquer a country, an invader has to subdue its people and end its will to fight.

There are many countries in the world with a lot of experience in this area, and there are many more countries who were on the receiving end of their subjugation.

At the end of World War II, the age of colonialism was officially ended for most of these conquerors and what grew from that end was a rebirth of those people and their culture, which just went to show that their people were never really subdued in the first place.

And then there were some countries that either never stopped fighting in the first place or have been constantly fighting for their right to exist since they won their independence. Some of them overcame great odds and earned the respect of their neighbors and former enemies rather than allow themselves to be subject to someone just because they didn’t have the latest and greatest in military technologies.

In the last installment, we looked at countries whose people, geography, sheer size, populations, and culture would never allow an invader to conquer them. This time, we look at smaller countries who took on great powers as the underdog and came out on top.

1. Vietnam

vietnam war

The Vietnam War wasn’t some historical undercard match. It was actually a heavyweight championship fight – the United States just didn’t realize it at the time.

The history of Vietnam’s formidable people and defenses date well before the Vietnam War and even before World War II. Vietnam has historically been thought of as one of the most militaristic countries in the region, and for good reason. Vietnam has been kicking invaders out since the 13th century when Mongol hordes tried to move in from China.

While it wasn’t Genghis Khan at the head of the invading army, it wasn’t too far removed the then-dead leader’s time. Kubali Khan’s Yuan Dynasty tried three times to subdue the Vietnamese. In the last invasion, Khan sent 400 ships and 300,000 men to Vietnam, only to see every ship sunk and the army harassed by the Vietnamese all the way back to China.

Vietnam maintained its independence from China for 900 years after that. In more modern times, Vietnam was first invaded by the French in force in 1858 and they couldn’t subdue the whole of the country until 1887, 29 years after it first started.

It cost thousands of French lives and the French even had to bring in Philippine troops to help. Even then, they won only because of a critical error on the part of Vietnamese emperor Tu Duc, who terribly misjudged how much his people actually cared for his regime.

The Japanese invasion during WWII awakened the Vietnamese resolve toward independence and they immediately started killing Japanese invaders – and not out of love for the French. They famously gave France the boot, invaded Laos to extend their territory, and then invaded South Vietnam. That’s where the Americans come in.

The American-Vietnam War didn’t go so well for either side, but now-Communist Vietnam’s dense jungle and support from China and the Soviet Union gave the North Vietnamese the military power to match their will to keep fighting, a will which seemed never-ending, no matter which side you’re on. North Vietnam was able to wait out the US and reunite Vietnam, an underdog story that no one believed possible.

Vietnam’s resistance to outsiders doesn’t end there. After Vietnam invaded China-backed Cambodia (and won, by the way), Communist China’s seemingly unstoppable People’s Liberation Army with its seemingly unlimited manpower invaded Vietnam in 1979.

For three weeks, the war ground Vietnamese border villages in a bloody stalemate until the Chinese retreated back across the border, taking an unexpectedly high death toll.

2. Finland

Soviet Union Russia Finland winter war snow grave frozen
Members of a Finnish ski patrol examining the tomb of two Russian officers on the Salla front in Finland on February 10, 1940.

Though not much about early Finnish history is known, there are a few Viking sagas that mention areas of Finland and the people who inhabit those areas. Those sagas usually involve Vikings getting murdered or falling in battle. The same goes for Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and virtually anyone else who had their eyes set on Finland.

In the intervening years, Finns allowed themselves to be dominated by Sweden and Russia, but after receiving their autonomy in 1917, Finland wasn’t about to give it up. They eventually became a republic and were happy with that situation until around World War II began.

That’s when the Soviet Union invaded.

The invasion of Finland didn’t go well for the USSR. It lasted all of 105 days and the “Winter War,” as it came to be called, was the site of some of the most brutal fighting the world has ever seen to this day.

Finns were ruthless and relentless in defending their territory. For example, the Raatteentie Incident involved a 300-Finn ambush of a 25,000-strong Soviet force – and the Finns destroyed the Russians almost to the last man. The Finnish sniper Simo Hayha killed 505 Russians and never lost a moment’s sleep.

When the retreating Finns destroyed anything that might be of use to an invader, it forced Soviet troops to march over frozen lakes. Lakes that were mined by the Finns and subsequently exploded, downing and freezing thousands of Red Army invaders.

The Winter War is also where Finnish civilians perfected and mass-produced the Molotov Cocktail.

From the British War Office:

“The Finns’ policy was to allow the Russian tanks to penetrate their defenses, even inducing them to do so by ‘canalising’ them through gaps and concentrating their small arms fire on the infantry following them. The tanks that penetrated were taken on by gun fire in the open and by small parties of men armed with explosive charges and petrol bombs in the forests and villages.”

This was the level of resistance from a country of just 3.5 million people. Finns showed up in whatever they were wearing, with whatever weapons they had, men and women alike.

In short, Finns are happy to kill any invader and will do it listening to heavy metal music while shouting the battle cry of, “fire at their balls!”

3. Israel

Israeli air force fighter plane independence
An Israeli air force Avia S-199 in June 1948.

If part of what makes the United States an unconquerable country is every citizen being able to take up arms against an invader, just imagine how effective that makeshift militia force would be if every single citizen was also a trained soldier. That’s Israel, with 1.5 million highly trained reserve troops.

Israel has had mandatory military service for all its citizens – men and women – since 1949 and for a good reason. Israel is in a tough neighborhood and most of their neighbors don’t want Israel to exist.

This means the Jewish state is constantly fighting for survival in some way, shape, or form, and they’re incredibly good at it. In almost 70 years of history, Israel earned a perfect war record. Not bad for any country, let alone one that takes heat for literally anything it does.

Not only will Israel wipe the floor with its enemies; it doesn’t pull punches. That’s why wars against Israel don’t last long, with most lasting less than a year and the shortest lasting just six days. As far as invading Israel goes, the last time an invading Army was in Israel proper, it was during the 1948-49 War of Independence. Since then, the farthest any invader got inside Israel was into areas seized by the Israelis during a previous war.

In fact, when an Arab coalition surprised Israel during Yom Kippur in 1973, the Israelis nearly took Cairo and Damascus in just a couple of weeks.

More than just securing their land borders, Israel keeps a watchful eye on Jewish people worldwide, and doesn’t mind violating another country’s sovereignty to do it. Just ask Uganda, Sudan, Argentina, Germany, Norway, France, Italy, UAE, Tunisia … get the point? If a group of Jewish people are taken hostage or under threat somewhere, the IDF or Mossad will come and get them out.

The Mossad is another story entirely. Chance are good that any country even thinking about invading Israel is probably full of, if not run by, Mossad agents. Israel will get the entire plan of attack in plenty of time to hand an invader their own ass.

Just before the 1967 Six Day War, Mossad agent Eli Cohen became a close advisor to Syria’s defense minister. He actually got the Syrians to plant trees in the Golan Heights to help IDF artillery find the range on their targets.

4. Japan

Japan military parade WWII
Japanese military students parade in front of Japanese officials and the German and Italian ambassadors in Tokyo in the late 1930s or early 1940s.

One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Japan was able to keep its culture and history relatively intact over the centuries because mainland Japan has never been invaded by an outside force.

Contrary to popular belief, the “divine wind” typhoons didn’t destroy the Mongol fleets outright. Mongol invaders were able to land on some of the Japanese islands, but after a few victories and a couple of stunning defeats, the Japanese exhausted the Mongols and they were forced to retreat back to their ships. That’s when the first typhoon hit.

Mongols invaded again less than seven years later with a fleet of 4,400 ships and some 140,000 Mongol, Korean, and Chinese troops. Japanese samurai defending Hakata Bay were not going to wait for the enemy to land and actually boarded Chinese ships to slaughter its mariners.

Since then, the Bushido Code only grew in importance and Japan’s main enemies were – wait for it – the Japanese. But once Japan threw off its feudal system and unified, it became a force to be reckoned with. Japan shattered the notion that an Asian army wasn’t able to defeat a Western army in a real war, soundly defeating the Russians both on land and at sea in 1905, setting the stage for World War II.

Although the attack on Pearl Harbor was not a great idea, the Japanese made sure the Americans knew that any invasion of Japanese territory would cost them dearly – and they made good on the promise, mostly by fighting to the death.

The United States got the message, opting to drop nuclear weapons on Japan to force a surrender rather than attempt an invasion. Even though the US got the demanded surrender, Japan was not a conquered country. The United States left Japan after seven years of occupation and the understanding that communism was worse than petty fighting.

“Bushido” began to take on a different meaning to Japanese people. It wasn’t just one of extreme loyalty to traditions or concepts, or even the state. It morphed throughout Japanese culture until it began to represent a kind of extreme bravery and resistance in the face of adversity.

While many in Japan are hesitant to use Bushido in relation to the Japanese military, the rise of China is fueling efforts to alter Japan’s pacifist constitution to enable its self-defense forces to take a more aggressive stand in some areas.

Since the end of World War II, Japan has worked not to dominate the region militarily but economically. Japan’s booming economy has allowed the country to meet the threats raised by Chinese power in the region, boosting military spending by $40 billion and creating the world’s most technologically advanced (and fifth largest) air force, making any approach to the island that much more difficult.

5. The Philippines

Katipuneros
Armed Filipino revolutionaries known as Katipuneros.

The 7,000-plus islands of the Philippines are not a country that any invader should look forward to subduing. The Philippines have been resisting invaders since Filipinos killed Ferdinand Magellan in 1521.

For 300-plus years, people of the Philippines were largely not thrilled to be under Spanish rule, which led to a number of insurrections, mutinies, and outright revolts against the Spanish.

As a matter of fact, for the entire duration of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines, the Moro on Sulu and Mindinao fought their occupiers. That’s a people who won’t be conquered.

By the time the people of the Philippines rose up to throw off the chains of Spanish colonizers, there was already a massive plan in place as well as a secret shadow government ready to take power as soon as the Spanish were gone.

This revolution continued until the Spanish-American War when the Americans wrested the island nation away, much to the chagrin (and surprise) of the Philippines.

Freedom fighters in the Philippines were so incensed at the American occupation that US troops had to adopt a new sidearm with a larger caliber. Moro fighters shot by the standard-issue Colt .38-caliber M1892 Army-Navy pistol would not stop rushing American troops, and the US troops in the Philippines were getting killed by lack of firepower.

Meanwhile, the Philippines created a government anyway and immediately declared war on the United States, and even though it ended with the capture of rebel leader Emilio Aguinaldo, American troops would be in the Philippines until 1913, attempting to subdue guerrillas in the jungles and outlying islands. Until, that is, Japan invaded.

If you want to know how well that went for the Japanese, here’s a photo of Filipino freedom fighter Capt. Nieves Fernandez showing a US soldier how she hacks off Japanese heads with her bolo knife.

So even though the actual Armed Forces of the Philippines might be a little aged and weak, anyone trying to invade and subdue the Philippines can pretty much expect the same level of resistance from the locals.

Consider hot climate and dense jungles covering 7,000-plus islands, full of Filipinos who are all going to try to kill you eventually – the Philippines will never stop resisting.

Like the Moros, who are still fighting to this day.

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Vietnamese budget flyer VietJet Air bucks the global aviation trend by posting a small profit for 2020

NGUYEN THI PHUONG THAO   Linh Luong Thai Bloomberg Getty Images
Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, founder of VietJet

As COVID-19 continues to bring havoc to airline markets across the world, a decade-old budget airline in Vietnam is one of the few carriers to have come out of 2020 in relatively good shape VietJet Air, headed by Vietnam’s first female self-made billionaire Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao, not only managed to get through the year still in profit, it also did so without laying off any staff. In its financial statements, the airline said it earned US$790 million in consolidated revenue in 2020, with an after-tax profit of roughly US$3 million.

VietJet’s experience is in stark contrast to the aviation sector in general, where airlines have been devastated by global travel restrictions. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) passenger traffic numbers fell by around 60% last year, with just 1.8 billion people taking flights compared to 4,5 billion in 2019.

The financial hit to airlines has been huge, with an estimated loss of around US$370 billion. Before the year had even ended as many as 12 airlines had ceased operations, with many more filing for bankruptcy or making significant cuts in expenditure.

Few airlines have managed to avoid the crash. In mid-March, for instance, Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific unveiled its worst-ever financial results, with losses of around US$2.8 billion. The airline had earlier been forced to lay off some 8,500 staff, roughly 25% of its total workforce. Similarly, Vietnam’s national carrier Vietnam Airlines made losses of over US$480 million in 2020, and has said it doesn’t expect to be generating profit until 2023 at the earliest.

The success of VietJet Air is undoubtedly grounded in the achievements of Vietnam itself in 2020. Vietnam was Asia’s top-performing economy last year, growing at a rate of 2.9% compared to 2018. Vietnam has also excelled in terms of handling the COVID-19 pandemic. With just over 2,500 infections and only 35 total deaths, Vietnam was able to resume economic activities earlier than most of its Asian counterparts

“Strong national economic performance generally, underpins a solid airline operating environment,” agrees Matthew Findlay of Ailevon Pacific Aviation Consulting (APAC). “The fortunes of many well-run airlines follow or better GDP growth rates – VietJet has benefited in this case from an economy still in positive territory.”

But while a booming economy has given VietJet a leg up, it is only one part of the story. After all, VietJet’s domestic rival Vietnam Airlines has failed to achieve similar results. More important has been how VietJet has innovated its way through the crisis.

A pivot into cargo services

Like all airlines the early part of 2020 was one of uncertainty for VietJet, but unlike many of its competitors the turnaround came sooner than expected. By June it had restarted all domestic flights, and even added eight new routes to its network. Overall, the airline flew more than 15 million passengers in 2020 and domestic air travel fell by just 14% in 2020 compared to the previous year.

Without question, continued domestic demand gave VietJet a strong foundation for recovery, but what really carried the airline through 2020 was its ability to pivot into new business areas, in particular its move into cargo services.

By the end of 2020, the airline said it had delivered more than 60,000 tons of cargo internationally, reporting a 75% year-on-year increase in cargo revenue. This is particularly impressive given that prior to COVID-19, VietJet had no full-cargo aircraft in operation. Instead, passenger craft were reconfigured to enable them to carry goods on the main deck.

The airline also established partnerships with other carriers, which enabled it to extend its cargo network into Europe and the US. In November last year, VietJet announced an air cargo link-up with logistics giant UPS to operate weekly flights from Vietnam to the US, which also signaled the first time a VietJet craft had landed in the US.

This shift into cargo is much more than a temporary fix to pandemic conditions, and VietJet has already said that it plans to build on the mounting demand for cargo transportation. Toward the end of 2020, the airline launched an affiliate company – VietJet Cargo – which reinforced its future commitment to cargo transport. Vietjet Cargo standing vice-president Tran Quang Hoa told Insider that the carrier would continue to diversify its range of cargo services.

“These services will be developed based on our existing products in 2020 which have optimized our fleet and operation and raked in quite a considerable amount of revenue for VietJet in the past year,” he said. “I believe that freight transportation will continue to be our focus sector which brings in breakthroughs and extra revenue for VietJet in 2021.

A new future for aviation

Indeed, the lessons of 2020 look set to play a key role in defining VietJet’s future course. The airline’s success with cargo operations have also accelerated a shift into non-passenger services. Earlier this year, for instance, the company said it had invested into local online delivery platform Swift247 and will in the near future target the express delivery market.

VietJet is also expected to ramp up promotion of its ancillary services, such as souvenirs and in-flight food. In 2020, ancillary revenue accounted for close to 50% of total revenue

VietJet would not be the first airline in the region to open these new revenue streams. In 2020, Malaysia-based budget carrier AirAsia expanded its cargo and logistics division into cross border e-commerce transportation and last-mile delivery. Also last year, AirAsia launched its own digital travel and lifestyle platform and super app, offering non-flight related services such as e-commerce and food delivery.

Ultimately though, what matters for an airline is getting passengers on seats, and once international routes open up, analysts expect VietJet to expand further its overseas operations, helped no doubt by its positive financial performance in 2020.

“Asian nations have dealt with COVID-19 better than other nations and regions, so an expected return to travel for VietJet will come, benefiting the airline and ensuring its success,” Findlay says. “Wealthy Asian markets will be tempting focus areas for expansion as they focus on core historical visitor markets, while the back-order of aircraft that offer the opportunity to fly further in more economical and lower cost aircraft provides scope for growth into new and existing markets.”

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What China’s last major war tells us about how it will fight the next one

China Vietnam border river bridge
The Sino-Vietnam Friendship Bridge over a river separating China, right, and Vietnam.

  • In February and March 1979, China fought a bloody three-week war with its smaller neighbor, Vietnam.
  • China is considered to have underperformed in that conflict, and while China’s military is much different today, the Sino-Vietnamese War still has implications.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

On February 17, 1979, a massive 30-minute artillery barrage rocked the China-Vietnam border. They were the first of 880,000 shells that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would fire at its neighbor over the next three and a half weeks.

Within hours, some 200,000 Chinese soldiers crossed the border into Vietnam. They were supported by an additional 400,000 troops, hundreds of tanks, and 7,000 artillery pieces.

Their mission was to seize provincial capitals and obliterate any Vietnamese Army (PVA) forces in the areas between them. Despite initial breakthroughs, progress slowed, and the PLA found itself bogged down in a costly war in which it drastically underperformed.

Launched to “teach Vietnam a lesson,” as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping claimed, the invasion was China’s first large-scale military action since the Korean War in 1953, and it remains the PLA’s last full-scale war to this day.

Inevitable conflict

Vietnam China war artillery
Vietnamese artillery fires on Chinese troops in the Lang Son province along the border with China, February 23, 1979.

The invasion surprised some in the West because China had been a steadfast supporter of Vietnam during its wars with France and the US. More than 300,000 PLA troops served in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969, with some 1,100 killed and 4,300 wounded. China also sent billions in aid to their communist brethren.

But tensions between the two communist “brothers” had been boiling for decades. Chinese domination in previous centuries left a general distrust of China in Vietnam, and border battles between China and the Soviet Union in 1969, during the Sino-Soviet split, made it clear to Vietnam that it would soon have to pick between its two benefactors.

Vietnam also faced rising tension and increasing border clashes with the murderous China-backed Khmer Rouge regime in neighboring Cambodia. That, along with Beijing’s reluctance to send more aid to Hanoi, led Vietnam to side with the Soviets.

Vietnam China war
Workers in Hanoi demonstrate against China. February 19, 1979.

On November 3, 1978, Vietnam signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the USSR. It wasn’t an outright mutual-defense treaty, but it did include some security promises. Tensions escalated to the point where up to 150,000 Chinese living in Vietnam left for China.

All this was outrageous to Deng and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which viewed Vietnam as unappreciative and traitorous.

Most importantly, as the USSR already had a similar treaty with Mongolia, China felt at risk of being surrounded by the Soviets.

By December 7, China’s Central Military Commission had decided to launch a limited war along the border. At the end of that month, Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge.

Severe underperformance

China Vietnam war
A captured Chinese tank crewman under guard, February 1979.

Despite a two-to-one advantage in forces and the eventual completion of its military objectives, the PLA severely underperformed.

With very little overall training and virtually no combined-arms training, many PLA attacks were uncoordinated human-wave assaults, leading to high casualties and prolonging the battles.

PLA soldiers were so undertrained that there were reports of infantrymen tying themselves to tanks with ropes to avoid falling off, sealing their fate when they were ambushed.

Conversely, some tank units didn’t know how to communicate with infantry at all, leading to them going into battle alone or with little coordination, which allowed experienced Vietnamese tank-killing teams to pick them off. The Vietnamese later claimed to have destroyed or damaged at least 280 tanks and armored vehicles during the war.

Worse for the PLA, Deng had forbidden the use of the Air Force and Navy so as to not risk escalation with the Soviets. The PLA was especially worried its Air Force would be soundly beaten by experienced Vietnamese pilots, who had dogfighting experience against the best in the world, the US Air Force.

Casualties and lessons

China Vietnam war
An official Chinese news agency photo said to show Chinese militiamen who formed a stretcher brigade to aid Chinese troops fighting in Vietnam, February 21, 1979.

After about two weeks of fighting, the PLA began its withdrawal.

By March 16, its forces had crossed back into China, but not before enacting a scorched-earth campaign in Vietnam, thoroughly destroying or looting anything of value, including factories, bridges, mines, farms, vehicles, and even crops.

Neither China nor Vietnam, known for keeping battlefield losses secret, ever officially disclosed their casualties, though each claimed to have inflicted large numbers of casualties on the other. China said its forces killed or wounded up 57,000 Vietnamese troops, while Vietnam claimed over 60,000 PLA killed or wounded.

More reliable estimates for Chinese losses range from 7,900 to as many as 26,000 troops killed, with about 23,000 to 37,000 wounded. Estimates for Vietnam range from 20,000 to 50,000 soldiers and civilians killed and wounded.

The high number of casualties in such a short period is staggering, especially since Vietnam’s militia and second-tier troops did most of the fighting, as many elite Vietnamese forces were fighting in Cambodia.

But to Deng Xiaoping, the high casualties were not entirely surprising. One of Deng’s motivations for the war was so the PLA could gain badly needed experience.

Deng himself had a low opinion of the PLA, calling it “swollen, slack, arrogant, extravagant and lazy.” He used the poor performance as a lesson and justification for massive reforms and modernization of the PLA.

Legacy and future

Vietnam China war
Vietnamese in border town of Lang Son, Vietnam, flee fighting between Chinese and Vietnamese troops, February 21, 1979.

The war is largely unacknowledged by the Chinese public today.

“The main reason is that the CCP is reluctant to talk about that conflict,” Timothy Heath, a senior international and defense researcher at the Rand Corporation think tank, told Insider.

Celebrating the conflict is awkward for the CCP, especially as Beijing tries to reduce its neighbors’ suspicions about its intentions.

The fact that China was the aggressor “goes against the message that the CCP tries to promote – that China is always a peaceful power, never initiates attacks, and only responds defensively,” Heath said. The PLA’s poor performance would also put a damper on any celebrations.

Because the PLA today is different in virtually every aspect, and because China’s Air Force and Navy were forbidden from fighting, the war does not really provide a good example for how the PLA may perform on the modern battlefield.

But the political motivations and implications of the war are still very relevant.

China Vietnam war
The wreckage of a Chinese F-9 that crashed in the village of Truc Phu on March 19, 1979, seen at a military museum in Hanoi.

“China was willing to carry out aggression against this country, this neighbor, to send a message that alliances with an outside power that China regards as threatening is something that China is willing to fight over,” Heath said.

“That is a message to bear in mind as the US builds its alliances and partnerships around Asia, and competition between China intensifies,” he added.

The Soviets did send high-ranking military officials to help organize Vietnam’s defense and deployed additional ships into the South China Sea, but they did not enter the conflict. Years later, the Soviets pressured Vietnam to engage with China diplomatically, leading to Vietnam pulling out of Cambodia in 1989.

The limits of superpower support is extremely important for Taiwan, which the CCP routinely threatens to reabsorb, potentially by force. If Taiwan were attacked and the US sat it out, as the Soviets did in Vietnam in 1979, it may prove fatal for the island nation.

While it avoids discussing its experience in Vietnam, Beijing remains acutely aware of its performance.

“My suspicion is that the ghosts of those battlefield failures still haunt the PLA, and they still must have some degree of anxiety about how will they perform on the battlefield.” Heath said. “Everybody has a right to be skeptical about how well the PLA can possibly perform on the battlefield given their last known demonstration was pretty

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Sơn mài is a costly form of lacquer painting in Vietnam. Here’s what makes these paintings so expensive

  • Sơn mài is a traditional Vietnamese form of lacquer painting.
  • The paint is made with a toxic lacquer harvested from a tree native to Southeast Asia called the Rhus succedanea.
  • Along with costly raw materials, these pieces require months of applying several layers of paint and sanding them back.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: Sơn mài is a traditional Vietnamese form of lacquer painting created using a toxic lacquer harvested from one region of the country. It requires months of application and sanding back layers of paint to build up the image. Last year, a sơn mài painting sold at auction for $972,000. So, what makes these paintings so special? And why are they so expensive?

Phạm Chính Trung: You never truly know what’s underneath a lacquer painting as you are completing it. And so, the process involves the artists sanding the work into shape, slowly revealing the colors, giving the artist a sense of anticipation as he is crossing the finishing line, and artists love that feeling.

Narrator: Phạm Chính Trung has dedicated almost 50 years to mastering sơn mài and knows how equally tiring and rewarding the craft can be. It is an art form of incredible value in Vietnamese culture, for both the time and skill it requires and the exclusive natural materials needed to make it. The process of making lacquer paint begins in the forests of Vietnam, where planters collect resin from a toxic wax tree native to Southeast Asia called the Rhus succedanea. Planters must cut into more than 400 trees to retrieve between 1 and 1.5 kilograms of resin.

Tạ Thị Thu Hương: The rhus tree is harvested after three years of planting, after which it can be harvested for four to five years. To get the sap, we’ll have to start at 4 a.m. Making incisions in the bark, using mussel shells to catch the resin. We collect that resin after three to four hours. 

Narrator: After harvesting, the lacquer must be removed of any impurities and mixed for several hours before it’s suitable for painting. One of the principle features of sơn mài is the depth created by adding several layers of paint and sanding them back. These layers aren’t always visible in the finished work but are what differentiate lacquer painting from other common painting styles. With oil painting, artists paint from back to front, painting the landscape first and the details later. The process of lacquer painting is the opposite.

Phạm Chính Trung: The two styles are a bit different. Because the sketch and the details are painted over, they can’t be seen once the painting is finished but will eventually reappear when it’s sanded down. It’s nerve-wracking for that reason. It’s hard to mess up the picture, but you have to see if you have used the right material. Are the colors in the right shades? Right? Are they intense enough? Your technique shows in those contrasting features. Without it, the painting becomes homogeneous, almost like an oil painting.

Narrator: Artists mix natural ingredients to create colors, like eggshells to make white or cinnabar, a toxic ore, for red. In some cases, artists add leaves of silver, sometimes even gold, to create a gentle sheen. These substances can be one of the costliest parts of sơn mài painting.

Phạm Chính Trung: The base of cinnabar is mercury. 1 ounce of cinnabar, on the palm of your hand, is just the size of a quail egg, but you can feel the weight. You see – 1 million Vietnamese dongs (~$45) for a tiny bag like this. It’s very costly to use, material-wise.

Narrator: While the raw materials of the painting may be more expensive than many other styles, the skill and the work of the artist are what set the final value. Along with the immense patience sơn mài requires, each work is unique and unpredictable. That’s because painters are never quite sure how the layers will resurface through sanding. This can either increase the value of the work or force an artist to start over.

Phạm Chính Trung: Usually, traditional lacquer painters, if they’ve understood the technique and a clear idea of their initial sketch, can be in control of 80% of their idea, 80% of their ideas. The remaining 20% is luck. Accident. Sometimes it can make the painting much better than originally intended or fail the requirements during other times. The artist must start over then.

Narrator: Painters must be careful to let each layer fully dry before sanding. Otherwise, colors or designs could be ruined. There’s no set amount of time a layer takes to dry, as it largely depends on the weather that day.

Phạm Chính Trung: Each time a painting is finished – paintings that use traditional materials always need to dry. They need humidity. Ideally, when indoor humidity is between 70% and 80% the lacquer will dry very quickly. It can’t dry on a dry day. It’s because of the air humidity. The water vapor in the air is the catalyst for components in the lacquer to connect with one another, resulting in the lacquer drying. If all goes well, it’ll dry in a couple of days. If the air is dry, for example, it can take three days for the paint to cure sometimes. To make one lacquer painting, it can take months.

Narrator: After weeks of work, pieces are polished with coal powder, which creates the smooth surface and lasting shine of sơn mài. Artists have used lacquer for its glossy finish for thousands of years. One of its best-known applications is Japanese lacquerware — decorative pieces of furniture, boxes, and dinnerware. But in the early 20th century, Vietnamese artists developed an interest in lacquer painting and created a style unique to the world. Impressive as these works can be, the process is both costly and arduous. And that’s why Phạm Chính Trung believes the future of this tradition will depend on finding more artists willing to learn it.

Phạm Chính Trung: To maintain it, we need people. Simply relying on the painters who are passionate about it won’t work. It won’t last. You can’t maintain it that way. There needs to be growth.  If we only care about finding ways of restoring a tradition when it is gone, it’s impossible. Right? How can we? Once it’s lost, the line is broken.

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Vietnam was ranked 2nd for successfully handling the coronavirus pandemic, and its contact tracing was so good it barely had to lock down

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Medical personnel in protective suits conduct swab tests for COVID-19 on the support staff for the Communist Party of Vietnam 13th National Congress at the National Convention Centre in Hanoi on January 29, 2021.

  • Vietnam has reported 2,362 coronavirus cases and 35 deaths, despite its population of 97 million.
  • From previous experience, Vietnam had a long-term plan in place to cope with outbreaks.
  • Contact tracing, strategic testing, clear messaging, and mask-wearing prevented mass lockdowns.
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Throughout the pandemic, each country has implemented its own response to the virus – some better than others.

Countries like New Zealand, Australia, and Taiwan have been praised for the way their leaders acted quickly.

Before recording a single coronavirus case, New Zealand imposed travel restrictions on February 3, 2020 for travelers coming from mainland China.

Australia had stricter rules than most other countries – only allowing residents to travel within 3 miles of their homes.

In an op-ed for Time magazine, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said the country’s success to handling the coronavirus outbreak was “no coincidence.”

“The painful lessons of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which left Taiwan scarred with the loss of dozens of lives, put our government and people on high alert early on,” Ing-wen wrote.

Not too far away lies Vietnam – which has recorded fewer 2,500 cases of the novel coronavirus and 35 deaths – with a population of 97 million people, and shared borders with China, Cambodia, and Laos.

Thinktank The Lowy Institute published an index on January 28 ranking 98 countries and their success in handling the coronavirus pandemic. Vietnam ranked No. 2 behind New Zealand. The US ranked 94.

But it hasn’t been praised the way other countries have for its success in combating COVID-19.

Vietnam’s early proactivity and focus on contact tracing helped

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Health officials collect swab samples from a member of the media during coronavirus testing at the government guesthouse in Hanoi on January 18, 2021, ahead of the upcoming 13th Vietnam Communist party congress.

As early as January 2020, Vietnam conducted its first risk assessment, immediately after a cluster of cases of “severe pneumonia” was discovered in Wuhan, China.

Guy Thwaites, an infectious disease doctor who works in one of the main hospitals designated by the Vietnamese government to treat COVID-19 patients, told Insider the government responded “very quickly and robustly.”

“Schools were shut down and there was a limit on international flights coming in,” Thwaites said. “The government did all the simple things quickly.”

Kamal Malhotra, a United Nations resident coordinator in Vietnam, said the country’s success in handling the virus came down to three things: contact tracing, strategic testing, and clear messaging.

Instead of testing everyone, they tested those identified in contact tracing. The borders were shut down and everyone who came into the country was quarantined in government facilities – for free.

Insider’s Kate Taylor was in Vietnam last February when there were fewer than 20 cases in the country. Taylor said she saw an emphasis on safety measures like mask-wearing, knowing symptoms of the virus, and temperature checks.

The country never went into nationwide lockdown while trying to contain the virus

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Motorists wear protective face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Hanoi on January 29, 2021, a day after Vietnam recorded its first coronavirus outbreak in almost two months.

In an article for the United Nations, Malhotra wrote that the country announced a three-week village-wide quarantine last February. Vietnam closed its border and suspended flights from mainland China, the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world shortly thereafter.

When cases pop up, areas with the infections are placed on a local shutdown where no one can come in or out, Malhotra said.

Instead of locking the entire country down, the prime minister implemented social distancing measures throughout the country for two weeks in April.

By early May, people across Vietnam were largely able to return to their regular lives.

“The government adopted a zero-tolerance approach to get rid of the virus,” Thwaites said. “Basic measures were implemented, but it wasn’t easy. When people trust the government, people do what the government says.”

Vietnam’s approach to combating the virus deserves more recognition

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A man wearing a face mask walks past a public health campaign banner to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Hanoi on January 28, 2021.

Vietnam had the potential to be a hotspot because of its location and population. But by using a low-cost model and implementing basic safety measures (like washing your hands and wearing a mask), it was able to contain the virus within a few months of the pandemic.

No other country with the same size or population has contained the virus the way Vietnam has. With a population of 102 million, Egypt has recorded more than 176,000 coronavirus cases, according to John Hopkins. The Democratic Republic of the Congo – landlocked in the middle of the African continent – has recorded more than 24,000 cases with a population of 89 million.

Despite sharing a border with the country where the outbreak started, Vietnam’s success story is one worth telling.

According to Malhotra, Vietnam had a better response to fighting the virus than New Zealand.

“It’s absurd to compare countries to New Zealand,” he said. “We have much bigger challenges.”

Malhotra believes there’s a bias against Vietnam’s success because of its system of government. Vietnam is a socialist country under the leadership of the Vietnam Communist Party.

“There’s a lot of skepticism that the government wasn’t sharing data but that is not true,” Malhotra said. “The data is recorded in real-time and there is no coercion in measures taken here.”

The people of Vietnam are learning to live in their new normal, but are still encouraged to social distance and wear masks.

Countries that have successfully controlled the virus included rigorous strategies in their plans

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People wear protective face masks while attending a public New Year’s Eve countdown party in the city center on December 31, 2020 in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Public health experts told Insider countries that have limited the spread of coronavirus have a clear recipe: Create a cohesive federal plan with consistent messaging, get everyone to wear masks, and implement widespread testing and contact tracing. The countries failing to curb their outbreaks are missing at least one of those elements.

The US lacks all of them.

Conflicting messages from the White House and health officials, especially in the first few months of the crisis, delayed safety measures that could have saved lives.

Health officials went back and forth in the early months about who should wear a face mask. First, it was only those in the medical field and those who were sick with the virus, the World Health Organization said last April. Soon after, the WHO and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that everyone wear masks when going out in public.

Former President Donald Trump didn’t wear a mask in public until July while visiting the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center – three days after the US hit 3 million coronavirus cases. Two weeks later, cases reached 4 million.

Once the US gets its outbreak under control, contact tracing could be doable again

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A health worker wearing a protective suit and face mask walks inside a quarantine area in Thanh Tri district in the suburbs of Hanoi on March 20, 2020.

The US leads the world with the worst coronavirus toll: more than 27 million cases and 494,000 deaths.

“When you start getting the numbers of cases in the hundreds and potentially thousands, it’s almost impossible for contact tracers to be effective,” Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, previously told Insider’s Aria Bendix.

Emma Hodcroft, a Swiss scientist who studies the coronavirus’ genetic code, told Insider’s Aylin Woodward in November that the US’s first step must be to get its surge under control; then cases could get back to a level where testing and tracing are once again effective.

While the US’s response to COVID-19 has been chaotic and ineffective so far, President Joe Biden has made getting the pandemic under control a top priority.

In his first days as president, Biden rejoined the WHO vaccine distribution program, encouraged mask-wearing, introduced a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that would give needed aid to state and local governments, reopen schools, and send another round of stimulus checks to Americans.

“My first 100 days won’t end the COVID-19 virus – I can’t promise that,” Biden said at a December 11 event in Delaware. “But we did not get in this mess quickly, we’re not going to get out of it quickly. It’s going to take some time.”

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