North Vietnamese (PAVN) and Vietcong (NLF) Strategy and Tactics

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Key objectives
To be able to explain:

  • Ho Chi Minh’s policies and the formation of the NLF;
  • NLF strategy and tactics;
  • The Ho Chi Minh Trail;

Key concepts, institutions and personalities

  • Lê Duẩn (1907-1986);
  • NLF (National Liberation Front), which became known to Americans as ‘Vietcong’;
  • Sun Tzu;
  • Mao Zedong;
  • Total war;
  • Guerrilla tactics
  • Punji traps
  • Maim, not kill
  • Night attacks
  • Tunnel systems

One of the main reasons the Americans could not defeat the Communists was because they were unable to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.
This was partly because Ho Chi Minh combined the appeal of nationalism and equality in a way that the South Vietnamese government never managed. It was also because of the methods employed by the Vietcong and by the Americans themselves.


  • Lê Duẩn, Ho Chi Minh’s most trusted adviser and eventual successor, argued that unless the North encouraged armed resistance, Vietnam would never re-united, so Ho agreed to supply the guerrilla units with aid, and encouraged them to unite.
  • 1960, December the National Liberation Front (NLF) – what the Americans would later call the Vietcong – was formed under Hua Tho, a Saigon lawyer, and it put together a 10-point programme which included the replacement of Diem’s regime and the redistribution of land to peasants, free of charge. Vietcong military philosophy was heavily influenced by Sun Tzu’s Art of War which emphasised the political and psychological dimensions of warfare and focussed less on territorial conquest than on psychological dominance and by Mao Zedong’s application of this philosophy in China.
  • General Giap’s strategy was to use the Vietcong for incessant guerrilla warfare to wear down Saigon and its American ally, whilst the North Vietnamese PAVN force would be sent in only to fight conventional set-piece battles at times and places of its choosing
  • The North Vietnamese and NLF were engaged in a ‘total war’ where every man woman and child was mobilised in fighting, repairing, nursing, supplying, concealing and defeating the foreign enemy and its puppets. For example, around 50,000 women were employed repairing the Ho Chi Minh trail. In achieving ‘total war’, the peasants were key.

The key significance of the peasantry

  • Mao Zedong taught that the peasants who were the key to success. The guerrillas had to move among the peasantry ‘like the fish swims in the sea’. All NLF soldiers were issued with a series of directives that they were supposed to observe, which included: 1) Avoid damage to the land, crops, houses and belongings of the people; (2) Not to insist on buying or borrowing what the people are not willing to sell or lend; (3) Never to break our word; (4) To help them in their daily work (harvesting, fetching firewood, carrying water, sewing, etc.).
  • Given that peasant life was essentially collaborative and communal to begin with, it was not difficult for the Communists to claim that their system best represented the interests of peasants in the first place.
  • But the good behaviour could be tempered by ruthlessness. During the Tet offensive, for example, ‘unfriendly’ people were dragged out of their houses in Hue and were shot, clubbed to death or buried alive.’
  • Nonetheless, Communists worked hard to win over the peasantry, offering them a fairer distribution of land and urging Communist soldiers to avoid the rape and pillage that was characteristic of the South Vietnamese ARVN behaviour.
  • Villagers often gave them NLF fighters the food, shelter and hiding places necessary for survival. This would place both ARVN and American troops in an invidious position – they had no way of knowing who they could trust in the villages, so that the very people they were allegedly there to protect became indistinguishable from the enemy.
  • Even in areas supposedly controlled by the Saigon government, a web of informants and a multitude of social organisations to comfort, control and motivate the people.

NLF Tactics

  • The aim of the NLF was to involve the enemy in a long drawn out war and thereby to wear it down. Thus the NLF, based in the thick forests of South Vietnam, began by taking control of the villages in the rural areas. As their strength grew and the enemy retreated, they began to take the smaller towns.
  • To defeat the enemy the guerrilla needs to dictate the terms of warfare. In the words of Mao Zedong from 1933: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.”
  • In the villages they controlled, the NLF often built underground tunnels which led out of the villages into the jungle. They also contained caverns where they stored their printing presses, surgical instruments and the equipment for making booby traps and land mines.
  • The NLF were sent out in small units of between 3 and 10 soldiers with limited knowledge of other units so that, if captured, they would be unable to give the enemy information. They were told not to go into combat unless it outnumbered the enemy and was certain of winning. It therefore concentrated on attacking small patrols or poorly guarded government positions.
  • To increase its advantage, the NLF relied heavily on night attacks and Punji traps – made from the most readily available materials – sharpened bamboo sticks, stuck into a pit covered by a lattice of twigs and leaves which American troops would unwittingly step into. Such traps were designed to maim, not kill, since it would be more debilitating to burden the enemy with medical evacuation. For example, it would take at least two soldiers to carry another to safety and on a long journey everyone would have to take their turn. Punji traps were also a form of ‘germ warfare’ since the hollow bamboo sticks were filled with excrement to ensure maximum chances of infection and long-term incapacitation or a slow painful death. Variations on the punji trap included snake pits and ‘keep sake-lose hand’ in which items Vietcong thought Americans might want as souvenirs were left in the path of oncoming soldiers, but which would detonate if picked up. NLF soldiers would also make use of the 800 tonnes of explosives that failed to detonate from US bombing raids from 1965.
  • Most important of all, the NLF made use of supply paths, based on ancient footpaths through the jungles on the borders between Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, known to Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
    • Protected from aerial sight by a triple canopy of jungle foliage, it was traversed on foot and by bicycle but would eventually provide a route for Soviet-supplied trucks. ‘Giap’s trails, troops and trucks melted into the landscape’ (Sanders).
    • The trail was never a single path, but had many branches, so that when one was damaged by American bombers, traffic could be switched to other branches whilst repairs were done.
    • Along the route were dotted repair workshops, stores, depots, hospitals and rest camps.

North Vietnamese Tactics

  • PAVN troops were employed for set piece battles – the fist of which was fought at the landed zone at Ia Drang in the November 14th of 1965, a 34 day battle that resulted in 305 American and 3561 North Vietnamese deaths. A body count of 10:1 was confirmation – as far as Westmoreland was concerned – of the success of his strategy. But it was the America that proved unable to sustain its losses.
  • Ia Drang taught PAVN and NLF troops the importance of ‘clinging to the belt’ – getting as close to the enemy’s perimeter as possible so as to prevent them from using the air-technology and artillery they relied upon.
  • In Hanoi itself, the government made excellent preparations against air raids. Besides the underground bomb shelters into which most of the population would vanish when sirens were sounded, two million northerners – mostly women were employed in ‘shock brigades’ to repair the effects of air raid damage to roads and railways.
  • Rather than break the morale of the Northerners as intended, the Hanoi government used American air raids to rally the people against the foreign enemy.


Although Ho was greatly assisted by China and Russia, that help was not as visible as the help received from the Americans by the South. For that reason he was able to tap into the traditional suspicion of foreigners and to combine the appeal of nationalism and equality. Vietnam had always struggled for its existence against hostile foreign intervention and therefore displayed unusual patience and resilience. ‘We were not strong enough to drive out a half million American troops’, Giap said, ‘but that was not our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American government to continue the war.’ As Vivienne Saunders writes: ‘The North Vietnamese knew why they fought and were wiling to wait, suffer and persevere to achieve their aims in a way that many Americans and South Vietnamese were not.’

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