The XXZ spin chain with a boundary magnetic field h is considered, using the vertex operator approach to diagonalize the hamiltonian. We find explicit bosonic formulas for the two vacuum vectors with zero particle content. There are three distinct regions when h ⩾ 0, in which the structure of the vacuum states is different. Excited states are given by the action of vertex operators on the vacuum states. We derive the boundary S-matrix and present an integral formula for the correlation functions. The boundary magnetization exhibits boundary hysteresis. We also discuss the rational limit, the XXX model.