VIETNAM. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam consists of the former Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) and the former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam). The division of the country resulted from the defeat of the French by Communist-inspired nationalists in 1954. A prolonged civil war resulted in a victory for the Communist north, and reunification occurred in mid-1976.
Vietnam has an area of 127,207 square miles (329,465 square kilometers) and is located in Southeast Asia. The country has a coastline of nearly 1,440 miles (2,317 kilometers), much of which fronts on the South China Sea. Border countries are China, Cambodia, and Laos. The latter two countries, along with Vietnam, constituted the former French Indochina.
Northern Vietnam is quite mountainous, especially the extreme north and northwest. The Red River (Song Hong), which originates in China’s Yunnan Province, is the principal river of the north and is about 725 miles (1,167 kilometers) in length. The major lowland area is a delta that has been created by deposits from the Red River as it enters the Gulf of Tonkin. The river passes through the capital city of Hanoi. For more than 2,000 years the Tonkin Lowland, considered the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, has been the scene of considerable water control efforts in the form of canals and dikes.
The southernmost portion of the country is dominated by another lowland that is much more extensive than that in the north. This lowland has essentially been created by the Mekong River (Song Cuu Long) and its various tributaries. Just north of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) the landscape becomes more varied and rolling with forested hills.
The central portion of Vietnam varies in width but is only 35 miles (56 kilometers) at its narrowest point. This region has only a narrow coastal strip in contrast to the rest of the coastline, where wider lowlands exist.
The westernmost portion of the area is dominated by the Annamese, or Annamite, Cordillera, a major mountain chain, which forms the spine of the country from north to south. Along with the two major rivers, there are many shorter rivers that drain the highlands and flow eastward to the South China Sea. The country also has six island groups, 14 separate mountain ranges, and three large lakes.
The climate of Vietnam is largely tropical, though the north may be distinguished as subtropical. Differences in humidity, rainfall, and temperature are caused largely by changes in elevation. The north has a hot and humid five-month-long wet season lasting from May through September. The remainder of the year is relatively warm and rainfree, but humid. A prolonged period of fog, cloudiness, and drizzle occurs from December through April in the central zone and coastal lowlands. The south is characterized by a monsoon-type climate dominated by a changing wind pattern that brings rainfall. The rainy period is shorter than in the north.
In the north maximum rainfall occurs in July and August, while in the south these peaks are in June and September. Average rainfall at Hanoi is 72 inches (183 centimeters) per year, at Hue 117 inches (297 centimeters), and at Ho Chi Minh City 81 inches (206 centimeters). In the higher elevations of the Annamese mountain chain, rainfall can exceed 175 inches (445 centimeters). The region is subject to typhoons, which may occur from July through November. Daily temperatures in the south range between 64 and 92 F (18 and 33 C), while in the north the climate is considerably cooler. Average summer temperatures are approximately 82 F (28 C) with the winter average at 63 F (17 C).
People and Culture
The population of Vietnam in the early 1990s was estimated at more than 67 million. Birth- and death rates respectively were 31 and 9 per thousand. The natural rate of increase per year is 2.3 percent. If this rate continued, the population of the country would double within 30 years. Family planning services, including contraception and abortion, are widely available. A major goal is to reduce the rate of population growth to less than 2 percent per year. The infant mortality rate of 69 per 1,000 live births is close to that of the Philippines but higher than that of Malaysia. The average life expectancy is 60 years.
Given the contrasting landforms of the country, the distribution of the population is very uneven. Major concentrations are found in the Red and Mekong river deltas, where densities may exceed 2,000 persons per square mile (772 per square kilometer). The average density, however, is much lower 488 persons per square mile (188 per square kilometer).
A major element of current development planning is the forced relocation of more than 10 million Vietnamese into new economic zones that are scattered throughout the country. Earlier movements of people occurred largely in response to war activity, with refugees migrating from north to south and subsequently into urban areas. In the mid-1970s there also was an evacuation effort carried out by the United States that took more than 135,000 Vietnamese to that country. Movement out of Vietnam in small fishing vessels continues. These migrants seek destinations largely in other Southeast Asian countries.
and Asian (Amerasian) descent are conspicuous in this program because they are the objects of discrimination if they remain in Vietnam. Illegal emigration continues but at a reduced rate, as the penalty when caught is severe. Property confiscation and hard labor and reeducation camps are common punishments.
The urban population in Vietnam is 19 percent of the total, comparable to that of Thailand and Myanmar. The largest cities are Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam and Hanoi in the north. Other large cities are Haiphong (the major port for Hanoi), Da Nang, Bien Hoa, Can Tho, Nha Trang, Qui Nhon, Hue, and Cam Ranh. The latter was for many years the site of the Soviet naval fleet, which occupied the facility built by the United States during the Vietnam War.
The Vietnamese are descended from both Chinese and Thai peoples. Originating in southern China, the Vietnamese people pushed southward over the course of several hundred years to occupy much of the current area of Vietnam. A strong sense of national identity was produced as a result of the struggle for political independence from China. Vietnamese culture, however, still reflects the strong influence of Chinese civilization. Nearly 100 years of French rule instilled many European cultural traits as well. The Vietnamese, however, continue to maintain their own culture through such customs as attaching great importance to the family and observing rites honoring their ancestors.
Although 90 percent of the population is Vietnamese, there are several significant minorities. The largest of these is the Chinese, who number about 4.1 million and constitute nearly 7 percent of the total population. The Chinese minority is concentrated largely in urban areas, especially the Cholon section of Ho Chi Minh City. The Chinese have long played major roles in the Vietnamese economy, being active in rice trade and milling, real estate, banking, shopkeeping, stevedoring, and mining.
Another minority group, known collectively as Montagnards, is made up of two main ethnic-linquistic groups Malayo-Polynesian and Mon-Khmer. More than 25 tribes of various cultures and dialects are spread throughout the hill areas of the country. Still another minority group is the Khmer, or Cambodians. These people, perhaps numbering 1 million, are concentrated in the southern provinces near the Cambodian border and at the delta of the Mekong River. Most of them are farmers.
Government policy appears to be directed toward the assimilation of minorities into the mainstream culture. There are attempts to place ethnic Vietnamese among minority peoples in order to strengthen control. A further emphasis is the encouragement of minorities to emigrate, as noted above. Ethnic Chinese are often denied official employment and educational opportunities.
The three traditional religions are Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Buddhism was brought into Vietnam from China in the 2nd century AD and has the largest number of followers. About 32 million Vietnamese follow Buddhism, and most of these followers are Mahayana Buddhists . Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism are practiced. Most of Vietnam’s Theravada Buddhists are Khmer Krom. They number about 900,000 and live in southern and southwestern Vietnam. It is this group that has supplied the Vietnamese army in Cambodia with interpreters and staff for its government there. Confucianism serves as a means of forming social patterns. Rules for social interaction, the cult of ancestor worship, and the male-dominated family structure are by-products of the religion. Roman Catholicism was introduced into Vietnam in the 16th century and flourished especially under the French. There are about 2 million followers of the religion today.
The government tolerates religion and permits religious services but restricts conversion activities and growth in general. Reports indicate that the Roman Catholic church is a special target for control, and as a result church membership has begun to dwindle. Since 1975 government authorities have attempted to suppress and intimidate the Mahayana Buddhist leaders. Temples have been closed, and monks have been forced into reeducation camps.
The official language of the country is Vietnamese. It is monosyllabic and belongs to the Mon-Khmer family. There is considerable borrowing from Chinese in the vocabulary. Of the numerous other languages spoken, Thai, Sino-Tibetan and Miao-Yao are the most widespread. Once widely spoken, French has fallen from use. Given the American intervention in Vietnamese affairs, English is not encouraged. Russian is of some importance because of the history of support and economic cooperation that Vietnam had with the Soviet Union.
Education in Vietnam is universal and compulsory for children ages 6 to 11. The educational system has been altered somewhat since reunification. This basically involves the use of new texts in the south to conform to those in the north. In addition many teachers in the south have undergone political indoctrination programs. Private schools are now under government control. The school year extends from September to May. Primary and secondary education accounts for more than 12,600 schools, 566,000 teachers, and 15.8 million students. There were more than 80 institutions of higher learning with a total enrollment of 160,000 in the mid-1980s.
Health services and facilities are being refurbished and expanded to make up for wartime destruction. Yet expenditures on health services are grossly inadequate. It is estimated that only 15 percent of the population has access to safe water. The government appears to have eliminated such major diseases as tuberculosis, smallpox, malaria, leprosy, and bubonic plague. In the early 1980s there were approximately 11,000 hospitals and 14,000 physicians in the country.
Vietnamese cooking has been influenced by Chinese, French, and Malay food preparation. The Vietnamese cuisine in upper-class homes has a rich sophistication that rivals Chinese and Thai cooking. A fermented fish sauce called nuoc mam is used in many prepared dishes. Rice, the staple food, is usually eaten with cooked leafy green vegetables or in soup. Rice is grown wherever possible in irrigated rice fields. Rice is supplemented by corn, sweet potatoes, and cassavas. Many people raise fruits and vegetables. Meat is only consumed at festivals or sacrifices. Fresh fish and dried fish, however, are readily available. Red chili is used in most meals in some form, and occasionally boiled maize is eaten as a snack. Agriculture in the south-central coastal plain and on the Cambodian border has been historically dominated by market gardening rather than wet rice agriculture.
Vietnam is viewed by the World Bank as one of 37 low-income countries. It has a centrally planned economy in which the dominant sector is public. Very few current statistics are available because no financial or production information is reported to outside agencies. Gross national product was estimated for 1982 at 9 billion dollars, with a per capita income of 175 dollars. The economy has evolved in phases that have attempted to eliminate capitalism, elevate state control and planning, and deal with financial indebtedness and weak resources. Efforts to redistribute land in the north were coupled with an attempt to implement a cooperative movement. Cooperative land has been contracted to families or production teams to meet production targets. Excess production above a quota may be sold by peasants on the open market. Individual land ownership is still widespread in the south. Similarly, private enterprise in the south has only gradually changed and continues to play a significant role.
The economy is guided by a five-year development plan that corresponded to the Soviet and Eastern European planning cycle. During the 1970’s emphasis moved from heavy industry to agriculture and light industry in order to improve material living standards within Vietnam as well as develop exports to earn foreign exchange. The south was viewed as the main food basket and supplier for the nation as well as a producer of light industrial goods.
The plan was built on the assumption of United States aid after normalization of ties. However, contrary to expectations, little aid from the United States was delivered, and foreign aid in general was reduced in reaction to Vietnam’s invasion of Kampuchea (Cambodia). Conflict with China further drained resources. It is estimated that more than 40 percent of the country’s budget is being spent on defense.
A new plan not yet implemented emphasizes small practical projects in agriculture, consumer goods, energy, and communications. The new domestic economic policy, which was announced in early 1988, in effect abandoned centralized planning in favor of managerial decision making at the factory level in state enterprises. Worker incentives, quality control, shareholding, an expanded banking industry, and wage scales linked to productivity were part of this sweeping reform.
In 1976 Vietnam joined the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Asian Development Bank, but no requests for loans have been honored since 1978. Most aid has come from the United Nations Development Program, France, Japan, and the Scandinavian countries. The Soviet Union assisted with major development projects during the 1970s and 1980s.
Agriculture the mainstay of the economy employs 60 percent of the labor force. It accounts for an estimated 45 percent of the gross domestic product. Only 23 percent of the total land area is cultivated. The deltas of the Red and Mekong rivers, as well as other lowland areas, are the prime rice-growing regions. Multiple cropping is common in the north, accomplished through an extensive system of irrigation. Single cropping is the rule in the south because of dry conditions half of each year and an inadequate water supply. High-yielding varieties of rice are commonly used. Elsewhere such dry crops as corn, sweet potatoes, cassavas, and pulse plants are grown.
Before 1980 chronic food shortages consistently caused widespread malnutrition. Natural disasters as well as collectivist policies were responsible for the food deficits. Food production improved as a result of production contracts and increased prices. Mechanization of agriculture is thwarted by the lack of fuel, so the raising of draft animals is encouraged. In the absence of adequate local fertilizer production, there is increased use of green and natural fertilizers in rice terraces. Commercial forest production was affected by the war, but more than 800 million cubic feet (22.7 million cubic meters) of valuable hardwoods were harvested in 1982.
There is considerable potential for the fishing industry in the rich offshore fishing grounds. A variety of fish species are caught in addition to prawns, lobsters, and crayfish. The collective model has been employed in this industry and has adversely affected the annual catch and fishermen’s incomes. Refugee movements have gradually removed vessels from the fishing fleet, and this, too, has hurt the industry.
The heavy industrial base of Vietnam is concentrated in the north. Productive capacity rebounded after the destruction of the war period. Machine tools, iron and steel, and fertilizer operations contribute to the industrial output. Light manufacturing and processed agricultural products are focused in the south. Industrial production is difficult to monitor, but apparently growth rates have been stronger in locally run and handicraft industries and weaker in large-scale industries. Consumer industries too often require imported components or materials that are difficult to obtain because of inadequate foreign exchange. Emigration has seriously affected the industrial sector, as management expertise is conspicuously uneven. Vietnamese industry continues to be troubled by power shortages.
The north is endowed with mineral resources that include coal, tin, chrome, and phosphate. The coal mines of Hong-Quong are quite large and produced more than 800,000 tons of coal in 1982.
The railway system includes more than 1,700 miles (2,700 kilometers) of track. Since 1976 a trans-Vietnam railway links the two largest cities. There are more than 22,500 miles (36,200 kilometers) of roads, of which only 15 percent are paved. Human-powered three-wheel vehicles are more common than motorized vehicles. Major ports are at Haiphong, Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang, Da Nang, Qui Nhon, and Hon Gai. Vietnam’s national airline, Hang Khong Vietnam, has an old fleet of DC-4 aircraft along with some newer aircraft that operate primarily on domestic routes.
Telephones are a rare luxury in Vietnam. In the late 1980s only 116,000 were in operation.
Trade figures for 1984 show that imports far exceeded exports: 596 million dollars and 254 million dollars, respectively. Manufactured goods, handicrafts, and agricultural products were the major export goods and were sold principally to Japan, Hong Kong, the Soviet Union, and Singapore. Imported goods consisted of fuels, raw materials, machinery, and food products. Some 60 percent of these came from the Soviet Union, Japan, India, Singapore, and Hong Kong.
In the 2nd century BC the northern area of Vietnam and part of southern China were conquered by the army representing the Han Dynasty of China. Chinese rule lasted for more than 1,000 years until AD 939, when the Vietnamese managed to throw off their conquerors. A southward expansion continued over the following 800 years, reaching as far as the Gulf of Siam (now the Gulf of Thailand). Internal strife, however, produced a struggle that lasted more than two centuries. Essentially Vietnam was divided near the 17th parallel with two states Tonkin in the north and Cochinchina in the south. Following a civil war the country was reunited briefly in 1802.
Political weakness permitted French intervention and expansion. Cochinchina became a French colony in 1867, and Annam and Tonkin became French protectorates in 1883. Later all three were merged with Laos and Cambodia to form French Indochina. Throughout the period of French rule, strong nationalist and revolutionary movements were present. During World War II the French yielded Indochina to Japan. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a nationalist coalition known as the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
. French resistance to the Viet Minh led to a war that lasted eight years. After a crucial battle at Dienbienphu, a cease-fire agreement was signed in 1954. The cease-fire provided for a partitioned Vietnam, the south becoming the Republic of Vietnam under Ngo Dinh Diem. This anti-Communist southern regime was opposed by a growing resistance movement that became known as the Viet Cong.
Just prior to the overthrow of Diem in the south, the United States joined the conflict between north and south. Ground forces were committed, and bombing was carried out against the north from 1965 to 1968. Peace negotiations began between the Hanoi government and the United States in 1969; the Paris accord was signed on Jan. 27, 1973. More than 47,000 American troops were killed before the last forces departed in March 1973. Two years later the National Liberation Front forces of the north pushed southward and captured Saigon. The three-decade war produced an estimated toll of 2 million Vietnamese dead with another 4 million wounded. More than half of the population were left homeless, and large areas of cultivated land and infrastructure were devastated.Vietnam was admitted to the United Nations in 1977. Close cooperation has existed with the Soviet Union, and a quest for authority over Laos and Cambodia has been maintained. Some 50,000 to 70,000 Vietnamese troops are permanently based in Laos. Cambodian resistance to Vietnamese demands led to full-scale warfare and Vietnamese occupation of the country. This conquest has made it necessary for Vietnam to deploy troops on the Chinese and Thai borders in addition to maintaining armies of occupation in both Cambodia and Laos.
Governmental ties and commercial relations have been established with all members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Vietnam also has close ties to India. More significant is the restoration of relations with France. The settlement of many issues, including compensation for the seizure of French property, opened the way for French development aid. Vietnam and the United States have no diplomatic relations, though discussions continue on the subject of American military personnel missing in action. This matter and the occupation of Cambodia hinder the resumption of any official relationship. In 1989 Vietnam announced that it would withdraw its remaining troops from Cambodia by the fall.
By 1992 Vietnam had altered its domestic and foreign policies significantly. In response to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, it began to modify its economic policies. No further assistance would be forthcoming from its old ally the Soviet Union, since that nation was in the process of disintegration. The leaders of Vietnam sought foreign investment to help their economy. Vietnamese forces did pull out of Cambodia, and a Cambodian peace agreement was signed on Oct. 23, 1991. Relations were renewed with China in mid-1991 after 13 years of hostility. Relations with the United States also showed signs of improvement in October 1991, when United States Secretary of State James Baker met with the Vietnamese foreign minister in Paris.
Vietnam Fact Summary
Official Name. Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Principal Physical Features. Annamese Cordillera, Mekong River delta, Red River delta, Tonkin Lowland.
Mountain Ranges. Annamese Cordillera.
Highest Peak. Fan Si Pan, 10,308 feet (3,142 meters).
Major Rivers. Mekong, Red.
Population (1991 estimate). 67,589,000; 519.6 persons per square mile (200.6 persons per square kilometer); 20 percent urban, 80 percent rural.
Major Cities (1989 census). Ho Chi Minh City (3,169,135), Hanoi (1,088,862), Haiphong (456,049), Da Nang (370,670), Long Xuyen (217,171).
Major Religions. Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism.
Major Language. Vietnamese (official).
Literacy. 94 percent.
Form of Government. People’s Republic.
Chief of State. President.
Head of Government. Premier.
Legislature. National Assembly; one legislative house of 496 members; four-year terms.
Voting Qualification. Age 18.
Political Divisions. 36 provinces, 3 municipalities, and 1 special zone.
Chief Mined Products. Coal, tin, chrome, phosphate.
Chief Manufactured Products. Machine tools, iron and steel, fertilizers, processed agricultural products, handicrafts.
Chief Exports. Manufactured goods, handicrafts, agricultural products, fish and shellfish.
Chief Imports. Fuels, raw materials, machinery, food products.
Monetary Unit. 1 dong = 10 hao = 100 xu.
E.B. Fincher The Vietnam War
The World Book Encyclopedia (94 editon)
Stanley Karnow Vietnam: A History
Tim Page Ten Years After: Vietnam Today