Vietnam - Country Overview
Once world’s one of the poorest countries, Vietnam today is economically vibrant, trying to build a robust economy on the ruins of a war ravaged Southeast Asian country. Vietnam is on a path of socio-economic renovation. ’Doi Moi’ or renovation, the Vietnamese equivalent of the Soviet ‘Perestroika’ and ‘Glasnost’, is the new resolve of the war torn Vietnam. Many industrialized nations with global credibility, like, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, India and others are looking for opportunities to have investment partnership with Vietnam. Privatisation and market economy are no longer untouchables for Vietnam, once a close ideological follower of the former Soviet Union. America’s withdrawal of the embargo against Vietnam following end of the Vietnam War has encouraged many foreign countries to explore possibilities of investment in Vietnam.
Vietnam lies on the eastern edge of the mainland South-East Asia, bounded by the South China Sea in the east and south, China in the north, and Laos and Cambodia in the west. Vietnam has 63 provinces and cities, with a central government located in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. The largest city is Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
The most commonly spoken language is Vietnamese (86 percent). The Kinh group comprises about 86 per cent of Vietnam's population of approximately 85 million people. The remaining 14 per cent of the population belongs to 53 different ethnic groups.
The mainstay of Vietnam's economy is rice production; Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice in the world after Thailand. Other agricultural products such as coffee, tea and rubber are important export items. Vietnam's coastline and inland waterways allow significant fishing and, more recently, aquaculture industries for both subsistence and export. Forest covers about 35 per cent of the land, though much of this is no longer pristine. Vietnam is one of the most disaster-prone countries in the world; about 70 per cent of its population is at risk of typhoons and torrential rains followed by floods. Despite plenty of water in some areas, there is dearth of clean drinking water in general; and droughts also occur in upland areas sometimes.
Vietnam occupies approximately 127,243 square miles (329,560 sq km), an area roughly equivalent to New Mexico (state in USA), and is situated between 8 and 24 degrees north latitudes and 102 and 109 degrees east longitudes. Its coastline of 2,135 miles (3,444 kilometers) runs from its border with Cambodia on the Gulf of Thailand along the South China Sea to its border with China. The delineation of Vietnam's borders has been a subject of dispute in the post–1975 period, notably the ownership disputes with China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Malaysia over the Spratly Islands; and with China and Taiwan over the Paracel Islands. Some progress has recently been made settling land border disputes with China and Cambodia.
The Vietnamese culturally divide their country into three main regions, the north ( Bac Bo ), center ( Trung Bo ), and south ( Nam Bo ), with Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) serving as the main cities of each region. Ideologically, geographically and lifestyle wise the three regions have distinctive features. Till recently the North, influenced by the former Soviet Union and China had been fully a communist land, the central part had Islamic influence and the southern region had American and French influence. The unification of Vietnam after the end of the American war in 1975 has been gradually diluting these differences giving rise to Vietnamese nationalism.
Vietnam contains a wide-variety of agro-economic zones. The river deltas of Vietnam's two great rivers, the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south, dominate those two delta regions. Both deltas feature irrigated rice cultivation that depends on the annual monsoons and river water that is distributed through elaborate and complicated irrigation systems. Irrigated rice agriculture is also practised in numerous smaller river deltas and plains along the country's coast.
Vietnam is located in Southeast Asia with a total land area of 329,560 sq km and a coastline of 3.444 km.
There are 14 major river systems including 2 large international river basins: Red River in the North and Mekong River in the South. Almost all urban areas are located along sea coasts or river sides. Two big cities have population of 6 millions or more, about 10 cities have population varying between 1 and 3 millions, and more than 10 cities have population between 0.5 and 1 million. The location and topography of Vietnam make it one of the most hazard-prone countries in the world. Tornados and deluges are of common occurrence.
Vietnam is a multi-nation country having people from about 54 different nations as its residents. However, about 90% of the population is Vietnamese with a large number of ethnic minorities. The remaining 10% of the Vietnam population comprises various non-Vietnamese ethnic groups that include approximately 1.2 million Chinese. Vietnam has a population of more than 83, 535, 576 people. It has a rapid population growth, the average growth rate being 2.23 %. Owing to its rapid population growth many economists and sociologists fear that high population has started becoming an obstacle for Vietnam’s faster development.
The origin of Vietnam from an historical perspective is not very clear. Discovery of some archaeological sites in Thanh Hoa Province in North Vietnam establishes that modern Vietnam existed in the Paleolithic age also. That tells us that the country now called Vietnam has been in existence for several thousand years.
Dynastic rule started in around 300 B.C. with Hong Bang Dynasty. Vietnamese generally look upon this as the first Vietnamese state. In 111 B.C. the Han Dynasty of China established itself firmly in Vietnam by force and ruled the country for the next about a thousand years. Sporadic freedom movements started sometime in the ninth century and by the early 10th century Vietnam had gained autonomy short of independence. In 938 AD a Vietnamese Lord by the name Ngo Quyen wrested power from the Chinese at the historic Bach Dang River side and regained Vietnam’s independence after about a thousand years of Chinese rule.
Vietnam, renamed as Dai Viet or the Great Viet, flourished from the 10th to the 18th century under several dynasties during which period the country reached its zenith, particularly under Emperor Le Thanh (1460 – 1497.) Before the Le Dynasty, around 1200 B.C. Dong Son culture grew in North Vietnam. The Dong Son period was known for its wet-rice cultivation and copper and bronze casting art. Some other specialities of the culture had been stilt houses, the custom of betel-nut chewing and teeth blackening. Between the 11th and the 18th century the country also expanded southward conquering the Islamic kingdom of Champa and part of the Khmer kingdom.
Then unfortunately, widespread civil disturbance engulfed Vietnam and several dynasties fought for power. The civil war continued for long four decades. One of the warring dynasties – the Mac Dynasty -- got Chinese support to challenge the powerful Le Dynasty. Obviously the Chinese could not forget that Vietnam was ruled by them for a thousand years. In this Chinese interference the powerful Ming Dynasty is believed to have played an important role. The machination of the Mac Dynasty with Chinese collusion was not successful.
Finally power was divided between the Trinh Lords and the Nguyen Lords controlling the North and the South respectively.
The civil war came to an end when Nguyen Anh, an ambitious chief of the decadent Nguyen Dynasty, captured power with assistance from the French and united the North and the South.
Vietnam’s independence got eroded because of a series of invasions by France between 1859 and 1885. And the modern Vietnamese nation was created in fact from French colonialism. France used the pretext of the harassment of missionaries to begin assuming control over Vietnam in the 1850s. By 1862 it had set up the colony of Cochin China in southern Vietnam. In 1882 it invaded northern Vietnam and forced the Vietnamese Emperor to accept the establishment of a French protectorate over central and northern Vietnam. This effectively brought all of Vietnam under French control to become a part of the French Indo-China.
The French administration zealously introduced English education, propagated Christianity and also developed a lucrative plantation economy, growing and exporting tobacco, indigo, tea and coffee. The French colonial regime was distinguished by its brutality and relentless exploitation of the Vietnamese people.
Nationalist Movement Begins
Resistance to colonial rule was intense in the early years of French domination, but weakened after the late 1890s. The situation began to change dramatically from the late 1920s as a number of nationalist movements, such as the, Vietnam Nationalist Party formed in 1927, Indo-Chinese Communist Party formed in 1930 and the Viet Minh Party formed in 1941 by Ho Chi Minh, became more and more sophisticated in terms of organization and ability. Such groups drew inspiration and courage from popular support and also support from China and the Soviet Union and were ready to give decisive blows to the Japanese and the French intruders. The Viet Minh, a communist and nationalist freedom movement in Vietnam under the leadership of the great leader Ho Chi Minh was in the forefront to fight for Vietnam’s independence from the French and also to oppose the Japanese occupation.
At that time one of the worst famines in history overwhelmed Vietnam, taking a toll of 2 million lives, equal to 10 per cent of its population. People’s wrath against foreign domination intensified. At this crucial juncture the turmoil caused by the World War II had thrown up the much needed opportunity; and on 19 August 1945 an uprising occurred in which Vietnamese nationalists overthrew the Japanese administration taking advantage of its defeat in the World War II. Japan was then controlling Vietnam. On 2 September 1945 Ho Chi Minh officially established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as an independent country.
The French attempted to assert control over Vietnam by invading the country in December 1946. This launched an eight-year war in which the Vietnamese nationalist forces, led primarily by the Vietnamese Communists, ultimately forced the French out of the country in late 1954.
First Indo-China War
France could not reconcile to Vietnam’s independence that also meant losing their colonial interests in that part of Asia. France therefore deployed its French Far East Expeditionary Corps against Viet Minh on 20 November, 1946, and thus started the First Indo-China War. In this war France suffered a major military defeat at the Siege of Dien Bien Phu.
This gave Ho chi Minh an advantageous position to negotiate a cease fire in 1954 at the ongoing Geneva Conference. Consequently French Indochina was dissolved ending the colonial rule of France in the region. In terms of the Geneva Accord of 1954 the northern part of Vietnam came under the control of the communist nationalists and the southern part was occupied by the forces of the former French supporters. The Vietnamese Demilitarised Zone was fixed along the 17th parallel.
Partition of Vietnam
The partition of Vietnam with Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North and Emperor Bao Dai’s State of Vietnam in the South was not intended by the 1954 Agreements signed in Geneva and they expressly forbade any foreign interference. And nationwide elections were provided for in these agreements. But the South Vietnam’s Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem was against the elections despite repeated calls from the North Vietnam.
Meanwhile, the pro-Hanoi Vietcong fighters began guerrilla war against South Vietnam in the late 1950 to overthrow pro-America Diem’s government considered by the North to be a colonial rule in disguise. In 1963 the pro-Catholic stance of Prime Minister Diem antagonized many Buddhists of the South and the North. Diem was finally killed in a coup and there was instability in the South. The North took advantage of this to unite the two Vietnams. America’s sympathy naturally was for the non-communist south.
America’s Vietnam War
The United States in 1965 plunged into the Vietnam hostilities by providing military advisers and ground combatants to help South Vietnam to counter the guerrilla attacks of the communist North Vietnam. At its peak US combatants numbered half a million. But the communists could not be defeated. After their Tet Offensive in 1968 America finally realized the futility of its Vietnam operation, and then the US President Nixon who did not take the people and the Senate of America into confidence in his Vietnam war, having faced huge casualties and strong condemnation at home and abroad finally withdrew American forces from Vietnam on 29 March 1973 according to the Paris Peace Accord of 27 January 1973. Limited fighting in South Vietnam still continued. After the fall of Saigon on 30 April, 1975 North and South Vietnam were merged to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under the control of the North on July 2, 1976. Thus the long Vietnam War came to an end with huge casualties on both sides.
Historic “Doi Moi”
Vietnam today stands at crossroads. It has been at peace for over a decade with a determination to forge ahead but without a clear programme of action. At the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in December 1986, reformers, upset by the lack of economic progress even after the end of the Vietnam War, replaced the “old guard” with new leadership. The reformers were led by 71 year-old Nguyen Van Linh, who became the party’s new general secretary. In a historic shift, the reformers implemented free-market reforms within socialist ideology known as “Doi Moi” or renovation, which carefully managed the transition from a command economy to a socialist-oriented market economy.
With the authority of the state remaining unchallenged, private ownership of farms and companies engaged in commodity production, deregulation and foreign investment were encouraged while the state maintained control over strategic industries. The economy of Vietnam subsequently achieved rapid growth in agricultural and industrial production, construction and housing, exports and foreign investment. Since the 1986 introduction of the Doi Moi policy the country has been experiencing tremendous social changes. Some have been positive, such as a general rise in production, exports, foreign investments and the standard of living with new economic initiatives, but others have not; such as increased corruption, social inequality, regional tensions, and an HIV-AIDS epidemic. The Communist Party still exercises exclusive control over political life, but the question whether Vietnam will be able to continue its socio-economic growth in a climate of peace and stability remains to be seen.
The people of Vietnam have a unique and fascinating culture that has been shaped by thousands of years of history. Their culture has been influenced by many other civilizations: the ancient peoples that once inhabited the land, the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and most recently, the Americans and Russians. From all these outside influences, and centuries of war, oppression, and hardship, they have maintained their culture. The people of Vietnam are hard working and feel strong ties to their families. They are well versed in the arts, and have made several contributions to the world of literature. Despite their painful history, the Vietnamese people have a culture and many customs, all their own.
The Vietnamese have many unique customs. They have great respect for their families and ancestors. Children obey their parents, and wives obey their husbands. Many people practise ancestor worship. They have shrines in their homes where they burn incense for their deceased family members. They believe that they must treat their ancestors well, or bad things could happen. If a special pet of a family dies the members of the family might bury it as if it was one of the members of the family. People, especially in the highlands, believe that everything has a spirit. They respect and even worship things like trees, animals, clouds, and streams.
The Vietnamese as a people are superstitious. Things must happen right on special occasions such as Tet, or the family will have bad luck. There are numerous signs that could mean bad fortune is imminent. Geomancy is another superstition. It is centered on the belief that all things in the universe must line up. Before the building of any important structures or buildings, geomancers or people who understand the principles of geomancy are consulted.
Education including English education is fast growing in Vietnam. Long years of French domination on and American presence in the country have contributed to popularity of English education. They are also lovers of various arts, some using bamboo strips and mats, flowers and music. Family planning is practised with great enthusiasm because of official patronage. Poverty is on the decline.
Taoism is the traditional religion but Buddhism is widespread in Vietnam. At a conference of Buddhist Reunification in November 1981, nine sects adopted a charter for a new Buddhist church under the Council of Sangha. The Vietnamese government recognizes six official religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and two indigenous religious traditions that emerged during the colonial period, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao. The Mahayana tradition of Buddhism is dominant in Vietnam, and 70 to 85 percent of Vietnamese consider themselves at least nominally Buddhists. The constitution allows freedom of religion, but this right is often constrained, particularly with regard to any religious activity that could generate controversy or dissent. All religious organizations are technically overseen by the Communist Party's Fatherland Front. Opposition, notably from the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and some Buddhist sects, has surfaced at times. The communist government rejects criticism that it does not allow religious freedom.
Denominational variations aside, the core of religious practice for almost all Vietnamese is the worship of spirits. The most important spirits are the souls of the ancestors. Almost all families have altars in their homes where they perform rites for family ancestors, especially on the deceased's death anniversaries and the Lunar New Year. Many Vietnamese also perform or participate in rites for their village guardian spirits, spirits associated with specific locations, spirits of deceased heroes, or the Buddha or different Bodhisattvas, particularly Avalokitesvara. Some Vietnamese believe that spirits have the ability to bring good fortune and misfortune to human life. Revolutionaries strenuously objected to such thinking because they felt that it prevented the Vietnamese from becoming masters of their own destinies. Today, belief of supernatural causality is more common among women, while some men, particularly those with party or military backgrounds, reject such ideas.
Buddhism was first introduced to Vietnam in the 2nd century AD, and reached its peak in the Ly dynasty (11th century). It was then regarded as the official religion dominating court affairs. Buddhism was preached broadly among the majority of population and it had a profound influence on people's daily life. Its impact is also visible in various areas of traditional literature and architecture. As such, many pagodas and temples were built during this time. At the end of the 14th century, Buddhism began to show signs of decline.
Catholicism was introduced to Vietnam in the 17th century. At present the most densely-populated Catholic areas are Bui Chu-Phat Diem in the northern province of Ninh Binh and Ho Nai-Bien Hoa in Dong Nai Province to the South. About 8 to 10 percent of the population is considered Catholics. Christianity was introduced first by the Portuguese and the Dutch traders in the 16th and 17th centuries, and then further propagated by French Missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Vietnam is deeply suspicious and wary of Roman Catholics. This mistrust originated during the 19th century when some Catholics collaborated with the French colonists and helped French priests in uprisings against the emperors. Furthermore, the Catholic Church’s strong anti-communist stance has made it a government enemy.
Protestantism was introduced to Vietnam at about the same time as Catholicism. Protestantism, however, remains an obscure religion. At present most Protestants live in the Central Highlands. There still remains a Protestant church on Hang Da Street in Hanoi. The number of Protestants living in Vietnam is estimated at 400,000. The American Protestant missionaries influenced some Montagnards of South Vietnam to practise Protestantism. The largest Protestant churches are the Evangelical Church of Vietnam and the Montagnard Evangelical Church.
Islamic followers in Vietnam are primarily from the Cham ethnic minority group living in the central part of the central coast. The number of Islamic followers in Vietnam totals about 50,000.
- Cao dais
Caodaism a synthesis of Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism was first introduced to the country in 1926. Settlements of the Cao Dai followers in South Vietnam are located near the Church in Tay Ninh. The number of followers of this sect is estimated at 2 million.
- Hoa Hao Sect
The Hoa Hao Sect was first introduced in Vietnam in 1939. More than 1 million Vietnamese are followers of this sect. Most of them live in the south-west parts of Vietnam.
- Other Religious Sects
Small Hindu communities (50,000 People) and small number of Baha’is and Jews are also there in Vietnam.
In Vietnam there are two seasons, the cold season occurs from November to April and the hot season from May to October. The difference in temperature between the two seasons in southern parts of the country is almost unnoticeable, averaging 3ºC. The most noticeable variations are found in the north where differences of 12ºC have been observed. There are essentially four distinct seasons, which are most evident in the Northern provinces (from Hai Van Pass towards the north): Spring, summer, autumn, and Winter.
Every year there are 100 rainy days and the average rainfall is 1,500 to 2,000 mm. The humidity ranges around 80%. The sunny hours are 1,500 to 2,000 and the average solar radiation of 100 kcal/cm2 in a year.
Vietnam is conspicuously affected by the monsoon; that is why the average temperature is lower than that in the other countries which are located in the same longitudes in Asia. The annual average temperatures range between 22oC and 27oC. In comparing with these countries, the temperature in Vietnam in winter is colder and in summer less hot.
Hanoi: In Hanoi there are four distinct seasons: Spring, summer, autumn, and Winter. But it could conveniently be divided into only two main seasons: the rainy season from May to September (it’s hot with heavy rains), and the dry season from October to April (its cold with little rainfall). The annual average temperature is 23.2oC, but in winter the average temperature is 17.2oC. The lowest temperature ever recorded was 2.7oC in 1955. The average summer temperature is 29.2oC, with the highest ever recorded being 42.8oC in 1926. On an average, there are 114 rainy days a year with around 1,800mm of rainfall.
Haiphong: It's a province in the North and is influenced by a tropical monsoon climate. There are 4 seasons and the annual average temperature is between 23oC and 24oC. Rainfall total is between 1,600 mm and 1,800 mm. The weather is warm throughout the year.
Quang Ninh: The climate is symbolic of the climate of North Vietnam; featuring all four seasons. In summer (from May to September), it's hot, humid and rainy, while monsoons flourish. In winter (from October to April), it's cold, dry, and sees little rainfall. The average temperature is over 25oC. Annual rainfall totals between 1,700 and 2,400 mm.
Thua Thien Hue: It features a tropical monsoon climate, having all four distinct seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. The spring is cool and warm, the summer is hot, the autumn is cool and the winter is cold and chilly. Average temperature is 25oC. The best time for tourists is from November to April next year.
Danang: Its climate is tropical, with two distinct rainy and dry seasons. The average annual temperature is between 28oC and 29oC, and storms hit the area every year in September and October.
Khanh Hoa: The climate here is oceanic tropical monsoon, but is quite mild. The average annual temperature is 26.5oC. Annual rainfall totals over 1,200 mm.
Lam Dong: The climate here is cold, with an average annual temperature of 18oC. Dalat is a city town, the climate is temperate and there are beautiful natural landscapes with waterfalls, lakes and pine groves, and is well known as Vietnam’s flower city.
Ho Chi Minh City: The climate is divided into two seasons, with the rainy season lasting from May to November. The average annual temperature is 27.5oC without winter, and yearly rainfall totals 1,979 mm. Tourism is convenient for all 12 months of the year.
Ba Ria-Vung Tau: The climate here is tropical monsoon. The average annual temperature is 27oC, rarely stormy, rich in sunshine. Vung Tau is without winter; so resorts are active throughout the year.
Almost every country has its own language that speaks of its culture and heritage also; so does Vietnam. 'Vietnamese is the official language of Vietnam. Vietnamese is a bit difficult language especially for foreigners. Other than Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, Cham and other tribal languages are spoken in Vietnam.
Each syllable of Vietnamese can be spoken in six different tones, which makes it confusing and difficult sometimes. Much of the vocabulary of Vietnamese has been borrowed from Chinese. For writing Vietnamese, Roman alphabets and accent marks are used to represent tones. So in a way we can say, vocal Vietnamese is difficult than the written one.
Spoken by about 68 million people in Vietnam, Vietnamese is an Austroasiatic language. Apart from Vietnam, Vietnamese is also spoken by limited number of people in countries like Australia, Cambodia, Finland, France, Laos, Germany, Netherlands, Senegal, UK, USA, China, Canada, Norway and Philippines.
Originally Vietnamese was written with a Siniform script, which was essentially Chinese in structure, but in the 13th century the Vietnamese developed their own set of characters called Chu nom the celebrated epic Doan truong tan thanh (The Tale of Kieu) by Nguyen Du was written in Chu nom. It was in the 17th century that the Roman Catholic missionaries introduced a system of writing Vietnamese in the Latin alphabets.
Various other languages like Muong, Khmer, Chinese and French are spoken in Vietnam. The French language, a legacy of the colonial rule, is still spoken by some older Vietnamese as a second language. But it is losing its popularity. In recent years English is gaining popularity as a second language. English is becoming compulsory in many schools. Chinese and Japanese have also become more popular in recent times.